By Israel Drazin
The biblical and Babylonian flood stories – 2
There are three diverse Babylonian tales of a world-wide flood that have endured until
today. One is a Sumerian version that survived only in fragments. Another is the rather
famous Gilgamesh epic in which Utrapishtim tells his descendant Gilgamesh his
adventures before, during and after the flood and how he was granted eternal life. The
third is the history of Atrahasis. A study of the similarities and differences between
Atrahasis and the Genesis flood story help us see the differences between the biblical and
Babylonian approaches to life and gives us new insight into the Genesis version.
- When was Atrahasis composed?
- What is the story that Atrahasis tells?
- What are the similarities between the flood stories of Atrahasis and Genesis?
- What are the differences between the two tales?
The story of the flood as told in Atrahasis
Scholars date the written version of the Babylonian myth Atrahasis to about 1650 BCE and suppose that it existed earlier in an oral form. The poem offers a reason for the world-wide flood and the destruction of humanity that is radically different than the one presented in the Bible.
The story opens when only gods existed, those of the upper and lower class. The gods needed to eat, so they dug up canals, the Tigris and Euphrates, to irrigate the land for the production of food – a task that appears in other Babylonian documents as well. This work, as could be expected, was assigned by the seven higher gods to those of the lower class.
All went well for some 3600 years, when the toiling lower gods found that the “work was heavy (and the) distress was great.” They rebelled, went on strike, burnt their tools and surrounded the home of the chief god who was so frustrated that he burst out in tears. The gods were now faced with the problem: who will do the digging to produce their food? The gods joined in a democratic counsel and came up with a solution. They would relieve the lower class gods from their near slave-like labor by creating humans to perform the drudgery.
After a short discussion, the ingredients for humans were determined. The mixture was clay, and the flesh and blood of the god who instituted the strike, who was killed by the strikers. This was a god “who has sense.” His blood gave the newly formed humans rationality. As a final ingredient, one of the gods spit into the mixture.
The initial creation comprised seven males and seven females, who were to copulate and produce other humans.
The humans labored without complaint for over 1200 years and all would have continued to do so had it not been for the fact that they proliferated so much and made so much bombinating noise – “the earth was roaring like a bull” – that they disturbed the gods who were even “deprived of sleep.” The gods bumble through four attempts to solve their problem without success, and only succeed on the fifth try.
The first attempt to reduce the human population is by destroying many people by means of a plague. This was working until Atrahasis, the king of Shuruppad, begs his god to help his people.
The name Atrahasis means “extra wise.” It is similar to the name of the Greek hero Prometheus who helped people in their battles against the gods. The latter name means “fore thinker.” In this way, despite the contemptible way that the Babylonians and Greeks conceived of humans and their relationship to the gods, they saw that humans can prevail through the use of their reasoning ability.
Atrahasis’ prayer is answered by the god Enki who suggested that the humans offer sacrifices to the god of plagues to induce him to desist. It worked, the god enjoyed the bribe of food, and the humans began to increase once again.
Another 1200 years passed, the people continued to increase, and the noise problem was as bad as before. It roared again like a bull. This time the gods brought a draught. Atrahasis was strangely still alive. He prayed to Enki again and the sympathetic god saved the people a second time by suggesting sacrifices to the appropriate god and the draught stopped.
Centuries passed and the problem resurfaced. The gods tried famine next with the same result.
Then, as a final solution, the gods decided to flood the entire earth to rid themselves of the nuisance they had created. The chief god insisted that all the gods swear that they would not talk to any human about the impending flood. But Enki was no dummy; he was a god after all. He kept his oath but warned Atrahasis, who was still alive, by speaking to Atrahasis’ hut wall while the king was listening, and warned the king to build an ark.
Curiously, King Atrahasis does not share this information with anyone, but leaves town with a flimsy excuse, builds the ark in secret, bring his family on board along with every type of animal, and is saved.
The earth is now quite, but the gods regretted their decision to destroy humans. They remember that they had created people to feed them through sacrifices. They especially missed the beer. Atrahasis exits the ark and brings a sacrifice. The hungry and thirsty gods descend “like flies over the offering” to eat it.
The gods then decide not to attempt to kill humans anymore. They develop a three-pronged plan to overcome the problems of over-population and noise pollution, each focusing on the reduction of the number of children: women will be created who will be unable to bear children; demons will kill children soon after they are born; and a class of women will be created who will consider it taboo to have offspring.
- In both texts, humans are created from the earth and both state that there was a divine element. In Genesis it is the “breath of life” and “the image of God,” which Jewish tradition also understands as being a rational element. This is significant because both cultures recognized the need for humans to use their intelligence.
- In Genesis 2:16 and Atrahasis the humans were given a task to work, but, as we will see, the focus was entirely different.
- In both stories, the flood came as a result of a problem with humans, but the problem was different.
- In the two tales, the hero brings his family and every type of animal on board an ark to save them.
- The two stories have the hero bring a sacrifice after the flood, but Atrahasis does so to satisfy the thirst and hunger of the gods and Noah as a thanksgiving offering.
- The number three occurs in both tales after the flood to address the problems of creation, but since both documents saw the problem in different ways the solutions were dissimilar.
- The bible does not portray multiple gods, nor does it picture one group of gods forcing the other to work.
- The story of Atrahasis, as polytheism in general, is a portrayal of a passive humanity drugging along like cattle, victims to the whims of the gods and of fate, without any effective power to overcome them. Humans are seen as being unable to do anything on their own. It is the gods not humans that create all the elements of civilization. There is, for the most part, a different god to do each different task that monotheistic Judaism encourages men and women to do.
- The Bible continually describes God in favorable terms, but the portrait of the pagan gods is disparaging. It is ironic that the multitude of gods who are constantly bickering and who are scheming and fighting against each other are complaining about over-population and noise. The poem seems to imply that it is acceptable if the gods fight, but not when humans do so. In Judaism, the Jew is encouraged to copy the ethical behavior of God.
- The world according to the Bible was created perfectly and there was no need for God to work after the six days of creation, especially not digging ditches.
- The Babylonian poem offers a reason for the creation of humans – to do the drudgery work that the lower gods rejected. The Bible offers no theological, philosophical, or practical reason for the creation of people. Humans are told to work in Genesis 2:16, but there is no suggestion that the labor is for God’s benefit.
- Genesis states that the first humans were placed in the idealistic Garden of Eden, while Atrahasis has them placed at the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates to perform menial work.
- Genesis states that vegetation was created on the third day, three days before humans. Thus, contrary to Atrahasis, humans were not made to create food. Vegetation existed before them and was fertile and self sustaining. The Bible states that humans were placed in the Garden to guard it, not to make it grow. Humans, according to the Bible caused the land to become infertile, contaminated and polluted, as in the story of Cain in Genesis 4, where the land was cursed because he killed his brother. By Genesis 9, humans have so corrupted the awesomeness of nature that God flooded the land.
- The view of man in Atrahasis is dismal. Although built with a rational element, he was created to do menial work that the gods despised. In contrast, Genesis 9:6 speaks of the elevated nature of humanity, for the human is created in God’s image.
- The incident of the god spitting into the mixture that produced humanity shows an underlying contempt for the human race.
- While Genesis tells of the creation of a single pair of humans, Atrahasis contends there were seven pairs. The rabbis explained that God created a single pair to highlight the lesson that all humans are related; no one can say “I am descended from a more exalted race.” Interestingly, the seven pairs parallels the number of clean animals that Noah brought into the ark.
- The Babylonian version of the flood states that it was overpopulation and noise that prompted the gods to flood the earth. The Bible does not consider overpopulation a problem. In fact it takes the opposite approach. At the beginning of creation, in Genesis 1:28, God orders the first humans to “be fruitful and multiply.” Also, the first command issued by God after the flood, in Genesis 9:1, which is repeated in 9:7, is “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”
- The Bible, in Genesis 6:5, contends that the flood was brought because of the wickedness of the people, not overpopulation and noise. The focus is an issue of human conduct, not the comfort of the divinity.
- God does not continually fail in his attempts to solve his problems with humanity as the gods in the myth.
- In the Bible God consciously decides to save Noah, while in the myth the chief god tries to kill all humans and one family is saved only because of the treachery of another god.
- Genesis reports that Noah was warned 120 years before the flood, and he was ordered to spend this century in building an ark in front of the people to warn them of the impending flood, even though they were evil doers, and to give them the opportunity to repent. In Atrahasis, the hero, a king who is responsible for his people, slinks out of town and, for some undisclosed reason, fails to warn others of the flood even though in the poem they did no wrong.
- Most Jews understand that sacrifices were not brought to bribe God from what God considered to be appropriate as the humans do in the Babylonian tale.
- The portrayal in the poem of gods flying “like flies over the offering” is degrading and certainly does not encourage a relationship between humans and the divine.
- The post-flood response of the gods to resolve the problem that precipitated the flood differs radically from the behavior of God. The gods in the poem addressed the problem of overpopulation and noise, while the God of Genesis focused on the evils committed by people.
- Each of the three resolutions of the pagan gods are contrary to the Jewish view of the sanctity of life discussed in Genesis 9, which concludes with the reason “for man is created in God’s image.” Jews are bothered by bareness, they are encouraged not to believe in the superstitious notion of evil demons destroying their children, and they do not join in groups that shun pregnancy and birth.
- The Jewish response to the problem of lawlessness is laws. In Genesis 9, three laws are mentioned. The first “be fruitful and multiply” is a strong negation of the pagan solution. The second, allowing people to eat meat, but forbidding the eating of live animals, is a basic principle of respect for all of God’s creatures. The third, setting the forfeiture of life for animals and humans that kill humans, emphasizes again the importance of life. The rabbis, in the Talmuds and Midrashim, expand upon this list of three laws to a list of seven. They called them the Noahide Laws and considered them the basic principles of society. They are: the prohibition of idol worship, blasphemy, murder, sexual misconduct, theft, eating from a living animal, as well as the command to establish a legal system.
The flood stories of Genesis and Atrahasis have superficial similarities. Both tell how God/the gods were dissatisfied with humanity and decided to destroy it with a flood. Both recount how a single person was told to save himself, his family and all the animals on an ark. Other details, beside the ark and the animals are similar, such as the offering of a sacrifice after the flood. Significantly, both stress that people were created with the ability to reason – but whereas the Bible portrays people using their reason, with Abraham, for example, arguing the ethical issue of the destruction of Sodom with God, the pagan myth depicts them acting without thought whenever they face the will of the gods or fate.
Yet there are significant differences, such as the portrayal of the divine, the poem’s attitude toward humans, why they were created, the relationship between humans and the divine, how humans should behave, the use of sacrifices, the reason for the flood, and the solution enacted to finally resolve the problem. Probably the most significant difference is in the attitude of God/the gods toward humanity and the final solution offered by each: the gods sought to keep people at a minimum and as quiet as possible, while God attempted to help people develop through a legal system.