Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Uta-napishti, Noah, and Ancient Story Telling

The Omega Profblog is pleased to present Alpha professor 
and Biblical scholar Larry Lyke for today's post!

Remember: Alpha is using a different translation which keeps the old Tablet numbers.
It also uses the name Uta-napishti instead of Utnapishtim.

            The story of Uta-napishti’s experience in the great deluge (Tablet XI) likely sounds familiar to most of us. Even if we haven’t read the biblical account of Noah’s flood, the motifs and much of the imagery of that account in Genesis 6-9 have infused popular culture to the point that everyone knows that Noah took on board two of every kind of animal (female and male) and that the flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights. We’ll say more about this popular version of Noah’s flood later. For now, we should acknowledge that when we read about Uta-napishti’s flood we likely start wondering if the flood account in Gilgamesh is dependent on the account in the Bible or, perhaps, the reverse.

Noah's Ark, by Edward Hicks

            The two accounts are so similar that the question of genetic relationship is natural and quite sound. While the divine motive for the flood in Gilgamesh remains obscure, it may be that the gods are attempting to save Uta-napishti from Enlil’s wrath (XI 36-39). If this reading is correct, then this account differs from Noah’s where God is fed up with humanity and Noah is saved due to his righteousness (Gen 6:8&9) This difference in motive for bringing the flood should not obscure the remarkable similarities that follow. Like Noah, Uta-napishti (and family) is singled out to survive the coming deluge. Both are told to gather animals to repopulate the post-diluvian world. Moreover, they get remarkably detailed instructions on how to build their respective boats and share the account of sending out birds to determine when the flood is over. The details of the boat building and the sequence and kinds of birds differ but these stories are too similar to dismiss the phenomenon as coincidence. To reinforce this sense of connection between the accounts, each includes an account of the survivor offering a sacrifice, the sweet smell of which pleases the god(s). Finally, each account records the divine regret brought on by the aftermath of the flood.
            For those with only vague knowledge of Genesis 6-9, this parallel account might seem unusual. However, we don’t need to turn to the Epic of Gilgamesh to find a parallel to the story of Noah’s flood. Indeed, Genesis 6-9 contains two differing accounts itself. In fact, these two biblical accounts differ at least as much from one another as the popular biblical version we discussed above differs from Uta-napishti’s flood. Moreover, the Uta-napishti flood story has its own Mesopotamian parallels in the Akkadian Atrahasis and the Sumerian Ziusudra myths.
            We don’t have time or space to detail all these myths let alone the two accounts that have been edited together in Genesis 6-9, but pointing out a few details of the latter should suffice. An attentive reader of Genesis 6-9 would likely be left with two very significant questions. Does the flood (actually the rain) last 40 days (Gen 7:12) or 150 days (Gen 8:1-2)? Additionally, just how many of each type of animal does Noah take on board with him? Is it two of each kind of animal (Gen 6:19-22) or two each of unclean animals and seven pairs of clean animals (Gen 7:2)?
            The mental gymnastics required to harmonize these two accounts are arduous. A simple solution to these (and more) questions is to realize that one of the biblical flood accounts comes from a priestly school of scribes who think that Noah took two pairs of ALL animals and that the flood/rain lasted 150 days. Because the priestly school did not consider sacrifice to be legitimate until much later (when Moses gets instruction in Exodus), it did not include a sacrifice at the end of the story. Had they done so, Noah would have exterminated all trace of the animals he sacrificed!
            Another flood story that has been combined with the priestly presumes that the flood/rain lasted 40 days, that Noah took two of each unclean animal and seven pairs of clean animals. This account includes the story of Noah’s sacrifice of ritually clean animals at the end of chapter 8. Only this version accounts for the extra animals required for the sacrifice and, clearly, does not share the priestly aversion to such practice this early in history.
            Now that we have three separate flood accounts in view (and two more from ancient Mesopotamia in mind), we might continue to speculate on the genetic relationship and issues of priority. Unfortunately, these are very difficult to determine . Later texts can contain older versions of a story than earlier texts. This is the nature of ancient story and textual transmission. If we had to speculate on priority, we have to recognize that the Uta-napishti account, and its Mesopotamian parallels, are likely the older. Moreover, the biblical account acknowledges that Abraham (if we accept the text at face value) was born in Mesopotamia where he and his ancestors worshiped alien gods (Joshua 24:2). It is not hard to imagine that a flood story came west with Abraham, or at least those whom he represents, and that the flood stories in Genesis are related in unspecified ways to ancient Mesopotamian antecedents.

            The question of genetic relationship, while of interest, draws our attention away from a much more intriguing and complicated issue. If we look at the larger complex of story telling in Gilgamesh and the early chapters of Genesis, we recognize a constellation of motifs and imagery that seems to be the real focus of these ancient texts.
            Again, we don’t have the luxury of going into great detail but there are a number of fascinating links between the early parts of Genesis and the Gilgamesh epic. Both stories seem to suggest the connection between sexuality (whether coming of age or sexual activity) and civilization. Enkidu’s liaison with Shamhat (the Prostitute) leads to being rejected by his animal friends and inexorably being drawn into human culture. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve become aware of their sexuality after becoming “knowledgeable” and, as a result, cover their nakedness. Before this event, we are to understand they have childlike innocence of their sexual nature. Moreover, each narrative implies that there is a significant loss in this step toward maturation.
            We have covered the connections between the flood accounts but what do these accounts suggest about the human situation? Among may things these stories connote, we see the acknowledgment that human society is flawed and, no matter how many times the gods try to start over, the flaws remain. The stories also reveal an ambivalence toward water as both life sustaining and threatening. Like its modern counterpart, ancient civilization could not sustain itself without water. Absent deep wells, modern pipelines, and canals, ancient civilizations flourished in river valleys. Of course, annual or occasional catastrophic floods meant that living with and near water had its “ups and downs”! In biblical language, “The lord giveth, the lord taketh away”. It may be that part of the value of flood stories was to suggest the possibility of renewal despite the catastrophic consequences of floods.
Sun god battles the ocean chaos monster.
From A.H. Layard's Monuments of Nineveh, 2nd Series, plate 19/83
(London, J. Murray, 1853)
            A much more subtle issue involved in the flood stories lies in this possible connection to renewal. Note that the introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh (I 37-44) celebrates Gilgamesh for his heroic deeds that include his journey to Uta-napishti, his restoration of cult centers, and re-establishing the “rites of the cosmos”. Those familiar with Ancient Near Eastern culture recognize in these few lines a shorthand version of the celebration of creation that culminates in the establishment of religious cult and temple.
In Genesis we have hints of this notion in Genesis 1-2:4 where God’s mastery of the primordial muck (not an unformed void!) ends in founding the sabbath on day seven. This sequence seems also to inform the version of the flood that concludes with Noah’s sacrifice (see Uta-napishti’s similar actions). A quick read of Exodus 15 will sound remarkably similar with these images in mind as well. All of this suggests the profound religious quality of the Gilgamesh epic that is lost on modern readers.
            Finally, the Epic and Genesis include stories of snakes who rob humans, in one way or the other, of the opportunity for either immortality or, perhaps, eternal youth. These stories likely each are etiologies (stories of origins) of why snakes shed their skin on occasion. They seem to have a monopoly on self renewal, on which humans have, unfortunately, missed out!
            We could say much more about the connections between Genesis and the Epic but for now it is worth noting that they seem to share a common competence in the ways they tell stories and the significance these stories have for understanding who they are. While the motifs vary and their order changes, these are the conceptual DNA - the narrative building blocks - of these ancient cultures and how they narrate the origins of the imperfect world in which they live.

--Larry Lyke

Works cited

Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian (New York: Penguin Books, 1999). Translation.

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