This article was originally published in the June 2003 issue of Bible Review. Every BR article ever published is available in the BAS Library.
On my wall is a newspaper headline proclaiming, “Noah’s Ark Found in Pennsylvania! Scientist: Old Testament ship is buried in mountainside—and it looks exactly like the Bible says!” Slightly lower on the same page is another headline, “Kitty survives after being sucked into vacuum cleaner!” Now you know where I get most of my news about the Bible, once I finish my Bible Review.
Another headline about the flood has flickered on newspapers and TV in recent years. Two geologists at Columbia University made a splash when they announced that a massive flooding of the Black Sea 7,500 years ago may have been the origin of the biblical Flood legend. Shortly thereafter they published a book called Noah’s Flood about their theory.1 More recently a team of marine biologists has announced that there was no massive flooding of the Black Sea at that time, based on their study of the sediments in the sea floors of the region. So it seems that the headlines were premature. Noah’s Flood hasn’t been found in the Black Sea.
But let’s imagine that the first guys were right, and that there was a massive flooding of the Black Sea around 5500 B.C.E. What, if anything, does this have to do with Noah’s Flood?
Biblical scholars will tell you that the Flood Story in Genesis 6–9 (actually stories in the plural, since there are two versions woven together in these chapters)2 derives most directly not from an actual event, but from earlier stories. The earlier stories are from ancient Mesopotamia, best known from the Gilgamesh Epic (Standard Babylonian version, c. 1100 B.C.E.) and the Atrahasis Epic (Old Babylonian, c. 1700 B.C.E.).3 In these stories we learn of a wise man named Atrahasis (later known as Utnapishtim) whom the god Enki saves from a cosmic flood by commanding him to build an ark, put all animal species on it, and save himself and his family. The ark eventually lands on a mountain called Mt. Nimush, which has been identified with Pir Omar Gudrun, an impressive mountain in the Kurdish region of Iraq, northeast of Kirkuk. (Our marines probably have a couple of Humvees parked by this mountain around now.)
The biblical versions of this older story name the flood hero Noah, but many of the details are reminiscent of the Mesopotamian story. In his classic commentary on Genesis, E.A. Speiser concludes, “It is clear that Hebrew tradition must have received its material from some intermediate … source, and that it proceeded to adjust the data to its own needs and concepts.”4 One adjustment was to relocate the mountain where the Ark lands to a higher mountain range to the north, “the mountains of Ararat” (Genesis 8:4) in eastern Turkey. The highest of these mountains is today called Mt. Ararat, and it is nearly 17,000 feet high.
In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s latest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldeans, the birthplace of Abraham.
If we wanted to find the flood that gave rise to the legend of Noah’s Flood, it seems to me that we should look for a big flood in northern Mesopotamia, not one in the Black Sea. And, indeed, there is archaeological evidence for many local floods in ancient Mesopotamia, since the Tigris and Euphrates rivers occasionally flood. Even a relatively small flood can be catastrophic if it kills many people in your village, and from this local trauma a story can grow and grow, until it takes on cosmic proportions. (Compare how a battle for a Late Bronze Age city in western Anatolia became Homer’s Trojan War, in which even the Greek gods are locked in battle.)
Many cultures have flood stories, and it is no coincidence that many cultures suffer from local floods. It is more compelling to connect these phenomena than to appeal to the melting of the Ice Age glaciers or a hypothetical flooding of the Black Sea. Stories happen. Even stories enshrined in the Bible. The best stories, of course, are a vehicle for profound insights into our relation to the world, each other, and God (or, for the Old Babylonians among us, the gods). The biblical story of Noah’s Flood is an exemplary and immortal narrative in this respect. Even if it didn’t happen, it’s a true story.
Watch author Ronald Hendel’s lecture “The Exodus as Cultural Memory: Poetics, Politics and the Past” online for free as it was presented at the recent Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination at UCSD.
1. William Ryan and Walter Pitman, Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event That Changed History (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).
2. Richard E. Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 53–60.
3. See the recent translations of Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); and Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh (New York: Penguin, 2000).
4. E.A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), p. 55. See also the superb essay of William L. Moran, “A Mesopotamian Myth and Its Biblical Transformation,” in Moran, The Most Magic Word: Essays on Babylonian and Biblical Literature, ed. Ronald S. Hendel (Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association, 2002), pp. 59–74.