The Babylonian flood story Atrahasis
There are three diverse Babylonian tales of a worldwide flood. One is the history of Atrahasis. A study of the similarities and differences between Atrahasis and the Genesis flood story will help us see the differences between the biblical and Babylonian approaches to life and will give us new insights into how the Genesis version taught lessons that expressed its worldview.
Scholars date the written version of the Babylonian myth Atrahasis to about 1650 BCE and suppose that it existed earlier in an oral form. The poem explains what precipitated the worldwide flood and destruction of humanity that is radically different from the one in the Bible.
The story opens when only gods exist, those of the upper and lower classes. The gods need to eat, so they dig canals, the Tigris and Euphrates. The lower gods are assigned to do the digging.
All goes well for some 3600 years, when the toiling lower gods find that the “work was heavy (and the) distress was great.” They rebel, go on strike, burn their tools, and surround the home of the chief god, who becomes so frustrated he bursts into tears. The gods now have a problem: who will dig to produce their food? The gods join in a democratic enclave and find a solution. They will relieve the lower-class gods from their slave-like labor by creating a still lower class, humans, to perform the drudgery.
After a short discussion, they decide on the ingredients for manufacturing humans. The recipe is clay and the flesh and blood of the god who instituted the strike, who was killed by the strikers. This was a god “who has sense.” His blood gives the newly formed humans rationality. As a final ingredient, one of the gods spits into the mixture.
Seven males and seven females comprise the initial creation; they must copulate and produce other humans. The humans labor without complaint for over twelve hundred years and would have continued had they not proliferated and made bombastic noise— “the earth was roaring like a bull”—that disturbs the gods who are “deprived of sleep.” The gods bumble through four attempts to solve their problem and only succeed on the fifth try.
Their first attempt is to destroy many people with a plague. This works until Atrahasis, king of Shuruppad, begs his god to help his people. Atrahasis’s prayer is answered by the god Enki. He suggests that humans offer sacrifices to the god of plagues to induce him to desist. It works; the god enjoys the bribe, and humans begin to increase again.
Another twelve hundred years pass, and the people continue to increase, and the noise problem is as bad as before. It roars again like a bull. This time, the gods bring a drought. Atrahasis is strangely still alive. He prays to Enki again, and the sympathetic god saves the people a second time by suggesting sacrifices to the appropriate god. The drought ends.
Centuries pass and the problem resurfaces. The gods try famine next, with the same result. Then, as a final solution, the gods decide to flood the earth to rid themselves of the nuisance they had created. The chief god insists that all the gods swear not to warn any human about the impending flood. But Enki is no dummy; he is a god after all. He keeps his oath but warns Atrahasis, who is still alive, by speaking to his hut wall, and warns him to build an ark.
Curiously, King Atrahasis doesn’t share this information with anyone. He leaves town with a flimsy excuse, builds an ark in secret, brings his family on board along with every type of animal, and is saved.
The earth is now quiet, but the gods regret their decision to destroy humanity. They remember that they had created people to feed them through sacrifices. They especially miss the beer. Fortunately, Atrahasis exits the ark and brings a sacrifice. The hungry and thirsty gods descend “like flies over the offering” to eat it.
The gods realize their mistake and decide not to kill humans anymore. They develop a three-pronged plan to overcome the problems of overpopulation and noise pollution, each focusing on the reduction of the number of children: women will be created who will be unable to bear children; demons will kill children soon after they are born; and a class of women will be created who will consider it taboo to have offspring.
- In both texts, humans are created from the earth, and both state that there was a divine element. In Genesis, it is the “breath of life” and “the image of God,” which many traditions also understand as the ability to reason. This is significant because both cultures recognize the need for humans to use their intelligence.
- In Genesis2:16 and Atrahasis, humans are given a task to work, but the focus is entirely different.
- In both stories, the flood comes as a result of a problem with humans, but the problems are different.
- In the two tales, the hero brings his family and every type of animal on board an ark to save them.
- In each story, the hero offers a sacrifice after the flood, but Atrahasis does so to satisfy the thirst and hunger of the gods, and Noah does so as a thanksgiving offering.
- The number three occurs in both tales after the flood to address the problems of creation, but since both documents see the problem in different ways, the solutions are dissimilar.
- The Bible doesn’t portray multiple gods, nor does it depict one group of gods forcing the other to work.
- The story of Atrahasis, as with polytheistic documents in general, is a portrayal of a passive humanity dragging along like cattle, victims to the whims of the gods and of fate, without any effective power to overcome them. Humans are portrayed as being unable to do anything on their own. It is the gods, not humans, who create all the elements of civilization. There is, for the most part, a different god to do each diverse task that rational religion encourages men and women to do.
- The Bible continually describes God in favorable terms, but the portrait of the pagan gods is disparaging. It is ironic that the many gods who are constantly bickering and who are scheming and fighting against each other are complaining about overpopulation and noise. The poem seems to imply that it is acceptable for the gods to fight, but it is not acceptable for humans to do so.
- According to the Bible, the world was created perfectly, and there is no need for God to work after the six days of creation, especially not digging ditches.
- The Babylonian poem offers a reason for the creation of mankind—to do the drudge work that the lower gods rejected. The Bible offers no theological, philosophical, or practical reason for the creation of people. Humans are told to work in Genesis2:16, but there is no suggestion that the labor is for God’s benefit.
- Genesis states that the first humans were placed in the idealistic Garden of Eden, while Atrahasis places them in the muddy banks of the Tigris and Euphrates to perform menial work.
- Genesis states that vegetation was created on the third day, three days before humans. Thus, contrary to Atrahasis, humans were not made to create food. Vegetation existed before them, and the world was fertile and self-sustaining. Humans, according to the Bible, caused the land to become infertile, contaminated, and polluted, as in the story of Cain in Genesis 4; the land is cursed because he killed his brother. By Genesis 9, humans have so corrupted nature that God floods the land.
- The view of man in Atrahasis is dismal. Although built with a rational element, humans were created to do menial work that the gods despised. In contrast, Genesis 9:6 speaks of the elevated nature of humanity, “for man is created in God’s image.”
- In Atrahasis, the incident of the god spitting into the mixture that produced humanity shows an underlying contempt for humans.
- While Genesis describes the creation of a single pair of humans, Atrahasis contends there were seven pairs. This avoids the teaching that God created a single pair so that no one can say, “I am descended from a more exalted race.”
- The Babylonian flood story states that it was overpopulation and noise that prompted the gods to flood the earth. The Bible does not consider overpopulation a problem. In fact, it takes the opposite approach. At the beginning of creation, in Genesis1:28, God orders the first humans to “be fruitful and multiply.” Also, the first command issued by God after the flood, in Genesis 9:1, repeated in 9:7, is “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”
- Genesis6:5 contends that God brought the flood because of the wickedness of the people, not overpopulation and noise. The focus is an issue of proper behavior, not the comfort of gods.
- The biblical God does not continually fail in his attempts to solve problems with humanity as do the gods in the Babylonian myth.
- In the Bible, God consciously decides to save Noah, while in the myth, the chief god tries to kill all humans, and one family is saved only by the treachery of another god.
- Genesis reports that Noah was warned 120 years before the flood and was ordered to spend this century building an ark in front of the people to warn them of the impending flood, even though they were evildoers, and give them the opportunity to repent. In Atrahasis the hero, a king who is responsible for his people, slinks out of town and, for some undisclosed reason, fails to warn others of the flood even though the humans had done nothing wrong.
- Rational people understand that sacrifices are not brought to bribe God from what he considers to be appropriate actions, yet the humans do bribe their gods in the Babylonian tale.
- The portrayal in the poem of gods flying “like flies over the offering” is degrading and certainly doesn’t encourage a relationship between humans and the divine.
- The post-flood response of the gods to resolve the problem that precipitated the flood differs radically from God’s behavior in the Bible. The gods in the poem address the problem of overpopulation and noise, while the God of Genesis focuses on the evils committed by mankind.
- Each of the three resolutions of the pagan gods are contrary to the view of the sanctity of life discussed in Genesis9, which concludes: “for man is created in God’s image.” Many modern religions are bothered by barrenness. Rationalists do not to believe in the superstitious notion of evil demons destroying children.
- The biblical response to the problem of improper behavior is to create laws. In Genesis9, three laws are mentioned. The first, “be fruitful and multiply,” is a strong negation of the pagan solution. The second, allowing people to eat meat, but forbidding the consumption of live animals, is a basic principle of respect for God’s creations. The third, setting the forfeiture of life for animals and humans that kill humans, emphasizes again the importance of life.
The flood stories of Genesis and Atrahasis have similarities and differences which show how each culture understood humans and God.
 Note the multiples of twelve, another significant number.
 Note the multiple of twelve again.