Legends of Babylon and and Egypt in Relation to Hebrew Tradition

[1] The references to “the ground”, or “the earth”, also tend to
connect it peculiarly with Enlil. Enlil’s close association with
the earth, which is, of course, independently attested, is
explicitly referred to in the Babylonian Version (cf. Gilg. Epic.
XI, ll. 39-42). Suggested reflections of this idea have long been
traced in the Hebrew Versions; cf. Gen. viii. 21 (J), where Yahweh
says he will not again curse the ground, and Gen. ix. 13 (P),
where Elohim speaks of his covenant “between me and the earth”.

With the sixth line of the column it is clear that the original
narrative of the myth is resumed.[1] Ziusudu, the king, prostrates
himself before Anu and Enlil, who bestow immortality upon him and
cause him to dwell in a land, or mountain, the name of which may
perhaps be read as Dilmun. The close parallelism between this portion
of the text and the end of the myth in the Gilgamesh Epic will be seen
from the following extracts,[2] the magical portions being omitted
from the Sumerian Version:

[1] It will also be noted that with this line the text again falls
naturally into couplets.

[2] Col. VI, ll. 6-9 and 12 are there compared with Gilg. Epic, XI,
ll. 198-205.


Then Enlil went up into the
Ziusudu, the king, He took me by the hand and led
me forth.
Before Anu and Enlil bows himself He brought out my wife and
down. caused her to bow down at my
He touched our brows, standing
between us and blessing us:
Life like (that of) a god he “Formerly was Ut-napishtim of
gives to him. mankind,
An eternal soul like (that of) a But now let Ut-napishtim be like
god he creates for him. the gods, even us!
And let Ut-napishtim dwell afar
off at the mouth of the
In a . . . land, the land of[1] Then they took me and afar off,
Dilmun(?), they caused him to at the mouth of the rivers,
dwell. they caused me to dwell.

[1] Or, “On a mountain, the mountain of”, &c.

The Sumerian Version thus apparently concludes with the familiar
ending of the legend which we find in the Gilgamesh Epic and in
Berossus, though it here occurs in an abbreviated form and with some
variations in detail. In all three versions the prostration of the
Deluge hero before the god is followed by the bestowal of immortality
upon him, a fate which, according to Berossus, he shared with his
wife, his daughter, and the steersman. The Gilgamesh Epic perhaps
implies that Ut-napishtim’s wife shared in his immortality, but the
Sumerian Version mentions Ziusudu alone. In the Gilgamesh Epic
Ut-napishtim is settled by the gods at the mouth of the rivers, that
is to say at the head of the Persian Gulf, while according to a
possible rendering of the Sumerian Version he is made to dwell on
Dilmun, an island in the Gulf itself. The fact that Gilgamesh in the
Epic has to cross the sea to reach Ut-napishtim may be cited in favour
of the reading “Dilmun”; and the description of the sea as “the Waters
of Death”, if it implies more than the great danger of their passage,
was probably a later development associated with Ut-napishtim’s
immortality. It may be added that in neither Hebrew version do we find
any parallel to the concluding details of the original story, the
Hebrew narratives being brought to an end with the blessing of Noah
and the divine promise to, or covenant with, mankind.

Such then are the contents of our Sumerian document, and from the
details which have been given it will have been seen that its story,
so far as concerns the Deluge, is in essentials the same as that we
already find in the Gilgamesh Epic. It is true that this earlier
version has reached us in a magical setting, and to some extent in an
abbreviated form. In the next lecture I shall have occasion to refer
to another early mythological text from Nippur, which was thought by
its first interpreter to include a second Sumerian Version of the
Deluge legend. That suggestion has not been substantiated, though we
shall see that the contents of the document are of a very interesting
character. But in view of the discussion that has taken place in the
United States over the interpretation of the second text, and of the
doubts that have subsequently been expressed in some quarters as to
the recent discovery of any new form of the Deluge legend, it may be
well to formulate briefly the proof that in the inscription published
by Dr. Poebel an early Sumerian Version of the Deluge story has
actually been recovered. Any one who has followed the detailed
analysis of the new text which has been attempted in the preceding
paragraphs will, I venture to think, agree that the following
conclusions may be drawn:

(i) The points of general resemblance presented by the narrative to
that in the Gilgamesh Epic are sufficiently close in themselves to
show that we are dealing with a Sumerian Version of that story. And
this conclusion is further supported (a) by the occurrence throughout
the text of the attested Sumerian equivalent of the Semitic word,
employed in the Babylonian Versions, for the “Flood” or “Deluge”, and
(b) by the use of precisely the same term for the hero’s “great boat”,
which is already familiar to us from an early Babylonian Version.

(ii) The close correspondence in language between portions of the
Sumerian legend and the Gilgamesh Epic suggest that the one version
was ultimately derived from the other. And this conclusion in its turn
is confirmed (a) by the identity in meaning of the Sumerian and
Babylonian names for the Deluge hero, which are actually found equated
in a late explanatory text, and (b) by small points of difference in
the Babylonian form of the story which correspond to later political
and religious developments and suggest the work of Semitic redactors.

The cumulative effect of such general and detailed evidence is
overwhelming, and we may dismiss all doubts as to the validity of Dr.
Poebel’s claim. We have indeed recovered a very early, and in some of
its features a very primitive, form of the Deluge narrative which till
now has reached us only in Semitic and Greek renderings; and the
stream of tradition has been tapped at a point far above any at which
we have hitherto approached it. What evidence, we may ask, does this
early Sumerian Version offer with regard to the origin and literary
history of the Hebrew Versions?

The general dependence of the biblical Versions upon the Babylonian
legend as a whole has long been recognized, and needs no further
demonstration; and it has already been observed that the parallelisms
with the version in the Gilgamesh Epic are on the whole more detailed
and striking in the earlier than in the later Hebrew Version.[1] In
the course of our analysis of the Sumerian text its more striking
points of agreement or divergence, in relation to the Hebrew Versions,
were noted under the different sections of its narrative. It was also
obvious that, in many features in which the Hebrew Versions differ
from the Gilgamesh Epic, the latter finds Sumerian support. These
facts confirm the conclusion, which we should naturally base on
grounds of historical probability, that while the Semitic-Babylonian
Versions were derived from Sumer, the Hebrew accounts were equally
clearly derived from Babylon. But there are one or two pieces of
evidence which are apparently at variance with this conclusion, and
these call for some explanation.

[1] For details see especially Skinner, /Genesis/, pp. 177 ff.

Not too much significance should be attached to the apparent omission
of the episode of the birds from the Sumerian narrative, in which it
would agree with the later as against the earlier Hebrew Version; for,
apart from its epitomized character, there is so much missing from the
text that the absence of this episode cannot be regarded as
established with certainty. And in any case it could be balanced by
the Sumerian order of Creation of men before animals, which agrees
with the earlier Hebrew Version against the later. But there is one
very striking point in which our new Sumerian text agrees with both
the Hebrew Versions as against the Gilgamesh Epic and Berossus; and
that is in the character of Ziusudu, which presents so close a
parallel to the piety of Noah. As we have already seen, the latter is
due to no Hebrew idealization of the story, but represents a genuine
strand of the original tradition, which is completely absent from the
Babylonian Versions. But the Babylonian Versions are the media through
which it has generally been assumed that the tradition of the Deluge
reached the Hebrews. What explanation have we of this fact?

This grouping of Sumerian and Hebrew authorities, against the extant
sources from Babylon, is emphasized by the general framework of the
Sumerian story. For the literary connexion which we have in Genesis
between the Creation and the Deluge narratives has hitherto found no
parallel in the cuneiform texts. In Babylon and Assyria the myth of
Creation and the Deluge legend have been divorced. From the one a
complete epic has been evolved in accordance with the tenets of
Babylonian theology, the Creation myth being combined in the process
with other myths of a somewhat analogous character. The Deluge legend
has survived as an isolated story in more than one setting, the
principal Semitic Version being recounted to the national hero
Gilgamesh, towards the close of the composite epic of his adventures
which grew up around the nucleus of his name. It is one of the chief
surprises of the newly discovered Sumerian Version that the Hebrew
connexion of the narratives is seen to be on the lines of very
primitive tradition. Noah’s reputation for piety does not stand alone.
His line of descent from Adam, and the thread of narrative connecting
the creation of the world with its partial destruction by the Deluge,
already appear in Sumerian form at a time when the city of Babylon
itself had not secured its later power. How then are we to account for
this correspondence of Sumerian and Hebrew traditions, on points
completely wanting in our intermediate authorities, from which,
however, other evidence suggests that the Hebrew narratives were

At the risk of anticipating some of the conclusions to be drawn in the
next lecture, it may be well to define an answer now. It is possible
that those who still accept the traditional authorship of the
Pentateuch may be inclined to see in this correspondence of Hebrew and
Sumerian ideas a confirmation of their own hypothesis. But it should
be pointed out at once that this is not an inevitable deduction from
the evidence. Indeed, it is directly contradicted by the rest of the
evidence we have summarized, while it would leave completely
unexplained some significant features of the problem. It is true that
certain important details of the Sumerian tradition, while not
affecting Babylon and Assyria, have left their stamp upon the Hebrew
narratives; but that is not an exhaustive statement of the case. For
we have also seen that a more complete survival of Sumerian tradition
has taken place in the history of Berossus. There we traced the same
general framework of the narratives, with a far closer correspondence
in detail. The kingly rank of Ziusudu is in complete harmony with the
Berossian conception of a series of supreme Antediluvian rulers, and
the names of two of the Antediluvian cites are among those of their
newly recovered Sumerian prototypes. There can thus be no suggestion
that the Greek reproductions of the Sumerian tradition were in their
turn due to Hebrew influence. On the contrary we have in them a
parallel case of survival in a far more complete form.

The inference we may obviously draw is that the Sumerian narrative
continued in existence, in a literary form that closely resembled the
original version, into the later historical periods. In this there
would be nothing to surprise us, when we recall the careful
preservation and study of ancient Sumerian religious texts by the
later Semitic priesthood of the country. Each ancient cult-centre in
Babylonia continued to cling to its own local traditions, and the
Sumerian desire for their preservation, which was inherited by their
Semitic guardians, was in great measure unaffected by political
occurrences elsewhere. Hence it was that Ashur-bani-pal, when forming
his library at Nineveh, was able to draw upon so rich a store of the
more ancient literary texts of Babylonia. The Sumerian Version of the
Deluge and of Antediluvian history may well have survived in a less
epitomized form than that in which we have recovered it; and, like
other ancient texts, it was probably provided with a Semitic
translation. Indeed its literary study and reproduction may have
continued without interruption in Babylon itself. But even if Sumerian
tradition died out in the capital under the influence of the
Babylonian priesthood, its re-introduction may well have taken place
in Neo-Babylonian times. Perhaps the antiquarian researches of
Nabonidus were characteristic of his period; and in any case the
collection of his country’s gods into the capital must have been
accompanied by a renewed interest in the more ancient versions of the
past with which their cults were peculiarly associated. In the extant
summary from Berossus we may possibly see evidence of a subsequent
attempt to combine with these more ancient traditions the continued
religious dominance of Marduk and of Babylon.

Our conclusion, that the Sumerian form of the tradition did not die
out, leaves the question as to the periods during which Babylonian
influence may have acted upon Hebrew tradition in great measure
unaffected; and we may therefore postpone its further consideration to
the next lecture. To-day the only question that remains to be
considered concerns the effect of our new evidence upon the wider
problem of Deluge stories as a whole. What light does it throw on the
general character of Deluge stories and their suggested Egyptian

One thing that strikes me forcibly in reading this early text is the
complete absence of any trace or indication of astrological /motif/.
It is true that Ziusudu sacrifices to the Sun-god; but the episode is
inherent in the story, the appearance of the Sun after the storm
following the natural sequence of events and furnishing assurance to
the king of his eventual survival. To identify the worshipper with his
god and to transfer Ziusudu’s material craft to the heavens is surely
without justification from the simple narrative. We have here no
prototype of Ra sailing the heavenly ocean. And the destructive flood
itself is not only of an equally material and mundane character, but
is in complete harmony with its Babylonian setting.

In the matter of floods the Tigris and Euphrates present a striking
contrast to the Nile. It is true that the life-blood of each country
is its river-water, but the conditions of its use are very different,
and in Mesopotamia it becomes a curse when out of control. In both
countries the river-water must be used for maturing the crops. But
while the rains of Abyssinia cause the Nile to rise between August and
October, thus securing both summer and winter crops, the melting snows
of Armenia and the Taurus flood the Mesopotamian rivers between March
and May. In Egypt the Nile flood is gentle; it is never abrupt, and
the river gives ample warning of its rise and fall. It contains just
enough sediment to enrich the land without choking the canals; and the
water, after filling its historic basins, may when necessary be
discharged into the falling river in November. Thus Egypt receives a
full and regular supply of water, and there is no difficulty in
disposing of any surplus. The growth in such a country of a legend of
world-wide destruction by flood is inconceivable.

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