jueves, noviembre 29, 2018

The Flood: The Genesis in its context

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The Flood: The Genesis in its context

Persian art. Source: Historiaybiografias.com
Jonathan Morales

I. Introduction

Along the centuries, the tale of the Flood has caught our imagination in a way that very few stories from the Hebrew Bible could. Its narrative, that we find in the Book of Genesis 6-9, apart from being the subject of recurring theological studies, has been reproduced time and time again in art, literature, films, etc. Unfortunately, as it is the case with a great number of tales about the “origins” (Genesis 1-11), some issues with the interpretative field of its traditional readings have buried into oblivion its novel countercultural character in the context of the great empires of the Ancient Age, regarding human freedom and the problem with established powers.

II. Persistence and functions of the myth

According to Enrique Margery Peña “[i]n the frame of the mythological tradition of all peoples, The Flood Myth is, without question, the most universal of all such creations, and that, because of such characteristic, it has been the subject of the greatest number of studies from historic, philological, folkloric, ethnographic, archeologic, and, even, religious perspectives.”1 By his own account, the American anthropologist Phillip Freund identifies in his work “Myths of creation” more than 500 stories in more than 250 tribes or peoples from distinct places of the world across History.2 We find tales of this kind virtually in all ancient cultures of Eurasia, The Americas and Oceania.3

But, how can we explain the persistence of the flood tale among a diversity of traditional cultures that are distinct in their core? Since the 19th century history of religion, with independence from theology and ecclesiastic history, has focused on the study of myths and its functions for the primitive or less developed societies in relation to the modern world. From the beginning of the 20th century, some authors, such as Bronislav Malinowski have noted that for these groups communication through myths was not trying to satisfy scientific curiosity in the form of a rigorous and strict historiographical chronicle; rather, they provided the tools to revive some of the most essential aspects of the original reality, assisting the most profound religious necessities, moral aspirations, social imperatives, and, even, giving answers to simple demands of everyday life.4

Unfortunately, in this occasion we do not count with enough space so as to delve into each of the functions attributed to the different stories about the flood. We will only focus on two of them, that, as we will see later on, confer to the biblical tale of the Genesis 6-9 an outstanding singularity in the context of the ancient powers of the growing fertile front and its imperial ideologies.

1. Pedagogy from the causes of the disaster. According to Hans de Wit, in the majority of the flood myths it underlies the following question: Can the human being destroy the foundations of life and of the established social order? Can mankind collapse the pillars that hold together that building we call world? The findings of numerous myths or fragments of them that have as topic a primal flooding are not so much an evidence of the historical truth of a catastrophe in a remote past, but are indeed an evidence of the recurrent sensation or question about the ruin of the established order.5 Curiously, tales tend to connect the collapse of the world’s foundations with some people’s interest of subverting the existing cosmic order. Be it through the disobedience to the mandate from the god(s) or human sin (greed, idolatry, etc.), there is an attempt to effect some change in a world that is fixed since the dawn of time. Thus, “[t]he theme of these flood stories is simple: man is not amused with how things are, is not amused with his world. He rises against established order, thus, evoking chaos”6 According to an ancient Hellenic belief, Poseidon, God of the seas by mandate of his brother Zeus supreme god of the Olympus, caused the flooding of every corner of the Earth with the purpose of exterminating mankind due to its boldness. Defying the will of the gods, men received from the hand of the titan Prometheus the fire of the gods (culture, divine and beautiful things) so that they could feel warm.

2. Explanation and legitimacy of the prevailing power. Although, in a way, it departs from what we said above, we cannot leave without mention the legitimizing role of flood myths regarding the prevailing social, political and economic orders. In general, this is achieved through the connection to some remote past, where the participation of the deity(ies) in the foundation of the world as we know it provides a sacrosanct halo to the succession of current holders of a power that is deemed by itself as eternal. According to the ancient cosmogony of the Imperial China: Si Wen Ming or Yu the Great, founder of the First Dynasty, built irrigation channels with the help of the goddess Nüwa to control a primal flooding, thus allowing the people to subsist through the harvest of his crops. There is also an Incan myth that tells how the supreme god Wiraqucha created a world deprived from light, which was inhabited by giants that do not obeyed or honored him. Outraged by the savagery of the first beings, together with the flood upon the Earth he created Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, with the purpose of founding the capital of a mighty empire and initiate a dynastic kingdom.

III. The Flood in Mesopotamia

When the Hebrew Bible enters the scene in this brief but turbulent play that the history of civilization is, the growing fertile front had already at its feet a rich library of tales about the origins of the world, the human being, its mortality, love, solidarity, evil and suffering. Of course, there were also some stories about the possibility of unleashing complete chaos on the world’s foundations. All these tales evidenced the world view that had been serving as the foundation of the social, political, economic, religious, military, etc., organization since it began to develop in the fourth millennia B.C. A great deal of the most ancient texts of our Bible are the result of an “oral tradition that ends up being written in the form of myths that are integrated in the narrative of the text, which will serve as a vehicle for the people and its religion, through an argumentative line of thought that acquires a different coherence to the one from other testimonies risen in the same melting pot of cultures: Mesopotamia.”7 Two are the myths of the culture between rivers that also refer to the flood. The outstanding coincidences with biblical stories speak about the significant cultural influence that the theme of the Levant had for a long time. The influence of the environment –we now know that it was of the outmost transcendence in almost the entire Pentateuch’s composition process– is made more evident from the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar II, the deportation of the Jewish elite and the progressive exile of the middle social stratum of the Kingdom of Judah in Babylon, capital of the empire since 597 B.C. However, we dare to affirm that the differences between both groups were much more striking when there was knowledge of the imperial ideologies that our holy text responded to (and still responds to).

The Epic of Atrahasis

The Babylonian myth of Atrahasis (in Akkadian, “he who is extremely wise”) dates back to, approximately, 1700 B.C. In it, the sins of the first men are told, and their resulting punishment on behalf of the gods, through plagues and a flood.8 The epic begins describing the world before the creation of the human being: “When the gods, like man, bore to work”; that is the first line and the ancient title of the composition.9 The text tells how in the first times seven gods, the Anunnaki (in Sumerian, “those of royal blood”), arose as supreme, setting aside the rest of the pantheon as workforce. “These gods «(whose) work was heavy, much was the distress» dug the Tigris and Euphrates and after, they rebelled, refusing to continue their labor. Following the advise of Enki (Lord of the Great Abyss), the gods decided to create a substitute to bear the work of the gods, and Enki, together with the mother goddess created man from clay and the flesh and blood of a dead god, «We-ilu, a god that has reason» from whom man gained rationality.”10 But over time, mankind started to multiply in such a way that the noise of its fuss made impossible for the gods to find sleep. To solve the problem, they decided to bring successive plagues upon humanity (plague, drought, famine, salted soil), which were nothing more than temporal solutions, because each time that an evil scourged mortal men, they presented sacrifices and offerings to the god of plagues, rain, harvest, etc., so that they would show mercy and return the precious resource. Finally, it is Enlil, Lord of the Wind, who convinces the other gods about the necessity of finding a “final solution” to the excessive growth of human population. He proposes to open the gates of the abyss and unleash a flood with which to end the noisy existence of mankind upon the Earth.11 However, Enki tells of this plan to Atrahasis so that he builds a great ship, an Ark which shall be called “Preserver of life”, that with a strong ceiling and deck would protect the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky.12 Only after the annihilation of mortal beings will the gods realize the big mistake they have made. By drowning each human being there is no one left to quench the hunger and thirst of the gods through sacrifices and offerings. Fortunately, Atrahasis is left, whom, being thankful, offers a sacrifice to which the gods come to eat. “Now that the gods have understood that not only man depends on them, but they also depend on man (What would a king do without slaves?), they move to less drastic measures in order to limit the growth of mankind”13. Enki asks Nintu, goddess of birth to correct the old problem since the very creation of the new creatures. This time, the solutions would be feminine infertility, child mortality (the demon Pasittu would snatch away the life of babies from their mother’s arms) and sexual abstention (sex as taboo; virginity as a life rule for some priestly services).

The Epic of Gilgamesh

It is about a group of tablets from early Babylonian culture, that, essentially, talk about secular matters such as man, nature, love, friendship and war, all of which has as background curtain the uncertainty of death. This poem tells of the adventures of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, whom, distressed due to the inevitable fate of mankind, sets off on a journey in search of the secret of immortality. The Tablet XI, which is the longest one (more than 300 lines) and best kept of the group, narrates the gathering of Gilgamesh with Utpnapishtim, the hero of the Great Flood (the equivalent to the Akkadian Atrahasis), with whom he established a close friendship. The coincidences with the biblical account of the Flood are really astonishing, especially between line 80 and 165, where the hero of the flood offers a similar image to the one in Genesis 7 and 8. Great importance falls over lines 190 and subsequent, where the hero and his wife, survivors of the catastrophe, are received in the meeting of the gods to enjoy the blessing of immortality, feature that, according to the beliefs in Mesopotamia and Egypt, was generally characteristic of supreme rulers in their dynastic succession.

IV. The Flood in the Genesis

To conclude, we will refer briefly to some elements in chapters 6:1-8; and 9:1-7, that correspond to, respectively, the description of human evil before the Flood, and the subsequent covenant of Yahweh with mankind.

The first episode we mentioned starts to describe the action of “the sons of the gods”, whom choose women for themselves among the “daughters of men”. For a long time, the nature of these mysterious beings have been the subject of debate. Putting aside the apocalyptic exegesis that characterizes the intertestamental theory of the “fallen angels”14, and the proposal about the “Cainites” or the “Sethites”15, because all of them speculate in the absence of textual grounds and resort to a literal reading –which is not the same as a literary reading of the Bible; we are inclined in favor of an interpretation that places the passages in their proper mythical and historical context.16 “They are not unknown celestial beings, but a well defined category. The text does not speak also about “the gods” in general, but rather, it gives an important detail, a sociological fact: they are the sons of God. Now, let us remember that it was precisely this term (son of this and that God) the preferred title of pharaohs and kings in Mesopotamia. The pharaoh is “son of Ra”, the Sumerian kings are “sons of Anu”. The Babylonian King is “son of his God (Marduk)”17 Taking into account this long ignored aspect, the text recovers its sense. Against the desire of reaching immortality, such as Utpanishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh, never die and be like God (Gen. 3, 4) Yahweh, lord and judge of the nations (Salm 82) grants the sons of the gods a life that will not extend beyond 120 short years. We have now understand that the narrative of the prologue to the Flood is a protest text, a denunciation against those that, making use of a higher power, want to take –as they actually do many times– everything they please. The tale continues with the procreation of their descendants: the “Nephilim”, around which the translation of the Septuagint has obtained a lasting influence. The Septuagint biblical version has interpreted Nephilim as “giants”. Indeed, for the theogonies of Ancient Greece, the giants or “titans” tend to rebel against the gods, making war with them.18 After this observation, we note that these “heroes of old”, “men of renown” are the ones who disrupt the created order, and who, through their constant inclination towards evil, they corrupt the Earth and fill it with violence; the ultimate reason why Yahweh regrets his creation and decides to exterminate, by bringing the Flood (with the exception of Noah the Just, his family and the animals in the Ark), all living beings upon the face of the Earth. But, contrary to the Anunnaki, in the Epic of Atrahasis once that Yahweh’s catastrophe is unleashed, he does not regret his actions due to the lack of food and drinks from sacrifices and human offerings. Let us remember that, according to the Babylonian myth, this was the main reason why the gods favored later on more “benevolent” measures for controlling overpopulation. On the contrary, the words of the God of Israel reverberate through the centuries about which the exegesis of the biblical texts have called: the “cultural mandate”, a shouting of freedom against oppression from the Flood myths and imperial ideologies.

“(…) As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.
(…) Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
Genesis 9, 7 and 11.

This article was translated by Nicolás Manfredi and reviewed by Alfredo Francis, under the grant “God's Evolution” awarded to the Science and Faith Centre (Spain) by the BioLogos Foundation (USA).

  1. MARGERY PEÑA, Enrique. “El mito del diluvio en la tradición oral indoamericana”. Abya-Yala, San Jose of Costa Rica, 1998. p. 8.
  2. FREUND, Philip. “Myths of Creation”. Washington Square Press, 1966. p. 304.
  3. However, the flood myth rarely presents itself in the cosmogonies of the diverse African cultures. Perhaps the exception is the tradition of the Moussaye tribe in the current Republic of Chad. ELIADE, Mircea. “Mito y Realidad”. Editorial Labor, Barcelona, 1991, p. 26.
  4. ELIADE, Mircea. op. cit. p. 12.
  5. DE WIT, Hans. “He visto la humillación de mi pueblo: Relectura del Génesis desde América Latina”. Amerindia, Santiago of Chile, 1988. p. 169.
  6. DE WIT, Hans. Ibid.
  7. OCHOA, José. "Atlas histórico de la Biblia. Vol. I: Antiguo Testamento". Acento Editorial, Madrid, 2003. p. 16.
  8. PRITCHARD, James B. (ed.). "Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament" (ANET). Princeton University Press, Princeton – New Jersey, 1969. p. 104.
  9. FRYMER-KENSKY, Tikva. “The Atrahasis Epic and its significance for our understanding of Genesis 1-9”. Biblical Archaeologist (American Schools of Oriental Research) 40(4): 18, December 1977.
  10. FRYMER-KENSKY, Tikva. Op. cit. p.19.
  11. FRYMER-KENSKY, Tikva. Ibid.
  12. PRITCHARD, James B. (ed.). Op. cit. p. 105.
  13. DE WIT, Hans. Op. cit. p. 173.
  14. Which has its earliest expression in 1 Enoch 6-11 and in the Letter of Judas from The New Testament; its main ideas are updated once in a while by philo-esoteric christian sects.
  15. This last thesis comes from a christian origin; it was adopted later on by a sector of judaism.
  16. 16 For a detailed revision on this matter, see the excellent work by the Argentinian theologist. CROATTO, José Severino. “Exilio y Sobrevivencia: Tradiciones contraculturales en el Pentateuco” Commentary from Gen 4:1-12:9. Editorial LUMEN, Buenos Aires, 1997. p. 143.
  17. DE WIT, Hans. Op. cit. p. 177.
  18. BYLER, Dionisio. “Como un grano de mostaza”. Editorial CLIE, Spain, 1988. pp.51-56

Cite as (ISO 690:2010): MORALES, Jonathan. The Flood: The Genesis in its context [online]. RYPC Translations, 29 November 2018. <http://www.revista-rypc.org/2018/11/the-flood-genesis-in-its-context.html> [accessed: ].