search of the real Noah
Margaret Kittson (the Skeptic, vol 17:2 p. 19)
This is a search which takes us on a journey back in time. It is in essence a quest. Sometimes quests don't achieve their purpose but that may not really matter. It's often what's found along the way that makes the journey worthwhile rather than what is found at journey's end. So where do we begin in our search for the real Noah? Probably the most appropriate place to start is with Noah's story as recounted in Genesis 6-9:17.
The Biblical Deluge
God is fed up with human wickedness. He regrets having made human beings and decides to rid the surface of the earth of all living things with one important exception. Noah has won God's favour so he gets told to build the ark. The building materials are an incongruous combination - resinous wood and reeds caulked with pitch, with the ark's dimensions as follows: length 300 cubits, breadth 50 cubits and height 30 cubits. Noah takes on board a pair of all living creatures. The ensuing storm and flood come and last forty days and nights.
John Sladek in The New Apocrypha gives his own vision of the kinds of duties Noah and his family would need to perform during this time and the time it took the flood to subside -
Caring for the animals would involve much more than live mice for the snakes, fresh eucalyptus leaves for the koala and fresh bamboo shoots for the panda. Over this period (a hundred and fifty days or more) it would mean fetching over three tonnes of water per day, and more Augean chores. It would mean blowing the husks off the budgie's seed dish, cutting fresh roses for a perverse breed of ant that refuses to eat anything else, spending time with the gorillas so they won't literally die of boredom, and bathing the hippo. No wonder Noah got drunk when he came out.1
Finally the ark comes to rest on the mountains of Ararat. Noah sends out a dove. On its first trip it returns with nothing. On its second it returns with an olive leaf. It doesn't return from its third trip. After disembarking, Noah makes an altar and offers a sacrifice of burnt offerings. God finds the smell pleasing. The rainbow appears as a sign of the covenant - a deal between Noah and his people and God.
Who wrote the Bible?
The hypothesis commonly accepted by scholars is that the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are a collection of four traditions - Yahwistic, Elohistic, Deuteronomistic and Priestly - and were finished in their written form about 400 BCE. There are two traditions in Genesis, the Yahwistic, which dates from the time of Solomon about 950 BCE, and the Priestly, which was a product of the Babylonian exile from 587 - 538 BCE.2
Who were the Hebrews?
They were a Semitic people. Abraham is presumed to have left Ur of the Chaldees in Sumer about 2000 BCE, moving from Mesopotamia to settle in Canaan.3 They were a pastoral people with their oral history and traditions being put into written form much later, when they settled in cities, especially Jerusalem.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
On December 3 1862 George Smith of the British Museum read a paper to the Society of Biblical Archaeology. It caused a sensation.4 He'd been working on materials brought to the museum from the library of Asshurbanipal, King of Assyria, at Nineveh. Asshurbanipal had put together this library in the 7th century BCE - between 660 - 630. What was on these twelve clay tablets was the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh was a hero king of the city state of Erech (Uruk) who has many adventures. After the death of his best friend, he seeks out his ancestor, Utnapishtim, who was granted immortality by the gods. Gilgamesh, concerned with his own mortality, wants this secret. Utnapishstim tells him this story which appears on the 11th tablet.
The gods decide to destroy humanity, but one has second thoughts and advises Utnapishtim of the steps to take to avoid the impending calamity. The god does not speak to him directly. The implication is the god can't do this so as a subterfuge he speaks to a reed wall which Utnapistim just happens to be in hearing distance of.
...build an ark....
load the seed of every living thing...
the boat that you will build
let her measure be measured
let her breadth and length be equal
cover it with a roof as the abyss is covered'
More detailed instructions follow.
"10 dozen cubits the heights of each wall
10 dozen cubits its deck
on the seventh day the ark was completed ... '
After the ark is finished the storm comes.
"For one day the south wind blew...
for six days and seven nights
the wind shrieked, the stormflood rolled through the land ...
until 'the mountain Nisir seized the boat ...' "
Utnapishtim describes what happens next.
"I sent out a dove ...
The dove went out and returned
I sent out a swallow ...
The swallow went out and returned
I sent out my crow ...
The crow went out and seeing that the waters had receded
it ate, circled around, turned, and did not come back ..."
Utnapishtim offers sacrifice - the gods smell the fragrance. At least one of them must have been impressed with this because "The lady of the gods laid a fly made of lapis lazuli on Utnapishtim's neck." He and his wife were made "like the gods" and taken away to live far away, at "the source of all rivers".5 I won't bother listing the parallels with the story of Noah in Genesis, this would be labouring the obvious. [click here for a list of such parallels]
Other copies of the Epic of Gilgamesh have since been found in many different locations, written in various languages and at various times. The Epic must date from before 1800 BCE because there is no mention of Marduk, the god of Babylon. Once Babylon became supreme in Mesopotamia, Marduk was given the prime place in the pantheon of the gods and their stories.6
It's likely that there was a historical Gilgamesh. He is mentioned in the King Lists 7 which were compiled about 2120 BCE and other sources. 8 So we're left with the question - where did the story of Utnapishtim come from and was there any such person?
In 1914 Arno Poebel published a translation of what he could retrieve from the lower third of a badly damaged Sumerian tablet.9 This tablet has been dated to the late 3rd Millennium BCE and remains unique and unduplicated. (The Sumerians settled the lands around the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers from about 3500 BCE. They were a non-Semitic people who can lay claim to a number of firsts in the civilization stakes, arguably the most significant being the invention of writing.) Because of the parts which are missing from the tablet it is difficult to piece this version of the flood story together.
We don't know why the gods decide to bring the flood and destroy mankind but some are obviously unhappy with this decision. Zuisudra is a pious, god- fearing king who spends his time looking for signs from the gods. He stations himself near a wall and is warned of the impending flood. The instructions on how to build a giant boat are missing and the story resumes with detail on the duration of the flood - seven days and nights. After it is over, Zuisudra offers sacrifice and is given "life like a god".
We don't have any evidence that Zuisudra was an historical character. There is nobody by that name mentioned in the King Lists but another source describes him as the son of Ubartutu who does appear in the list as the ruler of Shuruppak, the last king before the flood.10 There is a significant division in the King Lists marked by the phrase - "the flood came" - which seemingly separates mythological kings from historical ones. The number of years pre flood add up to 241,000 11 with these eight kings being credited with incredibly long reigns.
Zuisudra can obviously lay claim to being the first Noah in literary terms at least. By this criterion he is the closest thing we've got to the real Noah, even though he probably didn't exist. But even if the person cannot be proved to have existed, what about the event? What other evidence is there that supports the occurrence of a flood of the kind of proportions described in these stories?
Sir Leonard Woolley at Ur in 1929 thought he'd found evidence of just such an event which appeared to have destroyed the city some time prior to 3000 BCE. He'd dug a shaft which contained a thick stratum of clay which must have once been silt carried by water. There was evidence of human settlement above and below this stratum.12 However, more extensive investigation since then has tended to prove that only one section of the city was badly damaged. No evidence of one great, disastrous flood has come to light.13 Great floods are commonplace in Mesopotamian history, with many Sumerian sites showing clean strata of waterborne sand and clay.14
Conclusion and speculation
One obvious conclusion which can be drawn from all this is that there is not a lot that is original in the story of Noah's flood in the Bible. It is a later manifestation of something which has its origins - whatever they might be - at a much earlier time. I wonder how those fundamentalist Christians who regard the Bible as literally true go about reconciling their belief with the existence of the stories of Utnapishtim and Zuisudra? I'd guess that in the fashion of the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass,15 who was sometimes able to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, that they would continue their usual pattern of fudging the facts to fit what they need to believe to stay in their comfort zones.
Bibliography and Notes
Barrett, D. S., Bryce, T. R., Kanowski, M. J., Threshold of Time,
Caldwell, Wallace E and Gyles, Mary F, The Ancient World, 3rd ed., Dryden
Cohn-Hart, Louis, Source Readings in Ancient Near East and Greece,
Encyclopedia of World Mythology, Octopus, 1975.
Gardner, John and Maier, John, Gilgamesh Translated from the
sin-leqi-unninni version, Knof, 1984.
Kagan, Donald, Problems in Ancient History Volume One The Ancient Near
East and Greece, Macmillan, 1966.
Kramer, Samuel Noah, History Begins at Sumer Thirty Nine Firsts in Man's
Recorded History, University of Philadelphia Press, 1981.
Lloyd, Seton, The Archaeology of Mesopotamia, Thames, and Hudson, 1978.
The New Jerusalem Bible, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985.
Roberts, Martin, The Ancient World, Macmillan, 1979.
Odijk, Pamela, The Hebrews, Macmillan, 1989.
Richardson, M. E. J., Mesopotamia, in Cavendish, Richard (ed), Mythology
An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Orbis, 1980.
Sladek, John, The New Apocrypha, Panther, 1978.
1 Sladek, John, The New Apocrypha, p 92
2 Introduction to The New Jerusalem Bible
3 Odijk, Pamela , The Hebrews
4 Kramer, Samuel Noah, History Begins at Sumer, p 181
5 I have used as the basis for this summary the translation given in Gardner, John and Maier, John, Gilgamesh, Tablet XI
6 Encyclopedia of World Mythology p 121
7 The Sumerian King List in Kagan, Donald, Problems in Ancient History Volume One
8 Richardson, M. E. J., Mesopotamia, p 90
9 Kramer, Samuel Noah, History Begins at Sumer, p 20
10 Lloyd, Seton, The Archaeology of Mesopotamia, p 90
11 Barrett, Bryce, Kanowski, Threshold of Time, p 52. Their arithmetic, not mine.
12 Roberts, The Ancient World, "Using the evidence: a mystery at Ur" , pp 52 - 55
13 Caldwell and Gyles, The Ancient World, p 35
14 Lloyd, Seton, The Archaeology of Mesopotamia, p 92
15 Carroll, Lewis, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland / Through the