The Flood in the Ancient Near East

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)

Forty is a common span of time in the Old Testament – spans of forty days and forty years occur with noteworthy frequency in the text. This becomes obvious if one listens or reads the Old Testament regularly and in its entirety. Forty was a formulaic number in Hebrew writing. Rhetorical use of numbers is not limited to time. The dimensions of the ark or boat provide another example of numbers selected for rhetorical effect rather than mathematical precision. In this case, truth is conveyed in the meaning of the rhetorical constructs understood by the original audience. Truth is not confined to realism.

A real flood. John and Tremper are convinced that a real flood lies behind both the biblical and Mesopotamian accounts. This flood would have occurred some time prior to 3200 BC in a time when writing was only just beginning to emerge, perhaps around this time, but probably earlier. The similarities between the accounts reflect the common cultural knowledge of the event. To claim that Genesis simply borrowed from the Mesopotamian stories doesn’t do justice to the cultural environment of the ancient Near East. They conclude:

We believe the story goes back to a period well before the invention of writing and, therefore, the advent of literature. In the far distant past (though we are unable to date it now) a devastating flood killed many people … we do not believe the flood was worldwide, but we do believe it was particularly devastating. We don’t think it is possible to date the event, locate the event, or reconstruct the event in our own terms. That is not a problem because the event itself, with which everyone in the Near East is familiar, is not what is inspired. What is inspired and thus the vehicle of God’s revelation is the literary-theological explanation that is given by the biblical author. We are interested in how the compiler of Genesis used the flood and how he described what God was doing in and with the flood. (p. 85)

Because the event occurred in the distant past, the story of the flood was originally passed down orally long before it was written up in any form, generation after generation after generation. “This story was passed down orally and then eventually in written form through the generations, and it became a very important vehicle to deliver a significant theological message.” (p. 86) The story may have been put together using literary sources, this is clearly true in other parts of the Bible (Chronicles, Kings, Luke provide three examples). This has no real impact on our understanding of inspiration – which can apply to the editorial use of material as readily as it applies to the composition of new material.

⇒Historical event in distant memory

⇒Oral tradition

⇒Rhetorical language

⇒Theological message

The theological message of the Genesis account should be our primary focus. “How the narrator interpreted the flood tradition stands as the authoritative message of the text.” (p. 87)

The images above are of a cuneiform tablet with the flood story ca. 1750 BC and a Babylonian map of the world ca. 500-700 BC both in the British Museum where I spent a too short, but thoroughly enjoyable afternoon several years ago.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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