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A Foray into Myth: The Origins of the Genesis Flood Story

Of the portions of Genesis before and after the tower of Babel story, Richard H Moye writes that it is “commonly acknowledged that the first part is predominantly mythical, whereas the second is more nearly historical – or at least something between legend and history.”[1] Many cultures hold legends similar to the Biblical flood and surrounding events (6-11), such as the Greek story of Deucalion and the deluge sent by Zeus, or the Irish tale of Mongán and the flooding of the Lough Foyle.[2] Some patterns can be recognized in these accounts, as they are inextricably connected to ideas of origin. As Enid Peschel says, “deluge and creation myths are frequently linked, since the flood’s destruction often leads to a kind of purified creation.”[3] The obvious poster-children for such topics are the Hebrew and Babylonian renditions of the flood epic. How their myths came about, which came first, what evolution they went through on the way, and what insight they might shed on the moral and religious beliefs of the cultures, is simultaneously an intriguing and convoluted enterprise to explore.
It must be acknowledged that copious amounts of borrowing and adaptation occur as different peoples interact with each other. In modern times unique flood myths have been observed expressing moral messages in colonial Africa.[4] In New Zealand, ancient Maori legends involving gods and boats were adapted to reflect the Noachic flood story amidst the “acculturative stress” following the arrival of Western missionaries. Ironically, they were promulgated largely in reaction to the new comers, encouraging the righteous to resist the quickly-spreading evil of Christianity.[5] The Irish stories, too, were adapted after Christianization to reflect the Biblical deluge.[6] And, in an extreme case of cross-cultural myth sharing, Thomas Dann Heald, in an otherwise ludicrous 1944 essay on supposed connections between Biblical and Australian Aboriginal creation myth, appeals to his peers in assuming that “the Australian ceremonies are held to have come originally from Mesopotamia and or Egypt.”[7]
Determining the genealogy of these traditions is difficult, as observed by Emil Kraeling: “The process is much more complicated than mere ‘borrowing.’ There are intermediate stages of transition in which materials can get reshuffled, refashioned, and even metamorphosed to a point where recognition of their origin is difficult.”[8] This cross-cultural complexity is reflected by the ambitious efforts of the documentary hypothesis to explain the diversity internal to the Torah alone.
The Babylonian flood story as told in the Gilgamesh Epic is the conspicuous starting point for any project seeking to explain the origins of Jewish myth. The parallels are simply too many to deny: the boat, the birds, landing on a mountain, the move to Babylon, the construction of a city and tower, etc. Kraeling cautions, however, that
“the entire scope and meaning of the flood-story is not to be discerned in the Gilgamesh Epic, where it has been abridged at the beginning and at the end to suit the purpose of that epic, but only from the version of Berossos who clearly knew it in its original form. There the survival of civilization is the theme.”[9]
Berossos was a 3rd century B.C.E. Babylonian historian.
In any event, seeing as the earliest existing versions of the Epic were composed as before 2000 B.C.E., it surely pre-dates the written Biblical record. The earliest Jawhist author of Genesis (Designated J1), who wrote the Babel story of 11:2-9 (Verse 1 is considered a later appendage), is generally held to have compiled his tale some time before the rise of the Neo-Assyrian empire (Circa 10th century B.C.E.), and furthermore to have been unaware of the flood myth as told by the other sources J2 and P.[10] However Kraeling argues that J1 was aware of a flood story, because “the people who in 11:2 are worried about becoming scattered must have escaped a great calamity” and if there were
no flood “the migration mentioned in 11:2 would have no explanation.”[11] He goes on to explore various possibilities as to what the earlier myth J1 was operating from might entail, even going so far as to suggest that not Noah but Terah (Seen in Genesis only as Abram’s father) might have been a name demoted from its original position as the flood epic’s hero, perhaps an abridged form of “Atrahasis,” the main character in the Babylonian rendition.[12]
Kraeling cites the story of the Nephilim and Jehoviah’s displeasure in 6:1-4 as the “earliest explanation of why the Flood was sent” and as a suitable background for all of J1, J2, and P’s stories. At this point it is philosophically interesting to contrast this with the Babylonian myth. Kaeling explores this for us:
“It seems clear that the Babylonian Flood story was not introduced in this fashion [with the displeasure of a diety]. The Babylonian explanation for the flood could have been totally amoral and mythological, while the Hebrew mind assumed that the judge of all the earth acted justly (cf. J2 Gen 18:24).”[13]
And thus we find an underlying disparity between the two cultures’ interpretation of the story’s meaning.
While the stories may differ philosophically, they both agree in the respect that they are Babylon-centric after the flood. Borrosos’ story, being Babylonian in origin, is concerned with Babylonians returning to and rebuilding Babylon, while the Hebrew tale requires Noah and his sons to create civilization from scratch.[14] Nonetheless we find ourselves in Babylon as the center of activity in the Noachic tale. This seems counterintuitive to our expectation that a legend original to a people will concern that people, and is a further indication that the original story was Mesopotamian in origin, adopted later in the west. Similarly, the Jahwist states in 11:2 that the people who inhabited Babylon migrated out of the west (As opposed to from Mt. Nisir in the north), which naturally was in accordance with Assyrian views (Who were situated north-west of Babylon). This can be reconciled with the Mt. Ararat rendition presented by P, in which the ark lands in the north, and the descendents of Shem travel first south to the vicinity of Mt. Nisir and then west to Harran (This inferred from the close correlation of names in the genealogy to geographical locations). [15]
If nothing else, this foray into ancient anthropology should give us an appreciation for how difficult it is to determine our own history. The myths propagated by the ancients were an attempt to make sense of a past they knew all too little about, just like this paper is an attempt to make sense of a past of which we have limited record. In our efforts to find sensible patterns, a plethora of bogus hypotheses are generated, such as Heald’s essay which I mentioned as being “ludicrous.” Today we live in an age of tremendous diversity, which increases awareness of our lack of understanding, but in which one third of Americans still believe in ridiculous notions such as the lost continent of Atlantis.[16] As such, I would conclude with the potent statement by theologian Ellen Davis: “’The hermeneutics of suspicion’ has become a byword in contemporary biblical scholarship, the chief object being the text itself, viewed as a social product… It is well to begin by suspecting our own interpretations.” [17]
Postscript: In the spirit of intellectual honestly I should probably note that my main source material for this exploration was terribly outdated, and doubtless much of it is obsolete. For example, from skimming Wikipedia I get the feeling that Kraeling’s perspective has been accepted, and there is no longer held to be a distinction between J1 and J2, among other things. I could be mistaken on either of these points. Needless to say I would need to do much more research to form any semblance of an authoritative opinion on the matter.
1. Moye, 580.
2. Carey, 33.
3. Peschel, 116.
4. Earthy, 232.
5. Peschel, 120.
6. Carey, 34.
7. Heald, 87.
8. Kraeling, 279.
9. Kraeling, 281.
10. Ibid, 280.
11. Ibid, 285.
12. Kraeling, 292.
13. Ibid, 286.
14. Ibid, 282.
15. Kraeling, 290.
16. Shermer, 35.
17. Davis, 16.

  • * John Carey. “A British Myth of Origins?” History of Religions, Vol. 31, No. 1 (August, 1991): 24-38. JSTOR, accessed 29/09/2008.
  • * Ellen F. Davis. “Teaching the Bible Confessionally in the Church.” The Art of Reading Scripture. Edited by Ellen F. Davis & Richard B. Hays. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003.
  • * E. Dora Earthy. “A Probably Creation- and Flood-Myth in Portuguese East Africa.” Numen, Vol. 4, Fasc. 3 (September, 1957): 232-234. JSTOR, accessed 29/09/2008.
  • * Thomas Dann Heald. “The Earlier Form of the Genesis Stories of the Beginning.” Folklore, Vol. 55, No. 3 (September, 1944): 87-103. JSTOR, accessed 29/09/2008.
  • * Emil G. Kraeling. “The Earliest Hebrew Flood Story.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 66, No. 3 (September, 1947): 279-293. JSTOR, accessed 29/09/2008.
  • * Richard H. Moye. “In the Beginning: Myth and History in Genesis and Exodus.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 109, No. 4 (Winter, 1990): 577-598. JSTOR, accessed 29/09/2008.
  • * Enid Rhodes Peschel. “Structural Parallels in Two Flood Myths: Noah and the Maori.” Folklore, Vol. 82, No. 2 (Summer, 1971): 116-123. JSTOR, accessed 29/09/2008.
  • * Michael Shermer. How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000.

[This paper was written for the class HONS215H Scripture at Andrews University, 01 October, 2008. I’ve been up all night writing it, so I’m going to run off and catch a few winks before class this morning. Siggy.]

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