Accompanying much of the press surrounding the upcoming release of Noah in the theaters is a handful of articles about the historical nature of the Great Flood. This search for Noah’s Ark is nothing new; I remember hearing stories as a child about how the Ark had been found. In recent years though, the search for the lost vessel has taken a back seat to geological studies attempting to determine whether or not a major flood occurred. Theories about the validity of the Noah story are abundant and diverse. I do not want to spend too much time debating the strength of flood theories in this essay. Instead I would like to share some observations I have about the scriptural text surrounding this story as well as some questions about the significance of the story’s historicity.
Currently, the trend among archaeologists and geologists is to support the idea of a prehistoric flood, though the size and range of the flood is debated. The main reason for the belief in a flood is the immense amount of deluge stories present in ancient literature and mythology. Just about every culture, in every part of the world, has a unique flood myth. Most geologists will acknowledge at least a significant regional flood in the Mesopotamian region—significant enough to leave an imprint on the cultural identity of the citizens in the area. Mesopotamian flood myths share some common characteristics—specifically the Epic of Gilgamesh and Noah’s Ark. Historians often question the accuracy of the Biblical flood account because the Epic of Gilgamesh has been given an earlier date. Also, Noah’s flood has many parts which look similar to Gilgamesh: deities using a flood to destroy man, a chosen man building a boat, animals taken onto the boat, deceptive serpents, and plants that give life. Based on the commonly accepted dating, it would appear Noah copied thematic elements from Gilgamesh.
Placing a date on when these stories first appeared can be problematic. Before writing systems were developed, ancient cultures possessed expansive Oral Literatures. The stories we have today are likely their “final forms” since writing them down quite literally “set them in stone”. The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in Cuneiform which is a writing system developed by the Sumerians. The Sumerians lived in the southern delta region of Mesopotamia– in-between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers where they empty into the Persian Gulf. Today this is the border between Iran and Iraq; in Old Testament times it was Babylon. The Sumerians are credited with engineering wheeled vehicles, developing law systems, advancing agricultural techniques, and most importantly, the invention of writing. Agricultural methods were the catalyst for all these developments since a dependable food source allows people to group together. Large groups of people require social guidelines to govern them hence the development of the earliest law code. They will also innovate because they can efficiently share ideas; with commerce (wheeled vehicles), government (law systems), and a steady food supply (agricultural), a civilization can focus easier on artistic developments—i.e. writing.
The ancient Hebrews were a Pastoral Nomadic culture meaning they moved from region to region with their livestock. They were shepherds who scrapped a living moving around in the Arabian Desert—the area between Mesopotamia (Babylon) and Egypt. Agriculture was difficult for them because the region they occupied was mostly infertile. Without a dependable food source, large groups of people could not survive together so a network of tribes formed. A tribal system did not allow for ideas and innovation to be shared at a quick rate so the development of writing was delayed. The various nomadic tribes shared an Oral Tradition with common cultural themes, but lacked the means to “set them in stone”.
What this tells us is there is no definitive way to determine whose Oral Traditions, with their myths and divine revelations, were older. All we can determine with any confidence is who was able to adapt their Oral Tradition to writing first. Agricultural societies like the Sumerians, with their dependable food production, would have had the means to develop a system of writing far earlier then the Nomadic cultures. In the grand scheme of things this really does not matter much, but I felt it was important to point it out. How does any of this relate to the historicity of Noah? We are getting there.
Since these Nomadic peoples were poor, uneducated, and alien in their beliefs, they were most certainly oppressed by the urban agricultural societies bordering their pastoral region.
This will continue in a later post…