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The Deluge

It seems to have been so much a part of human development that the terror and renewal that accompanies flooding has become part of human cultural heritages. Diverse cultures from all over the globe incorporated flooding into their basic creation myths. There are a wide range of stories, myths, and religious "facts" on the subject of the Great Flood, said to destroy all life except those spared by Divine intervention. Is there an element of truth in the accounts? It seems highly unlikely that such diverse cultures, with only limited contact until very recently in historic times, could independently concoct such strikingly similar tales.

The Judeo-Christian heritage includes an account of God gathering the waters below the heavens into one place, letting the dry land appear. He called the dry land earth and the gathering of the waters He called seas. In the Old Testament story, Noah and his family were saved, along with two of every living creature, when God destroyed the wicked of the world with a devastating flood. Noah and his family faithfully responded to God's call to save life on earth. The Qur'an also deals with the same theme.

The common underlying message is one of human behavior incurring Divine Wrath in the form of a global deluge. The deluge was to destroy most of the living beings, and Noah was to ensure that there was sufficient representation of each of the species to allow a regeneration of live on earth. This would signal a return to a God-fearing population. This theme also becomes apparent in other cultures' stories of the flood.

Many myths provide accounts of the survival of certain members of the human race in an ark, or some kind of vessel. In the Greek myth, Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, having been warned of the impending flood by Titan, built an ark in which they survived the deluge. In the Hindu culture, Matsyu is one of the incarnations (Avatars) of Vishnu. Matsyu warns Manu, the first man, of an impending flood and instructs him to build a boat, and to stock it with representation of all species. The Arapahoe Indians of North America survived in a boat made of fungi and spider's webs. In almost all of these stories, the survivors were warned beforehand of a forthcoming deluge and given instructions to build a vessel in which to save the species. It is interesting to note just how many diverse stories follow the same theme a Divine plan to send a flood and a warning about the flood, giving sufficient time to build an ark or other vessel to preserve life-forms.

In the Egyptian flood myth, the sun god Ra feared that people were going to overthrow him. He sent the goddess Hathor, to punish the people. She killed so many that their blood caused a flood. The survivors of her bloodbath started the human race anew. Taming the rivers was one of the chief goals of early Chinese civilization. The story of Yu, one of several Chinese flood myths, celebrates a victory in the long struggle against floods. Like Mesopotamia, both Egypt and China have long chronologies stretching back into mythic mists, and like Mesopotamia, both both Egypt and China have flood myths.

The Mesopotamian flood narrative is unique, however, in being so firmly embedded in the historical narrative of the time. The Sumerian King List, after recording the eight ante-diluvian kings, interrupts the sequence with the following significant statement before proceeding with the post-diluvian rulers: "[Then] the Flood swept over [the earth]. After the Flood had swept over [the earth] [and] when kingship was lowered [again] from heaven, kingship was [first] in Kish."

There are several Babylonian stories, the most notable of which is the Gilgamesh Epic. In one story, humanity offended the gods so the god Enlil sent a flood. The god Enki told King Ziusudra to build a boat so that he and his family could survive. After surviving the seven-day flood, the king offered sacrifices to Enlil and was allowed to repopulate the earth. The desire for eternal life is a driving force in the Epic of Gilgamesh. After many adventures, the king's companion Enkidu provokes the wrath of the deities and is sent to the House of Dust. Gilgamesh, in deep mourning, sets off alone to seek immortality. On his journey he encounters a siren-like innkeeper, a demon, a mysterious ferryman at the Waters of Death, and finally, Utanapishtim, the one man to survive the Great Flood--and the keeper of the secret of eternal life. In Gilgamesh, the Sumerian Noah figure is named Utanapishtim, which means "he has found everlasting life."

The similarities between the flood episode in Gilgamesh and the account from Genesis are striking. When George Smith of the British Museum rediscovered the Epic of Gilgamesh in the nineteenth century, its flood story became a sensation. Tablets had been arriving from archaeological expeditions near the Tigris river since 1854, and Smith, a bank note engraver and self-trained Assyriologist, had been working to decipher them. The London Daily Telegraph got wind of Smith's efforts and sponsored an archaeological expedition to find the fragment that would complete the account of the deluge. In 1873, on the fifth day of excavation, Smith found the fragment. He published his findings--including a description of creation, the deluge, the tower of Babel, and the destruction of Sodom--in Chaldean Account of Genesis, which became a best seller.

The Sumerian texts and the Bible agree, the gods were angry with men and sent a great flood which destroyed everything, and only a few men survived to rebuild. The Sumerian texts place this event around 2900 BC.

Calculation of the date of the flood based on literal interpretation of the old testament has been a scholarly activity for two millennia. The seventeenth century estimate of the Irish Bishop James Ussher has been accepted among many of the devout. Ussher's calculation is undertaken by adding the genealogies beginning in Genesis 11:10. In this way, Bishop Ussher computed that the earth had been created in 4004 BC and that the flood occurred in 2350 BC which was henceforth accepted as the "traditional" biblical date, (though there is rival literal interpretation similarly inspired, setting the date at 2459 BC).

The dates of Ussher have been almost canonized due to their inclusion in English language Bibles for centuries. The great discrepancies between the present Hebrew and Greek texts in the matter of chronology are well known. Scholars obtain from them dates for the creation of man as 4157 BC, or 5328, and for the confusion of tongues, which, according to Gen. xi. 1-9, immediately followed the Flood, 2501 BC, or 3066 BC.

The date of the Great Flood would seem to be a date not long before 3000 BC, and not after 2350 BC, with a strong presumption in favor of the former over the later.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:48:32 ZULU