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Floods and Plagues | Old Testament Copying? Series 2

Derek Caldwell

This is part 2 of the Old Testament Copying series. You can read part 1 here and part 3 here.

A Flood of Biblical … distortions?

Looking at the flood in Genesis, we also see that many of the principles mentioned previously are still in play; the Hebrew people are interacting with and attempting to correct the story of God’s interaction with the world and humanity. The fact that many ANE myths included flood narratives points to an actual flood at some point in their shared history, perhaps around 2900 BC.[1] Additionally, Lasor, Hubbard, and Bush explain the resemblances between accounts as proving “nothing beyond a genetic relationship … The Genesis stories in their present form do not go back to the Babylonian traditions. The evidence, even that of the close ties between the Flood stories, merely suggests a diffuse influence of a common cultural heritage. The inspired authors of the primeval account drew on the manner of speaking about origins that was part of a common literary tradition.”[2]

There are two flood stories that are considered closely related to the biblical flood story: Atrahasis and Epic of Gilgamesh. Atrahasis is older than Genesis (though like Genesis’ flood it is probably based on even older oral versions), and Gilgamesh may or may not be older than Genesis. The flood of Gilgamesh is essentially an expanded version of the Atrahasis story, although the earliest versions of Gilgamesh did not include a flood epic.

Before we talk about similarities and differences, it will be helpful to briefly outline these other flood narratives. Since Gilgamesh is based on Atrahasis, I’ll just provide one basic summary that essentially covers both pieces. The issue with humanity, and why the flood is needed, is essentially overpopulation. When the gods created humans as slave labor (see above), they apparently did not count on human beings multiplying so quickly. The sound they produced made it difficult for the god, Enlil, to sleep, although some scholars believe that this is really meaning to say that the humans were now, like the lesser gods before them, rebelling from their slave labor.[3] Enlil tries other ways to eliminate humanity, but his efforts are frustrated by other gods. Eventually, he settles on bringing a flood. The hero of the story (called Atrahasis in Atrahasis, and Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh) is warned by Enki or Ea about the flood. When the rains start to bring the flood, even the gods are frightened by its force. Enlil is angered that not all of humanity was eliminated. After the flood subsides, the hero offers a sacrifice. It has been a little while since humans have offered a sacrifice, and the gods—who depend on humans to bring them their food in the form of sacrifices—are starving. In Gilgamesh, it is stated that “the gods smelled the savor, the gods smelled the sweet savor, the gods crowded around the sacrifice like flies.”[4]

There are indeed similarities. Humanity is judged by the divine through a flood, but a hero survives the flood with a few others and animals in tow. This hero uses birds to see if there is yet dry land. Once all is safe again, the hero offers a sacrifice. But there are even more differences. In these versions, the gods are in conflict over this judgment; some are angered at Enlil’s capriciousness because they feel fondly toward humanity, others because they must do without food during the flood. In the Bible’s version, people are judged for their extreme wickedness, the unholy union between angels and humans that was, as Pete Enns calls it, an act of anti-creation: “It willfully injected dis-order/chaos, into the created order.”[5] Humanity in Genesis was called to be agents of order, but had become agents of chaos; they had even been said to be created in the image and likeness of God, a designation usually only used for kings. In fact, Enns finds that the terminology used in the Genesis account points to humanity as royal and priestly (called to care for creation) stock, rather than the slave laborers of the other stories.[6] Furthermore, in another example showing the nearly complete disdain of humanity by the gods in other stories, in Genesis people are warned 120 years beforehand that judgment will come if they do not repent. Enlil gives no such warning, and actually desires to keep the impending judgment secret so that all of humanity will perish. Yahweh, conversely, sought out Noah so that humanity could be redeemed.[7]

When we take all of these major differences into account—differences concerning who God is, who humanity is, and the nature of judgment—it becomes clear that the Genesis account is intending to correct something. Dru Johnson states that “the Noah story is a direct argument against the Gilgamesh epic. It might surprise us that we find in Noah’s story an acknowledgment of other accounts, but also a critique, truing up the flood narrative to the history of Israel.”[8]

So what precisely is Genesis doing with this flood narrative? Tremper Longman has stated that he believes Genesis is giving “theological history,” meaning that the past is remembered for theological purposes. Genesis “speaks of the past in order to reveal God and his relationship to his people.”[9] Longman and Walton believe that a real story lies behind the flood narrative and that it is not myth, but that it is hyperbolized and not intended to give a straight reporting of the facts.[10] Longman elsewhere writes,

We are certainly not to understand the biblical account as a parroting of the Mesopotamian story. Indeed, the differences are highlighted by the similarities… The differences have to do primarily with the different conception of deity. Whereas the Mesopotamian gods and goddesses are petulant and petty, fighting not only against humanity but also with each other, the God of the biblical flood story is sovereign and moral in his judgments and redemption.[11]

Exodus and a judgment on the gods

Interestingly, a similar tactic is seen in the plagues of Exodus, which is not an instance of making an older story its own, but an instance of God confronting “the gods” and showing himself as the true, sovereign God. Scholars have long recognized that the plagues brought on Egypt by pharaoh’s wickedness were direct affronts to the “gods” of the Egyptian pantheon. Indeed, Exodus itself says that God was executing judgment on Egypt’s “gods” (Exodus 12:12). A chart of these similarities can be seen in John Walton’s Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament.[12]

While it can be interesting to link particular plagues to particular Egyptian deities—and it can be done with some success—it may be slightly missing the point. “Although many biblical scholars attempt to identify a particular deity as the object of each of the ten plagues,” Hill and Walton explain, “it seems better to understand the plagues collectively as judgment against the whole pantheon of Egyptian gods.” The final two plagues, though, “do appear to be aimed at the primary Egyptian deity and his earthly representative, the pharaoh. By blotting out the sun in Egypt and permitting daylight in Goshen, and by interrupting the pharaonic cycle of deity in the death plague, Yahweh showed himself Lord to the Egyptians.”[13] Overall, then, the Exodus narrative of Moses versus Pharaoh is really representative of a “cosmic struggle between the true God, Yahweh, and the false gods of the Egyptian religion.”[14]

You can read part 3 of the Old Testament Copying series here.

Image: Gustave Dore (1832-1883), “All dwellings else Flood overwhelmed, and them, with all their pomp Deep under water rolled,” no date.

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[1] Pete Enns, “Gilgamesh, Atrahasis and the Flood,” Biologos, June 1, 2010, https://biologos.org/articles/gilgamesh-atrahasis-and-the-flood/.

[2] William Sanford Lasor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 20.

[3] Enns.

[4] Tremper Longman III, “Gilgamesh” in Paul Copan, Tremper Longman III, Christopher L. Reese, and Michael G. Strauss (eds.), Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 330-32. 

[5] Enns.

[6] Enns.

[7] “Flood Myths” in Walter A. Elwell (ed.), Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 799-800.

[8] Dru Johnson, The Universal Story: Genesis 1-11 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018), 76.

[9] Longman, “Genesis Flood,” in Copan, et al., 311.

[10] Tremper Longman III and John H Walton, The Lost World of the Flood (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 145.

[11] Longman, “Genesis Flood,” 312.

[12] John Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 85.

[13] Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 114-15.

[14] Ibid., 114.