Is the flood we are told about in the Genesis account a fact or just a story borrowed from Ancient myths? All over the world we find cultural legends and myths that closely resemble certain stories in Scripture such as Creation, the Fall, and the Flood.
I want to explore the story of the flood in this blog, however, before we dive in, (yes, I did just say that), we need to understand an important foundational point of reference to this discussion. It is simply this; if we accept Paul’s statement that we are all of “one blood” as he said while in Athens (Acts 17:26), then we should also accept the biblical account that all human heritage goes back to a singular region where all human population once lived after the global Flood of Noah’s day.
I say this because if that’s the case of real history, then we would expect to find common accounts told, such as Creation and the Flood, to be within the stories and traditions of a people group(s) that once lived together in one place. And then given years of cultural diversity, as mankind spread throughout the world, it should not be surprising that these stories would have naturally taken on their own cultural influences and nuances in the retelling.
Look no further than at the variety of Santa stories shared – all the similarities along with the differences – all over the globe: Santa Clause in Canada, Saint Nick in England, Dedt Moroz in Russia, Mikulás in Hungary (just to name a few). In some stories he’s jolly and approachable, in other stories he is to be feared and to stay away from. These stories have varied over a span of about 400-500 years, which is considerably a much shorter time period when compared to the ancient stories (i.e. the Great Flood), which would have been told and retold for a thousand or more years. When understood this way, it makes sense that there should be similarities as well as differences in the ancient telling’s.
The Gilgamesh Epic
In the mid-1800s several excavations were made in present day Iraq. The archeologists uncovered a whole library of tablets from earlier Mesopotamian times, discovered buried in cities of the Ancient Near East, including Nineveh and Nippur. These tablets listed kings, business archives, administrative documents, and a number of versions of the flood narrative. Each version had a different language and most were only partially intact. However, there was one that was the most complete with twelve tablets – the Babylonian collection of The Gilgamesh Epic. 
On the eleventh tablet of this epic was a description about a great Flood, with much of its detail showing similarities with the biblical account. This flood story invited many skeptics to claim that this was proof that the biblical account was a derivation of ancient mythology, just another story among countless stories found in the Ancient Middle East. The land was prone to flooding after-all, and the inhabitants would have looked for explanations to explain the ‘why’s’ of these natural disasters. Initially shared around campfires, these stories eventually made their way to tablets such as the one found. Simple, case closed… But not so fast.
Fallible Versus the Infallible
Only two conclusions can come from a study evaluating if the Bible and the stories found in its pages are truly a derivation from ancient mythology. 1) If this is true, biblical claims of God’s inspiration are untrue, and the Bible then can’t be trusted. 2) The Bible truly is the Word of God, and any other claim of authorship or external influence is false.
What it boils down to is this… If the significance of finding these documents in Nineveh and Nippur caused a skeptic to doubt the authority and validity of Scripture, the issue is simply an interpretation problem. It comes down to being a case of the fallible versus the infallible. In other words, we should always remember that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God, which follows that it should be allowed to interpret itself and the fallible evidence rather than permitting the fallible evidence to interpret the Scripture given to us from the infallible Word of God.
It’s In The Details
The Gilgamesh story introduces us to a guy named Gilgamesh, who is out and about looking for another guy who goes by the name Utnapishtim, (he’s the Babylonian equivalent of Noah). Apparently, Utnapishtim is able to give him the secret of immortality, which he’s motivated to get a hold of because he’s grief stricken after losing his best pal Enkidu.
During their conversation, Utnapishtim tells him about something else he feels is more important to know, at least for the moment. Evidently, the gods want to flood the world and get rid of mankind because they can’t sleep. The reason? Their human neighbours are making too much noise. They’re causing all kinds of racket, what with all their squabbles, and parties and also because of their squabbles for not being invited to parties… or something like that.
Earlier, Ea, the god of wisdom, had come and warned Utnapishtim in a dream to convert his house to a boat, and to then take in the seed of all living creatures, but then to not say anything about the other gods’ plans. He was instead to throw another god named Enlil under the bus (or camel train at that time) by telling the people he was building a boat to escape the wrath of that specific god Enlil.
So, Utnapishtim builds his boat in seven days and takes his family, and Gilgamesh, and the creatures, and all the craftsmen into his houseboat. The great flood came, and even the gods who planned it all were terrified of it and fled. For six days and nights, the flood overwhelmed the world and on the seventh day grew calm. The boat rested on a mountain called Nisir, and there Utnapishtim sent out a dove, then a swallow, and then a raven. When the raven didn’t return, he made a sacrifice, and the gods reappeared and gathered like flies over it.
Interesting story, especially with some of the parallels to the Genesis account. However, comparing the two accounts of the flood there are a few details that definitely stand out, especially given that the ancient stories are a little fuzzy when it comes to details.
The rule of thumb when comparing conflicting accounts of the same event is; the more detail there is in the sharing of an account, the more it can be held up as the more accurate version of said account. The reality is that the more explainable, consistent and provable the details are being shared, the more one can believe, especially when facts can be verified and/or recognized for their value to the specific event. Let’s look at how the stories stack up
One of the first details you might notice is that scripture specifically says that Noah took two of every kind of land-dwelling animal and seven of some other animals onto the Ark.
You shall take with you of every clean animal by sevens, a male and his female; and of animals that are not clean two, a male and his female; also, of the birds of the sky, by sevens, male and female, to keep offspring alive on the face of all the earth.” – Genesis 7:2-3
The biblical dimensions of the Ark are detailed and consistent with a vessel that could float in rough waters and could house the animals described along with the provisions of the food required. Especially considering the argument for young (small) animals on the Ark along with hibernations which would require a lot less food than if full grown animals were on the boat. Let alone the argument for origin of family species (i.e. all dogs are descended from a wolf or wolf type pair representing all the canine species we know of today), which meant that a limited number of each species were on the ark, allowing for the size ratio to be consistent.
The dimensions of the boat in The Gilgamesh Epic amount to more of a cube shaped vessel with the beam equaling the length. Although we know it had seven stories (decks), it is impossible to determine the full size of the vessel. Logistically, this (house) boat could not float in a stable manner in rough seas and would not be structurally reliable.
The Genesis account is clear about the size of the Ark needed for such a cargo. We can safely calculate the size of a ship needed to the number of animals, supplies & people and come to a very reliable and realistic expectation of a ‘size to cargo ratio’. In other words, the number of animals and the size of the ark specified in the biblical account is realistic and thus reliable as a stand-alone component to the story.
The Gilgamesh Epic on the other hand, would be an unreliable account in a court of law because it leaves us with no information about how many animals were likely on board the boathouse or whether all of the necessary kinds would have been represented for repopulation (along with the obvious problems that come with the structure itself).
The next detail explained in the Genesis account is that the Flood began with all the fountains of the great deep broke open, covering the whole earth to the extent of the highest mountains, along with telling us that it killed every man and land dwelling, air breathing animal of the earth (Genesis 7:11-24).
The biblical detail shows that the whole earth was covered by water coming from both above and below and that it rained continuously for 40 days and nights with the waters continuing to rise until the 150th day. Science safely concurs with the effects of such a rain, along with fact that there are, even today, underground lakes and oceans that, if burst out of the earth, would have the potential of creating such a flood. Whether the skeptic chooses to believe it’s ‘probable’ or not, it certainly can’t be denied that it’s ‘possible’ based on the details provided.
The Gilgamesh Epic, while stating the devastation of the flood on humanity, doesn’t specifically detail the full geographical extent and depth of the Flood. Also, it is unreasonable to expect so much water coverage in just six days of rain.
The Genesis account is consistently reliable on the explanation of the birds that were released. For one thing, it’s logical to send out a raven before a dove, given that ravens are scavengers while doves feed only on plants. The intervals of release of the dove are consistent with the expectation of having a drained land for vegetation and occupants, and this correlates with the dove returning with a freshly picked olive leaf and then the dove not returning at all.
By contrast, The Gilgamesh Epic mentions a dove, then a swallow, and finally a raven. There are no intervals mentioned to assess the appropriate time length for flights, and sending a raven last is questionable in that ravens may have been able to survive as scavengers.
The God of the Bible sent the Flood on an already cursed world because of man’s wicked heart that only desired evil. God’s judgment in the light of sin is righteous, moral and just.
In contrast In the Gilgamesh Epic, the gods are petty, impatient and impulsive. Simply because they don’t like their noisy human neighbours, they decide to destroy them. The gods have no justifiable moral reason to do so. Further to that, the Babylonian gods go as far as to lie and tell Utnapishtim to deceive his fellow humans about the coming wrath.
The Gilgamesh Epic promotes polytheistic mythology, whereas the Bible presents monotheistic theology. The many gods in The Gilgamesh Epic differ in ideas and motivations, and they seek to thwart each other. The God of the Bible is holy, pure, unchanging, and cannot lie. These are just a few of the character differences between the biblical God and the description of the gods in the Babylonian myth.
Details, details, details, so important to a story…
There are many more details that can be discovered if we spent more time researching, but even based solely on comparison between the perfect Word of God and the imperfect pagan myths, it is absurd to think the descriptions in the Babylonian texts could be the source of the Genesis account in the inspired Word of God.
Ultimately, even the honest skeptic can’t help but see that the Genesis Flood account gives enough credible information to allow for historical and geological confirmation, while The Gilgamesh Epic provides little that can be confirmed, and what is provided does not make sense logically or scientifically.
The Similarities Make Sense
The similarities among Ancient Near Eastern mythologies, the Gilgamesh Epic and the Bible should not cause us to question the biblical account, because they actually make sense from a biblical worldview. There really should be no surprise to see people groups all over the world with their own accounts of the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and even the Tower of Babel. The accounts tell us people once had the same record or were eyewitnesses of common events handed down from a generation that was once congregated in the same place at the same time for a period of time.
The Gilgamesh Epic tells a sad tale of a man (who was supposedly part god) looking desperately for everlasting life. This was a man who knew of great men of old who lived long lives and supposedly became gods, and he wanted to attain this status himself. He had a desperate desire to avoid death. A Christian can hear stories like this and consider them in light of biblical truth.
It’s in the Bible that we see the devastation of sin in the judgment of death and mankind’s continual need for a Saviour. So, when we read the account of the true story of a worldwide Flood that covered the entire earth in Genesis, we can recognize both God’s faithfulness in judgment and in salvation by protecting a line of humanity for the promised Messiah.
In the light of Scripture, we see confirmation in mythology around the world that the Bible is indeed God’s Word and the only reliable source of truth. In the message of God’s Word, we see him stepping into this world and taking upon himself the wrath we deserve. Only through the consistent word of the Bible can we know that salvation is only received through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Andrew George (New York: Penguin Books, 1960).