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The Flood Myth: Babylonian Origins

Apart from the internal problems with the story, there is another kind of evidence that tells us the source of this biblical story of the worldwide deluge. In the middle of the nineteenth century an excavation on the banks of the River Tigris, archaeologists unearthed twelve clay tablets which were written in the then mysterious cuneiform script. Then around the turn of the twentieth century, archaeologists finally managed to decipher the script. They discovered that it was written in Akkadian, the language of ancient royalty and diplomacy. The tablets tell of the story of Gilgamesh. [1]

What interest us here is the story told on the eleventh tablet. In this tablet we are told that Gilgamesh, in his quest for immortality set out on a long journey to look for his ancestor, Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim was already bestowed with eternal life by the gods. Upon reaching the island of Utnapishtim's abode, Gilgamesh was told a story by his ancestor of a great flood that once swept the world. [2] The similarity between this story and that of Genesis is astounding. The table below gives a comparison of both these stories.

(Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that he was a true worshipper of the god Ea. When the gods decided to destroy mankind by a flood, Ea warned his devotee and told him): “O man of Shurrupak, son of Ubar-Tutu, tear down your house and built a ship; abandon wealth seek after life; scorn possessions save your life. Bring up the seed of all kinds of living things into the ship; the ship which you shall built. Let its dimensions be well measured.” Genesis 6:13-14
And God said to Noah “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them...Make yourself an ark...”
Genesis 6: 17-19
“For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and you sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of each sort into the ark to keep them alive with you, they shall be male and female.”
(In accordance with the command of the god Ea, Utnapishtim builds the ship and says):
“On the fifth day, I decided upon its plan. The floor was 200 feet square. The walls were 200 feet high. I gave it six stories and divided the breadth seven times. Its interior I divided into nine. Six sar of bitumen I poured into the kiln.”

(Utnapishtim then proceeded to built his ship. he continues his story):
‘All that I had I loaded, of the seed of all living things. I brought into the ship my whole family and kinsfolk. The cattle of the field, the beasts of the field, all craftsmen-I made them go up into it. I went into the ship and closed my door.”

Genesis 6:14-16
“Make room in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it; the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits and height 30 cubits. Make a roof for the ark and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side; make it with the lower, second and third decks.”
Genesis 7:13-16
On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham, and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark, they and every beast...and all the cattle...and every creeping things...and every bird...And they that entered male and female of all flesh, went in...and the Lord shut him in.
“Six days and six nights raged the wind, the flood, the cyclone devastated the land. When the seventh day came, the cyclone, the flood, the battle was over...the sea became calm and the cyclone died away, the flood ceased" Genesis 7:10-12
After seven days the waters of the flood came upon the earth...on that day all the fountain of the great deep burst forth and the windows of the heavens were opened. And it rained forty days and forty nights.
Genesis 8:3
At the end of the 150 days the waters had abated.
“I opened the window and light fell on my face. The ship lay upon Mount Nisir. Mount Nisir held the ship and allowed it not to move.”

“When the seventh day arrived, I released a dove.”

Genesis 8:4 the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ararat.
Genesis 8:6
At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made, and sent forth a raven.

The Flood Myths of Babylon and Israel [3]

The point by point correspondence revealed by table 4.3 is astounding:

  • The method of destroying all living things of the world was with a great worldwide flood
  • There was a single person singled out by the gods to be saved.
  • This person was commanded to build a massive ark or ship.
  • The ark is to house him, his kinfolk and all kinds of beasts.
  • After the flood receded, the ark came to rest on a mountain.
  • Both arks have windows which were opened after the rain had subsided.
  • A bird was released from the ark once it came to rest on the mountain.

The obvious similarities could not have been, not by any stretch of imagination, due to coincidence. One of the account is clearly dependent on the other. So the question is, which is the original and which is the copy? There are many reasons to believe that the Babylonian version is the original:

  • The first is antiquity. The writing of the epic of Gilgamesh has been dated by archaeologists to around 2000 BCE. Thus it predates the Genesis account by at least a few centuries.[a]
  • The second is the presence of loan words. The Akkadian word for pitch (or bitumen): kofer. This is precisely the word used in the Genesis story. Nowhere else in the Bible does the word kofer appears except in the story of the flood. [4]
  • The third is the general flow of influence. We would expect the greater civilization to have a greater cultural influence on a lesser one. Compared to Babylonia, Israel was, as Cyrus Gordon said, a “backwater of sorts”.
  • The fourth reason is from the original source of the myth [b]. Floods are common in the Mesopotamian plains, it is unusual in usually arid Israel. It is easy to see how the flood myth could have originated from some stories told in the Babylonian plains, it is not so easy to see how anyone from Israel could have thought of that myth originally.
  • Finally, the location of the story gives a clue to its origins. The geography of the ark story points towards its Mesopotamian origin. Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, which is at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates. [5]

It is therefore conclusive that the story in Genesis is a direct descendent of the Babylonian story.

The Akkadian tablets, like the story in Genesis, are collections of myths. There was, however, a brief period of respectability, in the first half of the twentieth century, given to the notion of the occurrence of an actual catastrophic flood. An archaeological expedition in 1929 led by Sir Charles Leonard Wooley (1880-1960) found at the site of the ancient city of Ur, a stratum of clean clay about eight feet thick. Wooley originally estimated the layer of silt to be about four hundred miles long and about one hundred miles wide. The layer was dated at around 4000BC. Had this been true, a flood of such a magnitude would certainly has qualified as "world-wide" to the ancient Babylonians, for the area estimated by Wooley represented the whole of the known world to them. However, subsequent expeditions has shown that the thick layer of silt is localized and was nowhere as widespread as Wooley first thought it to be. [6]

Was Noah actually a historical person? Again archaeological evidence supplied the answer. In 1933 clay tablets were discovered in Mari, an ancient city in the Mesopotamian plain. In these tablets (there were about 20,000 discovered), the name Noah appeared many times; as the name of a god.[7] In fact Noah’s name is actually a musculanisation of the goddess of rain, Nuah. [8]

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a.The story of the twelve tablets were estimated to have been written about 2000 BCE. Even assuming "best case" biblical chronology, i.e. that Genesis was written by Moses himself, this brings the writing of Genesis to only about 1400 BCE. Thus the Akkadian tablet is earlier than the Genesis story. According to critical theologians, the earliest form of the Hebrew flood story was written only around 900 BCE. But the version as we have it in the Bible was not complete until the period of the exile c. 6th century BCE.
b.The flood story is a myth, of course, as we have shown earlier.


1.Keller, The Bible As History: p52-53
2.Ibid: page 53
3.Ibid: page 53-59
Riedel, The Book of the Bible: p29
4.Ibid: p29
5.Gordon, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, p50
6.Ward, A Dictionary of Common Fallacies I: p96-97
7.Riedel, The Book of the Bible: p30
8.Harwood, Mythology’s Last Gods: p132

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