Genesis 8 Summary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
NOTE ON THE FLOOD NARRATIVE
I. “The original Babylonian Flood story is often treated as purely mythical, spun out of light (Usener, Die Sintflutsagen, pp. 185 ff.), moon (Böklen, Archiv f. Religionswissenschaft, vi. p. 5 f.), astral (Jensen, Gilgamesh Epos in der Weltgeschichte, i. passim), or other motives. There is certainly a large mythical element in the tale (e.g. the actions of the different gods). But the personal and local names (Ut-napishtim, Shurippak, Nizir), and the nautical descriptions and details, would argue for a certain basis in fact. There seems no real reason to doubt that the story has grown up around the tradition of some great inundation, perhaps accompanied by a cyclonic storm, that overwhelmed the city of Shurippak (cf. Ed. Süss, Das Antlitz der Erde, i. 25 ff. ap. Andrée, Die Flutsagen, pp. 11 ff.), only a few persons escaping on an ark resembling the pitch-covered barges still seen in use on the Euphrates (cf. Lady Anne Blount, Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates, i. 166). In an alluvial land like Babylonia, such catastrophes were only too liable to occur. Thus Strabo tells of a great rising of the sea in Egypt, near Pelusium, in his own day, which overflowed the land, ‘and converted Mt Casius into an island, so that a journey from Casius into Phoenicia might have been taken by water’ (i. iii. 17). Andrée quotes records of many similar destructive catastrophes in more recent times ( op. cit. pp. 143 ff.).” (Gordon’s Early Traditions of Genesis, p. 193, n. 1.)
II. The following brilliant and rapid summary of the Babylonian Flood story is taken from Skinner (p. 175).
“Of the Babylonian story the most complete version is contained in the eleventh Tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic [discovered by G. Smith, in 1872, among the ruins of Asshur-banipal’s library; published 1873 4; and often translated since]. Gilgamesh has arrived at the Isles of the Blessed to inquire of his ancestor Utnapishtim how he had been received into the society of the gods. The answer is the long and exceedingly graphic description of the Flood which occupies the bulk of the Tablet. The hero relates how, while he dwelt at Shurippak on the Euphrates, it was resolved by the gods in council to send the Flood ( abûbu) on the earth. Êa, who had been present at the council, resolved to save his favourite Utnapishtim; and contrived without overt breach of confidence to convey to him a warning of the impending danger, commanding him to build a ship ( elippu) of definite dimensions for the saving of his life. The ‘superlatively clever one’ ( Atra-ḥasis, a name of Utnapishtim) understood the message and promised to obey; and was furnished with a misleading pretext to offer his fellow-citizens for his extraordinary proceedings. The account of the building of the ship (ll. 48 ff.) is even more obscure than Gen 6:14-16: it is enough to say that it was divided into compartments and was freely smeared with bitumen. The lading of the vessel, and the embarking of the family and dependants of Utnapishtim (including artizans), with domestic and wild animals, are then described (ll. 81 ff.); and last of all, in the evening, on the appearance of a sign predicted by Shamash the sun-god, Utnapishtim himself enters the ship, shuts his door, and hands over the command to the steersman, Puzur-Bel (ll. 90 ff.). On the following morning the storm (magnificently described in ll. 97 ff.) broke; and it raged for six days and nights, till all mankind were destroyed, and the very gods fled to the heaven of Anu and ‘cowered in terror like a dog.’ ”
Fragment of Cuneiform Tablet, belonging to the Deluge Series.
“When the seventh day came, the hurricane, the Flood, the battle-storm was stilled,
Which had fought like a (host?) of men.
The sea became calm, the tempest was still, the Flood ceased.
When I saw the day, no voice was heard,
And the whole of mankind was turned to clay.
When the daylight came, I prayed,
I opened a window, and the light fell on my face,
I knelt, I sat and wept.
On my nostrils my tears ran down.
I looked on the spaces in the realm of the sea;
After twelve double-hours an island stood out.
At Nizir the ship had arrived.
The mountain of Nizir stayed the ship …” (ll. 130 142).
This brings us to the incident of the birds (ll. 146 155):
“When the seventh day [i.e. from the landing] came
I brought out a dove and let it go.
The dove went forth and came back:
Because it had not whereon to stand it returned.
I brought forth a swallow and let it go.
The swallow went forth and came back:
Because it had not whereon to stand it returned.
I brought forth a raven and let it go.
The raven went forth and saw the decrease of the waters,
It ate, it … it croaked, but returned not again.”
On this Utnapishtim released all the animals; and leaving the ship, offered a sacrifice:
“The gods smelt the savour,
The gods smelt the goodly savour,
The gods gathered like flies over the sacrifice” (ll. 160 ff.).
The deities then began to quarrel, Ishtar and Êa reproaching Bel for his thoughtlessness in destroying mankind indiscriminately, and Bel accusing Êa of having connived at the escape of Utnapishtim. Finally Bel is appeased; and entering the ship blesses the hero and his wife:
“ ‘Formerly Utnapishtim was a man;
But now shall Utnapishtim and his wife be like to us the gods:
Utnapishtim shall dwell far hence at the mouth of the streams.’
Then they took me, and far away at the mouth of the streams they made me dwell” (ll. 202 ff.).
“Two fragments of another recension of the Flood-legend, in which the hero is regularly named Atra-ḥasis, have also been deciphered. One of them, being dated in the reign of Ammizaduga (c. 1980) is important as proving that this recension had been reduced to writing at so early a time; but it is too mutilated to add anything substantial to our knowledge of the history of the tradition.… The other is a mere scrap of twelve lines, containing Êa’s instructions to Atra-ḥasis regarding the building and entering of the ark and the latter’s promise to comply.… The extracts from Berossus preserved by Eus. present the Babylonian history in a form substantially agreeing with that of the Gilgamesh Tablets, though with some important variations in detail, see Euseb. Chron. i.”
III. The points of resemblance between the Babylonian and the Hebrew Flood narratives are unmistakable. In both the Flood is a visitation sent in Divine anger. In both, a favoured person receives a Divine warning and is commanded beforehand to construct a ship. In both, precise instructions are given as to the dimensions of the ship, and as to its being covered with bitumen. In both, the whole human race is destroyed in the waters. In both, the entry of the man and his family into the ship, and the shutting of the door, are mentioned. In both, there is an episode with birds. In both, after the waters have abated, the ship has grounded on a mountain. In both, after leaving the ship, the man offers sacrifice. In both, the Divine anger is appeased, and a blessing is pronounced upon the survivors.
This correspondence is too general to be the result of accident. The accounts differ as to details of time, the number and order of the birds, and the sign of the rainbow. These are details; but, as details, are sufficient to shew that the Biblical narratives are not simply reproduced from the Tablets recording the Gilgamesh Epos.
The Babylonian story, in one of its versions, was committed to writing about 2000 b.c. The Flood narrative, therefore, was current among the people of Babylonia and Mesopotamia before the migration of Abraham. Through what process it passed into the literature of the Israelites, can only be a matter of conjecture. Was it the result of early Babylonian influence and civilization in Canaan absorbed by the Israelite invaders? Was it the result of the early Hebrew forefathers having migrated from Mesopotamia into Canaan, carrying their folk-lore with them? Was it the result of Babylonian thought and religion, subsequently encroaching far and wide, and penetrating into Western Asia?
Whatever the process was, the narrative of the Flood is preserved to us, in two Hebrew versions, entirely divergent from the Babylonian in religious spirit, literary style, and character.
( a) Religious spirit. The change from the quarrelsome, deceitful, vindictive pack of Babylonian deities to the One Supreme and Righteous God of the Hebrews imparts strength, dignity, and purity to the narrative.
( b) Literary style. The diffuse and poetical descriptions of the Babylonian epic have made way for the direct, simple, and terse account in Hebrew prose.
( c) Character. The purpose of the Hebrew story is a moral one, to emphasize (1) the corruption of the human race through sin, (2) the Divine anger and disappointment because of man’s sinfulness, (3) the Divine favour and goodness towards the one righteous person, (4) the classical example of salvation, and (5) the Divine promise of future mercy. The Babylonian story is part of an elaborate series of legendary stories, relating to the gods of Babylonia and their dealings with one another and with mankind. It is devoid of any uniform or exalted purpose: it is lacking in reverence and restraint. “The Biblical story of the Deluge possesses an intrinsic power, even to the present day, to awaken the conscience of the world, and the Biblical chronicler wrote it with this educational and moral end in view. Of this end there is no trace in the extra-Biblical records of the Deluge.” (Jeremias, O.T. in the Light of the E. i. 274.)
IV. Other Flood stories are very numerous, and are found among the early legends of races all over the world. Andrée reckoned up eighty-five, of which he considered forty-three to be original, and twenty-six to be derived from the Babylonian ( Die Flutsagen ethnographisch betrachtet, 1891). But with the increasing study of anthropology the number is likely to be enlarged. The fact that, according to Andrée, they had not been found in Arabia, North and Central Asia, China and Japan, Europe (except Greece) and Africa, shews that too much ought not to be made of the so-called universality of the legend. Interesting Flood myths are reported from N. American, Mexican, and Polynesian races.
1. A Flood story may refer to a catastrophe overwhelming the primitive dwelling-place of mankind, from which it radiated into the different races of the world. But, ex hypothesi, this would have been an event long previous to any civilized memorials of human history.
2. A Flood story may represent the influence upon crude and savage minds, in comparatively recent times, of the Babylonian tradition or of Christian teaching.
3. A Flood story may embody the recollection of a great local cataclysm, preserved in the folk-lore of the country.
The following are examples of other Flood stories:
1. Egyptian. Egypt was long supposed to have no Flood tradition. Naville (P.S.B.A., 1904, pp. 251 257, 287 294) has recently published the following from a text of the Book of the Dead: “And further I (the god Tum) am going to deface all I have done; this earth will become water (or an ocean) through an inundation, as it was at the beginning” (quoted by Skinner, p. 175).
2. Syrian. “The wickedness of men became so great that they had to be destroyed. Then the fountains of the earth and the floodgates of the heaven were opened, the sea rose ever higher, the whole earth was covered with water and all men went under. Only the pious Deucalion (Xisuthros) was rescued, by hiding himself with his wives and children in a great chest ‘which he possessed.’ When he entered, there came in also, in pairs, every kind of four-footed thing, serpents, and whatever else lives upon the earth. He took them all in, and God caused great friendship to be amongst them. At last the water ran away through a small cleft in the earth. Deucalion opened the chest, built altars, and founded over the cleft in the earth the holy temple of the goddess” (Pseudo-Lucian, De dea Syria, § 12).
3. Phrygian. Coins of Apameia, of the time of Augustus, “show two scenes of the Deluge. On the right is the chest upon waves of water, with a man and woman raising themselves out of it, and upon the open lid of it a dove sitting, whilst a second (!) dove with a branch flies towards it from the left. On the left stand the same figures … with the right hand raised in prayer.… The name Noah [on the chest] rests upon Jewish (or Christian) influence.”
4. Greek. Apollodorus i. 712 ff. “Zeus wished to destroy the generation of mankind … but by the counsel of Prometheus, Deucalion made a chest, put food therein, and entered it with his wife Pyrrha. A few saved themselves by flight to the mountains. After nine days and nights Deucalion landed upon Parnassus. He came forth and offered a sacrifice to Zeus. Zeus permitting him to express a wish, he prayed for mankind; and they arise by his throwing over his head ‘the bones of the mother,’ that is, the stones of the mountain which are changed into men.”
5. Indian. The Brahmana “of the hundred paths” relates: “There came into the hands of Manu, the first man and son of the God of the sun, whilst he was washing, a fish who said to him: ‘Take care of me and I will save you.’ ‘From what wilt thou save me?’ ‘A flood will carry away all this creation, I will save thee from that.’ Manu took care of the fish, which grew strong. When it had become a great fish, he put it into the sea. But first of all it said: ‘In such and such a year the flood will come, so thou mayest prepare thyself a ship and turn (in spirit) to me: when the flood rises thou shalt enter the ship, and I will save thee.’ Manu built the ship, entered it at the appointed time, and bound the rope to the horn of the fish, who had come back and was swimming near. Thereupon it (the fish) hurried away to the mountain in the north, then when the waters sank, the ship rested upon it.… The flood had carried away every creature, only Manu remained. He lived in prayer and fasting, desirous of descendants. He offered sacrifice, and from this there arose a woman. Manu said to her: ‘Who art thou?’ ‘Thy daughter.’ ‘How art thou my daughter, fair one?’ ‘From those sacrificial gifts hast thou begotten me.… Turn to me when thou offerest sacrifice: then shalt thou become rich in children and in cattle.… Through her he begot this generation which is now called the generation of Manu. Whatever blessing he desired from her that he received.”
(For the above, see Jeremias, O.T. in the Light of the East, i. 254 257.)
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The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is a biblical commentary set published in parts by Cambridge University Press from 1882 onwards. Anglican bishop John Perowne was the general editor. The first section published was written by theologian Thomas Kelly Cheyne and covered the Book of Micah.
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