The history of the Flood

Copyright 2003 by Zeeshan Hasan. First published in Bangladesh in the December 1st, 2003 issue of the daily New Age.

The traditional view of the Qur'anic narrative has generally equated it with history; Muslims have always assumed that stories of Noah, Abraham, etc. actually happened. However, 20th religious scholarship has questioned the historical accuracy of many of the Biblical stories. Muslims have remained largely apart from this debate over the historicity of the Bible, even though the Qur'an contains many of the same stories and is thus subject to the same sort of analysis. In order to fully understand this debate, the story of Noah will be examined.

To begin, let's look at the oldest form of the Noah story in the Bible. There are actually two accounts, woven closely together. The older is a part of the Yahwist source, or 'J', which was the ancient Israelite tribal epic. J calls God by the name 'Yahweh', usually rendered as 'the Lord' in English, and could date back to around 1200 BC. J's account of the Flood follows, as per the textual reconstruction of Richard E. Friedman's book, 'Who wrote The Bible?'.

And Yahweh saw that the evil of humans was great in the earth, and all the inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil all the day. And Yahweh regretted that he had made humans in the earth, and he was grieved to his heart. And Yahweh said, "I shall wipe out the humans which I have created from the face of the earth, from human to beast to creeping thing to bird of the heavens, for I regret that I have made them." But Noah found favour in Yahweh's eyes. (Genesis 6:5-8)

And Yahweh said to Noah, "Come, you and all your household, to the ark, for I have seen you as righteous before me in this generation. Of all the clean beasts, take yourself seven pairs, man and his woman; and of the beasts which are not clean, two, man and his woman. Also of the birds of the heavens seven pairs, male and female, to keep alive seen on the face of the earth. For in seven more days I shall rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and I shall wipe out all the substance that I have made from upon the face of the earth." And Noah did according to all that Yahweh had commanded him. (Genesis 7:1-5)
And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him came to the ark before the waters of the flood. (Genesis 7:7)
And seven days later, the waters of the flood were on the earth. (Genesis 7:10)
And there was rain on the earth, forty days and forty nights. (Genesis 7:12)
And Yahweh closed it for him. And the flood was on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and the waters multiplied greatly on the earth, and the ark went on the surface of the waters. And the waters grew very, very strong on the earth, and they covered all the high mountains that are under all the heavens. Fifteen cubits above, the waters grew stronger, and they covered the mountains. (Genesis 7:16-20)
Everything that had the breathing spirit of life in its nostrils, everything that was on the dry ground, died. And he wiped out all the substance that was on the face of the earth, from human to beast, to creeping thing, and to bird of the heavens, and they were wiped out from the earth, and only Noah and those who were with him in the ark were left. (Genesis 7:22-23)
And the rain was restrained from the heavens. And the waters receded from the earth continually. (Genesis 8:2,3)
And it was at the end of forty days, and Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. (Genesis 8:6)
And he sent out a dove from him to see whether the waters had eased from the face of the earth. And the dove did not find a resting place for its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for waters were on the face of the earth, and he put out his hand and took it and brought it to him to the ark. And he waited seven more days, and he again sent out a dove from the ark. And the dove came to him at evening time, and here was an olive leaf torn off in its mouth, and Noah knew that the waters had eased from the earth. And he waited seven more days, and he sent out a dove, and it did not return to him ever again. (Genesis 8:8-12)
And Noah turned back the covering of the ark and looked, and here the face of the earth had dried. (Genesis 8:13)
And Noah built an altar to Yahweh, and he took some of each of the clean beasts and of each of the clean birds, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. And Yahweh smelled the pleasant smell, and Yahweh said to his heart, 'I shall not again curse the ground on man's account, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from their youth, and I shall not again strike all the living as I have done. All the rest of the days of the earth, seed and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.' (Genesis 8:20-22)

The gaps in the line numbers occurs because J's account of the flood has been interwoven with that of the Priestly source (or 'P'). However, J is an earlier source than P, which probably only dates back to around the time of the Israelite exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC. So J is the relevant Biblical source to examine in any discussion of the origins of the Noah story.

As it happens, these origins turn out to be Mesopotamian rather than Biblical. While almost everyone is somewhat familiar with Noah story, very few people are aware that it is not the only story of the flooding of the earth which comes down to us from the ancient Middle East. In fact, the story of the flood is a very old story, common to a number of Mesopotamian cultures. Two earlier retellings of this tale survive; one is the story of Utnapishtim, the Babylonian 'Noah'-character. Utnapishtim's tale is recounted in the 'Epic of Gilgamesh', which is itself one of the oldest stories which survives from the ancient world. An alternate flood account called 'Atrahasis' also survives, named after its own Noah-like character; it is very similar but longer and more detailed than the Gilgamesh version. The two accounts are undoubtedly related; Utnapishtim is even called 'Atrahasis' at some points in Gilgamesh. Tablets of Atrahasis date back to around 1700 BC, which is far older than any Biblical text. Utnapishtim's flood story from the Epic of Gilgamesh follows below.

Utnapishtim spoke to him, to Gilgamesh,
'Let me reveal to you a closely guarded matter, Gilgamesh,
And let me tell you a secret of the Gods.
Shuruppak is a city that you yourself know,
Situated [on the bank of the] Euphrates.
That city was old when the gods within it
Decided that the great gods should make a flood.
In its Babylonian versions, the flood had no trace of the Biblical or Qur'anic motive of punishing mankind for immorality. The Gilgamesh version gives no reason at all; the Atrahasis version relates that the gods wanted to decrease the human population because all those people simply made too much noise.

There was Anu their father,
Warrior Enlil their counsellor,
Ninurta was their chamberlain,
Ennugi their canal-controller.
Far-sighted Ea swore the oath (of secrecy) with them,
So he repeated their speech to a reed hut,
"Reed hut, Reed hut, brick wall, brick wall,
Listen, reed hut, and pay attention, brick wall:
The god Ea's 'oath of secrecy' is unclear here, but in the Atrahasis version, Ea (called Enki in Sumerian) had saved humanity from earlier population-controlling plagues sent from the gods, and so this time the other gods make him swear not to warn the hapless mortals.
(This is the message:)
Man of Shuruppak, son of Ubara-Tutu,
Dismantle your house, build a boat.
Leave possessions, search out living things,
Reject chattels and save lives!
The boat you are to build
Shall have her dimensions in proportion,
Her width and length will be in harmony...
As in the Bible, humans and animals are both saved from the terrible flood by being loaded onto Utnapishtim's boat;

I loaded her with everything there was...
Loaded her with all the seed of living things, all of them
I put on board the boat with my kith and kin.
Put on board cattle from open country, wild beasts from open country, all kinds of craftsmen.
Shamash had fixed the hour...
That hour arrived...
The storm was terrifying to see.
I went aboard the boat and closed the door...
When the first light of dawn appeared,
A black cloud came up from the base of the sky...
The calm before the Storm-god came over the sky,
Everything light turned to darkness...
For six days and [seven (?)] nights
The wind blew, flood and tempest overwhelmed the land;
When the seventh day arrived the tempest, flood and onslaught
Which had struggled like a woman in labour, blew themselves out (?).
The sea became calm, the imhullu-wind grew quiet, the flood held back.
I looked at the weather; silence reigned,
For all mankind had returned to clay...
The flood-plain was flat as a roof.
I opened a porthole and light fell on my cheeks.
I looked for banks, for limits to the sea.
Areas of land were emerging everywhere.
The boat had come to rest on Mount Nimush...
The releasing of birds to seek out dry land is an unmistakable parallel with the Biblical story;

When the seventh day arrived,
I put out and released a dove.
The dove went; it came back,
For no perching place was visible to it, and it turned round.
I put out and released a swallow.
The swallow went; it came back,
For no perching place was visible to it, and it turned round.
I put out and released a raven.
The raven went, and saw the waters receding.
And it ate, preened (?), lifted its tail and did not turn round.
Another unmistakable parallel is the way the gods 'gather like flies' to the smell of Utnapishtim's sacrifice, much as Yahweh is attracted by the smell of Noah's sacrifice;

Then I put (everything ?) out to the four winds, and I made a sacrifice...
The gods smelt the fragrance,
The gods smelt the pleasant fragrance,
The gods like flies gathered over the sacrifice...
Just as J ends with Yahweh's promise to never repeat the flood, the Gilgamesh story ends with the gods of Babylon arguing over the wisdom of flooding the earth. In the end they decide that excess human population is best eliminated by wild beasts and famines in the future. So both stories end with a guarantee that there will be no more humanity-destroying floods, although for different reasons.

As soon as Ellil arrived

He saw the boat. Ellil was furious...
'What sort of life survived? No man should have lived through the destruction!'...
Ea made his voice heard and spoke,
He said to the warrior Ellil...
'You are the sage of the gods, warrior,
So how, O how, could you fail to consult, and impose the flood?
Punish the sinner for his sin, punish the criminal for his crime, But ease off, let work not cease...
Instead of your imposing a flood, let a lion come up and diminish the people...
Instead of your imposing a flood, let famine be imposed and [kessen] the land...
I did not disclose the secret of the great gods,
I just showed Atrahasis a dream, and thus he heard the secret of the gods.'
Now the advice (that prevailed) was his advice.
Ellil came up into the boat,
And seized my hand and led me up.
He led up my woman and made her kneel down at my side.
He touched our foreheads, stood between us, blessed us:
'Until now, Utnapishtim was mortal,
but henceforth Utnapishtim and his woman shall be as we gods are.'
They took me to dwell far off, at the mouth of the rivers.
So now, who can gather the gods on your behalf, (Gilgamesh),
That you too may find eternal life which you seek?
(Gilgamesh, tablet XI)

The framing of Utnapishtim's story of achieving eternal life in the midst of Gilgamesh's own quest for immortality illustrates another point about the flood; in Babylon, the Flood marked an end to the period in history when men could become immortal like the gods. In the Bible, it is not possible for humans to become gods; however, Noah, having been born before the flood, was still given a very long life:

After the flood Noah lived three hundred fifty years. All the days of Noah were nine hundred fifty years; and he died. (Genesis 10:28-29)
The older Babylonian parallels with the Noah story that we have observed point to fact that the Biblical story is simply a local Hebrew version of an older mythology of the flooding of the world by angry gods. In the Bible, the amoral gods of the Babylonian pantheon have simply been replaced by a single, morally motivated deity, Yahweh. It thus appears that that the story of Noah is thus not history, but mythology. The Biblical function of this myth is to provide the scene for the first justification of the Israelite claims to their tribal homeland, which occurs in the later part of J's story of Noah:

The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.
Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, "Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers." (Genesis 9:18-26)
Although the exact nature of Ham's transgression is unclear, to 'uncover the nakedness of one's father' is a terrible sexual crime elsewhere in the Bible, where it means to have sex with one's mother.

You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. (Leviticus 18:7)
The use of the same wording in J's Noah story implies that Ham is apparently punished for some sort of homosexual transgression with the sleeping Noah. The political motive for the passage is obvious; Ham is the father of Canaan, whom the Bible names as the ancestor of the Canaanites. These are the people whom the Israelites find living in the land that is to become the kingdom of Israel after fleeing with Moses from the Pharaoh of Egypt. The Bible narrates that the Israelites conquer the Canaanites to establish the Israelite kingdoms of David and Solomon. The retelling of Ham's sin thus serves to justify the Israelites' subsequent destruction of his ancestors as the fulfillment of a divine curse.

In fact, this tactic of demeaning the tribal opponents of the Israelites through referring to the sexual perversions of their ancestors is used more than once in the Bible, as we can see from the following story of the daughters of Abraham's nephew, Lot. It occurs after God's destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah has killed all the people of the surrounding towns (and as far as Lot and his daughters knew, the whole earth);

Now Lot went up out of Zoar and settled in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar; so he lived in a cave with his two daughters. And the firstborn said to the younger, 'Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come into us in the manner of the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.' So they made their father drink wine that night; and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. On the next day, the first born said to the younger, 'Look, I lay last night with my father; let us make him drink wine tonight also; then you go in and lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.' So they made their father drink wine that night also; and the younger rose, and lay with him; and he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. The firstborn bore a son, and named him Moab; he is the ancestor of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and named him Ben-ammi; he is the ancestor of the Ammonites to this day. (Genesis 19:30-38)
The Biblical account is making puns with all these names; Moab sounds like 'of the same father' in Hebrew, while Ben-Ammi means 'son of my paternal kin'. The Moabites and Ammonites were, of course, neighboring tribes of the Israelites. Their ancestry is thus depicted as having a perverse origin, thus lending support to Israelite concepts of tribal superiority, just as in the case of Ham and Canaan.

If the Biblical flood story is a retelling of Mesopotamian flood myths, what happens to the Qur'anic account of Noah? To answer this we need to examine the Qur'anic account of Noah. The first thing we notice is that the Qur'an gives much more detail as to the sins for which Noah's community is punished, and that these seem quite familiar to anyone who has read the traditional Muslim biographies of Muhammad:

And We sent Noah to his people: 'I am for you a warner, and a bearer of good tidings: Serve you none but God. I fear for you the chastisement of a painful day.' Said the Council of the unbelievers of his people, 'We see thee not other than a mortal like ourselves, and we see not any following thee but the vilest of us, inconsiderately. We do not see you have over us any superiority; no, rather we think you are liars.' He said... 'O my people, I do not ask of you wealth for this; my wage falls only upon God.'... 'I do not say to you, "I possess the treasuries of God"; I know not the Unseen; and I do not say, "I am an angel." Nor do I say to those your eyes despise, "God will not give them any good"; God knows best what is in their hearts. Surely in that case I should be among the evildoers.' ...(Or do they say, 'He has forged it'? Say: 'If I have forged it, upon me falls my sin; and I am quit of the sins you do.') (Qur'an 11:27-37)
This is new material which was not in the Biblical version of the Noah story; what is more interesting is that the arguments between Noah and his people are the same as those that might have occurred between Muhammad's early Muslim community and their opponents among the Quraysh of Mecca. The charge that Muhammad forged the Qur'an of course one of the most common accusations that his Meccan opponents made against him, as is apparent from the verse below:

This Koran could not have been forged apart from God; but it is a confirmation of what was before it, and a distinguishing of the Book, wherein is no doubt, from the Lord of all Being. Or do they say, 'Why, he has forged it'? Say: 'Then produce a sura like it, and call on whom you can, apart from God, if you speak truly.' (Qur'an 10:38, 39)
Additionally, Noah's community objects that only the 'vilest' or lowest classes of the people believed Noah's message; again, this could just have easily have applied to Muhammad among the Quraysh. Since he was preaching a message of compassion for the poor, it was only natural that it was the poorest of the Meccans who followed him. This is also implied by the numerous stories of the persecution of the early Muslims by the Meccans; there are in particular a number of stories of how Abu Bakr freed slaves who became Muslims to protect them from their owners' punishment.

Abu Quhafa said to his son Abu Bakr, ' My son, I see you are freeing weak slaves. If you want to do what you are doing, why don't you free powerful men who could defend you and protect you?' He said, 'I am only trying to do what I am attempting for God's sake.' (Page 144, The life of Muhammad; A translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, by Alfred Guillaume)
The persecution of lower class Muslims was also the reason for the first emigration from Mecca to Abyssinia:

When the apostle saw the affliction of his companions and that though he escaped it because of his standing with Allah and his uncle Abu Talib, he could not protect them, he said to them: 'If you were to go to Abyssinia...' (Page 146, The life of Muhammad; A translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, by Alfred Guillaume)
The very fact that Muslims could not rely on influential figures like Abu Talib for protection indicates that they were from lower social ranks of Mecca. The Noah story thus seems to be attacking the elitist reluctance of the Meccans to join the Muslim community, which from the beginning seems to have included a number of slaves.

Additionally, the Qur'anic tale of the disbelief and drowning of Noah's son (the name Ham is no longer mentioned) is also significant:

And it was revealed to Noah, saying, 'None of thy people shall believe but he who has already believed; so be thou not distressed by that they may be doing. Make thou the Ark under Our eyes, and as We reveal; and address Me not concerning those who have done evil; they shall be drowned.' So he was making the Ark... Until, when Our command came, and the oven boiled, We said, 'Embark in it two of every kind, and thy family - except for him against whom the word has already been spoken - and whosoever believes.' And there believed not with him but a few... So it ran with them amid waves like mountains; and Noah called to his son, who was standing apart, 'Embark with us my son, and be thou not with the unbelievers!' He said, 'I will take refuge in a mountain, that shall defend me from the water.'... And the waves came between them, and he was among the drowned. And it was said, 'Earth, swallow thy waters; and, heaven, abate!' And the waters subsided, the affair was accomplished, and the Ark settled on El-Judi, and it was said, 'Away with the people of the evildoers!' And Noah called unto his Lord, and said, 'O my Lord, my son is of my family, and Thy promise is surely the truth. Thou art the justest of those that judge.' Said He, 'Noah, he is not of thy family; it is a deed not righteous. Do not ask of Me that whereof thou hast no knowledge. I admonish thee, lest thou shouldst be one of the ignorant.' He said, 'My Lord, I take refuge with Thee, lest I should ask Thee that whereof I have no knowledge; for if Thou forgivest me not, and hast not mercy on me, I shall be among the losers.' It was said, 'Noah, get thee down in peace from us, and blessings upon thee and on the nations of those with thee...'(Qur'an 11:38-50)
Noah's failure to convince his son sounds remarkably relevant to al-Tabari's narration of the failure of Muhammad's attempts to convert his uncle Abu Talib to Islam:

Muhammad turned toward his uncle... and called upon him, saying, "Utter a saying by means of which I shall testify for you on the day of resurrection. Say, 'There is no deity but God'". He replied, 'Were it not that the Arabs would consider this shameful for you (all), and say that I was afraid of death, I would grant you this; but I must remain in the religion of my ancestors.' Then came the revelation of the verse: 'You guide not whom you love, but God guides whom he will.' (page 95, The history of al-Tabari, volume VI; Muhammad at Mecca, translated by W. M. Watt and M. V. Macdonald)
Muhammad's failure to convert his uncle Abu Talib, who protected him from his enemies amongst the Quraysh during his preaching in Mecca, must have been particularly painful; and the story of the drowning of Noah's son seems to address this.

Although the Qur'anic and Biblical versions of the Noah story seem very different in details and intent, at the same time the Qur'an emphasizes its common ground with the Biblical version by giving the same figure for the lifespan of Noah:

Indeed, We sent Noah to his people, and he tarried among them a thousand years, but fifty; so the Flood seized them, while they were evildoers. (Quran 29:14)
A question might now arise as to which is the true story of Noah; but our investigation indicates that this is the wrong question to ask. The oldest and hence most 'original' flood story amongst those we have seen was that from Gilgamesh, which was not only polytheist but totally amoral in that the gods of Babylon decided to destroy humanity without any of the moral reasons that are given in the Bible or Qur'an. Since the Gilgamesh story is thus completely amoral, that it cannot be regarded as religious truth from a Muslim or Judeo-Christian perspective. But in that case, we are left with the only the later Biblical and Qur'anic flood stories; and objectively, these cannot be considered historical truth as they are later than the Gilgamesh story. What we are left with is a Qur'anic version of the Noah story which can be claimed to be a religious truth from a Muslim perspective, but not a historical truth; in other words, a Muslim myth.

The mythic view of Noah is supported by the fact that the details of the flood story in the Qur'an seems to have more to do with Muhammad's prophetic career than Noah's. This seems to brush aside the question of historical truth altogether, since the function of the Qur'anic story then becomes to provide moral support to the early Muslim community rather than giving history lessons. This makes sense if we consider the following verse:

And all that We relate to thee of the tidings of the Messengers is that whereby We strengthen thy heart; in these there has come to thee the truth and an admonition, and a reminder to the believers. (Qur'an 11:122)
Here the Qur'an itself is saying that the purpose of its stories of earlier messengers is to give Muhammad and his followers encouragement by example. This is very different from claiming that these stories represent factual history. The evidence is that, rather than simply telling the history of Noah, the Qur'an is supporting the early Muslim community through reference to the story of Noah. As a myth, the flood story gains the flexibility to be directly applied to the circumstances of the Muslim community; and in this way it is more useful than history.

Conservatives will be alarmed at this conclusion, because they have always declared that the Qur'anic stories must be historically true. But this is simply not necessary. The truth of the Qur'an in religious terms should be determined by whether or not its stories are morally true, not historically true. The matter of historical truth should be left for historical investigation to determine, just as scientific truth should be sought by scientific enquiry and not through scripture. When we think about it, this is perfectly reasonable, since history does in fact claim to be a 'social science': the relics of the past which historical investigation produces, whether they be the cuneiform tablets of the Gilgamesh epic or textual sources such as J, do constitute the historical equivalent of scientific observations, which must all then be considered before we can hypothesize about historical truth. Revelation has other purposes than historical truth; namely, to give us stories (or myths) which illustrate the ethics by which we live.