A comparison from secular historical records
Published: 21 February 2006 (GMT+10)
“A comparative study of the flood accounts in the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis,” chapter 7
Monotheism and polytheism
One of the most remarkable differences between the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis is that the former has a polytheistic conception of god, while the latter is based on monotheistic theology. According to Howard F. Vos, the most pervading view concerning the relationship of these two accounts is that the author of the Genesis account used the Epic as the source and “purified the account of polytheistic elements.”1 If one asserts that there are evidences that polytheism had indeed preceded monotheism, this view might sound persuasive. Therefore, it is important to investigate the archaeological and historical religious records to examine the origin of monotheism and polytheism.
According to the followers of Julius Wellhausen, the Jewish priests of the days of Exile created a monotheism which had never existed or been recognized until then and added it into the Pentateuch.2 However, this hypothesis seems contrary to the archaeological evidence. According to Stephen Langdon of Oxford, “the history of the oldest civilization of man is a rapid decline from monotheism to extreme polytheism and widespread belief in evil spirits.”3 Arthur C. Custance makes explanation as follows:
When the cuneiform literature first began to reveal its message, scholars of cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics soon found themselves dealing with a tremendous number of gods and goddesses, and demons and other spiritual powers of a lesser sort, which seemed to be always at war with one another and much of the time highly destructive. As earlier and earlier tablets, however, began to be excavated and brought to light, and skill in deciphering them increased, the first picture of gross polytheism began to be replaced by something more nearly approaching a hierarchy of spiritual beings organized into a kind of court with one Supreme Being over all.4
Langton, one of the first cuneiform scholars, believed that the oldest human culture was Sumerian. He states
The history of Sumerian religion, which was the most powerful cultural influence in the ancient world, could be traced by means of pictographic inscriptions almost to the earliest religious concepts of man. The evidence points unmistakably to an original monotheism, the inscriptions and literary remains of the oldest Semitic peoples also indicate a primitive monotheism, and the totemistic origin of Hebrew and other Semitic religions is now entirely discredited.5
According to historical evidence, the same pattern is found in Egypt, India, China and Greece.6 Wilhelm Schmidt also asserts that the original religion of mankind was monotheism based on his historical research and evidence.7 Likewise Henry C. Thiessen writes as follows:
The first departure from monotheism seems to have been in the direction of nature worship. Sun, moon, and stars, the great representatives of nature, and fire, air, and water, the great representatives of earth, became objects of popular worship. At the first they were merely personified; then men came to believe that personal beings presided over them. Polytheism has a strong affinity for fallen human nature.8
Thus, as Custance states, “it may safely be said without the slightest hesitation that monotheism never evolved out of polytheism in any part of the world’s earliest history for which we have documentary evidence.”9 Although these arguments probably are insufficient to refute the view that the Flood account in Genesis was derived from the Epic, they at least offer support for the idea that the Bible is correct on the subject of the precedence of monotheism over polytheism.
The record of descendants of the survivors
As noted in chapter one, Gilgamesh seems to have been an historical person and he mentions Utnapishtim as his own ancestor in the Gilgamesh Epic (IX iii 2). Yet their connection is not detailed. There is no reference in the Epic to the repopulation of the survivors after the flood. Therefore, the historicity of the Epic is unverifiable. However, Genesis contains the genealogy of the sons of Noah (10:1–32). Josephus records
Now they were the grandchildren of Noah, in honor of whom names were imposed on the nations by those that first seized upon them. Japhet, the son of Noah, had seven sons: they inhabited so, that, beginning at the mountain Taurus and Amanus, they proceeded along Asia, as far as the river Tanais, and along Europe to Cadiz; and setting themselves on the lands which they light upon, which none had inhabited before, they called the nations by their own names; … 10
According to the secular historical records and archaeological discoveries, Japhethites are likely identified as the ancestors of Indo-Europeans.11 Josephus also mentions the descendants of Shem as follows: “Shem, the third son of Noah, had five sons, who inhabited the land that began at Euphrates, and reached to the Indian Ocean.”12 The four sons of Ham and their sons are also recorded as follows:
The children of Ham possessed the land of Syria and Amanus, and the mountains of Libanus, seizing upon all that was on its seacoasts and as far as the ocean, and keeping it as their own. Some indeed of its names are utterly vanished away; others of them being changed, and another sound given them, are hardly discovered; yet a few there are which have kept their denominations entire.13
Josephus identifies the names of the descendants of Noah’s three sons with some nations.14 William F. Albright notes about the genealogy of Noah’s sons in Genesis 10: “Many of the names of people and countries mentioned in this chapter have been discovered on the monuments … .”15 Furthermore, Albright states
In view of the inextricable confusion of racial and national strains in the ancient Near East it would be quite impossible to draw up a simple scheme which would satisfy all scholars; no one system could satisfy all the claims made on the basis of ethnic predominance, ethnographic diffusion, language, physical type, culture, historical tradition. The Table of Nations remains an astonishingly accurate document.16
Thus, the genealogy of Noah’s sons is detailed and realistic.
The Flood Traditions Around the World
The existence of the flood traditions all over the world seems to be consistent with the Genesis account. Hill argues that “Flood legends from around the world exist simply because flooding has occurred in most parts of the Earth at one time or another.”17 However, the detailed nature of the widely spread statements has common elements to the Bible. In fact, even people who live far from the sea or in mountainous areas have flood traditions which are similar to the Genesis account. For instance, the Pawnee tribe in Nebraska has the following tradition: the creator Ti-ra-wa destroyed the first people, who were giants, by water because of his indignation about their corruption and after that he created a man and a woman like present people, who became the Pawnees’ ancestors.18 In addition, the Miao tribe who resides in southwest China had a tradition which is like the Genesis account even before they met Christian missionaries.19 According to their tradition, when god destroyed the whole world by the flood because of wickedness of man, Nuah the righteous man and his wife Matriarch, their three sons, Lo Han, Lo Shen, and Jah-hu survived by building a very broad ship and embarked on it with pairs of animals.20 Furthermore, their genealogy records as follows: “The Patriarch Jahphu got the center of nations. The son he begot was the Patriarch Go-men.”21 The following is the analysis of over 200 flood traditions all over the world:
Is there a favored family? 88%
Were they forewarned? 66%
Is the flood due to wickedness of man? 66%
Is catastrophe only a flood? 95%
Was the flood global? 95%
Is the survival due to a boat? 70%
Were animals also saved? 67%
Did animals play any part? 73%
Did survivors land on a mountain? 57%
Was the geography local? 82%
Were birds sent out? 35%
Was the rainbow mentioned? 7%
Did survivors offer a sacrifice? 13%
Were specifically eight persons saved? 9%22
Thus, 95% of these traditions have common elements with Genesis and they say that the flood was global. Although it is impossible to study all of the flood traditions around the world here, it seems to be significant to mention some of them to verify the fact that they have common elements with the Genesis Flood account. According to the tradition of Yenisey-Ostyak in north central Siberia, flood waters rose for seven days. Some people and animals were saved by climbing on floating logs and rafters. A strong north wind blew for seven days and scattered the people, which is why there are now different peoples speaking different languages.23
The summary of the tradition of Eskimo in Orowingnarak, Alaska is: “A great inundation, together with an earthquake, swept the land so rapidly that only a few people escaped in their skin canoes to tops of the highest mountains.”24 The tradition of Southwest Tanzania is as follows: according to the announcement by god, the two men embarked on a ship with every kind of animal and survived the flood which covered the mountains.25 In Papua New Guinea, the Biami people, the last cannibal tribe, also had traditions of creation and flood similar to Genesis.26 The flood story is as follows:
Once a great flood came which covered the whole earth and wiped out everyone on earth except for the ancestors of the Biami people.27 Those ancestors climbed up into the Gobia Tree the bark of which they make into sting for their sting bags. They took up into tree their planting materials for crops, all their animals, their dogs and their pigs and everything else necessary for life. As the flood waters rose up on the face of the earth the people climbed further up the tree. They were safe in the branches of this tree because the tree grew up above the waters as waters rose up.
When the waters went down from the surface of the whole earth, the people were able to climb down the tree. The ground was very muddy, but eventually they planted their crops and their animals began to reproduce. They moved away from the tree and began to repopulate the earth. Those who had climbed down out of the tree were the ancestors of the Samos, the Kubos, the Gobasis, and the Etoro.28
According to the Greek tradition, Deucalion, a godly man, boarded into a huge ark with his wife and children and all animals when the flood covered the whole earth and killed all the other people.29 The following is the tradition of Tehuelche who live in Patagonia, South America:
At a remote time in the past, the earth was inhabited also by people other than those created by sun-god. They were very bad and fought among themselves all the time. When sun-god saw this he decided to annihilate these people and to create another population in their stead. To destroy the bad people, the sun-god sent torrential and continuous rain, the springs opened, and the ocean overflowed. In the deluge all mankind and all animals were swept away … the sun-god sent [out] the dove, which returned with blades of grass in its beak, providing thereby that it had found dry land. Then the sun-god decided to create new people. First he made a man, then a woman, and finally a dog to keep them company.30
Thus, it seems reasonable to think that the Genesis account is consistent with the secular historical records and the existence of the flood traditions around the world.
Reports of search for the Ark
In Genesis, the landing place of Noah’s Ark is mentioned as “on the mountains of Ararat” (8:4 הרי אררט על) which is identified as ancient Urartu, the mountainous region in present Armenia.31 The Ark seems to have rested somewhere on the mountain range.32 “The Aramaic and Syriac translations of 8:4 render ‘mountains of Ararat’ with ‘Ture Kardu,’ that is, the mountains of Kurdistan (Jubel Judi) southeast of Lake Van.”33 So-called Mt. Ararat is found in part of Turkey, Armenia and Iran, and snow constantly covers its summit which is about 17,000 feet high.34 The indigenous still call this mountain the “Kuhi Nuch,” which signifies the Mountain of Noah.35 It seems to be consistent with the Genesis account that there are sedimentary rocks, which are in most cases formed under water, including marine fossils, in the upper region of Mt. Ararat.36
There are many extra-biblical reports about the Ark from antiquity. The following are the references about the Ark by Josephus:
Now all the writers of barbarian histories make mention of this flood and of this ark; among whom is Berosus the Chaldean; for when he is describing the circumstances of the flood, he goes on thus: -‘It is said there is still some part of this ship in Armenia, at the mountain of the Cordyaeans; and that some people carry off pieces of the bitumen, which they take away and use chiefly as amulets for the averting of mischiefs.’ (94) Hieronymus the Egyptian, also who wrote the phoenician Antiquities, and Mnaseas, and a great many more, make mention of the same. Nay, Nicolaus of Damascus, in his ninety-sixth book, hath a particular relation about them, where he speaks thus: -‘There is a great mountain in Armenia, over Minyas, called Baris, upon which it is reported that many who fled at the time of the Deluge were saved; and that one who was carried in an ark came on shore upon the top of it; and that the remains of the timber were great while preserved. This might be the man about whom Moses, the legislator of the Jews wrote.’37
Crouse remarks, “Josephus seems to indicate there is a consensus among the historians of his day, not only about the remains of the Ark still existing, but also concerning the location.”38 Tim F. LaHaye and John D. Morris write
We have enumerated the various traditions found in the history of the Armenian people indicating that throughout the centuries since the Ark landed on Mt. Ararat many of that race actually made pilgrimages to the remains, and nearly all of the leaders knew generally where they were to be found.39
They collected many references about the Ark. According to a monk Jehan Haithon, “Upon the snows of Ararat a black speck is visible at all times: this is Noah’s Ark.”40 George Hagopian, the Armenian who grew up near Lake Van, to the south of Mt. Ararat, claims that in 1908 and in 1910, he went to see the Ark on Mt. Ararat with his uncle.41 In addition, a Frenchman Fernand Navarra reported that among the ice of the top of the mountain, he had found the wooden fragments which seemed to have been the part of the beam of the Ark on July 6 in 1955.42 The age of the lumber he had brought back was tested and considered to be about 5,000 years.43 As a recent instance, the scientists and engineers, who had been employed by Insight to investigate the photograph of an anomaly on the northwest corner of the Western Plateau of Mt. Ararat, reported that they could not identify whether it is an artificial structure or merely a rock.44 This photograph, which the U.S. Air Force took on June 17 in 1949, was judged the remains of Noah’s Ark by the pilot.45 Even though it is impossible to certify these traditions or reports, it is significant that many people expect to find evidence of Noah’s historicity.
On the other hand, in the Gilgamesh Epic, there is also a reference the ship’s landing place,45 “the ship landed on Mt. Nisir” (XI 140). Mt. Nisir, whose height is about 9,000 feet, is located between the Tigris and river Zab,45 to the south and east of Ararat.46 Nevertheless, since “Mt. Nisir has never tempted the curious to search for the remains of this great ship,”47 it seems that few people have considered the Epic credible history.
- Howard F. Vos, Genesis and Archaeology, Moody Press, Chicago, p. 43, 1963. Return to text.
- Livingston, p. 162. Cf. Harrison, pp. 351–361. Return to text.
- Stephen H. Langdon, Semitic Mythology, Mythology of All Races, Vol. V, Archaeol. Instit. Amer., p. xviii, 1931; in Arthur C. Custance, Evolution or Creation? The Doorway Papers, vol. 4, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, p. 114, 1976. Return to text.
- Custance, p. 113. Return to text.
- Stephen H. Langdon, The Scotsman, November 18, 1936; in Custance, p. 114. Return to text.
- P. Le Page Renouf, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of Ancient Egypt, Williams and Norgate, London, p. 90, 1897. Edward McCray, Genesis and Pagan Cosmogonies, Trans. Vict. Instit. 72:55, 1940. Max Muller, History of Sanskrit Literature. R. Williams, “Early Chinese Monotheism,” a paper presented before the Kelvin Instit., Tront, 1938. Axel Persson, The religion of Greece in Prehistoric Times, U. of California Press, p. 124, 1942; in Custance, pp. 117–124. Ethel Nelson, The original “unknown” god of China, Return to text.
- Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion, Cooper Square, New York, 1971; in Greg Hanington, Wilhelm Schmidt and the origin of religion, Creation 14(3):20–21, 1992. Return to text.
- Henry Clarence Thiessen, Lecture in Systematic Theology, revised by Vernon D. Doerksen, William E. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, p. 38, 1979. Return to text.
- Custance, p. 119. Return to text.
- Josephus, The Work of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, William Whiston (Trans.), New Update Edition, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, p. 36, 1987. Return to text.
- Morris, The Genesis Record, p. 247. Return to text.
- Josephus, p. 37. Return to text.
- Ibid, pp. 36–37. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- William F. Albright, Recent Discoveries in Bible Land,; supplement to Robert Young, Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York, p. 30, n.d. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Hill, p. 181. Return to text.
- George Bird Grinnell, Pawnee Hero Stories and Folk-Tales, Forest and Stream Publishing Company, New York, 1889; reprinted: University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, pp. 355–356, 1961. In Mark Isaak, Flood Stories from Around the World, www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myth.html, July 25, 2003. Return to text.
- Edgar A. Truax (Trans.), Genesis According to the Miao People, Impact: Vital Articles on Science/Creation, No. 214, April 1991. Return to text.
- Their tradition also includes creation and the confusion of languages like the Genesis account. Ibid. Return to text.
- “From this we see that they trace their ancestry from Japheth and Gomer, which makes them of the Indo-European stock.” Ibid, note 5. Return to text.
- John D. Morris, Why Does Nearly Every Culture Have a Tradition of Global Flood? Institute for Creation Research, BTG No.153b, September 2001. Return to text.
- Uno Holmberg, “Finno-Ugric, Siberian,” in MacCulloch, C.J.A. (Ed.), The Mythology of All Races, v. IV, Marshall Jones Co., Boston, p. 367, 1927; in Isaak, website online. Return to text.
- Sir James G. Frazer, Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, vol. 1, Macmillan & Co., London, p. 327, 1919; in Isaak, website online. Return to text.
- Theodor H. Gaster, Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament, Harper & Row, New York, pp. 120–121, 1969; in Isaak, website online. Return to text.
- Tom Hoey, The Biami Legends (with an introduction by John Mackay), Creation 7(2):12–13, 1984. Return to text.
- “The Biami believe that the people who came down from that tree were the ancestors of Biami people and all the other tribes immediately around them who, in their view, were the only people who existed since they knew no other prior to the coming of the white missionaries.” Ibid. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Sir James G. Frazer, Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, vol. 1, Macmillan & Co., London, pp. 153–154, 1919; in Isaak, website online. Return to text.
- Johannes Wilbert and Simoneau Karin, Folk Literature of the Tehulche Indians, UCLA, p. 104, 1984; in Bill Johnson, American Genesis: The Cosmological Beliefs of the Indians, Impact #369, Acts & Facts, vol. 33, No. 3, 2004. Return to text.
- Sarna, p. 57. Return to text.
- Morris, The Genesis Record, p. 208. Return to text.
- Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, p. 301. Return to text.
- Sarna, p. 57. Return to text.
- Rehwinkel, p. 91. Return to text.
- Tim F. LaHaye and John D. Morris, The Ark on Ararat, Creation-Life Publishers, Nashville, p. 11, 1976. Return to text.
- Josephus, p. 34. Return to text.
- Bill Crouse, Noah’s Ark: Its Final Berth, Archaeology and Biblical Research, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1992. Return to text.
- LaHaye and Morris, p. 68. Return to text.
- Jehan Haithon (13th century) as cited by Rev. S. Baring-Gould, Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets, Hurst and Co., New York, p. 142, n.d.; in LaHaye and Morris, p. 22. Return to text.
- LaHaye and Morris, pp. 68–72. Return to text.
- Fernand Navarra, Noah’s Ark, pp. 51–63; in LaHaye and Morris, pp. 129–130. Return to text.
- Werner Keller, The Bible As History, William Neil and B. H. Rasmussen (Trans.), Bantam Books, Great Britain, 1965; 2nd Revised Edition, p. 38, 1980. Return to text.
- Timothy W. Maier, Insight on the News, CIA Releases New “Noah’s Ark” Documents, www.insightmag.com/main.cfm?include=detail&storyid=321357, November 13, 2000. Return to text.
- Timothy W. Maier, Insight on the News, Anomaly or Noah’s Ark? www.insightmag.com/main.cfm?include=detail&storyid=208686, November 20, 2000. Return to text.
- Keller, p. 36. Return to text.
- Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, p. 301. Keller, p. 36. Cf. For the location of Mt. Nisir, E.A. Speiser, Kurdistan in the Annals of Ashurnasirpal and Today, Annual of American Schools of Oriental Research 8:17–18, 1926/27; E.G. Kraeling, Xisouthros, Deucalion, and the Flood Narrative, Journal of the American Oriental Society 67:181, 1947. Return to text.
- Keller, p. 37. Return to text.