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This article is from
Creation 36(2):20–21, April 2014

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Genesis authenticated in clay

[Author’s note May 2021: This article should be read in the light of more recent evidence challenging the date of c. 2100 BC for the Nippur Flood tablet. Assuming it was found in the stratum claimed, the conventional modern chronology would assign it to c. 1800 BC. While the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (cdli.ucla.edu) originally dated it to around 2000–1900 BC, they have now revised this to 1400–1100 BC).]

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wikipedia.orgSumerian-cuneiform
Fig. 1. An ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablet.

George Smith (1840 –1876) had humble beginnings. He was born into a poor family in Victorian England and, having left school at the age of fourteen, had only a rudimentary education. He had many talents, however, and gained an apprenticeship as a bank note engraver, a demanding job that required strong technical drawing skills and excellent powers of observation. His place of work was near to the British Museum in London, which he visited regularly. He was fascinated by the many ancient clay tablets, with their strange characters composed of wedge-shaped impressions, known as cuneiform (fig. 1), and was later employed by the museum in their Department of Oriental Antiquities. He had remarkable abilities as a linguist, and was soon able to understand and translate the cuneiform scripts.

Smith was a firm believer in the Bible, and was overjoyed when, in 1872, he discovered an ancient Mesopotamian tablet containing an account of a world-wide flood. This was one of a number of similar tablets which together comprise what is now known as the Epic of Gilgamesh (fig. 2). In many details, the account of the flood was very similar to that found in Genesis1 and Smith regarded it as remarkable confirmation of the biblical story of Noah. In December of that year, he read a paper before the Society of Biblical Archaeology titled, The Chaldean Account of the Deluge.2 The meeting was eagerly awaited, and attended by many influential people, including the then British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, himself a committed Christian.

wikipedia.orgEpic-of-Gilgamesh
Fig. 2. Flood tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh

An independent witness to the truth of the Bible, however, was too much for the skeptics. They continued to ridicule the idea of a global flood, and argued that the Genesis account had simply been copied, with embellishments, from the Gilgamesh epic. Another cuneiform tablet, however, found less than thirty years later, was to make such a claim wholly unsupportable.

Another, older tablet

During the last decade of the nineteenth century, the University of Pennsylvania conducted a number of archaeological digs in the ancient Babylonian city of Nippur. Among the remains of the temple library, they found a tiny tablet fragment containing another account of the Flood.3 It was translated by Hermann Hilprecht, an expert Assyriologist, and was found to agree with Genesis remarkably in its details. It speaks of a deluge that would destroy all life, and how God commanded the building of a great ship in which the builder, his family and animals were to be preserved (see box).

The tablet could be dated quite precisely for a number of reasons, foremost of which is that the library in which it was found was known to have been destroyed around 2100 BC, when the Elamites invaded Nippur.4 Hilprecht believed it had been written sometime between 2137 and 2005 BC. In contrast, the Epic of Gilgamesh is understood to be a 7th century BC copy of a document produced no earlier than 2000 BC.5 Moreover its Flood tablet is thought to have been a later addition, produced from the Atrahasis account written, according to its own scribe, around 1800 BC.6,7 How then can the Gilgamesh epic be the original Flood story?

Also of significance is that the language of the Nippur tablet is quite different from that of most of the other tablets recovered alongside it. It is very close to biblical Hebrew,8,9 again indicating that the Genesis account was not derived from Babylonian myths. It also lacks the gross polytheism of the Gilgamesh account.

The account of a global flood, in which God judged the wickedness of man, must be one of the most ridiculed passages of the Bible. At the same time, it is attested to by some of our most ancient historic records,10 numerous documents and legends from all over the world,11,12 the fossil record,13 and many facts of geology.14 We ignore it at our peril.

Nippur-tablet
Fig. 3. The Nippur tablet with Hilprecht’s translation below. The words in square brackets are not decipherable in the text, but were added by Hilprecht according to the context.

(2)……[the confines of heaven and Earth I] will loosen
(3)……[a deluge will I make, and] it shall sweep away all men together;
(4)……[but seek thou l]ife before the deluge cometh forth;
(5)……[For over all living beings], as many as there are, I will bring overthrow, destruction, annihilation
(6)……Build a great ship and
(7)……total height shall be it structure.
(8)……it shall be a houseboat carrying what has been saved of life.
(9)……with a strong deck cover (it).
(10)….[The ship] which thou shalt make
(11)….[into it br]ing the beast of the field, the birds of heaven,
(12)….[and the creeping things, two of everything] instead of a number,
(13)….and the family …

In Genesis 6:16, God commanded Noah to make the Ark with a roof and a door. Line 9 states that the vessel was to be covered with a strong deck. In line 8, the word Hilprecht translates as “houseboat” signifies a boat with a door and is closely related to an old Semitic word meaning ‘ark’, a chest or box in which something can be carried safely. An alternative translation of line 8 was given by the assyriologist, Alexander Heidel: “The same [ship] shall be a giant boat, and its name shall be ‘Preserver of Life’”.1 The word translated “Life” is napishtim. In the Atrahasis account of the Flood,2 Noah is given the title Ut-napishtim, meaning “Man of Life”, perhaps referring to his life-preserving role.

  1. Heidel, A., The Gilgamesh Epic and the Old Testament Parallels, University of Chicago, p. 106, 1946.
  2. Cooper, W.R., The Authenticity of the Book of Genesis, Creation Science Movement, UK, pp. 386–389, 2011.

Author’s note

The Nippur Flood tablet is kept at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and is designated CBS 13532. The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (cdli.ucla.edu) originally assigned it to the Early Old Babylonian period (2000–1900 BC) but has now revised this to the Middle Babylonian (1400–1100 BC)..1 Its antiquity, however, is subject to some controversy. Although some consider a very early date plausible2,3,4 others would assign the tablet to a later period, possibly 1700 BC,2 fifteenth century BC,5 1300 BC6 or even as late as 1000 BC.7 All these estimates, however, predate the Jewish exile by centuries, confuting the claim that the biblical account of the Flood was derived from Babylonian myths during this period.

References

  1. www.cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P268565. Last accessed 28 April 2021.
  2. Rogers, R.W., Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament, 2nd ed., Wipf & Stock, USA, p. 108, 2005, first published 1926.
  3. The Oldest Library in the World and the New Deluge Tablet, Expository Times 21(8):364–369, 1910.
  4. Adamthwaite, M., Gilgamesh and the biblical Flood—part 2, J. Creation 28(3):80–85, 2014.
  5. Ref. 3, p. 368.
  6. Jasrow, M., Hebrew and Babylonian Traditions, Charles Scribner’s Sons, USA, p. 342, 1914.
  7. Barton and Gordon argue for the Middle Babylonian period which ended around 1000 BC. Lambert, W.G. and Millard, A.R., eds.,Atra-hasis:The Babylonian Story of the Flood, Oxford University Press, p. 126, 1969.

References and notes

  1. Sarfati, J., Noah’s Flood and the Gilgamesh Epic, Creation 28(4):12–17, 2006;creation.com/gilgamesh. Return to text.
  2. Smith, G., The Chaldean account of the deluge, Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology 2:213–234, 1873. Return to text.
  3. Hilprecht, H., The Babylonian Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania, Series D; Researches and Treatises, Vol V, Fasciculus I; The Earliest Version of the Babylonian Deluge Story and the Temple Library of Nippur, University of Pennsylvania, 1910;archive.org/stream/babylonianexped04archgoog#page/n12/mode/2up. Return to text.
  4. Cooper, W.R., The Authenticity of the Book of Genesis, Creation Science Movement, UK, p. 390, 2011. Return to text.
  5. Tigay, J.H., The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic, University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 39, 1982. Return to text.
  6. Ref. 5, p. 216. Return to text.
  7. Ref. 4, pp. 386–389. Return to text.
  8. Ref. 4, p. 394. Return to text.
  9. Ref. 3, pp. 49–65. Return to text.
  10. Ref. 4. Return to text.
  11. Conolly, R. and Grigg, R., Flood, Creation 23(1):26–30, 2000;creation.com/many-flood-legends. Return to text.
  12. Ref. 4, pp. 160–366. Return to text.
  13. Fossils Questions and Answers; creation.com/fossils-questions-and-answers. Return to text.
  14. Geology Questions and Answers; creation.com/geology-questions-and-answers. Return to text.