Nature of Scripture pt. 1: Atra-hasis and the Epic of Gilgamesh

The goal of this first post is to publicize the two mythic stories and casually notice the similarities that exist within our story of the flood found in Genesis 6-9. I’m not making any polemical or theological statements just yet. The questions raised at the end of the blog are genuine and not meant to convey any ulterior motives. I did not include the biblical flood account because I’m assuming the readers of this post know the story well. The next few blogs will be some thoughts and ideas I’ve been musing over for about nine months now. They include Creation, myths, Evolution, Science, the doctrine on Innerancy, and some other convergent topics found within my mind.

Atrahasis (1800 BC -1701 BC)

Flee the house, build a boat,
forsake possessions, and save life.
[i.c25] The boat which you build
… be equal …

Pure animals he slaughtered, cattle …
Fat animals he killed. Sheep …
he choose and and brought on board.
[ii.35] The birds flying in the heavens,
the cattle and the … of the cattle god

… his family was brought on board.
While one was eating an another was drinking,
[ii.45] he went in and out; he could not sit, could not kneel,
for his heart was broken, he wat retching gall.

He brought pitch to seal his door.

[iii.5] … the storm
… were yoked
Anzu rent the sky with his talons,
He … the land
[iii.10] and broke its clamor like a pot.
… the flood came forth.
Its power came upn the peoples like a battle,
one person did not see another,
they could not recognize each other in the catastrophe.
[iii.15] The deluge belowed like a bull,
The wind resounded like a screaming eagle.
The darkness was dense, the sun was gone,
… like flies.
[iii.20] the clamor of the deluge.

Gilgamesh (2500 B.C.) Tablet 11

Utanapishtim spoke to Gilgamesh, saying: “I will reveal to you, Gilgamesh, a thing that is hidden, a secret of the gods I will tell you! Shuruppak, a city that you surely know, situated on the banks of the Euphrates, that city was very old, and there were gods inside it. The hearts of the Great Gods moved them to inflict the Flood. Their Father Anu uttered the oath (of secrecy), Valiant Enlil was their Adviser, Ninurta was their Chamberlain, Ennugi was their Minister of Canals. Ea, the Clever Prince, was under oath with them so he repeated their talk to the reed house: ‘Reed house, reed house! Wall, wall! O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubartutu: Tear down the house and build a boat! Abandon wealth and seek living beings! Spurn possessions and keep alive living beings! Make all living beings go up into the boat. The boat which you are to build, its dimensions must measure equal to each other: its length must correspond to its width. Roof it over like the Apsu. I understood and spoke to my lord, Ea: ‘My lord, thus is the command which you have uttered I will heed and will do it.

The boat was finished by sunset. The launching was very difficult. They had to keep carrying a runway of poles front to back, until two-thirds of it had gone into the water. Whatever I had I loaded on it: whatever silver I had I loaded on it, whatever gold I had I loaded on it. All the living beings that I had I loaded on it, I had all my kith and kin go up into the boat, all the beasts and animals of the field and the craftsmen I had go up.

Six days and seven nights came the wind and flood, the storm flattening the land. When the seventh day arrived, the storm was pounding, the flood was a war–struggling with itself like a woman writhing (in labor). The sea calmed, fell still, the whirlwind (and) flood stopped up. I looked around all day long–quiet had set in and all the human beings had turned to clay! The terrain was as flat as a roof. I opened a vent and fresh air (daylight!) fell upon the side of my nose. I fell to my knees and sat weeping, tears streaming down the side of my nose. I looked around for coastlines in the expanse of the sea, and at twelve leagues there emerged a region (of land). On Mt. Nimush the boat lodged firm, Mt. Nimush held the boat, allowing no sway. One day and a second Mt. Nimush held the boat, allowing no sway. A third day, a fourth, Mt. Nimush held the boat, allowing no sway. A fifth day, a sixth, Mt. Nimush held the boat, allowing no sway. When a seventh day arrived I sent forth a dove and released it. The dove went off, but came back to me; no perch was visible so it circled back to me. I sent forth a swallow and released it. The swallow went off, but came back to me; no perch was visible so it circled back to me. I sent forth a raven and released it. The raven went off, and saw the waters slither back. It eats, it scratches, it bobs, but does not circle back to me.

Similarities between the older mythological accounts and the Biblical account found in Genesis 6-9

  • a flood and building a huge boat by divine command;
  • pitch seals the boat;
  • the boat is built to precise dimensions (the biblical boat is much larger);
  • clean and unclean animals come on board;
  • a Noah figure and his family are saved (Gilgamesh includes some others);
  • the boat comes to rest on a mountain;
  • a raven and doves were sent out (Gilgamesh includes a swallow);
  • animals will fear humans;
  • the deity/deities smell the pleasing aroma of the sacrifices afterwards;
  • a sign of an oath is given (lapis lazuli necklace for Gilgamesh).

The oldest copies of the Hebrew Scriptures we have are from the Dead Sea Scrolls which were discovered a few hundred years before the time of Christ.When it comes to our Scripture, we do not have any document that predates about 300 years before Christ came. Numerous scholars believe The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Atrahasis were penned hundreds (some have said thousands) of years before the Genesis account. To say Genesis came first is a matter of faith…even blind faith. Is it a possible that the Biblical account has preisraelite origins? Was Noah a real historical person? What does it do for the doctrine of Innerancy if biblical authors borrowed or used various stories from other cultures? Can one trust the Bible if it appears to be more human than divine?

Manuscript Examples Language Date of Composition Oldest Copy
Dead Sea Scrolls Tanakh at Qumran Hebrew, Paleo Hebrew and Greek(Septuagint) c. 150 BCE – 70 CE c. 150 BCE – 70 CE
Septuagint Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus and other earlier papyri Greek 300-100 BCE 2nd century BCE(fragments)
4th century CE(complete)
Peshitta   Syriac   early 5th century CE
Vulgate   Latin   early 5th century CE
Masoretic Aleppo Codex, Leningrad Codex and other incomplete mss Hebrew ca. 100 CE 10th century CE
Samaritan Pentateuch   Samaritan alphabet 200-100 BCE Oldest extant mss c.11th century CE, oldest mss available to scholars 16th century CE
Targum   Aramaic 500-1000 CE 5th century CE

4 responses to “Nature of Scripture pt. 1: Atra-hasis and the Epic of Gilgamesh

  1. I am interested in whatever further musings you have on this topic.

    If the biblical scriptures are in any way borrowed, why do they differ from those they borrow from?
    And, in what way did they borrow?

    Keep us tuned in, i’m interested

    • I’m not sure why they would be edited in such a way. They would obviously be abridged to fit a more monotheistic leaning. They could serve as an apologetic polemic against the surrounding cultures. Based upon the plethora of creation myths in various cultures found in Mesopotamia, a large flood took place somewhere in the region that caused a copious amount of devastation. The pagan, polytheistic cultures attribute it to some sort of Theomachy or the capricious whim of pantheon of gods. The Israelites could merely be taking and editing the stories to reveal the ultimate cause and purpose of the flood to be Yahweh and his displeasure with mankind and their wickedness. It then would be a corrective document. We have to at least admit that Moses (if he actually wrote the Torah) or the exilic or postexilic writers were not there for this great deluge. It is either a product of stories passed down orally (in multiple cultures because they all contain a flood account) or some dictated, inspired piece of literature. I will admit though, a dictation style of inspiration has much more in common with Islam than Christianity. The Christian view of inspiration is both dynamically divine and yet human. God using men with their thoughts, culture, beliefs, and literary tools to convey a heavenly message of truth. The general themes of the myths are what’s comparable. Some even believe the sending out of the birds to find dry land is a direct act of borrowing or accommodation.

      • If edited, I am wondering what criterion they used to edit/correct. What theories are offered and which are most probable or plausible? Or do we simply say they might have corrected, and corrected (from our Christian perspective) correctly?

        What period(s) do you think the Pentateuch was written, or at least Genesis? I ask because this changes the way we should look at it, so I’m wondering which understanding we are using about authorship before I ask anything.

      • I think it’s absolutely impossible to determine what criteria they used or would have used because we lack any extant Hebrew writings from this time. All we have is Scripture and later Pseudepigraphal, rabbinic, or later documents. The best we can come up with would be various ANE writings from the same period I suppose. I’m not sure how we could determine if they corrected correctly without knowing the mind and methodology of the author or someone during that time. We do not know their hermeneutic, intention, or even their identity (unless we assume it‘s Moses based upon later traditions). Most would place the dating to either during the monarchy to post-exilic times. It’s debated so I really do not know. That’s definitely late for the conservative though. We have to rely on faith to say Moses sat down and actually penned the book. I think Mosaic authorship is a valid option but the position must deal with some of the skepticism raised by naysayers (The author explains things the original hearers already would’ve known, it includes an account of Moses’ death, it refers to Moses in 3rd person, and it makes odd statements [ascribing greatness] to Moses i.e, he is the most humble man on earth [Num. 12:3]).

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