The story of Noah’s Ark is probably one of the best known from the Hebrew Bible, and not just because it’s so popular with children. It’s a flood narrative, which appear in the folklore of over 140 cultures around the world. Scholars have long been examining the similarities and differences between these accounts, and the values and worldviews they embody. There is a lot of variation even within the narratives scholars have determined to be actual versions of the famous Biblical fable. How does the evolution of the story, with its embattled depiction of the relationship between humans and the divine, track our relationship with God and nature?
As part of Scientists in Synagogues, Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, VA hosted a multidisciplinary program looking at the flood from both a geological-historical and a comparative-literature perspective. The second scholar of the day was Dr. Kristine Henriksen Garroway. Dr. Garroway was appointed Visiting Assistant Professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religions Los Angeles Campus in 2011. She received her doctorate in the Hebrew Bible and Cognate Studies at HUC-JIR’s cincinnati campus in 2009, and she has spent time studying and researching in Israel, and has participated in excavations at Ashkelon, Tel Dor and Tel Dan. Dr. Garroway’s scholarship focuses on children using archaeology and texts of ancient Israel and Mesopotamia.Read Transcript
So I am not a scientist, I am a person who studies literature. So my presentation will be less on the scientific side and more on comparative literature. But the two, I think, speak to each other quite nicely. And so I’ll be piggybacking a little bit off of some of these things that Dr. Bruckner has already mentioned. So let’s get into it.
My question is: why do the gods destroy humans? So in a lot of these ancient texts that we’re going to be looking at, humans get destroyed, and there’s a question as to why the gods are doing that. I thought it was interesting that some of the pictures here – Dr. Bruckner also started off with some art. And I’ll note that often when you’re in a religious community, the Noah’s Ark story is told for children – like, what more could children want but a story about animals? And so there’s a story of the Ziz, who is a mythological creature from the Midrash. And we have a story, this is from the Green Bible, all about environmentalism. And then sometimes you get these disturbing images here, and you’re like “Ooh this is actually from a children’s Bible?”. There’s even a book about potty training on the ark, because how did the animals go to the bathroom? And so I mean, Noah’s Ark has been used so broadly in modern times to address children. But it was not originally a piece of literature for children.
So the reality is that it’s a disturbing tale of “do-overs.” We’re going to look at where did the story come from, and then we’re going to look at the history of the flood narratives. And so here, the important part is that we are mentioning flood narratives, plural. It’s not just one narrative, but there are multiple narratives. And this has already been stated, so I don’t need to dwell on this too much. Here we are – there’s a little map of the flood narratives in the Bible and Mesopotamia. So I’m gonna be addressing four different narratives today, we might even argue five different narratives. And as you can see, here our narratives all take place right around here in lower Mesopotamia, which we’ve seen some geological pictures of, but this is just a straight-up map.
Okay, so the Mesopotamian understanding of the world – how did the Mesopotamians think about the world? And here we have from the British Museum – and these are pictures I took when I visited a few years ago – is a tablet, and here it says it records the traditions of the flood stories. It’s a disc. And here, I’ll show you in just a minute, colored in, what it looks like. You know how we think of the world as a globe today, but what did the Babylonians think of it? It is a disc surrounded by a ring. So this is the ring, and then we have the “bitter-river.” And here is a bigger picture of this, so you see that, like a lot of ancient societies, they found themselves as the center of society and then the world existed around it. And what’s really interesting here is that the world for them was surrounded, encased, by waters, both above and below. And then there’s waters that flow through it. And then here’s the different ancient cities.
So again, getting into the Mesopotamian worldview, what does lower Mesopotamia look like? That area that I circled on the map, there’s a lot of marshes. So we are talking about a civilization from which literature comes from dealing with floods. And you can imagine if you lived in an area that looked like this, if these were your houses, water is very important, right. When we look at some of the earliest law codes, we have laws about boats. What happens if someone takes your boat? We have laws about canals – who can use a canal, who can’t use a canal? We have ownership of land. You can see here land is at a premium. So some of the bigger cities that Dr. Bruckner was showing are cities that are a little bit further inland. But there were people that lived on these marshy areas, and you can imagine that it doesn’t take much to get a flood, right. So you can have a little flood, but then if the big flood goes onto the larger land, this would be something that would stick in your historical memory.
Our first narrative: we’ll look at the Sumerian account, because this is the oldest account. Sumerian would be the first civilization, the civilization that created writing, and the civilization that we’re talking about at Warka or Uruk. So this is the first civilization. And the story here, our Noah, for the story, for the sake of familiarity, his name is Ziusudra. And we have copies of these texts from the 1600s BCE, but the story is much, much older. So you have to remember that even though things were written down, most things were oral tradition. iI much the same way as Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, are written to be sung – they’re epic poetry – these stories were oral tradition and passed down from generation to generation. In the Sumerian story, we have a Creation, then we have a Flood, we have an animal sacrifice, and then we have eternal life granted. A lot of these things sound familiar, except for that last part with the eternal life. But our character here is Ziusudra, and I put here a book – I’ll say it’s a relatively creative book, but not academically sound. I just wanted to point out that there are a lot of people very interested in Noah’s Ark. This particular author of this book is a Physics PhD, so coming in from all sorts of different angles, people are approaching this narrative.
All right, let’s move to our next one. So we have a Sumerian, we have copies of it from the 1600s, but it’s much older. And we have a fellow named Ziusudra. Our next narrative is the flood story and the Atrahasis epic. Here’s me with the Flood Tablet. And again, the flood tablet we know is a much older story. You can see here it says “Versions of the story are known from at least 1,000 years earlier,” and I think this little part over here is worth reading, because it’s amusing – “The cuneiform text on this clay tablet is startlingly similar to the Biblical story of Noah and his ark in the Book of Genesis. When George Smith, an assistant in the British Museum, first read this inscription in 1872, he ‘jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.’” (laughs)
So like King David, who gets so excited dancing before the ark – different ark – so too this scholar was so excited that he got up and started to run around and undress himself. So we have a different fellow here, we have Utnapishtim, so our Noah in the story here is Utnapishtim. And he again gets word from the gods “There’s going to be a flood, and the flood is going to destroy the earth, so make this ark so that you can survive again.” We see birds are released, we get the same idea that you send birds out and when none of the birds come back, then it’s safe to land.
But again, this story was found, right, it was copied, copied, copied, it was found in the 7th century BCE, but it’s at least 1,000 years earlier that we can find tiny little fragments of the story, but this is the largest chunk of the story that’s been found in one place.
What does the Artahasis Epic address? So we don’t have much information from the Sumerian, but from the Atrahasis epic, we have a problem. There are, at the beginning of the time, gods, we have greater gods and lesser gods, and the lesser gods are the worker gods, and the greater gods are the ones who sit up like the Greek gods on Mt. Olympus and just enjoy life. And the lesser gods were noisy, they were so disturbing that we needed to get rid of the noise. And so therefore, how do we get rid of the noise? We send a flood.
So you can imagine, you know, if any of you are parents who have spent time with children, and they can get very noisy, you just want it to stop. So here the greater gods wanted it to stop. And the solution was “Let’s just wipe them out.” Ea-Enki, who is our god that’s kind of on the side of the humans, the friend of the humans, passes a secret message to Atrahasis – we don’t know why he’s chosen, but he is – and he makes the ark. So now we have this flood and Atrahasis is on the ark, but the greater gods now get hungry, because they had a lot of work that’s not getting done. There’s no one making sacrifices to feed them, and they’re like “This really sucks, this was a bad idea, maybe we shouldn’t have been so rash.” So the solution is “Let’s create more humans to do some work.” But what about that noise issue? Here’s how they solve it.
And here are some texts from a translation of this book – if you’re interested in this kind of thing, it’s called Old Testament Parallels, and it gives you the ancient texts and then it gives you, alongside, some of the places in the Biblical text that are parallel, if you will. So the solution to the noise issue – population control, i.e. some women would be barren, explaining now why some women now cannot have children. Some women would be celibate priestesses – we don’t have this in the Jewish tradition, but in Mesopotamian tradition, there were priestesses who could not have children, they were celibate. And then we have the solution that some children would just die at birth. So this is explaining why the infant mortality rate in the ancient world was upwards of 50%. Why do children die? Well, the gods have decreed it, right. So the solution here, we’re now going to have humans who will feed us, great, but we’re going to institute these three methods of population control.
All right, narrative #3. I know we’re flying through this. Flood narrative in the Gilgamesh Epic. So here you can see, again, [it was] a very popular myth, it appears on cylinder seals. This is just a modern depiction, but this one here is an ancient cylinder seal. You can see the boat, you can see putting animals and such on it. Again, our problem: the gods are unhappy, solution: send a flood, same god, Ea-Enki: this is a bad idea, so let’s save a human. The human in the story who is saved is named Utnapishtim. He’s going to survive – not only will he survive, but he will get eternal life. But because he’s so different from everybody who will come after him, he has to live by himself outside of the bounds of the human realm, because the rest of the humans will live and die – they’ll be mortal – but Utnapishtim will survive and get eternal life.
Here, again, is just a little snippet from the Gilgamesh epic. Gilgamesh goes to visit Utnapishtim because he’s trying to figure out how to get eternal life. And it says “Tell me, Utnapishtim, how did you and your wife become immortal, how did you join the divine assembly?
And then we get this: “Well, Gilgamesh, let me tell you a story, the story of a divine conspiracy.”
So here the plan for the flood is articulated as a conspiracy, a plot to exterminate humanity. And then we have the names of the gods –“ Anu, Enlil, and Ninurta convened a divine assembly which decided to flood the earth…” Only one god decided to save humans and to oppose it, who was named Ea. Because Ea didn’t want to get in trouble with the other gods, he just kind of stood outside my house and whispered what the gods were going to do, and I overheard it and I gained the knowledge to build this Ark and float away. So again, seeing how the flood is articulated, the reason behind it.
Our last narratives, and here I have narratives #4 and #5, are the flood narrative in the Bible. And I’ll explain why I say “flood narratives,” plural, in the Biblical text. So I don’t know if you’ve ever read parts of the Bible and thought “Well, why do we have multiple stories?” Or, [for example] if you notice that Abraham passes his wife off, Sarah, as his sister twice. We have stories where they seem to repeat themselves. Sometimes we have God referred to as God, sometimes we have God referred to in the Torah as God’s special divine name, Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, the name that can’t be pronounced. And in English translations that’s often capitalized as “LORD.” Why two names for God?
So all of these different sorts of things have led Biblical scholarship to suggest that there were sources that created the Biblical text. And what I’m about to talk about now assumes that there are sources that have created the Biblical text. And we can see these sources with Noah’s Ark. So here one author is the “J author” and one author is the “P author.” The J author is the Yahwist author – so the fellow who created this, his name was Velhausen. He was German, J being for Yahweh in German. And P [is] for “the priestly writer.”
Think to yourself, how do the animals get into the ark? We all know the story, they come – what, hold your hand up. Okay, I’m seeing two by two. Why did God send the Flood? Do you have an idea in your mind why God sent the Flood? Why did God pick Noah? Okay, so think of these things, and now let’s look. We have two stories that have been meshed into one story. Problem: not that humans are too noisy, but that there is wickedness and evil in man’s heart. The problem: the earth is corrupt and full of violence. So two different problems. So scholars have seen these as evidence of two sources. Issue: God repents of making humans, which is theologically troublesome; how could God repent of his creation? Um, I’m not the rabbi in the room, so if you have questions about that, I think you can ask Rav Natan. Solution: destroy humans, solution: God will destroy but start over. Why Noah? “Noah found favor in God’s eyes,” versus “Noah is righteous and walks with God.”
Now, you might say “Okay, well one of these, you know, these two kind of link together,” but when we get to the animals, now we see in one narrative, Noah is to take seven pairs of clean animals, one pair of each unclean animal, and seven male and seven female birds. That’s not two by two. Hmm. In this P narrative, every animal comes together, two by two, then they walk into the ark two by two, right. So this is the story that we often hear, especially a lot of the kids stories. How did the animals come? They came two by two. But here in the J narrative, we get a different number of animals coming down to the ark.
And then the aftermath of the flood: in one narrative, God is smelling the sweet aroma of the sacrifice. And in the P narrative, God provides the Noahide covenant, the covenant he makes with Noah, and then we get the rainbow, the keshet, as the evidence of this.
All right, so if we compare all of these flood narratives, what’s the upshot? The similarities we have: we have a divine being who desires to bring about a flood and destroy the earth. Divine being decides to save one human, or a family, for the re-do. Human builds ark, animals come on ark, flood covers earth for a certain number of days and nights. Divine being stops flood, humans survive, offer sacrifice, divine being is once again happy.
So this is a skeletal outline that we see that goes throughout the different Mesopotamian texts and also throughout the Biblical texts. Differences: the reason for destroying creation. In the Mesopotamian texts: all the humans were noisy, the humans were bothersome. In the Bible: humans were sinful and had evil intentions. Reason for picking said surviving human: Mesopotamian text, human was just the friend of the gods, or was just the chosen one, versus in the Biblical text, the human was morally upright and worthy of survival. Reaction of the divinity post-flood: “the gods were ravenous and devoured the sacrificial food,” vs. “God found the aroma of the sacrifice sweet and God’s anger was sated.” Outcome for the humans post-flood? Humans have population limits versus, in the Bible, humans get a covenant with God, right.
So there’s some very stark differences. Now, whether or not we’re talking about the same flood or multiple floods or whatever, we have this flood literature floating around in the ancient world that’s being retold by people, groups in a similar geographical area. So why? What can we see in Genesis? We can see Genesis as a reaction to the flood literature. So imagine we have a myth that you’re surrounded with, and you are the Israelites, and you also want to have that myth, but you want to make that myth a little different. You want to give a rationale to that myth.
So here we have many different ancient near-Eastern societies that had flood narratives. Israel’s not alone, but Israel’s story is different. So in a worldview, right, in the Mesopotamian and the ancient Near Eastern worldview, divinities act like people. They have families, they have arguments, they have favorites, they get upset. These divinities are not driven by the morals and ethics that we see in the Biblical God. So the authors of the Hebrew Bible here, I think, are making a point: the god of Israel acts morally, the God of Israel is ethical, the God of Israel doesn’t have a family that God is arguing with that says “You do this, you do that.” And the God of Israel doesn’t just make these decisions that instantly God regrets, right.
So I would suggest that how we might situate the Biblical text in the midst of all these other ancient Near Eastern flood texts is to understand that either the Israelites were not necessarily co-opting a flood text, but had this text as part of their cultural memory, but wanted to ensure that the text that was part of their cultural memory was also putting forth the ideas and beliefs behind which they stood. And with that, I will say thank you and end.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This is the first half of an adult education program on Parshat Noach at Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, VA).