Flood Myth or Biblical Fact: Should Believers Swallow the Noah Story?

The flood story could not have happened as described in Genesis, and it's suspiciously like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Arnold Slyper
Arnold Slyper
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Noah's ark, reconceptualized as a float for a contest (of floats) on the Sea of Galilee, August 14, 2009.
Noah's ark, reconceptualized as a float for a contest (of floats) on the Sea of Galilee, August 14, 2009.Credit: Moran Maayan
Arnold Slyper
Arnold Slyper

How should a Jew of faith relate to the Noah story, given that it clearly couldn't have happened as related in Genesis?

For one thing, there is no geological or archaeological evidence that a flood covered the world’s landmasses up to Mount Ararat in the mountains of Armenia. Also the notion that each animal species in the world, or even a fraction of them, could be housed within an ark strains credibility.

Also, the Noah story bears a more than passing resemblance to a number of ancient flood myths.

The earliest-known flood legend is a Sumerian one written about 4,000 years ago, in the 17th century B.C.E. It relates how King Ziusudra was warned of the gods' decision to destroy mankind in a flood, and was instructed to build a large boat. A later version of this story, the "Atrahasis Epic", stars a man named Atrahasis.

But the most well-known Mesopotamian flood story, found in Nineveh while excavating the library of King Asshurbanipal, is the Epic of Gilgamesh. (The flood story comprises only a small part of this epic and is thought to be a version of the Atrahasis Epic.)

Common to the Mesopotamian and Judaic flood stories is that the gods decide to drown errant mankind, but to save one person (and his family) on a ship. He brings animals on board to save them from the deluge. After the flood, the boat alights on top of a mountain, birds are released to determine if the land has dried, and the hero then emerges and offers sacrifices.

Keeping the faith

Among believers, the most common approach is to ignore the whole story. Questioning the veracity of the Bible and suggesting mythological sources for the Noah story are an attack on faith itself. What possible purpose can a religious person achieve by engaging in these issues?

But there is a second approach, which is to consider both the Noah story and the Gilgamesh myth to have arisen from reality. One popular theory is that they relate to a catastrophic flood that created the Black Sea. However, the Bible goes to great lengths to point out that this was a global flood that destroyed all of humanity and animal life, not a localized one. Plus, it is difficult to imagine how a flood in the area of the Black Sea could have covered the mountains of Armenia.

There is yet a third approach: To accept that the Noah story is nonfactual – but that this in no way detracts from the authenticity and divine origin of the Torah.

Polemic against paganism

Two Jewish biblical scholars who took this third approach were Umberto Cassuto and Nahum Sarna, both writing in the mid-1900s. Both academicians opposed biblical source criticism, believing in a single authorship of the Bible, although neither was prepared to say this was God (which detached both writers from the orthodox world of biblical interpretation).

To Cassuto, these flood stories were so much part of the culture of the early Israelites that the Bible was unable to ignore them, and a flood story was therefore incorporated into the Bible after removal of all pagan concepts.

Sarna’s approach is more compelling. He regards the early stories in Genesis as polemics against Mesopotamian paganism and its way of life.

In other words, Sarna postulates, the Bible "republished" a mythological story that people at that time were familiar with, but substituted Jewish values within them.

Here are some examples of how biblical values were inserted into the ancient legend.

At a very basic level, Mesopotamian culture was a very pessimistic one. Their mythology teaches that humanity was created solely for the benefit of the gods and to do their hard work. Famine, sickness, and even global destruction were methods of population control brought about on the whim of the gods. Hence, the Atrahasis myth tells us:

And the country became too wide, the people too numerous,
The country was as noisy as a bellowing bull.
The gods grew restless at their clamor,
Ellil .. addressed the great gods:
“The noise of mankind has become too much for me,
I am losing sleep over their racket.
Cut off food supplies to the people!”

The Noah story, by contrast, emphasizes that a single God, and not a multitude of gods, controls the forces of nature.

Moreover, the fate of the world is determined not by the random whim of the gods but by the morality of its inhabitants. God is the model for righteousness, and man can follow in His path: “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)

Only when humanity believes that life is more than a gamble and has trust in its deity can mankind “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land” (Genesis 9:1) and engage in the sustained scientific and societal progress that characterizes a globe with a biblical worldview. Hence, after the flood, God promises never again to subject the world to absolute destruction, and His covenant is attested to by a rainbow joining heaven and earth: "I have set my rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth" (Genesis 9:11-13).

In these biblical passages, says Sarna, the Torah is attacking the paganism of Mesopotamia, the pessimism of its worldview, and its belief in a random world.

Immortality, the forbidding pit and heaven

The second example of how Jewish values were inserted into the flood myth touches on life after death. The hero of the Gilgamesh myth, a monarch, is distraught when a close friend dies and seeks to return him to life. Much of the myth is related to this search. King Gilgamesh makes contact with the flood hero Atrahasis, since Atrahasis has gained immortality from the gods as a result of his surviving the flood.

Mesopotamian mythology indicates the issue of mortality caused considerable angst in ancient times, no doubt because death did not lead to the Jewish ascent to a celestial realm (Ecclesiastes 12:7), but to descend to a grim and forbidding pit. After many adventures, Gilgamesh realizes that achieving immortality in this world is impossible and that his immortality rests with the constructions he has done for his city.

The Noah story does not address this issue, perhaps because it is already addressed in the Garden of Eden story. In this allegory, Adam is a product of the earth (“adama” in Hebrew), and to earth he is destined to return. Man did once possess immortality, but this was lost because of human nature.

Nevertheless, the Garden of Eden and Tree of Life still exist, although guarded by the flaming swords of cherubim. From these enigmatic verses, Jewish tradition fathomed that there is a heavenly Garden of Eden, thereby softening the frightening reality of mortality.

An exquisite monotheization

A third way in which the story is de-paganized, lies in the exquisite monotheistic resetting of the tale.

The biblical flood describes God’s control over the “fountains of the great deep” (Genesis 7:11), primeval waters that burst forth to inundate the entire earth. But in the Mesopotamian version of the tale, no single god is credited with orchestrating the flood. In fact, the gods are distraught at the destruction that they have collectively brought to the world:

The flood roared like a bull,
Like a wild ass screaming the winds howled..
Anu went beserk..
The goddess (Anu) watched and wept.
Nintu wept and fueled her passions

The full thrust of the biblical flood was for 40 days. Many numbers in the Bible have meaning: the number 40 may signify God’s intimate protection in preparation for a new beginning. Individual providence of this nature was unheard of in the pagan world, since never were the gods interested in individuals. Not surprisingly, therefore, no number of religious significance for the duration of the flood can be found within the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh flood myths.

Speaking snakes and monotheistic refits

Monotheism was a new and radical idea in the ancient Near East, and the Torah was its manifesto. A monotheistic refit of a mythological story was one way by which the Bible chose to promulgate its revolutionary ideas.

However, one needs to appreciate what Sarna and Cassuto have done. They have allegorized the Noah story (just as they allegorized other early stories of Genesis).

There is much in the Bible to support this allegorical approach. Even when the Bible was written, people would have realized that a garden where the three main rivers of the Near East joined together was not a reality then, and probably had not been a reality in the past. Rather, it was a representation of all the fertility of the known world.

There was also never a speaking snake. It was a representation of evil and possibly the supernatural world of the occult.

However, allegorizing the Torah was not the direction that Jewish tradition wished to go, for many reasons.

If the Noah story is an allegory, then there is an obvious question as to whether Noah really existed. And if Noah was fictitious, then what about Abraham and Moses? With good reason, Jewish tradition could never accept the non-historicity of Noah, the patriarchs and the greatest of all prophets Moses.

In fact, the Gilgamesh Epic is also a larger-than-life story based on a real man named King Gilgamesh, who ruled Sumerian Uruk – today in Iraq - in 2700 B.C.E.

But where does allegory end and history begin, since the allegorical and historic parts of the Torah are merged together to present a coherent narrative? Allegory also involves free interpretation. However, it is but a small step to freely interpret the halakhic sections of the Torah; this could destroy the very foundations of traditional Judaism.

Allegorizing parts of the Bible is not apologetics. Nor does it negate the Divine origin of the Torah. Rather, it is an exciting way of biblical interpretation that opens the door wide for new and original insights (bible-pedia.org). Some of these may be off the mark, but others will be intellectually satisfying and religiously uplifting.

Admittedly, for the person of faith who is not prepared to accept the first few chapters of Genesis as historic fact, there are theological stumbling blocks ahead. But many will readily accept this challenge.

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