Five centuries before Israel appeared, along with the tales that form its national epic, a story was told by the Sumerian people in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). The gods created humans to do the heavy work, like digging drainage ditches, harvesting crops, and animal husbandry. They multiplied too rapidly, however, becoming obstreperous, ‘bolshie’ nuisances. “The country was as noisy as a bellowing bull”, and the gods couldn’t get slept at night. It was decided to send a Flood to wipe them out. But one of the gods had a favourite, called Atrahasis, whom he warned in advance, with instructions on building a boat big enough for his family and representatives of all living creatures. The Flood lasted seven days and nights. When it subsided, Atrahasis made a thanksgiving offering. When the gods smelled it, “they gathered like flies over the offering” (see Gen.8:21) and then devised a less drastic birth-control plan.
A little later, came the Babylonian tale about Gilgamesh, who may have been, like King Arthur, a historical person hiding behind the legends. At the end of Gilgamesh’s story, he meets the survivor of the Flood, here called Utnapishtim. As before, he’d been instructed by a friendly god to build a wooden boat with seven floors for his family, the representative animals, and food and fodder for all. Once everyone was inside, the god sealed the boat’s entrance (see Gen. 7:16). After twelve days, Utnapishtim opened a hatch and sent out a dove, then a swallow, to see if the water had receded, but both returned ‘empty handed’. Finally, he sent out a raven, which didn’t return (see Gen. 8:8-12). He then set freed all the animals, and offered a sacrifice which pleased the gods, resulting in Utnapishtim and his wife being made immortal.
It’s clear that the Biblical writers used these earlier stories in their tale about Noah, whose name means ‘rest’. (Perhaps Yahweh’s sleepless Divine Council would likewise get some rest, once rid of ‘noisome’ humanity). Scholars have shown that the Israelites themselves produced two different accounts of the Flood, spliced together by the final editor. In Genesis 6, the 1st 8 verses are from the older source ‘J’, and the rest from the later, priestly source, ‘P’. In Genesis 7 & 8, passages from both sources alternate. Genesis 9:1-17 is the work of ‘P’.
This is why there are inconsistencies in the final story. In ‘J’, the Flood lasts 40 days and nights, and 7 pairs of ‘ritually clean’ animals are taken on board, so that when the Flood is over, sacrifices can be offered without the loss of any species. In ‘P’, the Flood lasts for 150 days, and only 2 pairs of animals are required. As far as the priests were concerned, there were no sacrifices until priests came on the scene at the later time of the Exodus. Trade union ‘restrictive practices’ have a long history!
Space allows just one point. We’re told “Yahweh saw how wicked everything on earth was, and how evil their thoughts were all the time … everyone was evil in God’s sight, and violence had spread everywhere”. God is about to perpetrate the greatest crime in world history – the wholesale slaughter, not only of all men, women and children, but of every living, breathing creature on the planet. To excuse this horror, we have a totally over-the-top, grotesquely exaggerated account of universal human wickedness and evil, apart from one brilliantly shining light “amidst the encircling gloom”, called Noah. Pull the other leg!
I’m reminded of religious people who claim that if their religion were to disappear, human society would completely fall apart, and the world suffer amoral, lawless ruination. (Some politicians make the same claim about what’ll happen should ‘the other lot’ win power). Sometimes the philosopher Nietzsche is quoted in support. He did indeed warn that if “the old god is dead”, then the values built on that foundation risk collapse. His point, however, was that all the values worth retaining should be re-established on a more credible foundation. A version of ‘God’ which increasing numbers of people can no longer believe in, is a crumbling foundation in need of radical reconstruction. As things stand, if this world ends in calamitous ruin, it‘s likely to be for climatic, or nuclear, rather than religious reasons, and as far as radical religious reconstruction is concerned, I’d recommend, for starters, “A New Christianity for a New World”, by the late Bishop John Shelby Spong, (HarperSanFrancisco).
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