Flood, The

views updated Jun 27 2018


FLOOD, THE . Many peoples relate that floods accompany the end of a world. According to one Egyptian text, the world will disappear in the Nun, the divine water where the first god was formed (The Book of Going Forth by Day 175). For the Aztec and the Maya, the universe goes through several eras, separated from each other by the invasion of waves. India has successive creations, in which everything is abolished by a vast expanse of water; this water then constitutes the ocean from which the next creation will arise (Mahābhārata 3.188.80, 3.189.42).

Several tales associate humans with this universal drama. The god Faro of the Bambara holds back the waters that will one day submerge the earth, to make way for the future world; warned of this occurrence, people must arm themselves with objects that will ensure their salvation. Iranian texts evoke the snows and floods that will cover the world at the end of a cosmic millennium; in anticipation of this crisis, Yima brings together a number of men in a hidden domain; they will survive and ensure the rebirth of humanity in the next millennium (Vendidad 2.2241). A famous tale from the Mahābhārata makes Manu, the very symbol of man, the sole survivor of the flood; it is he who, through his spiritual austerities, will become the author of the new creation (Śathapatha Brāhmaa 1.8.16; Mahābhārata 3.190.256; Bhāgavata Purāa 8.24).

The most numerous narratives, however, deal with another sort of flood. They are more limited and find the full sense of their meaning in the history of mankind. They constitute one of its major expressions; for mankind, there is an antediluvian and a postdiluvian world.

The Antecedents of the Flood; Its Causes

Blunders sometimes characterize the beginning of a cosmogony, for example, the first union and first births of the Japanese deities Izanagi and Izanami, in the Kojiki. In an Indonesian myth, divine patriarchs came down one day from the heavens to the earth that was emerging from the waters. The first of them perched himself on the southern extremity and unbalanced it, so that it was inundated by the waves. The second placed himself at the other extremity as a counterbalance, but it folded up; the northern part plunged into the waves while the middle rose up. It was not until the last two patriarchs settled down in the central region that the earth recovered its flatness and stability.

In an equally awkward way, the gods began several times to create humanity on several occasions; floods are one of the means that they used to destroy the unfortunate results of their initial endeavors. After creating the heavens and the earth in darkness, say the Quechua peoples of South America, the god Viracocha made human beings too big; he turned some into statues and destroyed the rest with a flood. In the Popul Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya, formative or progenitor spirits create the first animated mannequins. These lived and procreated, but "this was only a trial, an attempt at humanity." They disappeared in the course of a complex series of events, in a vast inundation (Popol Vuh 34). Instead of annihilating an imperfect humanity, sometimes the creator god tries to improve it; he eliminates the defective humans by use of a flood. When everything seemed to be complete, say the Desána of South America, a number of plagues overcame the world, and evil beings ravaged humankind. Seeing the suffering of those he had created, Sun brought on a flood that drowned all the living, and then a fire that burned everything. There were survivors, however, and the god had them brought up.

In most of the myths, the flood occurs after a more complex series of events in which human behavior plays a decisive role, although humans are not necessarily at fault. In one Philippine story, the god of the sky causes a flood to destroy humanity because it was becoming too numerous. In a Mesopotamian myth, the growth of humanity is accompanied by a perturbation that tires out the gods; to destroy it, they unleash several catastrophes, the last of which is a flood (Lambert and Millard, 1969). Usually, however, humans commit some characteristic error. They refuse to give a god what he asks of them, show almost no compassion for the unfortunate, take to evil, or disobey religious and moral laws. In Genesis, it is because of the evil in humans that God wished to wipe them out (Gn. 6:17, 6:17).

The Survivors

In myths where the flood is supposed to destroy the original, defective humankind, sometimes the latter disappears completely. In other cases, there are one or more survivors.

The existing tales do not state what all the qualities are that earned the survivors this privilege. The more explicit stories, however, attribute particular traits to them. The Greek Deukalion was a son of the god Prometheus (Lucian, De dea Syria 12ff.). A close relationship joins Atrahasis or Utanapishtim to the Mesopotamian god of waters, the sage Enki-Ea (Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 11; Lambert and Millard, 1969). Furthermore, they themselves seem to possess an eminent wisdom. The merits of the survivors are more evident elsewhere. Alone among humans, they give the gods what they ask. In Hindu myth, Manu is a great i. A lengthy practice of asceticism raises him above his fellow mortals; he is able to recognize and save the divine being who, in the form of a fish, requests his protection. The biblical Noah by contrast is the only just man in an evil humanity.

The Postdiluvian World

It has been seen that when the flood destroys a world and all of humanity, it sometimes precedes the creation of a new universe. It appears to separate two successive eras within a cyclical time. On this point, however, matters are not always clear. Although the Egyptian Nun, into which the world will disappear, is identical to the primordial waters, it is not clear that another world will ever emerge from it. A Carib myth says that humans will one day disappear with the entire universe, which does not seem to leave any hope of a new beginning; a flood that has already taken place to punish human evil simply warns them of the final catastrophe, for which humankind will also be to blame.

What happens when floods are linked more specifically to the fate of mortals? In some cases, the gods, after completely destroying the original human species, create another one; in other cases, the survivors themselves must ensure the survival of the human race.

This is not always a matter of course. When only one person escapes death, a miracle is needed to provide that person with offspring. In a Jivaroan myth, the solitary man plants a part of his own flesh in the earth; from this a woman is born, with whom he couples. Other South American Indians relate that the woman came from bamboo. After the destruction of the world in Hindu myth, Manu feels the desire for posterity. He gives himself over to ascetic practices and offers a sacrifice. In the year that follows, a woman is born, approaches him, and says, "I am your daughter." He begets upon her the race of his descendants by practicing more spiritual austerities.

Things are less unusual when either a couple or numerous individuals escape death; in this case the conditions of natural procreation are fulfilled. However, it may be observed that the salvation of the survivors is in itself a marvel; in many cases, they owe their survival to divine intervention. In Australian Aboriginal myth, only the ancestors survive the flood: By eliminating their evil descendants, the inundation permits a return to origins, from which humankind will be able to start anew. Many myths attribute qualities to the survivors that set them apart: Their descendants will be the products of a process of selection. In short, even when the present humanity issues from antediluvian mankind, it constitutes a second race.

Thus, in the history of humankind, just as it sometimes happens in the history of the cosmos, a destructive flood precedes a sort of new creation. The story of Genesis is a good example; Yahveh repeats to Noah's family the words he had spoken to Adam and Eve: "Be fecund, multiply on the earth and rule it" (Gn. 9:1ff.; cf. 1:28). But this new beginning is unique; when on the scale of humanity, there no longer cyclical time. This is evident in the biblical concept: The flood takes place within a linear history that goes from an absolute beginning to a definitive end.

The Position of Postdiluvian Humanity

When the flood is supposed to correct the effects of an initial blunder, it fulfills a positive function and is part of progress. In this case, however, it must be noted that the second race is imperfect; it commits errors and undergoes many vicissitudes. In Quechua myth, the new men ignore Viracocha and do not venerate him. This is why the god causes a fire to fall from the heavens, which burns the earth; only those who beg for mercy are spared. The position such myths ascribe to present-day humanity is similar to that found in the other types of stories.

The flood sometimes appears to be a part of a more general degradation. On the original earth, say the Guaraní of Paraguay, people lived close to the gods. Then incest unleashed a series of events, after which the flood wiped out humanity. A new earth was then created, the land of evil reserved for humans. This pessimistic viewpoint is not common. More typically the flood follows a period of degradation and puts an end to it.

In all types of the myth, the new humanity exhibits traits that distinguish it from the old. Not only is it civilized, but many tales associate the flood with the origins of civilization itself. Viracocha teaches the rudiments of civilization to the second Quechua race he has just created, and the Popul Vuh relates how Maya civilization developed during the second humanity. In a myth of the Desána of Colombia, the sun god sends his daughter among the survivors of the flood to teach them the rules of living. Similarly, after a flood and other catastrophes, in a myth of the Fali of Chad and Sudan, the high god makes an ark descend from the heavens with the rain. This ark contains the symbol of all plant species, of wild and domesticated animals, and of the metals and tools of the smithy. Even in the pessimistic Guaraní myth, the man who survives the flood makes manioc, maize, and sweet potatoes appear.

In other narratives, the culture hero and the being who saves humanity from the flood are one and the same. This dual role appearsin stories told among African peoples and among American Indians. In Greek myth, Prometheus is not only the hero who gives fire to humans and teaches them the arts of civilization; it is also he who teaches Deukalion how to escape the flood.

Several peoples undoubtedly knew of the existence of an antediluvian civilization. The Mesopotamians list the kings prior to the cataclysm, while the Hebrews tell the story of those who, compelled to work, have succeeded each other on the earth up to Noah. But in these cases too, the flood is associated with the history of civilization. Ea, the god who saves Utanapishtim, had been the protector of the wise men of old, to whom Utanapishtim himself could be related; Gilgamesh, who met him, transmitted an antediluvian wisdom to humanity. The survivor of the Sumerian flood, Atrahasis, takes "the master craftsmen" with him in his ark. Noah is "the farmer." After the flood, his family receives moral laws: This is when homicide is clearly prohibited, when meat as well as plants are offered as food to humankind, and when the rules of slaughter are prescribed.

In addition, humanity finds itself in a new position vis-à-vis the gods. According to the Guaraní myth, before the flood people lived with the gods on earth; on the second earth, they are alone. For many Australian peoples, the flood coincides with the withdrawal of the "dema deity," who abandons earth for a celestial dwelling. In the biblical tale itself, the flood is the culmination of events that begin with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise; it follows the murder by Cain and other occurrences. In mentioning these misfortunes Yahveh repents for having created humanity.

The Greek myths make a correlation between this rupture and the origin of civilization. The events that include the flood give rise to both of them. Prior to them, humans received everything that was necessary for their subsistence from the gods and did not have to work at all. Separated from the gods, they must now toil in order to live, but they have learned the arts that will let them provide for their own needs.

The separation that accompanies the flood is not absolute, however. At the end of the inundation, there is a new sort of relation flourishing between humans and gods. Those who beg mercy of Viracocha while he burns them acknowledge his divinity, whereas before they had neglected him. The procedures of the cult of the dema deities are defined after their separation, at the end of the Australian floods. Furthermore, the aurora borealis then becomes a sign for humankind of the dema s' disposition. The daughter whose birth is brought about by Manu's spiritual austerities bears the name of a ritual offering and also symbolizes it. By committing the act that unleashes the entire process of separation between humans and godsthe unequal allotment of a bovinePrometheus makes a gesture to which the ritual of the great Greek sacrifices will refer: By bringing fire to mortals he gives them the instrument necessary for the burning of victims. At the end of the flood, his surviving son, Deukalion, celebrates the first sacrifice, and several traditions see in him the founder of cults. When the Mesopotamian flood has ended, Utanapishtim makes a sacrifice whose ritual is described in detail by the myth. Similarly, "Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar" (Gn. 8:20). In addition, Yahveh makes an agreement with him that encompasses all of humankind to come, and of which the rainbow will remain a sign visible to the eyes of humans.

The Forms of the Flood and the Function of the Diluvial Waters

The flood is not the only catastrophe with which the gods threaten to wipe out humanity. As the Egyptian wise men supposedly told Solon, "Men were destroyed and will be destroyed again in many ways; fire and water were the instruments of the most serious destructions" (Plato, Timaeus 22c). In some tales the flood itself is associated with other scourges, especially the burning of the earth. In the epic of Atrahasis it follows a plague and terrible droughts. Nevertheless, the myths return to the image of destruction by water, with particular frequency.

The diluvial waters are not just any water. As has been seen, the water into which the world disappears at the end of its existence coincides with the primordial water. The earth that the Indonesian patriarch unbalanced is an insular earth, located in the original ocean whose waves invade it.

If the flood takes the form of rain, as is often the case, this rain comes from the heavenly waters and can be accompanied by a brutal ascent of underground waters as well. "Nergal tears the beams from the heaven, Ninurta makes it unlock its dams the foundations of the earth are broken like a shattered jar," reads a passage in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Genesis continues: "All the fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of the heavens were opened" (Gn. 7:11). The Greek poet Nonnus (early fifth century ce) expresses the same notion. The world is thus submerged by the waters that surround it on all sides. According to some myths, these cosmic waters are the very same primordial waters that were thrown back to the periphery of the universe at the creation.

The diluvial waves thus possess the virtues of water in all their original vigor. It is not only that they can be destructive, as when at the end of the world they reduce everything to a state of original indifferentiation. They are also capable of fulfilling an amniotic function, when a new creation succeeds this annihilation. Perhaps their cathartic nature can be seen in their elimination of the bad elements of the human race. Their generative strength is manifested in the marvelous rebirth and proliferation of a purified humanity. They can, finally, play a role in the immortalization of heroes who have lived through the flood and survived. The brother and sister whose incestuous union provoked the flood of the Guaraní myth went into the water, in animal form, and were deified. The Mesopotamian survivors, Utanapishtim and his wife, also became immortal.


The influence peoples have exercised over each other in the course of history is not enough to explain why myths of the flood are present on every continent. In order to account for this, some authors have supposed that everywhere people preserve the memory of distant prehistoric catastrophes that destroyed the universe or vast regions of the earth. Such an explanation strikes this writer as misguided. For it to be pertinent, one would have to be able to explain in similar fashion the other mythic scourges that have imperiled humanity: the burning of the earth, for example, or the rage of a goddess in the form of a lion, as in an Egyptian myth about the destruction of humankind.

By resorting to this type of explanation, one also neglects the very thing that makes the flood so significant: the return of the world to its original state, in the case of cosmic destructions, and, in the case of destructions that have a special impact on humankind, the idea of an original intimacy between humans and gods, the idea of their separation, and, finally, the belief that a relationship unites them despite this separation. Mythic thought uses the narrative to express these basic intuitions and elaborate on them. Commonplace occurrences, such as epidemics, ravishing fires, droughts or floods, the fear of wild animals, furnish it with vehicles for this purpose. Among such vehicles, the symbolic richness of water confers a special status to the image of the flood.

See Also



Eliade, Mircea. "The Waters and Water Symbolism." In his Patterns in Comparative Religion, pp. 188215. New York, 1958.

Gerland, Georg. Der Mythus der Sintflut. Bonn, 1912.

Ginzberg, Louis. The Legends of the Jews, vol. 1 (1909). Translated by Henrietta Szold et al. Reprint, Philadelphia, 1937. See pages 145167.

Keeler, Clyde E. Secrets of the Cuna Earthmother: A Comparative Study of Ancient Religion. New York, 1960. See pages 5982.

Lambert, W. G., and A. R. Millard. Atra-Hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood. Oxford, 1969.

Müller, Werner. "Die ältesten amerikanschen Sintfluterzählungen." Ph.D. diss., Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Univer-sität Bonn, 1930.

Osborne, Harold. South American Mythology. Feltham, England, 1968. See pages 100105.

Pratt, Jane Abbott. Consciousness and Sacrifice: An Interpretation of Two Episodes in the Indian Myth of Manu. New York, 1967. See pages 333.

Robinson, Roland, et al. Aboriginal Myths and Legends. Melbourne, 1966.

Usener, Hermann. Die Sintflutsagen. Bonn, 1899.

Villas Boas, Orlando, and Claudio Villas Boas. Xingu: The Indians, Their Myths. Edited by Kenneth S. Breecher. New York, 1970.

New Sources

Huggett, Richard J. Cataclysms and Earth History: The Development of Diluvialism. Oxford; New York, 1989.

Pleins, J. David. When the Great Abyss Opened: Classic and Contemporary Readings of Noah's Flood. Oxford; New York, 2003.

Jean Rudhardt (1987)

Translated from French by Erica Meltzer
Revised Bibliography

Flood, The

views updated May 17 2018


FLOOD, THE , deluge (Heb. mabbul) described in the Book of Genesis and brought by God to destroy humankind because of its sinfulness. Outside of the Noah tales in Genesis mabbul occurs only in Psalm 29:10. In Isaiah 54:9 the great flood is called "waters of Noah."

The Biblical Narrative (Gen. 6:5–9:17)

As punishment for the corruption and injustice rife on earth, God decided to bring a universal inundation to wipe out civilization. Alone of humankind, a blameless and righteous man named *Noah, together with his family, was to be saved. God informed him of His decision and gave him detailed instructions for the building of an ark and its provisioning (see *Ark of Noah). Noah was to take aboard the members of his family, together with male and female representatives of the animals, birds, and creeping things. When all the preparations were completed, the flood waters inundated the earth, blotting out all earthly existence, and lifting the ark above the highest mountain peaks. Then the rains ceased, the waters subsided and the ark came to rest on the mountains of *Ararat. Noah waited forty days and then sent out a raven, which, however, returned to the ark. Seven days later he released a dove, which came back bearing an olive leaf. After a further delay of seven days, he again dispatched the dove which did not return, and Noah knew it was safe to disembark. This he did on receiving instructions from God, and he thereupon offered sacrifices to Him. God, in turn, promised to restore the rhythm of the times and seasons and undertook never again to destroy humankind, setting his (war) bow in the sky as an everlasting symbol of this promise. He blessed Noah, his offspring, and everything on earth.

Extra-Biblical Accounts

Legends of a great inundation submerging much or all of the earth's surface are found in the traditions of a number of peoples. They are especially common among the Indians of the Western Hemisphere, the Aborigines of Australia, and the islanders of the Central and Southern Pacific, and also abound in the southern regions of Asia. Chinese and Japanese versions exist, but with the deluge circumscribed in extent. A few legends are found in Europe; that of Iceland depicts a flood of catastrophic proportions produced by blood gushing from the wounds of a giant. However, the accounts closest to that of the Bible are those emanating from southern Mesopotamia. The ancient Greek flood stories also may have been influenced by the earlier Mesopotamian diluvial traditions. There are no grounds for assuming that all or most of the widespread legends are related. It is apparent that many of them are rooted ultimately in man's fear, based on terrifying experiences, of being annihilated by violently surging water. Most of them developed quite naturally from memories of unusually disastrous floods. The alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia was vulnerable to widespread flooding. In the Old Babylonian period in particular, catastrophic flooding was frequent, so that the myth of the ancient flood (abūbu) had special significance (Cole and Gash apud George, 509). Ancient memory blended with contemporary experience to produce tales of universal inundation. None of the flood accounts has received wider distribution than the biblical story. At the time it was incorporated into Jewish traditions, however, it was already countless centuries old. The earliest extant version of this tradition is known from a Sumerian clay tablet discovered at Nippur, the holy city of ancient Sumer. Unfortunately, only the lower third of the tablet has survived. Since the publication of the text by Arno Poebel in 1914, no additional fragments of the Sumerian flood story have come to light. Although the Sumerian text is badly broken, enough remains to give inklings of the content of the missing portions. The text, now known as "The Eridu Genesis" (cos i, 513–15) as a whole seems to provide a general history of humankind, in which the main episode is the deluge. Among the subjects touched are the creation of humans, the rise of kingship, and the establishment of cities. One of the deities declares his intentions of saving humankind from a destruction decreed by the gods. The coming of the flood is made known to King Ziusudra, who was noted for his receptiveness to divine revelations: "A flood will sweep over the temples. The decision, the declaration of the assembly of the gods, is to destroy the seed of humankind." The next section of the composition is missing but most likely contained instructions for Ziusudra to build an immense ship by which he might rescue himself from a watery grave. The lacuna is followed by a description of the inundation and the eventual reappearance of Utu the sun god, to whom Ziusudra offers sacrifices: "All the tempests attacked as one, very powerful. Simultaneously the deluge sweeps over the temples, After the flood had swept over the land for seven days and seven nights and the huge boat had been tossed about by the windstorms on the expansive waters, Utu the sun god who illumines heaven and earth came out. Ziusudra opened a window of the ship and heroic Utu shone into the great vessel. Before Utu, King Ziusudra prostrated himself; the king kills a steer and slaughters a sheep." Again there is a gap in the text, after which it is told that the king was granted eternal life and given a place of abode in a land called Dilmun, where the sun god rises. There the hero was to share immortality with his gods. The hero's name survived as Xisuthros in the flood story as retold in Greek by the Babylonian priest Berossus in the third century b.c.e.

The Sumerian account inspired a similar history of humankind written in the Old Babylonian dialect of Akkadian on three clay tablets, dated to around 1700 b.c.e., with fragments of two other versions inscribed about a thousand years later. The composition is now called the Epic of Atrahasis (cos i, 450–53) after its hero, whose name means "Exceeding Wise."

The first tablet begins in primordial times when the lesser gods were so burdened with toil that they engaged in the first-ever documented work-stoppage, and demonstrated against the great god Enlil. The dispute was resolved when it was decided that the midwife of the gods, Mami (also known as Nintu, Belet-ili, and Aruru), would create humans to work in place of the gods. One of the lesser gods was sacrificed and from an admixture of earth with his blood and flesh, humankind was brought into being. The second tablet relates that the world's population had increased so substantially that humans had become a nuisance to the head of the pantheon, Enlil. Provoked by the disruption of celestial serenity, Enlil announced before a divine convocation his intention to retaliate against human beings with a series of plagues, including a drought and famine. Obviously not satisfied with the results of these measures, the chief god then decided to destroy humanity by means of a flood. Humankind had a friend, however, in the wise god Enki (= Ea), who was permitted to be in charge of the inundation. The third tablet relates how Enki warned King Atrahasis. He spoke to the wall of the monarch's residence, rather than directly to the ruler, perhaps to avoid the appearance of revealing the gods' secrets to a human. Atrahasis was told to destroy his house and build a ship by which he would be able to save his life. Although much of the tablet is broken, the building of the ship, the loading of the animals, and the flood itself are documented. The gods ultimately decide that a more effective method of population control than a great flood is to create categories of women who cannot bear, and demonic baby-snatchers.

Parallels between the Epic of Atrahasis and the biblical Flood narrative may be cited, but even greater similarities to the Genesis account are present in another Babylonian epic whose hero bears the name Gilgamesh. (Thanks to the biblical similarities, the publication of this work in the late 19th century created a great stir in religious circles.) This epic skillfully and creatively blends several borrowed Sumerian literary motifs into what has come to be regarded as one of the masterpieces of world literature. lt most likely came into existence around the beginning of the second millennium. Important sections written in classical (or Old) Babylonian are extant today, as are later rescensions extending over a millennium.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is divided into eleven tablets to which a twelfth, consisting of a literal translation from a Sumerian source, has been added. The fragments so far pieced together leave relatively few gaps in the epic. Tablet xi, in which the immortalized hero of the flood, usually called Utanapishtim ("He-Found-Life"), though occasionally also Atrahasis, relates the story of the flood to his mortal descendant Gilgamesh, is virtually intact, thus providing the most complete version of the deluge story in cuneiform script, The flood narrative in the Gilgamesh Epic is not part of a history of the world, as is the case in the epics of Ziusudra and Atrahasis. It is introduced rather as a story told to a hero obsessed with his quest for immortality.

Much of the epic is devoted to the heroic expeditions of Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu. These episodes lead ultimately to the central theme, viz., the inevitability of death. Enkidu's demise by divine decree, after the two adventurers had insulted the gods, brings Gilgamesh face to face with the one factor before which every person must yield. He then devotes himself completely to seeking a way to escape the destiny of all flesh. It is this confrontation with death that impels Gilgamesh to make his way to the person who was the Babylonian counterpart of the biblical Noah, a man named Utanapishtim, who, with his wife, had been blessed by the gods with immortality after surviving the diluvial catastrophe. From him Gilgamesh hopes to gain the secret of eternal life. After an arduous and perilous journey, Gilgamesh reaches the distant Utanapishtim and asks how he had obtained life without end. In reply, the ancient man recounts in detail the story of the deluge.

Utanapishtim relates to Gilgamesh how he was residing in Shuruppak, an urban center on the bank of the Euphrates, when he was warned of an impending disaster. For no stated reason, the gods, under the leadership of the warlike Enlil, felt compelled to bring a deluge of proportions sufficient to wipe out the human race. However, the god Ea, counterpart of the Sumerian Enki, made known the supernal counsel by speaking to the wall of the reed house in which Utanapishtim lived. Utanapishtim was told to tear down his house and build a ship, into which he must bring representatives of all living creatures, The boat was to be equal in width and length, with a covering over the top. At once, Utanapishtim confessed his desire to comply with the god's wishes, but also asked how he should explain his actions to the people of his community. Ea advised him to say that he has learned that he was to be the object of Enlil's hatred and, lest his presence in their midst bring disaster upon them, he must go into exile, journeying to Ea's dwelling-place in the marshlands near the Persian Gulf. (Cf. the explanation given by Jonah to his shipmates (Jonah 1:10) that his sea voyage is in flight from yhwh.) It was by this ruse that Utanapishtim obtained the assistance of the people of Shuruppak in constructing the ship. The finished vessel, a perfect cube of 120 cubits, had seven levels, each divided into nine compartments. Supplies were loaded onto it, including whatever silver and gold Utanapishtim had in his possession. His family and relatives came aboard and animals, craftsmen, and a boatman joined the company. When all was ready, the onset of the tempest was heralded by an evening of rain, Utanapishtim studied the storm apprehensively, then entered the ship and closed the door. At daybreak on the following morning, a black cloud rose from the horizon and subsequently darkness enveloped the landscape. The storm raged so fiercely that even the gods cowered in fear. For six days and nights the tempest assailed the earth, but on the seventh day it ceased and the tossing sea grew calm. Utanapishtim opened a window, and upon seeing the scene of death, wept. After the storm, the ship approached a peak called Mount Nimush (or Nisir) as it emerged from the subsiding water. The ship ran aground and could not free itself from its resting place. Six days elapsed and on the seventh day, Utanapishtim tested the situation by releasing a dove, It flew away and then returned without finding a place to land. A swallow was next let loose, but with the same result. Subsequently, a raven was released and did not return, for the water had abated. Utanapishtim interpreted this as a sign that the flood was over, He prepared a sacrificial offering "on top of the mountain", and burned incense to the gods, who, attracted by the sweet odor, "gathered like flies." Enlil arrived later than the others and was filled with rage when he saw that mortals had survived, but Ea soothed his wrath, explaining that it was through a dream that Utanapishtim had learned the secret plan of the gods, Thereupon Enlil boarded the ship, took the man and his wife on board, and, touching their foreheads as they knelt on either side of him, formally conferred immortality on them.

The Biblical-Mesopotamian Parallels

No parallels between the biblical and extra-canonical accounts are more remarkable and impressive than those between Utanapishtim's story and that of Genesis. At the same time, there are important and basic differences between the two sources.

In the Genesis story the flood marks a turning point in history. While this does not figure in the Gilgamesh Epic, the concept is apparent in other Mesopotamian sources, which divide epochs into "before the flood" and "after the flood" (cf. Ps. 29:10; see Cohen and Hallo in Bibliography.). In both accounts the flood is a result of divine decision and one individual, a deity's favorite, is chosen to be saved by constructing a large vessel, whose dimensions, together with building instructions, are divinely communicated. In each case the vessel is calked inside and out with a tar-like substance to render it seaworthy. Animals and birds are taken aboard in both narratives. Both traditions describe the utter devastation of the flood, and both have the ship coming to rest on a mountain peak, with the hero shortly thereafter sending forth birds to determine if the earth was again hospitable. Finally, in both narratives the hero offers sacrifices on emerging from his vessel, and receives a divine blessing.

In spite of these unmistakable and striking parallels, many details are not shared by the two accounts. Some of the dissimilarities are obviously due to the fundamental difference in religious orientation. The Book of Genesis is essentially monotheistic, while the Gilgamesh Epic and its predecessors are consistently polytheistic in outlook. Utanapishtim is elevated to the status of a god, while Noah remains human. In further contrast, the God of the Bible establishes a covenant with all humankind after the deluge, a concept alien to Mesopotamia.

While Noah is not identified with a particular city, Utanapishtim is said to be a citizen of Shuruppak. The former is told explicitly and directly that the flood will come, while Utanapishtim must deduce the course of events from a carefully worded warning obliquely delivered to the wall of a reed hut. Furthermore, Ea's warning is given without the knowledge of Enlil, who had insisted on destroying all humankind without exception. In the monotheistic framework of the Bible, however, the author of the Flood intentionally provides for a surviving remnant, though unlike the Babylonian version in which a considerable number of people were spared (Utanapishtim's relatives and a crew), in the Genesis story only Noah and his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law enter the ark. The ships in which Noah and his Babylonian counterpart ride out the storm differ considerably in size and shape, the craft of Utanapishtim having a displacement about five times that of Noah's vessel. It is highly significant that the Mesopotamian hero needed a boatman to navigate his ship, while that of Noah needed neither rudder nor sail nor any other navigational aid. The building of an ark, rather than a ship, is intended to attribute Noah's deliverance solely to the will of God, and not to any human skill.

In the Gilgamesh Epic there is no indication of when the deluge began and ended, but in one of the sections of the biblical account precise dates are given. As for the duration of the storm, the accounts are widely divergent: six days in the Gilgamesh Epic as against forty according to one of the figures in Genesis, and no fewer than 150 according to another. The site at which the biblical ark came to rest after the Flood is identified as Ararat, a range northeast of Lake Van near the 40th parallel. Utanapishtim's ship, however, grounded far to the south on Mount Nimush/Nisir, near the 35th parallel. From the latter vessel a dove, a swallow, and a raven, in that order, were released, whereas Noah first turned a raven loose and then twice sent out a dove.

In Genesis there is no doubt that the reason for the Flood is divine punishment for human injustice, lawlessness, and social unrighteousness, and that the salvation of Noah is solely conditioned by his moral worthiness. The same notion is not fully articulated in the Gilgamesh epic, but is, nonetheless, implicit in the god Ea's criticism of the god Enlil. Ea insists that only sinners should suffer for their crimes, whereas the flood caused by Enlil had punished the innocent as well. (Gilg xi, 181–95). The situation in the Mesopotamian narratives, however, is not at all clear in respect to the choice of the hero, whose deliverance involved the deception of one god by another.

Sacrifice is significant in both stories to the point of striking verbal similarity. According to Genesis 8:21, yhwh smelled the pleasing odor of the sacrifice, while Gilgamesh xi, 161 reads: "The gods smelled the savor, the gods smelled the sweet savor." The writer continues with "the gods gathered likes flies around the sacrificer," a formulation that the biblical writer could hardly have tolerated." Nor could he have described the biblical god in terms of a swarm of hungry flies. At the same time, the biblical story goes so far as to credit sacrifice with maintaining what would later be called the world (olam) a view still held, if attenuated in the Mishnah (Avot 1:2).

While it is clear that the biblical account is dependent on the much earlier Mesopotamian material, the numerous differences between the two versions may be due either to Israelite reworking of earlier sources or to an intermediary recension. The text was widely known even outside Mesopotamia, including Akkadian fragments from *Emar in upper Syria, *Megiddo in Israel and Hattušaš, the Hittite capital in Turkey. Hattušaš has also yielded Hittite and Hurrian adaptations.

When the deluge story became part of the Hebrew repertory, it was developed in more than a single tradition. Subsequently the products were carefully interwoven, but without eliminating some contradictions and duplications. The biblical narrative emerges, nonetheless, as a consistent moral indictment of the human race, designed to reveal the character of Israel's God and His ethical demands. It is this aspect of the Genesis diluvial presentation which makes it significantly different from its Mesopotamian analogues.

[Dwight Young /

S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]

In the Aggadah

God mourned for seven days for the world that He had created before He sent the Flood (Gen. R. 32:7). One view is expressed that the Flood did not cover the Land of Israel (Zeb. 113a). On the other hand, it is stated that the olive tree from which the dove took the leaf that provided evidence that the Flood had subsided was from a tree on the Mount of Olives (Har ha-Mishḥa); it is also stated that when the Canaanites heard of the exodus of the Children of Israel, they adopted a "scorched earth" policy and cut down all the trees (Ex. R. 20:16) which were, however, ancient and gnarled, since they had been planted after the Flood (Eccles. R. 3:11. no. 2.). The gigantic *Og, king of Bashan, survived the Flood (Nid. 61a).

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]


Aa. Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (1946); E.A. Speiser, in: Journal of World History, 1 (1953), 311–27; idem, Genesis (1964); E. Sollberger, The Babylonian Legend of the Flood (19662); N.M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (1966), 37–62; W.G. Lambert and A.R. Millard, atra-hasĪs, The Babylonian Story of the Flood (1969); J. Bright, in: Biblical Archaeologist Reader (1961), 32–40. add. bibliography: A. Kilmer, in: Orientalia 41 (1972), 160–77; idem, in: F. Rochberg-Halton (ed.), Language, Literature, and History … Studies E. Reiner (1987), 175–80; J.P. Lewis, abd ii, 798–803; J. Sasson, ibid., 1024–27; N. Sarna, in: Genesis (jps; 1989), 46–60; C. Cohen, in: janes, 19 (1989), 18–19; W. Hallo, in: maarav, 7 (1991), 173–81; A.R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, 2 vols. (2003).

Flood, the

views updated May 11 2018

Flood, the Primeval deluge, sent by God to devastate the Earth as a punishment for wickedness. As related in the Old Testament (Genesis 6–9), God sent rain upon the Earth for 40 days and nights, destroying everything he had created. Only Noah, his family, and a pair of every living creature, contained in the floating Ark he had built, were spared to start creation afresh. Similar myths occur in many cultures. The Flood also appears in the Koran and it bears some resemblance to a section of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.

Flood, The

views updated Jun 08 2018

Flood, The. Mus. play for 3 speakers, ten., and 2 basses, ch., and orch. by Stravinsky to lib. chosen and arr. by Robert Craft from Genesis, and York and Chester cycles of mystery plays. Comp. 1961–2. F.p. on TV (CBS) 1962; f. stage p. Hamburg 1963; London (concert) 1963. See also Britten's Noye's Fludde.

Flood, the

views updated Jun 27 2018

Flood, the the biblical flood said in Genesis ch. 6–9 to have been brought by God upon earth because of the wickedness of the human race, and from which only Noah and his family were saved; in extended usage, marking a period of time preceded by extreme antiquity, as in antediluvian, before the Flood.