The Mabbul and Mesopotamian Myths
Flood stories have survived in many cultures from the Central American Maya to the Hindu in India. The closest parallels to the Biblical account (Bereshit 7-8), not surprisingly, are the Mesopotamian versions. These are similar to the Biblical story not only in the general concept of a divinely wrought flood wiping out mankind, but also in many of the particulars describing the event. It is the differences between the versions, though, that are most telling as they highlight the unique values and belief systems of the Children of Israel, distinguishing them from their polytheistic neighbors. For extended analysis of the many parallels and contrasts between the different accounts, see the commentary of U. Cassuto.
- Epic of Gilgamesh – The most widely known Babylonian version of the Flood Story is that found in the 11th tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The hero of this account is Utnapishtim, or, "Finder of eternal life".1
- Epic of Atrahasis – This version is also Babylonian in origin. It has survived in several fragments but the oldest and fullest known copy dates to the 17th century BCE.2
- Epic of Ziusudra – This Sumerian account focusing on the hero Ziusudra, is known from a single fragmentary tablet, excavated at Nippur, dated to the 17th century BCE. The tablet contains an account of both Creation and the Flood and is sometimes called the Eridu Genesis.3
Parallels to the Biblical Account
- Overall plot
- A deity decides to destroy the world via a flood.
- A particular individual, his family, and representatives of other living things are saved on a boat.
- Hero – The surviving hero is the tenth generation from Creation.4
- Preparations for the Flood
- Both Tanakh and the Babylonian versions describe the building of a boat which is depicted as multi-leveled, compartmented, and covered in pitch.
- There is an explicit mention of the sealing of the door before the Flood begins.5
- Waning of the Flood
- After the Flood, the boat rests on a mountain.6
- In both Bereshit and the Gilgamesh Epic, the hero send birds (including a raven and dove) to determine if the waters have receded. A seven day interval is mentioned.
- Post-Flood sacrifices and blessings
- Motivations of the deities – In the Mesopotamian versions, the Flood is brought either for no explicit reason or because mankind's noise is bothering the gods. In the Torah, Hashem sends the Food because of man's corrupt behavior. Similarly, while no explanation is proffered to explain why the Flood hero is saved in the Mesopotamian epics,9 in Bereshit, Noach is saved due to his righteousness.
- Polytheistic pantheon – The gods in the Mesopotamian epic disagree regarding the decision to bring the catastrophe and act in deceit to thwart each other's plans. All of this is not found in the Biblical narrative in which the sole God determines what will be, with no one to disagree.
- Gods and nature – The Babylonian gods are described as frightened by the raging waters and storm. In the Torah, Hashem is depicted as in control of nature, not fearful of it.
- Hungry gods – In the Babylonian epics, the gods are depicted as hungry and thirsty during the Flood, having been deprived of sacrificial sustenance. Similarly, they rush to partake of the sacrifices brought afterwards. No such parallel exists in Bereshit.
- Status – Whereas the other heroes are kings, Noach is a simple human.10
- Names – The Mesopotamian heroes have more glamorous names than the Biblical Noach. Both the names of Ziusudra and Utnapishtim refer to one who has found long life, while Atrahasis means one who is very wise. Noach, in contrast, simply means rest.11
- Divine stature – At the end of the epics, both Ziusudra and Utnapishtim are raised to the status of gods. Noach, though, remains a mere mortal.
- Preparations for the Flood
- Revealing the plan – In the epics, the gods mean to keep their plan a secret from mankind, while in Bereshit Hashem shares his plan (and the reasoning behind it) with Noach. Similarly, the Mesopotamian heroes are told to hide the reasons for their boat-building from the general public,12 while Noach is given no similar command.
- The boat – In Tanakh the saving vehicle is referred to as an ark, while in the other versions it is referred to as a boat. Where mentioned, the dimensions also differ, with the Biblical boat being much smaller.
- Who is saved? Noach brings only his family and animals aboard the ark. Atrahasis and Utnapishtim gather also their friends, craftsmen, boatmen and possessions.13
- The door – While Hashem personally seals Noach inside the ark, in the epics, the heroes close themselves in.
- Description of the Flood
- The Mesopotamian version describes a windy, thundering storm while the Torah mentions only water, coming from both the heavens and depths.14
- The storm seems to wane naturally in the epics,15 while the Torah describes Hashem's explicit decision to end the Flood. Similarly, the Mesopotamian heroes decide on their own when to exit the boat, while Hashem commands Noach when to exit.
- Post-Flood promises of life
- Only in the Biblical account is there a covenant made never to bring another flood to destroy mankind and are blessings given to be fruitful and multiply. This contrasts sharply with the anger of the Mesopotamian gods over the fact that there were survivors16 and the new plans made in the Atrahasis Epic for population control.
- In its telling of the Flood and its aftermath, the Torah makes many parallels to the story of Creation.17 The text seems to suggest that, though the Flood itself reversed Creation, afterwards there was a re-creation. The allusions reinforce the image of a caring God who has no desire for total destruction. He, rather, wants to rid the world of evil so as to create an improved world.
Many of the differences between the Mesopotamian and Biblical accounts of the Flood reflect the cultures' differing belief systems and notions of a deity:
- Polytheism versus monotheism – As the Torah believes in only one God, there is obviously no room for disagreements among other gods regarding His decisions.
- Divide between man and God
- Polytheistic societies viewed their gods as similar to humans, with physical needs and emotions. This explains the description of hungry gods, in need of sacrifices to sustain themselves, or fearful gods worried about being hurt in the Deluge. Hashem, in contrast, is above the physical and in control of nature,18 and, thus, not susceptible to hunger or storms.
- The Mesopotamian anthropomorphizing of its gods serves to blur the lines between man and god. In such a system, a man can be raised to the status of gods (and vice versa.) This is not so in a culture that sees God as separate and supreme.
- Noach's obeisance to God, relatively less glorified stature, and passive character all further underscore the divide between man and God.
- God's omnipotence in the Biblical account is also emphasized in some of the smaller details: His personal sealing of the boat, His explicit decision to end the Flood,19 and his command of when to exit the ark.20
- Arbitrary or just – The Mesopotamian gods emerge as arbitrary gods, acting capriciously or looking to serve themselves rather than their creations.21 The Israelite God stands in stark contrast. His actions (to destroy or save) come to serve justice. He has no desire to hide His actions or deceive His creatures, for that would be immoral.22 In contrast to the gods of the other stories, He wants to rebuild the world after the Flood, promising never to bring another all-devastating flood and blessing Noach with progeny.23
|Description of Deity||Sole God||Pantheon of gods|
|Just and moral||Capricious|
|Omnipotent and omniscient||Neither omnipotent nor omniscient|
|Above physical desires||Physically needy|
|In control of nature||Afraid of nature|
|Description of Hero||Layman, simple name||King, glorified name|
|Passive, simply obeys God||Active|
|Remains mortal||Raised to status of gods|
|Pre-Flood Preparations||Explicit sharing of plan||Secret divulging of plan|
|Building of boat/ark|
|Salvation of family and animals||Salvation of family, animals, craftsmen, and possessions|
|Sealing of door by Hashem||Sealing of door by hero|
|The Flood||Water from heavens and depths||Windy storm|
|40 days and nights of rain||7 days and nights of rain25|
|---||Gods tremble and cower in fear|
|Boat rests on mountain and sending of birds|
|Divine command to exit||Hero exits the boat on his own|
|Post-Flood||Bringing of sacrifices|
|---||Gods swarm over sacrifices|
|Blessing of progeny||Blessing to be like gods|
|Promise not to bring another all devastating flood||Deity is angry that there are survivors; new solutions for population control|