This week’s parashah takes us from the story of Noah and the flood to the beginning of the life of Abraham, via the episode of the Tower of Babel. We will focus on the Noah story.
Since archaeological discoveries made in the 1850’s on the site of ancient Nineveh, readers have been fascinated by the relationship of the biblical flood story and what appears to be a strikingly similar narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh in which the central figure, Utnapishtim, is the equivalent of the biblical Noah.
Utnapishtim, too, is told by one of the gods to construct a great boat that will save his family and a wide range of animals and birds from drowning in an impending great flood that will cover all the earth.
At the end of the flooding, the boat comes to rest on a mountain top and Utnapishtim sends out a dove, followed by a swallow and a raven, to find out if the waters have subsided. When the raven does not return, he knows that it is safe to emerge from the ark and, like Noah, he offers sacrifices to the god who had saved him and his companions from destruction.
From the carefully recorded measurements of the ark, and the pitch that made it watertight, to the savour of the sacrifices that Utnapishtim offers in gratitude, the details clearly, if not always precisely, recall the Genesis narrative, and Gilgamesh is almost certainly far earlier than the Hebrew Bible.
The Gilgamesh Epic is a source of unexpected enrichment for traditional readers. While the stories of Noah and Utnapishtim are similar in narrative detail, they presuppose radically different understandings of God and the world that are highly momentous.
Gilgamesh assumes that there are many gods that are indeed powerful, but whose behaviour is often arbitrary and frivolous. To live in the world as portrayed by Gilgamesh is to inhabit an unpredictable universe dependent on the whims of all-powerful deities who are frequently at odds with each other and have minimal concern for human wellbeing. One version of the Epic accounts for the flood in terms of the noise made by human beings disturbing the heavenly peace and at some points the flood is seen as a way of reducing the human population.
In the biblical account, the flood was a consequence of the violence and moral dereliction that had corrupted the world. Noah was saved because he was a righteous person who found favour in the eyes of God (The choice of Utnapishtim was not dependent on moral attainments.) God is bound up with His creation and is driven to despair (6:5) when it is overwhelmed by violence and corruption.
The biblical flood story culminates in a God-given covenantal relationship (8:9), with humanity and all living creatures, and a divine undertaking that never again would the forces of destruction be unleashed on the world.
The covenantal relationship indicates the depth of God’s relationship with creation and is a source of stability and hope that is wholly different from the arbitrary and unpredictable chaos portrayed in the Gilgamesh Epic where the gods are quite amoral.
If the Torah did make use of Gilgamesh, it was with a view to transforming radically the understanding of the world that the Epic had offered its readers.
Modern readers have often thought that the key question of the story was its historicity – did the flood really happen? Traditionalists have combed the historical record to locate a deluge that would prove the veracity of the Torah’s narrative beyond a shadow of a doubt and some have visited Mount Ararat in search of the remnants of Noah’s ark.
Secular rationalists have taken a very different approach. Determined to show that the Torah was not what its adherents claimed, they used the Noah story’s similarity to Gilgamesh to show that it was in no way original and was clearly derived from an ancient myth. They also deployed the Documentary Hypothesis to show that the story was put together from different sources by human editors rather than being revealed at Mount Sinai. The analysis of the text that its scholarly proponents put forward is not as persuasive as they tend to believe, but it is still widely accepted.
Many of these debates are important, but they miss the radical transformation that the Noah story achieves. Do biblical narratives have to be historically accurate or can we recognise within them profound truths being conveyed accessibly in narrative form? The narratives create the world that we inhabit and help us find our way to wisdom and understanding, and ultimately to a vision of God. Trying to uncover the history of the stories is important, but the results are often beside the point, as the truths that the stories contain are not revealed by historical analysis and remain obscure if we insist on asking the wrong questions of the texts that we have received.