Noah’s Flood

Story, whether factual or not, finds similarities in Babylonian myth.

The great flood was the deluge in which God destroyed all mankind (with the exception of Noah and his family) because of their evil deeds, as told in the book of Genesis (6:9-9:28). The mythical nature of the flood narrative has often been noted, especially in the account of the animals coming in two by two into Noah’s Ark, which is not a huge ship but a comparatively small, box-like structure. Moreover, parallels to the flood story are found in ancient Babylonian myths, especially in the Gilgamesh epic in which the gods decide to destroy mankind because people are disturbing them by making too much noise!

Orthodox Judaism, stressing that the whole of the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses) is the very word of God, accepts the narrative as factually true in all its details; although Chief Rabbi J. H. Hertz is prepared to admit that the Pentateuchal narrative is paralleled in the Babylonian myth. Hertz’s view is that the narrative is factual. There really was a flood of universal proportions and Noah is a historical figure, both the Babylonian myth and the Genesis narrative being no more than different versions of the same facts.

Even on the critical view that the Genesis narrative is mythical and that there is more than one account combined in the present form of the narrative, the critics readily note the vast difference between the monotheistic account of the Torah and the polytheistic Babylonian account. In the Babylonian myth, for instance, Ut-Napishtim, the Babylonian Noah, is saved by the god of whom he was a special favorite and he himself eventually became a god, unlike in the biblical account in which Noah is a righteous man, saved because of his righteousness.

On this view, the biblical authors used the ancient myth to create a myth of their own, but one infused with moral concern in the monotheistic vein. Many modern Jewish scholars and thinkers, while acknowledging the mythical elements in the Genesis narrative and its indebtedness to the Babylonian epic, maintain that the narrative is in part at least factual, although, naturally, it is impossible to determine how much is history and how much legend.

Beyond the particular problem of the Flood, the whole discussion centers on the question of the degree to which the Bible conveys infallible information on all matters, and this questions turns on how the traditional doctrine “the Torah is from heaven” is to be understood.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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