Did Israel received "Noah's flood story" from the Babylonians while in captivity?
I recently viewed a documentary claiming that ancient tablets (older than
OT manuscripts) were found in Iraq, telling a story almost identical to
Noah’s… and that the soil there showed signs of an ancient flood as well
(unlike the land around Mount Ararat). The final conclusion was that
Israel received this “story” from the Babylonians while in captivity. Do
you have any insight about this?
The ancient tablets you refer probably contained what is
commonly known as the Gilgamesh Epic, although it is difficult for me to
say for sure without seeing the source of the information you refer to.
The Gilgamesh Epic was known to the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian
cultures. The epic was almost certainly composed before 2000 BC. It has
been estimated by some to be based on a tradition as old as 3000 BC. If
one takes Abraham to be the father of the Jewish nation, as supported by
the Bible, then one can assume that the Gilgamesh Epic is older than the
written, Jewish version of the story which is found in the Bible, as
Abraham died somewhere around 1850 BC.
There are significant similarities between the Gilgamesh epic
and the flood account in Genesis, which seem to defy coincidence. For ex
ample, in Gilgamesh, a god speaks to a man Utnapishtim in a dream, telling
him to constuct a boat because of a great flood which is coming. Although
the stories are not identical (for example, when God spoke to Noah, it was
not in a dream) there is obvious parallel to the biblical flood account.
In the Gilgamesh Epic, Utnapishtum took his family, some friends as well
as many animals on the boat. Again, one can see parallels but also
differences in the accounts. To deny any possible common root to these
two flood stories seems unrealistic. There are two possibilities to ex
plain this. One possibility is that the flood is an actual event, the
memory of which was carried forward by the survivors, finding its way into
both Gilgamesh and the biblical account. Another possibility is that one
or the other was created first, and the other borrowed from it.
Assuming the second possibility, the question becomes who borrowed
from whom? Logically, one might assume that since the Gilgamesh Epic
precedes the Bible account, at least in its written form, it was the
source for the biblical story of the flood. From an historical or
literary point of view, this is hard to disprove. However, if one can
assume that the book of Genesis is inspired by God, then the idea of the
Genesis flood account being borrowed from Gilgamesh does not work. There
is a great wealth of evidence supporting the belief that the books of the
Bible, and specifically the book of Genesis is indeed the inspired
creation of God. Of course, much of that evidence is found at my web
site, to include prophecies in Genesis which are fulfilled in Jesus (see
the notes under articles/Bible/ click on From Shadow to Reality),
historical and archaeological accuracy of Genesis (articles/Bible/Let the
Stones Speak), and so forth. Much of this is summarized in my book
Reasons for Belief: A Handbook of Christian Evidence, available at
If the Bible, and therefore Genesis, is indeed inspired by God, then
the most likely conclusion is that Gilgamesh represents a tradition which
goes all the way back to the actual flood which is recorded in Genesis,
and that the account in Genesis, being inspired by God, is a separate, but
much more accurate depiction of the actual events which occurred in this
massive event as described in Genesis chapters 5-7. If this is the
correct explanation, then the parallels between the accounts are due to
the fact that they both describe the same, actual event, although with a
different level of fidelity to the actual events. This is what I believe
to be the case, but I leave it to you to decide for yourself.
As to the Israelites receiving the story from the Neo-Babylonians
while in captivity, I find this explanation very unlikely for a few
reasons. First of all, the Gilgamesh Epic was around in the time of the
first Babylonian Empire, about 1800 BC, not during the Neo-Babylonian
Empire, under Nebuchadnezzar. Second of all, there is sufficient
evidence, in my opinion, to conclude that the book of Genesis was written
in essentially its final form well before the time of the captivity
(586-538 BC). This would make the claim that it was borrowed from
Neo-Babylonian sources not work.
John Oakes, PhD