The Flood: Utnapishtim, Noah, Harvey, and South Asia

“For he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45 NRSV)

Flooding is on all of our minds lately from North America to South Asia.  Harvey has dumped more rain that has ever been recorded in North America from a single storm.  Residents in Houston and southeast Texas and Louisiana are suffering.  On the other side of the world at the same time another storm has been raging.  Monsoons have dumped rain in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, leaving devastation that has been the worst in the region for many years.  Hurricane Irma with its record-breaking winds has devastated islands in the Caribbean and caused havoc, though less than anticipated, in the Southeast U.S.  Jose is skimming by, and Maria awaits.

The deaths, displacement, and suffering caused by all of these storms, though the numbers are much higher for the South Asian storm, are being touted as the “new normal.”  Hurricanes, monsoons, and floods rage throughout the world, and the biblical flood story is near at hand.  Religious people are engaged in several actions: some are acting in charity, sending money, food, clothing, and other necessary supplies to agencies to help the victims of the flood.  Others are engaged in the blame-game, blaming more natural sources (i.e., climate change) or supernatural ones (i.e., God).  While the first follows more logically, both involve sin (pollution and sexual sins) and punishment.

Strangely, just the week before Harvey and the monsoon in South Asia a pastor friend of mine asked me a question about the similarities between Noah and Utnapishtim (also spelled Utanipishtim), the Babylonian “Noah.”  Since I will be turning to this issue in my Introduction to Biblical Studies course fairly soon, I thought I would work out some portions of the discussion – old and new – here.

To do this, we must address two primary issues to address concerning the sources of the story: (1) the traditional biblical scholarly source critical discussion, popularized by Julius Wellhausen, and criticized and modified extensively since then – that is, the different Israelite sources brought together into a single narrative; and (2) the sources behind the sources – that is, the Mesopotamian stories (Epic of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis).  I will further add some ecologically-inflected comments throughout, partly derived from when I taught Religion and the Environment last spring at Illinois College.

(1) The Sources Behind the Flood Story: J (or L) and P

The biblical flood story, first of all, is a textbook example of the Documentary Hypothesis.  Originally developed in the 19th century, but popularized by Julius Wellhausen in his Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, this hypothesis originally stated that there were four sources to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible): these were called the Yahwist (J), the Elohist (E), the Priestly (P), and Deuteronomist (D) sources.  They have distinctive styles, usages of the name of God, key terminology, and even different theologies that allow one to distinguish them from one another.

This theory, however, has received a lot of criticism.  I will focus on the most widespread critiques.  Firstly, the “documentary” hypothesis paid little heed to potential orality.  While there were recognitions of oral stories circulating, especially, for example, the Song of Deborah, many scholars have critiqued that all the sources needed to be documentary.  Another issue is that it is often very difficult to tell the difference between J and E.  The “seams” between them are tighter, and, if they are too tight, then this part of the theory unravels.  There has been – at least since Frank Moore Cross’s classic work on Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic – a critique of whether or not P could have ever been an independent source or whether it assumes J&E especially.  And since D is largely doing its own thing over there in Deuteronomy, we will ignore it for now – though there is talk about how it relates to the rest, of course.  With these criticisms in mind, David Carr, for example, has discussed the role of “oral-written” societies in his book Writing on the Tablet of the Heart, and has developed a different terminology, focused on “P” for Priestly and “L” for “Lay,” which he used to simply call “non-P.”  For the sake of the Flood stories, it does not really matter here.  One can either refer to the J and P versions or the L and P versions.

There are further refinements, such as the recognition that these are not one-off sources, but, for example, “P” is something that likely developed over time (as argued by Hermann Gunkel), so one may attempt to differentiate P1, P2, etc.

As noted, it is often difficult to differentiate J&E, but it is much easier to differentiate Priestly from everything else.  The Priestly material – even if it is not a separate or independent source but a later editor – is quite distinctive with its predilection for genealogies and excruciatingly precise detail.

What’s weird about the flood story is that it is spliced between P and J in almost a zipper-like fashion, alternating verse by verse.  (By contrast, in the creation stories at the beginning of Genesis, P is one big block of 1:1-2:3 and L is one big block of 2:3-3:14).

While there is some variation in the divisions among scholars, the J or L version most likely consists of Gen. 6:5-8; 7:1-5, 7, 10, 12, 17-20, 22-23; 8:2b-3a, 6, 8-12, 13b, 16b, 20-22.

P consists of Gen. 6:9-22; 7:8-9, 11, 13-16a, 21, 24; 8:1-2a, 3b-5, 7, 13a, 14-19.

In this case, when disarticulated this way, each version reads more smoothly, especially J/L.  There are some differences, some minor, some major that emerge:

  1. Name of God: in J, Yahweh (LORD); in P, God.
  2. Reason for destruction by flood: in J, evil humans, divine regret; in P, violence upon the earth.
  3. What the ark is made out of: J does not show interest; in P, gopher wood and pitch.
  4. How many animals per species: in J, 7 pairs of clean animals (14 per species) and 2 pairs of unclean animals (4 per species); in P, two of each.
  5. When does the flood occur: in J, 7 days after entering the ark; in P, 600th year, 2nd month, 7th day of Noah’s life.
  6. How long does the flood last: in J, 40 days and 40 nights; in P, 150 days!
  7. When does it end: in J, after 40 days; in P, after 150 days and then ark rests in the 7th month, in 17th day.
  8. What birds does Noah send out: in J, doves; in P, a raven.

With all of this, you can see distinct literary traits emerge.  J or L likes a fairly straightforward story.  P loves the details of the measurements and materials of the ark.  P also has a fascination with genealogies and precise dates.  P is also concerned with showing that the story represents a new creation with these dates as well as the repetition to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Gen. 9:1; cf. 1:28).  Interestingly, it is the J version that has a sacrifice rather than the Priestly version.

There are some additional details to consider when taking the story as a whole.  Firstly, humans are, for the first time, allowed to eat meat after the flood (Gen. 9:2-5).    The assumption is that humans have only been vegetarians until this point.  Secondly, God’s covenant is not just with Noah or humanity, it is with the whole earth:  “AS for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark” (Gen. 9:9-10).  The rainbow is a sign not just for humans, but for all living creatures (9:12).  The covenant is between God and earth (9:13).  This is an astounding passage in the sense that humans are considered part of a broader whole: God makes a covenant with humans, the animals, and the earth.  It is all interconnected.

(2) The Mesopotamian Sources Behind the Sources: Gilgamesh and Atrahasis

Since the discovery and deciphering of the flood tablets from the end of the Epic of Gilgamesh from the ancient ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal of ancient Nineveh as well as the older Atrahasis it is based upon, there has been much discussion of the flood story in the ancient Near East as a whole rather than just the biblical version of it.  It is unclear whether or not the biblical authors had a copy of Gilgamesh or Atrahasis in front of them.  It would have been available throughout antiquity, especially for Israelites during and after the Babylonian exile – after which many Jews remained in Babylon.  Yet even before that as well.  It is also possible that both are relying upon even older West Semitic stories.

The stories are different in style and length, but show a lot of categorical similarities.  Both tell of a global flood due to humanity’s wickedness or sins, though the sinfulness of humanity is not as prominent a theme in the Babylonian (B) version.   In the Atrahasis, it appears to be more that humans were too noisy.  The flood is sent by the gods (Yahweh or assembly of Gods in the Babylonian (B) version).  The name of the hero is different: Noah and Utnapishtim.  Though Utanipishtim is an updating of the earlier name Atrahasis, reflected in the story itself.  Both men are considered good or righteous.  While Noah hears directly from God, Utanipishtim learns of things in a dream.  Both build a boat, but Utanipishtim complains about it, while Noah just does it.  The boat is three stories high in the Biblical account, while it is seven stories high in the Babylonian account.  Both have a big door and at least one window.  They both are coated in pitch.  Noah’s boat seams to be oblong, whereas Utanipishtim’s seems to be a cube.  They are both allowed to bring family and all kinds of animals.  The flood actually occurs with water rising up and raining down in Genesis, but only falling down in the Babylonian version.  The duration of the flood is pretty long in Genesis (40 or 150 days, depending on which source), whereas pretty short in the Babylonian version (6 days and nights).  Both use birds to find land.  In the Bible it is a raven and doves; in Gilgamesh, a dove, a swallow, and a raven.  Both boats land on a mountain (Ararat in Bible; Nisir or Nimush in Babylonian version).  Both sacrifice after the flood, and receive blessings.  Utanipishtim, though, receives immortality.

The strange shape of the boat in Epic of Gilgamesh as a seven-story cube is likely to represent a ziggurat, a stepped religious structure.  The three-part ark of Noah likely also is to represent the temple of Jerusalem, though it is more boat-like.

The biblical version also gives everything a more moralizing slant: it really emphasizes the evil of humanity more than the Babylonian versions do.  Both show humans to be a pestilence in some way for God/s.  To be fair, the “noise” in the Babylonian version could be a reference to violence, as found in the P version.

(3) General Reflections

The Flood: source of death, destruction, but for Noah, a new beginning, and for Utanipishtim, a one-time chance at immortality.  The biblical story binds God, humans, animals, and the earth into a single, grand covenanted community, which ecologically minded Jews and Christians likely find comforting.  It also provides a precedent, however, for moralizing natural disasters.  One of the annoying elements of watching all of these hurricanes hit or nearly hit land is the repetition of the moralization.  Different famous figures claim it is due to our sins that these hurricanes are hitting, usually suggesting some sort of sexual sin.  Others, a bit more logically, moralize in a different direction: it is because of the sins of pollution, leading to climate change, that these things are happening at a greater frequency and with greater intensity.  Both rely upon stories of sin and punishment, though the latter is a more natural explanation.

I find non-natural or supernatural moralizations of modern natural disasters among Christians especially startling given Jesus’ saying that I started this blog post with:  “For he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45 NRSV)  While this feels like it would be quite at home in Ecclesiastes, this comes in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ summary of law and ethics if there is one.  It is an explanatory note on the commandment to love one’s enemies so you can be children of the Father in heaven who rains on the just and the unjust equally.  It is quite startling in light of the Genesis flood story.  In Genesis, the flood is due to human wickedness or human violence – for some reason, most people forget the violence part.  In Jesus’ saying, the causation is disrupted.  Jesus’ saying retains the ancient view – not just among Jews and Christians, but pretty much all ancient people – that God or Gods or even angels control the weather, but he displaces the moral imperative and the force of moral retribution.  God does not rain upon only on the just, only on the unjust, or even because of the unjust or because of the just.  Disrupting the causation of bad weather coming from bad people that so many people ancient and modern want to use to bash other people, Jesus says it rains on both, so love your enemies instead.  In the end, God simply rains.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: