The next two propositions in The Lost World of the Flood by Tremper Longman and John Walton compare the flood story in Mesopotamian literature with the story found in Genesis 6-9. Outside of Genesis, there are several known versions of a flood story – Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian versions. The flood is also referred to in the Sumerian King List where the succession is split into pre-flood and post-flood periods.
There are similarities and differences among and between all of the versions. Walton and Longman suggest that none of the accounts, including the biblical account, are interested in the specific details of the flood. They are all interested in the interpretation of the event … why the flood happened and its impact on the world. The Genesis account is both similar and different in significant ways. Several are discussed in the book, I’ll only highlight a couple here.
Genesis depicts one God, YHWH, in control. He decrees the flood in response to moral corruption on the part of humankind. YHWH provides the warning that saves Noah and his family. In the Mesopotamian accounts the flood is decreed by one god while complete destruction is thwarted by another. Humanity was to be destroyed because they were a noisy nuisance but the action was regretted because the gods needed humans for food and care – otherwise they’d have to work themselves. YHWH doesn’t need humanity, but does establish a covenant with Noah and his descendants. God desires relationship with humans created in his image.
The flood is depicted as having cosmic proportions and the telling uses universalistic rhetoric. Genesis is stronger in this regard than the Mesopotamian accounts. Tremper and John conclude: “The widespread nature of the destruction is indicated by the use of univeralistic rhetoric well-known for cataclysmic events, especially of a cosmic nature, in the ancient world.” (p. 71) The flood is longer in the biblical account than in the Mesopotamian accounts (forty days compared with seven days) but in all cases the numbers have rhetorical significance. They are not intended to convey specific details of an actual event.
All of these are identifiably formulaic numbers that consistently carry rhetorical value. … the fact remains that the evidence from the ancient world and biblical usage indicates that we are not to read these time frames as specific or precise designations of actual time spans. We cannot reconstruct how long the rain lasted or the length of the aftermath of the flood from the information given; instead it is designed to convey the massive scope of the cataclysm. (p. 71)