Atra-Hasis 18th-century BC is an Akkadian epic , recorded in various versions on clay tablets ,  named for its protagonist, Atrahasis 'exceedingly wise'. The Atra-Hasis tablets include both a creation myth and one of three surviving Babylonian flood myths. The name "Atra-Hasis" also appears, as king of Shuruppak in the times before a flood, on one of the Sumerian King Lists. However, various Old Babylonian fragments exist, and the epic continued to be copied into the first millennium BC. The story of Atrahasis also exists in a later Assyrian version, first rediscovered in the Library of Ashurbanipal , though its translations have been uncertain due to the artifact being in fragmentary condition and containing ambiguous words. Nonetheless, its fragments were first assembled and translated by George Smith as The Chaldean Account of Genesis , the hero of which having his name corrected to Atra-Hasis by Heinrich Zimmern in
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The biblical flood story Genesis has certainly taken a beating over the last two or three centuries. The problems began in earnest once geologists realized that a literal submersion of the entire earth in water is contradicted by clear scientific evidence. Maybe the biblical story is just a plagiarized version of these older stories?
I am going to focus on the theological issues raised by the older flood stories from Mesopotamia. The similarities between these stories and the biblical story are well known, striking, and incontrovertible.
The version we have probably dates to about the seventeenth century BC, and it is a retelling of a story that is certainly older. Part of this story recounts a flood. The gods had created humans to be their slave laborer. But they were becoming too noisy, and this disturbed the gods.
The god Enlil decreed that humans should be destroyed in a flood. Atrahasis, through the help of the god Ea, escapes the wrath of Enlil by building a large boat in which to save humanity. Humans failed to respect the distance the gods had put between them; they were not being what they were created to be.
Also, the earliest versions of this epic did not even include a flood story. Adapting older stories is an important point for us to keep in mind as we think of the biblical flood story. This same pattern is at work in the biblical flood story. The biblical story is also a reworking of older, well-known themes for a fresh purpose. Gilgamesh survives in twelve tablets, and the eleventh recounts the flood.
After the death of his dear friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh takes a journey to find the secret of immortality. This quest leads him to track down the hero of this version of the flood story, Utnapishtim. Maybe he has the answer. Alas, Gilgamesh does not find the immortality he sought, but amid his conversations with Utnapishtim, the flood story is recounted to him in some detail.
There you have the basic outline of these two stories. Perhaps they may not seem to connect too closely with the biblical flood story. The following summarizes the similarities: 1. But for us, it is not necessary to ponder whether Genesis is dependent on these ancient Mesopotamian stories. The various flood stories simply share common ways of speaking about a horrible flood of some sort. It is a common scholarly view that either a severe local flood around B.
Most biblical scholars understand these ancient stories as attempts to explain why such a thing could happen. The answer: the gods were angry. The similarities are clear, but the theology of the biblical story goes off in fresh directions. We will begin looking at that next. This week we will focus on some of the theological distinctives of the biblical story. Like all ancient flood stories, the version in Genesis is trying to say something distinct.
The Israelites were making a point about God, not simply relaying meteorological information. It is important to keep in mind both the similarities and differences between the biblical and other ancient flood stories. The distinct elements of Genesis carry forward its theological message, all the while working within the familiar conventions of the time. Perhaps what is most distinct about the Genesis story is the reason given for the flood.
There have been numerous attempts throughout the history of biblical interpretation to make sense of it. This view was popular among Christians throughout much of church history, especially through the influence of St.
In recent generations, however, our growing knowledge of ancient Near Eastern mythology suggests a third option. These divine beings were cohabiting with human women, i. What, then, is the theological point of this episode? Divine and human creatures occupy different space in the created order; they are different types of beings with different realms. Cohabitation between them obliterates the boundaries established at creation. Human rebellion, which began in the Garden 1 , had continued escalating to an intolerable point.
This meant, as mentioned above, a reintroduction of the chaos waters followed by the restoration of order through Noah and his family. Creation had become chaotic, its very opposite. So God begins again. When seen from this perspective, the flood is not a divine fit or an overreaction.
The biblical flood story must be understood in the context of what humans were created to be. He formed the first man from dust and breathed life into him, rather than forming him out of the blood of the slain god Kingu. Humanity is the chief of creation, not a class of slaves so the gods can be in repose. Humanity was to subdue the earth and rule over it , which also has very clear royal overtones. Their downfall, and the cause of the flood, was in their failure to live up to this high and honored status.
Though made in the image of God, they chose their own path. The Israelites adapted the well-known ancient Near Eastern flood motif. The similarities are clear and universally accepted by biblical scholars. The old story—with its ancient ways of thinking about the cosmos—became a new vehicle for talking about their God and what made him different.
The truth of the biblical flood story is not found in how accurately it reports actual geological events. It is found in the theological message understood in its ancient setting. When we place the biblical flood story and the other versions side-by-side, the polemical nature of the biblical flood story is clear. Yes, the biblical story is a distinct piece of theology. It offers a very different view of God and the role of humanity. It is virtually certain that one or more local floods in Mesopotamia—perhaps around B.
Of course, for the ancient writer of Genesis, the world was a much smaller, flatter place. To interpret the Genesis flood as a complete global catastrophe is a modern imposition onto an ancient story. Ancients simply did not think of the earth in that way. Apart from the well-documented scientific problems with this approach, it expects a worldview that Genesis is not prepared to deliver.
But what about the dozens of flood stories found throughout the ancient world, not only in Mesopotamia? The presence of flood stories from various time periods in other parts of the ancient world e.
These stories simply reflect the ubiquity of floods in antiquity and the devastation that massive ones would bring. The fact that the world flood stories are so different from each other reflects how each culture told the story of their local floods in their own way.
That fact that the biblical version is strikingly similar to the Mesopotamian versions, as we have seen, reflects the cultural connections between these peoples. The differences between them reflect their different theologies. The Israelite version is a statement of theological independence from the older stories of the superpower nations around them. The common medium of a well-known flood story was used by the Israelites for its own purpose.
For both contextual and scientific reasons, the biblical flood story is clearly not a statement of vital historical information. It is a powerful expression of theological identity among the other peoples of the world. I understand this does not satisfy everyone.
Some feel that for the flood story to have any theological value for readers today, it must be historical in nature. I hope this is not the case. We will have erected an impassable obstruction between the present state of knowledge, scientific and biblical, and any hope of a viable Christian faith that is connected to the Bible.
A position that claims the necessity of historicity throughout Genesis is not the default position of faith. It is an hypothesis, as much as any other, only without much explanatory force given the current state of knowledge. That hypothesis is based on certain assumption. These assumptions are unwarranted, and I think entirely indefensible. To nip in the bud a predictable objection: the slippery slope argument does not hold here.
To say that the flood story is fundamentally more story than history does not mean that the crucifixion and resurrection are also unhistorical. Genesis and the Gospels are different types of literature written at very different times for very different reasons. Failing to make such basic genre distinction is perhaps at the root of some of the conflict over Genesis. Translations of these stories are not hard to find.
One convenient and affordable source is B. Arnold and B. The precise reasons for the flood have been a debated point in the history of interpretation, and this is not the place to work that out.
On this, see John H. In these challenging times, people are feeling isolated more than ever. And misinformation in this crisis will cost lives. BioLogos is one of the few sources that brings together reliable science and biblical faith on the coronavirus. Help us bring quality, accurate information to the church and the world.
Myth of Atrahasis