The Bible or Babylon?
©1999, 2009 Kimberly Hartfield
The Biblical account of the creation and that of Noah and the flood, and the Babylonian account of the creation and Gilgamesh, which contains the account of Utnapishtim’s story of the flood, have unquestionable similarities, as do many other myths from various cultures around the world. Many people believe that the Babylonian account is the oldest, therefore they assume that the biblical account was borrowed from it, while Christians and Jews alike, however, believe that the true account of the creation and flood are told in the Hebrew Old Testament.
Some use the idea of borrowed myths to support their own atheistic views and to question the origin and reliability of the Bible. The Larousse World Mythology describes myths as “both a reflection on the cosmos they are meant to explain and a justification of the type of society from which they proceed.” Larousse shows how “the Sumerian pantheon was organized on a pattern of human families forming one social group.” The pantheon of gods closely resembled their human counterparts and some were in fact actual kings. He explains that “the cosmogonic myths implied chaos or the void preceding creation and told of the separation of the elements that had previously been fused together until divine energy began to operate” and that “the myths of origin stated how and why a particular phenomenon came into being.” This implied that these myths were totally untrue, and that emerging cultures simply created and used them to explain the unknown. But John Knox explains, “the term myth really designates a kind of speech, a category of discourse, and is neutral as regards the question of truth. A myth can be false or true.” Myths might be based on fact or not, but most myths probably do have some measure of truth in them. The question is not whether it does or not, but how much truth does it have.
The controversy is fueled by the fact that the Babylonian clay tablets, on which the Gilgamesh Epic is recorded, are indeed older than the oldest existing record of the Biblical account. Larousse states, “There are no myths or legends before those revealed in the texts dating from the Babylonian dynasties of Isin and Larsa (between 1969 and 1732 B.C.)” This fact is not questioned by the religious community, they only point out that the Hebrew methods of keeping records were not conducive to texts being preserved through the ages. The history of culturally related practices of the Hebrews concerning the preservation of the Scriptures is not widely known by the majority of the world. These cultural practices stem from the high esteem that was held by the Hebrews for the Scriptures, which they believed were a direct revelation from God, written by the prophets.
For many years, the stories concerning the creation and the flood, along with others were simply orally passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. The Hebrew people also used markings on their staffs to help them remember important events and genealogies. Then as their civilization advanced with the discovery and use of papyrus scrolls, their histories were recorded on these. But these scrolls did not keep a long time in the high humidity of the Palestinian regions. The scrolls were replaced by newer hand written copies as the old ones wore out. The old ones were burned by the scribes in charge of keeping them, so as not to have unreadable, defiled texts. It is safe to say, if they destroyed old papyri, then if they did in fact use clay tablets, they likely destroyed these as they aged as well. But clay tablets were not likely used by because of the nomadic lifestyle of the Hebrew people. It would have been quite impossible to carry around many heavy tablets as they journeyed. Their own practices, along with the destruction of the temples and scriptures by their attacking enemies, did not provide a good environment for the preservation of their texts.
H. R. Hays in his book In the Beginnings tells of some of these territorial and cultural conflicts. He says, “Apparently, a non-Semitic, non-Indo European ethnic group, the Sumerians entered Mesopotamia probably from the Iranian Mountains to the east prior to or during the fourth millennium B.C. There must have been Semitic settlers already in residence, who were doubtless enslaved.” As the ancient Sumerians took captive these Semitic slaves and took their territory, or possibly brought them with them when they migrated, surely the Semitic culture influenced them somewhat. The Sumerians being polytheistic probably adopted some of their practices, stories, and beliefs.
Hays also tells of another encounter where, “a nomadic people came up from southern Mesopotamia of mixed ethnic stock and that spoke a Semitic dialect, the Canaanites, whose identity was destroyed by the conquering Hebrew nomads, who also moved up from southern Mesopotamian deserts.” The Canaanites had been in the Mesopotamian region long before the Hebrew invasion. These Canaanites greatly influenced the Sumerian texts. Larousse states that “the tendency is to regard these myths as expressing an attempt- the first in time- at religious syncretism with the Canaanite myths occupying as important a position as Sumerian ideas.”
These Canaanites were the descendants of Ham, the son of Noah, who was cursed for seeing his father naked (Genesis 9:22). Noah had cursed him and his descendants to be servants to his brothers, Shem and Japheth, and their descendants (Genesis 10:25). If the Canaanites did in fact leave the Iranian mountainous regions where the Ark was noted to have landed (Genesis 8:4), it makes sense that the descendants of Shem and Japheth would pursue them. This conflict would push the Canaanites further and further, with the Semites following close behind.
If the Biblical account is to be believed, then the sons of Noah would have perpetuated the story of the flood down to their succeeding generations. But the sons of Noah did not form one people group. The generations of Noah’s sons each became their own distinct group of people. The sons of Shem settled in the Arabian peninsula and became the Semites, whose descendants were the sons of Eber, the Hebrews, who finally came to be known as the Jews (Genesis 10:21, I Chr. 1). The sons of Ham became the Canaanites who were “spread abroad” (Genesis 10:18) and who were closely related to the descendants of Cush, of the kingdom of Nimrod, which was Babel (Genesis 10:9-10, I Chr. 1). And lastly the sons of Japheth are believed to have settled in the regions north of the black and Caspian Seas and to be the ancestors of the Caucasian race (Genesis 10:5 and I Chr. 1) as stated in Civilization Past and Present.
According to the Biblical account, these three people groups were one group until their division at Babel. As a result of this chaotic dispersion, each group of people would have perpetuated the story of the creation and the flood, adapting it to their own emerging languages, cultural practices, and religious beliefs. Though they would have taken with them the concept of their faith, names and facts would have been altered to their new and constantly changing languages. The theory of the division and dispersion at Babel accounts for each culture’s variations in the names of their kings and gods. The latter Babylonians simply metamorphosed the resultant changes to their polytheistic beliefs, which were a synthesis of the myths and gods from several subcultures handed down from the Sumerians, the earlier Babylonian culture. It’s as simple as the children’s game Telephone where something is whispered in one child’s ear and he in turn whispers it to another, until by the end of the line, the facts have significantly changed, though some of the original concept may still be evident.
But only one small group of these three people groups, the Hebrews, remained faithful to the truth of God’s Word. These Hebrews, a subculture of the Semite race, believed in one true God, and the Biblical account reflects this idea. Their faithfulness to this belief in one Almighty God would give them a greater scrutiny of any aversions to this truth, even when forced into captivity. This would likely have incensed the Babylonian pagan cultures against the Hebrews and their uncompromising belief system, and vice versa. The Babylonians, on the other hand, were polytheistic, that is, they worshiped many gods, and their stories reflect this perspective. If they took with them the story of God, the creation, and the flood, they probably lost much of its substance over the years.
These very different cultures often clashed, with one gaining control of the respective region of the other and with this mingling of cultures, came the synthesis of their practices and beliefs. Larousse says, “one must take into consideration the question of religious and literary evolution, and bear in mind the influence of certain Semitic concepts on these Sumerian texts, for it is known that Semites entered Mesopotamia and settled there no later than the Sumerians themselves.” Larousse also tells us, “In the Babylonian myths, which gradually replaced ancient Sumerian myths, it is impossible to determine how much is of Semitic origin. There is nothing to show that a Babylonian myth is not simply a translation or adaptation of a Sumerian theme.”
Larousse explains that, “the Babylonian poem of creation shows evidence of adaptation of cosmological themes that were the common property of Occidental Semites that were integrated with concepts of Sumerian origin. It still seems to be somewhat unclear as to whether the Semites influenced the Sumerians, or the Sumerians influenced the Semites. It is probable that the two cultures influenced each other. With the possibility of a slave/master type relationship, this would explain the side by side and simultaneous existence of two distinct, yet synthesized cultures. The one central truth is that both cultural traditions were based on an original fact, though names and circumstances were adapted to each language and culture as it emerged.
It cannot be said with any certainty that the Hebrews copied their stories from the Babylonian myths, or that the Babylonians took their story from the nomadic Canaanites who were the Semitic brothers to the Hebrews. Larousse reminds us, “It is impossible at the present time to determine what part of the Sumerian myths is in fact Sumerian, and what derives from Semitic influences, which might have affected their forms as well as their content.” But what is clear is that the people of both cultures at one time shared a common heritage. With this in mind, it is possible that the Hebrew stories of the creation and the flood are at least as old as their Babylonian counterparts.
It is now believed by many in the scientific community that there was indeed a great flood at some point in the history of the earth. There have been recent discoveries that at least show the possibility of the existence of a large water vessel that fits the description of both the Biblical account and the Babylonian account. But the question remains in the minds of many, “Are these simply myths, or is there an element of truth in them?”
Hays proclaims that, “By far the most important of the Mesopotamian legends is the great epic of Gilgamesh in which some unknown poet-priest about 2000 BC welded together a number of Sumerian episodes of independent origin into a culture-hero story.” He reminds us that, “The flood was a very real thing in the history of the Sumerians, apparently an actual event, for they dated the reigns of their kings before and some after its occurrence. He says, “On the whole we must admire the ingenuity by which the Babylonian poet has welded together this series of stories in order to sustain his main theme, the immanence of death.”
But according to Larousse, “Sumerian myth was not consistent with geographical fact. Dilmun was said to have existed before the appearance of men. Yet important cities were already in existence in lower Mesopotamia when the Sumerians got there and this would explain why many place names in the land were not Sumerian.” These cities could have been established pre-flood and then re-inhabited as the Sumerians resettled the land that had been in use before the flood. This could also be explained with the language difference from the dispersion at Babel. The descendants of Cush and Canaan originally inhabited the land, followed by the confusion at Babel, with the Sumerian and latter Babylonian cultures following. “the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, which adopted the Sumerian myth of the flood with little modification, made the hero reside ‘far away, at the mouth of the rivers’, undoubtedly the Tigris and Euphrates, to the east of Mesopotamia, on the very spot where Dilmun stood.”
The fragmented Gilgamesh account of Utnapishtim’s flood story does not support the idea of three cultures with a common heritage. Utnapishtim and his wife were banished to the land of Dilmun, the equivalent of the Biblical Garden of Eden, where they were given eternal life by the gods. But the story does not tell of any descendants to replenish the earth and there is no apparent link between Gilgamesh and his kingdom and the nonexistent family of Utnapishtim. But the Babylonian account does support the idea that Gilgamesh traveled along journey to Dilmun and came back to his own kingdom with his version of the flood story. He visited the old man Utnapishtim, who was probably one and the same as Noah. Because he was so old, the people who had perpetuated his story probably thought he had attained literal eternal life on earth. The people of Gilgamesh’s kingdom had known something of a great flood and a man who had attained eternal life, probably from the nomadic Semites of the earlier Sumerian culture in which the Babylonian account taken. But much of the story had been lost to his culture so he went in search of the answers. He quest for eternal life profited him nothing, for he was told that man could not have eternal life but through the reproduction of woman or through his being remembered for all time. So he wrote his life-story on clay tablets that his name might be remembered.
The Hebrews first recorded their story, which in actuality was God’s story, in the hearts and minds of their people, and only later wrote these stories down on scrolls, so that it would be remembered throughout the generations. The Hebrews quest for eternal life did not end with the flood, but was just beginning with the promise of the rainbow, the signature of God, on the covenant with His people for all generations. Those who have kept the covenant have also likely kept the truth faithfully, as well. It has always been a part of their culture and has not been borrowed from another.
The myth, whether Babylonian, Hebrew, or any other culture, is simply man trying to explain the truth of God in human terms. Those who know God best, which have a continuing relationship with Him, will be more faithful in the transferring of His truths to succeeding generations. And those who have not the knowledge of God, will be given up to a perverted mind, to believe whatever is convenient. Those cultures who failed to keep God’s covenant, were those that adopted what stories and gods were convenient as they mingled together. But those who were faithful, remained steadfast in their conviction of the truth of One God, who has perpetually kept them through each generation.
The question of myths and origins provide no proof that God is just a figment of our imaginations. On the contrary, the existence and similarities of various myths all over the world, proves that we all have a common heritage, and that there is likely an element of truth in all of those myths. This heritage, that certain cultures have lost or forgotten, accounts for both these similarities, and the variations in the myths. It is up to us to decide which and how much of those myths to believe, or whether or not to believe. The world demands proof of God, but God demands faith of the world.
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The Holy Bible
Grimal, Pierre, Ed. Larousse World Mythology. (1965)
Hays, H. R. In the Beginnings – Early Man and His Gods. (1963)
Knox, John. Myth and Truth – An Essay on the Language of Faith. (1964)
Wallbank, T.W. et al. Civilization Past and Present. (1996)