Monday, February 4, 2013

Genesis as Polemic against Atra-hasis

As many biblical texts before it, the orthodox theology and ethics communicated by the Book of Genesis is forged in the fires of adversity. It may be that God first lets a falsehood thrive in order to direct and motivate the biblical authors to argue as they do. In the case of Genesis, it becomes clear that the more one spends time in it and pays attention to its argument, that it has been written to communicate a specific theology and ethics concerning procreation. This creation principle is not merely out of nowhere, nor is it something imposed upon the text by those wishing to argue against various wayward sexual practices. Instead, such is its context, and as its context, one's interpretation of the text can only be described as deficient and inadequate without considering said context. Hence, it is important to give its plausible setting and address, including the identification of what text(s) or ideas with which it is interacting. I believe, in the case of Genesis, Atra-hasis is that text, and its argument for dealing with overpopulation is the idea against which Genesis is arguing.

What I wish to first show is that the flood story in Gilgamesh XI is essentially the same version as that which once existed in the Epic of Atra-hasis. This will aid us in seeing that the flood story in Genesis may be interacting either with Gilgamesh XI or with Atra-hasis. After looking at those elements that Atra-hasis and Genesis share, but do not share with Gilgamesh XI, it can be deduced that the author of Genesis is interacting with Atra-hasis specifically.

It must be first understood that the flood stories in the ancient Near East are all a result of a single tradition. They are not separate memories of a single event, but a single memory of a single event. That is an important point to remember as we move along in our argument. The original version is either to be found in the Sumerian text of Ziusudra, which is highly fragmentary, or in the Old Babylonian version of Atra-hasis itself. 

What must also be understood is that even though the tradition is singular, it appears to be used for different purposes in terms of what ideology the author of each individual text wished to convey. The described event is very similar, but the message a particular author desired to communicate through the event was very different from other accounts. For instance, in the Old Babylonian version of Atra-hasis, it is clear that the author wished to make an argument toward limiting population by supporting reproductive habits that would limit the amount of children a couple had (hence, limiting reproduction via unproductive sexual acts and reducing the amount of available women by dedicating them to the gods as priestesses). In the Assyrian version (as well as that found in Berossus), the author attempts to argue that the people ought to maintain their upkeep of the temples and continue seeking the guidance of the gods. In Gilgamesh XI, the author adapts the account to the message of the Gilgamesh Epic, which has more to do with escaping death and the nature of what it means to obtain immortality.

The flood tradition is thought to date as far back as the beginning of the third millennium B.C. The Ziusudra Epic is dated to around the same time as the Old Babylonian version of Atra-hasis (17th Century B.C.). The account was added to the Gilgamesh Epic circa 1200 B.C. The Assyrian version is dated to the seventh century B.C. Berossus’s version dates to the third century B.C. Hence, the original literary tradition begins with either the text of Ziusudra or the Old Babylonian Atra-hasis. 

But discovering whether Ziusudra begins the tradition is not important for this study. It is simply necessary to show that the parallels between later versions and the Old Babylonian Atra-hasis showcase the fact that the Old Babylonian version, rather than the Sumerian version, stands as the antecedent to the others. What this means is that the large amount of details lost from the Old Babylonian version might be reestablished by one of its offspring. Hence, we must ask whether the two closest texts to it, Gilgamesh XI or the Assyrian version, share enough affinity with it as to reconstruct what it basically said. If this can be done, the similarities between the text of Genesis and Gilgamesh XI may be found to really be due, not to the author of Genesis’ familiarity with GE, but due to his interaction with the Old Babylonian version and its ideology.

But these later versions can be seen as interpretive renditions of the Old Babylonian flood story, and not just later independent works as well. Atra-hasis already has elements within it that could cause one to emphasize the need to worship all the gods, and not just one (polytheism versus henotheism). It also contains the offering to Atra-hasis to become an immortal. But although Gilgamesh XI, the Assyrian version of Atra-hasis, and Berrossus can all be traced back to the Old Babylonian version in this way, the same cannot be said in reverse. In other words, it is not merely the later date of the texts that tells us that these later versions are drawn from Atra-hasis, but the fact that they each clearly take elements within the original text and emphasize, or deemphasize, certain aspects of that text in order to use the flood tradition for its own ideological purposes. Yet, those later versions do not have all of the elements that explain where Atra-hasis got its own ideological emphasis. Hence, it is not simply that the texts we have are later, but the versions found in those texts cannot be said to predate the Old Babylonian version of Atra-hasis. 

It is clearly my intention to springboard off of what scholars, like Lambert and Millard have known for some time, namely, that “Tablet XI of the Gilgameš Epic is in fact largely derived from the account in Atra-hasīs.[1] As Tigay has also convincingly proven by his comparison of the texts that “in the case of the flood story there is no question but that Atrahasis served as the source for Tablet XI of the late version.”[2]
He sums up the evidence for the above statement nicely by saying that “this is crystal clear from the following considerations: 1) Certain lines in Gilgamesh and Atrahasis are virtually identical, and the two are therefore textually related. 2) The flood story is an integral part of the plot in Atrahasis, and it was already part of the plot of that epic in the Old Babylonian period. In Gilgamesh, the story is only incidental to the main theme, and, as we shall see, probably did not enter the epic until its late version was created. 3) In Tablet XI, 15–18, Utnapishtim opens his account of the flood with a list of gods (Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, and Ennugi) and their offices which also appears at the beginning of the Old Babylonian Atrahasis. In Tablet XI, the list, along with line 19 which may be based on the second tablet of Atrahasis, serves to identify the great gods who, according to line 14, decided to bring the flood, but it is really inappropriate for this purpose. Not only does it omit Ishtar, who is explicitly mentioned in lines 119 and 121 as having taken part in the decision, but it mentions Ennugi, who plays no role at all in Tablet XI, and Anu, who is mentioned only in passing, without being involved in the events. In Atrahasis, however, all of the gods mentioned in the list play a role in the events surrounding the creation of man, and three of them play a role in the flood as well. Therefore it appears that the editor of the Gilgamesh story simply took the list over bodily from Atrahasis, rather than composing a new one of his own. 4) Finally—and this is the giveaway—although Gilgamesh usually calls the survivor of the flood Utnapishtim, in the flood story he once calls him Atrahasis (XI, 187), the name he bears throughout The Atrahasis Epic.[3]

However, it is only the flood narrative that the two have in common. As Tigay points out, “while the flood story in GE XI comes from Atrahasis, the rest of the narrative about Gilgamesh’s encounter with Utnapishtim (GE X, iv-vi and the rest of GE XI, i.e., 11.1–14 and 193–307) has no counterpart in Atrahasis.”[4]

Now, the reason why I have gone to the trouble of pointing out that the flood account in Gilgamesh XI is one and the same flood account in Atra-hasis is twofold. (1) To establish what the flood account, which has been largely lost in the Old Babylonian version, looked like; and therefore, (2) that the similarities between the Genesis account are not similarities to Gilgamesh, but to Atra-hasis. In other words, the author of Genesis is directly interacting with the epic’s ideology, and thus, utilizes its flood story.

Now, the first of the two above have been sufficiently proven by those who have come before me. Anyone familiar with the texts will find the above arguments indisputable. It would be one thing to merely have details that were similar when describing an historical event, but it is quite another to have the wording and details mentioned in such a similar fashion as to leave little doubt for one text’s reliance upon another. To be sure, if the flood accounts were term papers turned in by two different students, expulsion on the charge of plagiarism would be a sure result of it. 

The second claim, however, is what this paper seeks to prove. Hence, it is necessary to look at a couple of elements that are shared by the Genesis account and that of Atra-hasis, but not with Gilgamesh XI. Since the text in Gilgamesh XI provides us with the missing data from Atra-hasis, one must assume that what is found in Gilgamesh XI was also similar or identical to that in Atra-hasis. The following is a comparison of the similar elements the accounts share with one another.

Gilgameš XI
Noah walked with God (6:9)

Then God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me . . . everything on the earth shall perish” (6:13, 17)

God said to Noah . . . “Behold, I Myself will bring a flood upon the earth” (6:17)

“Construct for yourself an ark” (6:14)

“Cover it inside and out with pitch” (6:14)

“Make a roof for the ark” (6:16)

“For after seven more days, I will send rain upon the earth” (7:4)

“in order to preserve their seed alive upon the face of the earth” (7:3)

“Go into the ark, you and all your household” (7:1)

clean animals [i.e., domestic] and animals that are not clean [i.e., wild] (7:8)

And YHWH closed him in (7:16)

I will send rain upon the earth for forty days and forty nights . . . the rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights (7:4, 12) [the parallel here is not in the time frame, which in Genesis is figurative, but the use of the same time frame in the pattern X days and X nights, whereas Gilgamesh has X days and Y nights.]

Noah opened the window of the ark (8:6)

The ark came to rest upon the mountains (8:4)

Sent out the dove and the dove returned to him (8:10)

“offered burnt offerings on the altar”

YHWH smelled the sweet savor (8:21)

“I shall remember my covenant . . . I remember (9:15-16)

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood must be shed (9:6)

And God blessed Noah
[I lived in the temple of Ea, my lord]

(Enki presumably speaking to Atrahasis): The gods commanded total destruction (II.viii.34)

He [i.e., Enki] told him of the coming flood (III.i.37)

“Construct a ship” (III.i.22)

[he poured pitch into the inside]

“Build a roof on it like the Apsu”(III.i.29)

He [Enki] announced to him the coming of the flood for the seventh night

[“Bring into the ship the seed of all life”]

he sent his family on board (III.ii.42)

[the cattle of the field, the wild animal of the steppe]

Pitch was brought for him to close the door (III.ii.51)

For seven days and seven nights came the storm (III.iv.24)

[“he opened the window”]

[On Mt. Nimush the boat was grounded]

[The dove went out and returned]

He offered up a [sacrifice] (III.v.31)

[The gods smelled the sweet] savor (III.v.34)

“That I may remember it [every] day” (

[upon the criminal] impose your penalty (

[he touched our foreheads to bless us]
Went down to dwell with my lord, Ea (v. 42)

“Construct a ship” (v. 24)

I poured pitch into the inside

“Build a roof on it like the Apsu” (v. 31)

“Bring into the ship the seed of all life” (v. 27)

All of my family and relatives went into the ship (v. 84)

the cattle of the field, the wild animal of the steppe (v. 85)

I entered the boat and closed the door (v. 93)

Six days and seven nights the wind and storm blew (v. 127)

“I opened the window” (v. 135)

On Mt. Nimush the boat was grounded (v. 140)

The dove went out and returned (v. 147)

“I offered up a sacrifice” (v. 155)

The gods smelled the sweet savor (v. 160)

“I shall remember these days and never forget” (v. 165)

Upon the criminal impose his crimes (v. 180)

he touched our foreheads to bless us (v. 173)

It is, however, not merely the similar phrases that point to the author of Genesis’ intimate knowledge of the Atra-hasis text. For instance, in the Babylonian flood account, there is a period of waiting seven days between the rains subsiding and sending out a dove. In the Genesis account, the period is between the first bird (a raven) sent out after the rains subside and the second bird (a dove), the second bird and the third (a dove again), and the third bird and the fourth (also a dove).

What is also interesting are the birds and the times they are sent out. In Genesis, one raven and three doves are sent out. In the Babylonian version, one dove, one swallow, one raven, and all kinds of birds are sent out. It is interesting that Genesis retains the identity of two of the birds (i.e., a raven and a dove) and the amount of times birds were sent out (i.e., four). This may be an indication of where Gilgamesh XI and Atra-hasis disagreed rather than the disagreement existing between the Genesis account with Atra-hasis. In any case, the similarity is too striking to ignore, but the dissimilarity with Gilgamesh may contribute to the overall picture that the text with which Genesis is interacting is not Gilgamesh, but Atra-hasis (i.e., a text similar enough to Gilgamesh XI, but evidencing some variation).

Other elements exist in terms of themes. In the Babylonian account, a necklace of flies that are worn around the neck, as though they are the colorful jewel lapis lazuli, serves as a reminder of the flood to the remorseful gods, but in Genesis it is the colorful rainbow in the sky that does so.
Where we see a significant detail that is only shared between Atra-hasis and the Genesis account is when the flood hero is warned seven days in advance before the flood occurs. This detail is left out of Gilgamesh XI and every other flood account. Only Genesis and Atra-hasis share the detail between them.

Jacobsen suggested that the Mesopotamian materials, such as Atra-hasis may have been admired by the author(s) of Genesis and so mimicked by him, or they may have simply served as a models for the P account.[5] As I have argued above and will argue below, it seems clear that this connection must be seen as one between Atra-hasis and Genesis, not simply a generic Mesopotamian tradition.
Kikawada has argued in another article that Genesis, Enki and Ninmah, and Atra-hasis all share doublets when describing the creation of mankind,[6] but it is clear that rather than suppose this to be a common ancient Near Eastern method of constructing anthropogonies, as Kikawada suggests, the evidence points to the uniqueness of this phenomenon, as no other anthropogony outside of these three accounts do this, nor are Enki and Ninmah separate traditions, but instead, as Millard pointed out, the Sumerian work known as “Enki and Ninmah clearly belongs to the same tradition as Atrahasis."[7] Hence, the uniqueness is shared only between Genesis and the tradition that runs through the Atra-hasis Epic.

Millard notes some similarities between Genesis and Atra-hasis as well, noting, among other things, that “the basic idea of disturbing deity is surely common to both narratives as the provocation leading to the decision to send the Flood.”[8] This element is not shared by Gilgamesh XI, as Utnapishtim only states that the gods sent the flood, but does not describe the reason for it.[9]

But beside the evidence of continuity, there is evidence of a polemic that is just as convincing. One must remember that the purpose of incorporating the flood account into the Gilgamesh Epic was to contribute to the overall message concerning the pursuit of immortality. Gilgamesh wants to find out if it is possible for a man to achieve it, so he seeks out a man who has. However, this is not the subject matter of Genesis. Instead, Genesis evidences that it is concerned with procreation as a continuation of the work of God in creation. A human being is truly His image when that human thwarts chaos by being fruitful and multiplying and subduing and ruling over the land. Hence, the Genesis account in 1–11 begins and ends with a command to do just that. But why does it do this?
It is clear from the text of Atra-hasis that humans are to keep their numbers down in order to prevent such a tragic event as the flood from happening ever again. In order to keep their numbers down, of course, this entails that they are to limit their children through various means. If the preceding epic did not scare them enough, we are told that a demon will come and steal children away, supposedly, if a woman has too many. Women are to be divided into groups that can bear children and priestesses who are reserved for the service of the deity and not to be touched (although they were often used as a sexual outlet for men who did not wish to get their wives pregnant because they employed contraceptive methods and practices that thwarted childbirth). But if all of these clues are too vague for the reader to comprehend, the account states explicitly that the goal of all of these restrictions concerning sexual practice are to “stop childbearing.”

In other words, the argument that Atra-hasis seeks to make is that the flood event came about because there were too many humans whose lives were becoming too burdensome to the gods, specifically to Enlil. Although Enki is on the side of humanity, he has worked out a compromise that all people should obey; and that compromise needs to be kept by humans by limiting their childbirth and hindering population growth. The text, therefore, is an early form of overpopulation propaganda that told people the gods are not favorable toward a couple who has too many children.

In contrast to this, Genesis presents God as not only favorable toward a couple having many children, but as commanding it Himself. In fact, He considers the seed of the woman, the offspring born in His image and a representative of mankind according to the genealogy of Seth, who He made to co-create human life with Him, to be those who “walk with Him.” He preserves them and they show themselves to be His people. Where the line of Abel/Seth continues the image by having, not only a child, but “other sons and daughters” (the only characteristic of each person in Seth’s line) the line of Cain is characterized only by a single heir and their anticreational acts of murder and self-exalting pursuits as gods who build city centers and fill their days with entertainment (a pastime of the gods) in order to provide a human-centered answer to chaos. 

In other words, it is no coincidence that after the flood in the Atra-hasis Epic humans are told to stop childbearing, and after the flood in the Genesis account, humans are told, even more emphatically than before I might add, to increase childbearing. It is also no coincidence that the entire section of Genesis 1–11 ends with the building of Babylon, the very place where the author of Genesis likely first interacted with the text of Atra-hasis and saw it as a product of that society, an argument, the author seems to think, that is only made in an overcrowded area, such as a city, since population growth is not usually an issue if people continue to spread out and use the amount of land available.
Hence, the polemic of Genesis is made by presenting God as favorable toward childbearing and population growth, by displaying it as a command given by God at creation and after the flood, the structuring of the book by the tōlĕdôt “birthing” formula, by presenting that man as a singular human rather than a larger population is “not good,” and presenting his wife as made specifically for the purpose of increasing his numbers, by implying that the command that is broken was a misuse of the sexual act that was non-procreative, that continually arguing that it is YHWH who creates children, not just the human body, by presenting the righteous line of the woman’s seed as those who have many sons and daughters, by explaining that the flood did not occur because of overpopulation, but because the population was corrupt and had become chaotic agents rather than agents of life fulfilling their roles as God’s co-creating images (i.e., people practicing hamas which is a word that describes violence to human life and preservation which includes unproductive sexual acts), and by continuing to argue beyond the first half of the book on through the patriarchal narratives that God’s desire is to increase the number of His people upon the earth in a population explosion, and that He is the One to be credited with opening and closing the womb, as well as condemning unproductive sexual acts that do violence to the creation principle of filling up the earth with human beings (e.g., the citizens of Sodom who wish to have sex with the men/angels who visit the city and the cases of killing Er and Onan). 

If overpopulation is a problem, it is only a problem for the cities that do not spread out. Hence, dispersion is the answer the author of Genesis provides to the problem of overpopulation, not limiting population through contraceptive practices and the engaging in unproductive sexual acts.

The author of Genesis seeks to make a monumental polemical argument against the one made in Atra-hasis by using the same flood tradition but altering its original purpose to the degree of saying the exact opposite of the ideology it was once used to convey. But Genesis goes far beyond merely using the flood account as polemic, and instead uses the entire early history of the world and Israel’s origins as the framework upon which the polemic is built. Hence, it is not merely the flood account in Genesis, nor even merely the primeval history alone, but the entirety of the book that provides Israel with an understanding, not only of its physical origins, but of its theological and ethical ones as well. And these latter theological and ethical origins stand in direct opposition to those presented within the Atra-hasis Epic.

Thus, as Kikawada noted in his structural study between the two texts, both are concerned with solutions to overpopulation, but Atra-hasis argues for “the urban  solution,” which is birth control. Genesis, however, “offers dispersion, the nomadic way.”[10] As Tsumura sums up the argument, “Kikawada, following Kilmer’s view of ‘overpopulation’, suggests that ‘Genesis 1–11 may be a polemic against urban life and its solution to overpopulation, birth control.”[11]
Likewise, Moran suggests that the postdiluvian instructions to be fruitful and multiply by teeming upon the earth, where the instructions in Atra-hasis to stop childbearing would be expected, is a “conscious rejection” of the argument made in the Atra-hasīs Epic.[12]

Hence, there is no doubt. The elements found in Genesis are not a part of some generic tradition, but are specifically elements from Atra-hasis that the author of Genesis has marshaled in order to turn the message of Atra-hasis on its head, and “set the record straight,” so to speak.

[1] W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atra-Hasīs: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999) 11. They conclude that “Ku-Aya’s text is the main source” of the Assyrian version as well.
[2] Jeffrey Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., 2002) 216.
[3] Ibid., 216–217.
[4] Ibid., 217.
[5] Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Eridu Genesis,” ISIBF 141.
[6] Isaac M. Kikawada, “The Double Creation of Mankind in Enki and Ninmah, Atrahasis I 1–351, and Genesis 1–2,” in ISIBF 169–74.
[7] A. R. Millard, “A New Babylonian ‘Genesis’ Story,” in ISIBF 119. For support of this claim, also see S. N. Kramer, Sumerian Mythology 69–70 and J. J. van Dijk, Acta Orientalia 28 (1964) 24–31. Also see my thesis, “The Labor of the Gods: Ancient Near Eastern Creation Accounts and the Purpose of Genesis 1,”
[8] Millard, “A New Babylonian,” 123.
[9] Ibid., 122.
[10] I. M. Kikawada, “Literary Convention of the Primaeval History,” AJBI 1 (1975) 3–21; also see A. D. Kilmer, “The Mesopotamian Concept of Overpopulation and Its Solution as Reflected in Mythology,” Or 41 (1972) 160–77.
[11] David T. Tsumura, “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood,” in I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood: (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns,   ) 46
[12] W. L. Moran, “Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood,” Bib 52 (1971) 51–61. Also see T. Frymer-Kensky, “The Atrahasis Epic and Its Significance for Our Understanding of Genesis 1–9,” BA 40 (1977)147–55, who concludes the same.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry for the messy chart. It was perfectly aligned in Word, but blogger messed it up for some reason in the conversion.