(posted 27 June 2011)

The Genesis flood story starring Noah and his family is a plagiarized and reworked edition of the old Akkadian Uta-Nafishtim flood story contained within the Gilgamesh Epic (actually tablet XI of the Gilgamesh epic), which in turn was a plagiarized reworking of an even earlier Sumerian version about their flood hero Ziusudra.  Ziusudra, or in Akkadian, Utu-Nafishtim (whose Akkadian name means “he who has found life”) was the original Noah.  But what flood was it?  Were these legends based upon any shred of truth?


As a matter of fact, there is evidence of flooding in lower Mesopotamia during the fourth and third millenniums B.C.  During this time supposedly entire cities were flooded out and covered up with mud.  Scholars used to talk about a general “Mesopotamian” flood thinking at first that all of the cities in lower Mesopotamia showing evidence of having been flooded, were victims of one massive, region-wide flood, and that this “great” flood gave rise to the Uta-Nafishtim story.  

That this Mesopotamian flood was linked to the Noah flood as THE flood we have Sir Charles Lenoard Wooley to thank.  He uncovered the first physical archaeological evidence of “the” flood during his excavation at UR, early in the 20th century.  His announcement of this discovery popularized the notion that evidence for THE flood has been discovered, and that this proves that the Noah story in the Bible is the truth.     


More recently, however, scholars have taken the view that there was not one flood, but several.  Actual evidence of massive flooding has been found at three separate Mesopotamian sites.  Unfortunately for those who would like to believe that the Noah flood covered the entire world, these three Mesopotamian cities were all flooded at different times—indicating a series of several localized floods, but certainly no region- wide flooding, not to mention any sort of world wide flood.

The reason the “floods” that occurred in Mesopotamia seemed to flood only one city at a time, and that each time it was a different city that got flooded had to do with how the Euphrates river has changed its course throughout the millennia.  So, whether or not a particular city was susceptible to a flood resulting from excess spring melting of glaciers in the mountains of Anatolia combined with unusually excessive spring rains would depend upon how that city was situated vis-à-vis the river, and upon the topography of the river at the point where it neared the city.  And, since the course of the Euphrates has  wandered throughout the eons, a city susceptible to flooding in 3500 B.C., for example, might not be susceptible to a localized flood in 2900 B.C., or 2600 B.C., and so on.


The flood at Ur occurred around 3500 B.C.  However, at Kish there were two separate floods evidenced in the archaeology, one at around 3000 to 2900 B.C., and the other one around 2600 B.C.  The third city at which flood evidence was discovered was at Shuruppak, and this occurred around 2950, to 2850 B.C.  While it is tempting to equate the Shuruppak flood with the first Kish flood, because they occurred at approximately the same time, there is no concrete evidence to support that.  What is interesting about the Shuruppak flood however, is that Shuruppak was the home of the Sumerian Noah, Ziusudra, whose name in Sumerian meant “life of long days.”  

If we can assume that the Kish flood and the Shuruppak flood occurred in the same year, and at exactly the same time (which still remains a possibility), then we do have something larger than a one-city flood, but that is still a long ways off from a region-wide flood, much less a world-wide flood.  Some writers have postulated that perhaps this fellow Ziusudra, fearing a flood was coming due to excessive rains, managed to get his family and some of his live stock onto a raft and was able to ride the flood out until his raft beached somewhere down river.  Then, as this story was told and re-told throughout the generations it was enlarged and more details were added until the flood became a world-wide catastrophe and the raft became a giant ark.


Adding to the confusion is the fact that the so-called Sumerian king list contains a reference to “the” flood, rather than to “several.”  The Sumerian king list is very problematic because each of the many Sumerian city states were usually independent of each other, and thus there would be several kings ruling simultaneously throughout most of Sumerian history.  Yet, the so-called Sumerian king list was an attempt at compiling a unified list showing kings in chronological order.  As a result a number of early dynasties that were in fact contemporary with each other are listed as if they were sequential.  

The king list was not composed until 2100 B.C., and the earliest copy that has come down to us dates from 1900 B.C.  Thus, the compilers of the Sumerian king list(s) were writing about events that occurred hundreds, and even thousands of years previously.  This alone should raise questions about the accuracy of the lists.  Another problem is the ages attributed to the kings that ruled before “the” flood.  They are credited with reigns lasting into the hundreds of thousands of years—going clear back into Homo Erectus times.  


Extending the reigns of legendary rulers to fantastic proportions was a common literary technique in the ancient world—just look at the ages of the patriarchs in the Bible for instance.  Unfortunately for the fundamentalist viewpoint, however, archaeological evidence from other parts of the world, as well as Mesopotamia, going clear back into Neanderthal times prove that life expectancy of ancient man, whether pre-flood or post flood, was about the same as it has always been—60 to 70 years, with the lucky (or unlucky) few living to 90 or a 100 and developing all of the same medical problems that modern mankind does at those ages.


Wooley’s Ur flood has been eliminated as a candidate for “the” flood because it not only failed to flood any other localities other than Ur, but did not even cover the entire city of Ur. (www.ncseweb.org p. 3)


The flood mentioned in the Gilgamesh epic appears to be a better candidate.  Gilgamesh, who was known to have been a real personage since he is attested elsewhere besides the Sumerian king list, lived in the period between 2700 to 2600 B.C.  And, since his epic speaks about a “flood” that occurred prior to his reign, some scholars have looked to the Shuruppak and 1st Kish flood (C. 2900 B.C.) as the source of the Uta-Nafishtim/Noah/Ziusudra flood (Mallawan, M.E.L., Noah’s Flood Reconsidered,” in Iraq. Vol. 26. 1964,pp. 62-82: Kramer, Noah, Reflections on the Mesopotamian Flood in Expedition.  Vol. 9,  1967, pp. 12-19).

What we must bear in mind, however, is that though Mesopotamia has seen numerous localized floods none of them, not even the Ziusudra/Uta-Nafishtim/Noah flood, were universal floods.


Chapter one of the novel The Last King of Babylon www.lastkingofbabylon.com opens up with the chief protagonist, Nabu Na’id, excavating the fictional city of Ur Yuhan, and in the process there is a reference to the Uta-Nafishtim flood having covered the city resulting in its being preserved.  By Nabu Na’id’s day (mid-6th century B.C.), the flood stories handed down by the ancient Sumerians and their Akkadian and Old Babylonian successors were well ingrained into the consciousnesses of the populace.  

And, due to the literature, the Sumerian king lists, and the Epic tales, all of which over time tended to consolidate the numerous flood stories into one singular event, the common assumption among most of the populace (of the mid-6th century B.C.) was that the Uta-Nafishtim flood was a single-event, and a universal flood, and that he really did escape—along with lots of animals in his ark—to live many long years after “the” flood.  So, from Nabu Na’id’s frame of reference, there was just “the” flood, and it was the Uta-Nafishtim flood, and it was exceedingly ancient.  And, so, his city of Ur-Yuhan was covered over by mud from “the” flood from his perspective.   In actual fact, however, the city he was excavating might well have been covered over with mud during any number of ancient pre-historic, or proto-historic floods that swept through the lower Euphrates valley.


The Biblical flood story was most likely put together during the 6th or 5th century B.C. by Jewish writers living in Babylonia.  They were thus influenced by the same flood mythologies as was Nabu Na’id.


At this point, some may ask about the evidence that many other cultures around the world all had similar tales about a universal flood.  The Greeks for example had a story very similar to that of the Mesopotamians where Deucalion was told by Prometheus to build an ark because Zeus was sending a huge flood his way.  All Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flood stories (including the Greek story) can be written off as borrowings from the much earlier Sumerian and Akkadian stories.  

However, that still leaves us with flood stories from Europe, Asia, and the Americas.  Some of those, such as those in China can be explained away as localized and/or regional floods, since the rivers in China, such as the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers seem to be always flooding their banks—even in modern times.  These floodings over time could easily give rise to the same type of stories that the Mesopotamians produced.


All of that being said, I have always believed that the Ziusudra/Uta-Nafishtim/Noah flood was a compilation of two separate memories.  One was the series of localized floods that we know occurred in Mesopotamia during the 4th and 3rd millenniums B.C. and destroyed actual cities.  The other memory was knowledge of (or a dim racial memory of) a larger, truly “world-wide” flood.   

When the Ice Age came to an end around 10,000-12,000 years ago and the world witnessed the melting of continent-sized glaciers, the sea level was raised by hundreds of feet.  In the Black Sea, for example, there is evidence of sudden flooding at about that time that destroyed numerous established communities in a sudden gush as water from the rapidly filling Mediterranean suddenly broke through what is now the Bosporus and filled the formerly dry basin of what is now the Black Sea.  

This is a prime example of a case where one or more wise people may well have been able to predict the flood.  Knowing that the neighboring Mediterranean had been steadily rising year after year, it should not have been too difficult to predict that at some point those rising waters would break through the Bosporus and flood the neighboring basin.  Thus, our Ziusudra/Noah/ Uta-Nafishtim, may well have began moving his family and livestock out of harms way while many of his neighbors may well have mocked him and remained pat believing that the waters would never rise that high since they never had before within their memories.  


In the event that our handful of survivors decided to move from the Black Sea to Mesopotamia (carrying their stories with them), they would have had to pass near by the mountain of Ararat in Anatolia and the sources of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  This in turn would have given rise to the myth that “Noah’s ark” had landed on Mt. Ararat.


The melting of continent-sized glaciers at the end of the Ice Age would have flooded not only the Mediterranean, but every single coast-line in the world—thousands of square miles of real estate that is now under water.  An example of what occurred was reported on Yahoo News, 10 August, 2007, under permission from www.livescience.com in an article entitled Stone Age Settlement found under English Channel.  The gist of the article is that during the Ice Age, when much of the world’s water was locked up in the Continent-sized glaciers, the English Channel was dry land, so people built a village there.  When the glaciers melted they got flooded out and they had to flee to higher ground leaving their old homes behind.  That happened all over the world.

It was not an all-encompassing world-wide flood because areas in higher elevations were not affected, but it was a world-wide flood in the sense that all parts of the world were affected at least along their coastlines.  This in turn gave rise to myths and legends all over the world about a great flood in the distant past.

So, again, to sum up, the Uta-Nafishtim/Noah flood story that we have in our Bibles is a compilation of the earlier broader flooding that occurred at the end of the Ice Age with the more recent localized floods that occurred in Mesopotamia in the 4th and 3rd Millennia B.C. and were themselves condensed into a single flood story.  


The “flood story” would not have made a good story told as a series of unrelated events.  However, told as a unified whole with all of the fictional elements added to it (i.e. a protagonist with a well-developed personality, the intervention of the God(s), a motive for the flooding, the mockery and hostility of the protagonist’s neighbors, etc.) it made one hell of a good story, and still does—as long as it is not taken literally.


I mean, really, putting two of a kind of every animal in the world all on one ark?  For forty days and forty nights?  Can you imagine the stench?  And, now we even have some “religious-based” amusement parks in America trying to show that Noah even managed to put Dinosaurs onto the ark as well!  I don’t know where they think Noah could have found any dinosaurs in his day and age 65 million years after the last one bit the dust, but even if he were able to get animals of that size on to an “ark,” and even were he able to provide feed for them (think of all the trees and grasses he would need to keep on the ark), the resulting scat from all of those myriad gigantic creatures would have capsized poor old Noah’s ark long before the forty days and forty nights were up.


Okay, I know someone is going to say “what about the Seashells in the Rockies?  Doesn’t that prove that the flood story was true and that it really was world-wide?”  No, it does not!  Yes, there are sea shells in the Rockies.  And, there are sea dinosaur bones in the middle of Saudi Arabia (I’ve seen them)—but none of these were from any flood of “Noah.”  We would have to go back 65 million years to find a time when what is now Saudi Arabia was covered by ocean, and we would have to go back even further than that to find a time when what is now the Rocky mountains in the western U.S.A., and other mountain ranges around the world, were under water allowing for sea shells to be  deposited.  Before these mountains were formed, these areas were covered by seas—and that explains where the seashells came from.   Also, that was tens of millions of years before the appearance of mankind and had absolutely nothing to do with the Uta-Nafishtim/Noah “flood.”

So, to sum up, the Uta-Nafishtim/Noah flood stories are one and the same, and both were compilations of legends passed down from earlier generations including elements going back to the melting of the Ice Age along with elements from the more recent, but local, floods that occurred in Mesopotamia during the 4th and 3rd millenniums B.C.

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