There is something I need to express before moving on in this discussion. I need to make clear that this essay is the workings of my own mind. I am an Orthodox Christian who is writing with the influence of Orthodox teachings. I am not writing for the Orthodox Church. I never attempt to disregard the teachings of the Church on purpose and ask those who read to hold me accountable. Also, these essays are far from scholarly works. One of the awesome things about having your own blog is the freedom to skip the Works Cited page. Unfortunately this is also why the internet is so dangerous. I am doing independent research of mostly non-scholarly articles, using my undergrad History minor, and piecing together ideas of my own. While I do try my best to interpret the historical consensus, I am not always up to date on that consensus. It is important that my writing is seen in this light. I am doing pop-history and pop-theology. I don’t even have an arm chair. What I am asking from the readers is this: do your own research! If you have done your research and find my data to be offensively lacking then point it out for my sake and for the sake of anyone who may come across the blog in the future. What I want to do now is relate some common theories among modern historians and look at how they affect the Noah story and particularly its theological implication for Christians.
It is true that agricultural societies developed writing systems faster than nomadic ones. Writing is a pre-requisite for history, meaning, if a culture does not have a writing system, they have not exited their era of prehistory. How can we study a history without records? This is the modern historian’s point of view. I don’t believe they give enough credit to oral history, but it does not matter anyway because ancient oral history cannot be studied since it doesn’t exist anymore. We attempt to work with what we have.
The Sumerians predated the Hebrew culture by several millennia based on the records we have, that is, records that do not include the Bible. According to a Biblical timeline, Abraham was called out of Ur, which is in Sumer, somewhere around 2000 B.C.E. We do not have any archaeological evidence for a man named Abraham or any of the Patriarchs. We do have evidence a group of nomadic herders left Mesopotamia and migrated to Canaan around the same time period Abraham would have[i]. The oldest version of The Epic of Gilgamesh we have, the “Old Babylonian” version, also dates around the 18th century B.C.E. Assuming the predecessors to the Hebrews, with their oral traditions which would later become the early chapters of Genesis, were the ones who left Sumer at that time, it would make Gilgamesh and Noah competing flood stories in Mesopotamia.
Let’s use the scriptures to fill in the details of this ancient setting—remember this is all speculation. If you read this post about the chapters leading up to the Noah story in Genesis 6, then you may have noticed some relevant details in the narrative. Could the offerings of Cain and Abel be clues about how the Hebrew predecessors viewed their Sumerian neighbors? God accepted the offering of a shepherd but not the offering of a farmer. Looking back at the genealogy of Cain we get the impression that the author of the passage held some animosity toward city dwellers. The murderous Cain named a city after his son Enoch which became a place of innovation and cultural advances: music, tent making, and manufacturing. The city also became a place of violence as Lamech boasts about his revenge killings[ii].
So here is the setting. A group of Nomadic shepherds live on the fringes of Sumer, the birthplace of civilization. Nomadic shepherds were uneducated in comparison to the Sumerians. They were poor. They probably had strange beliefs, especially if they believed in one all-powerful God as opposed to many. Without a unified state and military technology, they were easy prey for the more powerful Sumerians to use in forced labor[iii]. Oppressed by the stronger city dwellers they began to develop animosity toward them and their ways; oppression was likely a catalyst for their migration. Violent crimes were common, hence the Sumerian invention of law systems. Ritual pagan worship involved human sacrifice on a large scale[iv] and was a grisly fate for many slaves. It is certain the religion of these peoples would have developed to reflect their different worldviews.
We have a Sumerian epic which tells us about the partially divine king of Uruk. The demi-god goes on a search for the secret of eternal life which is held by Utnapishtim, The Epic of Gilgamesh’s Noah character[v]. Gilgamesh does not learn the purpose of the ancient flood and does not find eternal life. He learns the search for eternal life is futile, and life is only found in the advancement of humanity[vi].
The nomadic shepherds did not believe in the gods of the Sumerians and were not impressed with their warrior kings who claimed divinity. These “mighty men of old, men of renown” were nothing more than the defiled race of men and a sign of Earth’s wickedness. Noah is told the purpose of the flood is to rid the world of wickedness. He is not concerned about eternal life but learns God’s creation will only survive by entering the ark. God also makes a covenant with Noah promising never to destroy creation with a flood again.
Whether or not the story of the Great Flood happened in actual history, these two stories were an ancient debate about the natures of two cultures’ deities. One deity offered no purpose for the violent death surrounding them at all times. The other deity establishes death as a divinely implemented purifying force. These stories are also a debate about our relationship with these deities. One man, a wise and powerful ruler, part god himself, sets out on a journey to learn the secret of the gods—how to live forever. Another man is only described as righteous. Finding favor with God because of his righteousness he is revealed the divine plan and enters into a covenantal relationship with his God.
Regardless of Noah’s historicity, and most importantly for the modern day Christian, is what this ancient debate left us. The authors of Genesis wrote down a story, whether as ancient history or a response to a wicked culture, which became a prophetic account of the sacrament of Holy Baptism. God divinely inspired the authors of Genesis to tell a story which would prepare the listeners for a sacred act of cleansing and redemption. The ancient storytellers were passing a lesson down to their children. They were telling them about how their God noticed the righteousness of one man and that righteousness was how this man escaped the ancient mythical flood. God was teaching these ancient people about who He was and what they could expect from Him. It was a primitive story which would be re-emphasized at the Red Sea, the Jordan River, and finally Christ’s tomb. The story of the poor, uneducated, shepherd has maintained its significance to the present day, while the story of the powerful urban civilization is merely a relic.
[ii] Gn 4:24-24
[iii] City dwelling was looked down upon in the Tower of Babel story as well. In this story, people are gathered together to build a structure which was to reach heaven. Many historians believe this could be referencing the Mesopotamian Ziggurats which were dedicated to the gods and most likely built with slave labor. The Great Ziggurat of Ur was built around 2100 B.C.E. placing it in the same time period of our discussion.
[v] Uruk was an actual city; archaeologists believe Gilgamesh was a real king who lived in 2700 B.C.E. and was worshipped for many centuries following.