Torah Torah Torah 5

5 – Antediluvian” memories:

Aside from the fragmentary documents from the days of Abraham through Moses, and the much more substantial documents from later, more-settled times, another kind of “source” to consider is the pre-Hebrew literature. All the Biblical writings are influenced by a background of Mideastern literature, in various Semitic languages and Sumerian and Egyptian, with commonalities that also reach out to the eastern Mediterranean in general. The poetic figure in which the same thing is repeated twice, in slightly different ways (“At the exodus of Israel from Egypt / of the house of Jacob from a stuttering nation”) is more specific to the Mideast; but the anapestic or dactylic rhythm, with stressed syllables kept about three apart (anokhi, Devorah / em l-Yisrael “I, Deborah, a mother to Israel” anaPEST anaPEST / DACtylic DACtyl, at Judges v:7), is found also in the meter of the Iliad and Odyssey. The theme of natural objects partaking sympathetically in human dramas (“Sun, stand still…”; “the mountains danced…”; “the stars in their courses fought against Sisera” Judges v:20) is seen also when Orpheus laments his Eurydice so mournfully that the trees and stones weep. The genre of “sayings of the wise” (as in Proverbs) is very widespread, as is the genre of hymns of praise (Ikhnaton’s hymns to the solar disk Aton have some remarkable parallels in Psalms). Certain stock folk-tales crop up repeatedly: the sibling rivals; or the gross violation of the rules of hospitality, leading to dire revenge (Polyphemus eating the crewmen of Odysseus was not as shockingly against the well-understood “rules”, in the context of these cultures, as the men of Sodom, Gen. xix, or of Gibeah, Judges xix, sexually molesting guests).

But there is a specific and detailed use of a pre-Hebrew source in the Flood narrative. The Babylonian/Assyrian account of the Flood, appearing as the Tale of Utnapishtim in a flashback contained within the Epic of Gilgamesh (one of a set of texts which appears so commonly in Babylonian or Assyrian libraries that they can be spoken of as a “canon”), draws on an earlier Sumerian version in which the hero is named Ziusudra (“Xisuthros” in the Greek author Berossus, one of the very few fragmentary preservations of Sumerian until the rediscovery of cuneiform). The names are obscure in etymology and significance, but probably mean “he found extended life”, which to the Sumerians meant only “he cheated death” but in the Babylonian becomes (by the familiar “growth” of a story) an assertion that after the Flood the gods granted him immortality in the eastern paradise of Dilmun (by Assyrian times, “Dilmun” is a prosaic place-name for the island of Bahrain; to the late Sumerians and early Babylonians, it is a heavenly land in the far east; to the early Sumerians it was their old homeland, probably from *Dlamind, a name for south India, found as Dramina or Dravida in Sanskrit, Tamil in the present Dravidian languages). Gilgamesh has become distressingly aware of mortality after the death of his good friend Enkidu, and seeks Utnapishtim to learn if he too can escape death; Utnapishtim (after telling him the Flood story) takes pity on him and gives him the fruit of the “tree of life”, but Gilgamesh decides not to eat it right away but to take it home and share with the deserving, which gives a snake the opportunity to grab and eat the whole thing, slough his skin and crawl away. Gilgamesh decides that his work for the city of Uruk is all the immortality he will get, “See the bricks in this wall, how solid they are” concludes the epic.

None of this material appears in the Noah story, although the “tree of life” and the snake are very, very interesting (compare the golden apples of the Hesperides, guarded by a great dragon, though these are in the far west, not east). But the core of the Flood story, going back to the Ziusudra versions as far as we can tell, recurs in great detail in the Noah version. The Flood is caused by divine anger: though in the polytheistic world of Mesopotamia, the gods appear as pettier beings, more aggravated by human noisiness than judgmental over human wickedness, and they are divided about the decision, the love goddess Astarte (Sumerian Ishtar) being strongest for the destruction of those annoying humans (she is always depicted as capricious and rather childish), while the wisdom goddess Ea (Sumerian Enki) is totally opposed. Ea warns Utnapishtim, instructs him to build a boat, and also tells him to take pairs of every kind of animal, along with his family. There is a month of rain (“40″ days in the old Hebrew base-7 numbering means “four weeks”, a lunar month) followed by a full season of high water (“150″ is “a week of weeks, and five weeks”, that is, three months). Then the boat wrecks on a mountaintop, and birds are released to see if the land has recovered. There are differences, of course: Ziusudra’s boat is cubical, rather than oblong, and is waterproofed with tarpaper, not made of “resin” wood; he lands on a Mesopotamian hill, not Mt. Ararat; the sign of the rainbow is absent, and so is the subsequent planting of a vinyard and discovery of drunkenness. These differences pale next to the similarities.

Flood stories are found from many parts of the world, for the simple reason that floods do. The annual flood of the Nile is intimately connected to the creation of the world in some Egyptian myths; the once-a-generation flooding of the Yellow River is the backdrop of many Chinese folktales; Polynesians have various versions of a tale that the Ocean was once confined in a gourd, until the trickster god Rono talked the first people into cutting it open, letting the Ocean spread out all over everything: this was their way of explaining why the Ocean, such a seeming waste of space, dominates almost the whole world. But these do not belong to the category of “Deluge” stories, which trace back to genuine racial memory of a period when very severe flood events wiped out much of the human race. During the retreat of the great ice-sheets, roughly 8000-4000 BC, sea-levels rose so as to submerge former landbridges such as Beringia (Siberia to Alaska), Carpentaria (New Guinea to Australia), Sunda (Malaya through Indonesia to the Phillipines), and Lyonesse (Brittany through Cornwall to Ireland); at the peak of the warm climate, sea-levels were higher than they are now, putting most of such lowlands as Panama, Bangladesh, the Netherlands, and Ireland underwater for a time. This was not a gradual process: rather, the glaciers broke up in fits and starts, with some episodes of very rapid infusion of water vapor into the atmosphere, causing torrential rains in the lower latitudes of the northern hemisphere and sharp rises in the sea-level. The Tigris and Euphrates are known, from layers of clay deposition, to have overflowed and joined, drowning all of Mesopotamia, no less than three times. And geologists and archaeologists have recently uncovered an episode of great relevance here: the Mediterranean was once significantly below the Black Sea, which was more of a lake emptying through a river where the Straits are now; when the Mediterranean rose it rather abruptly dropped a large amount of water into the Black Sea, enlarging it and drowning human settlements all along the old coast.

Flood stories, no matter what “creationist” sites may tell you, are absent from large parts of the world, such as Africa and the whole north and east of Asia. In other parts, we find tales relating more to the submergence of old homelands than to a “global deluge”. The Nadene branch of the Native Americans (genetically and linguistically marked off from the others as relative late-comers; these are the Tlingit, Haida, and Eyak of the Alaska panhandle, the Athabascans of the Yukon and their kin the Navajo and Apaches of the US Southwest) have various versions of the great tides which swept in on “Pan”, a country to the northwest which they had to flee in boats; apparently they had the ill-fortune to reside on Beringia as it went down. The inhabitants of “Mun” (Sunda; inaccurately rendered “Mu” in a famous series of “lost continent” crackpot books by Col. James Churchward, who puts it in the middle of the Pacific and grossly exaggerates its size) had more dramatic events to record, earthquakes and volcanoes to go along with the flooding, as the weight of the water on the land upset this always seismically unstable terrain (peoples with this root in their ethnic self-name, such as the Munda, Mon, Hmong, and Menrih, are scattered all over Southeast Asia but not in Indonesia, which was apparently depopulated completely or very nearly so and is now occupied by Malayo-Polynesian peoples of much more recent origin). The “Book of Conquests” from Ireland mentions that the island went under completely once, after humans had already settled there, and that the next wave of colonists (the “people of Portholon”) found great loughs covering large sections of the island which are now merely boggy.

Among stories more similar to the “deluge” theme, some are clearly referring to local floodings, not worldwide calamities. The Hopis recall that they fled the overflowing Colorado by climbing a tall mesa, but saw that the waters continued to rise and threatened to top the mesa; the chief said that they must appease the gods by sacrificing the most beautiful boy and girl in the tribe, and the people chose a boy and pushed him over, but no-one would say anything about which girl was most beautiful, until the chief realized that it was his own daughter and pushed her over; then the flood subsided, and to this day we can see the boy and girl in the form of rock statues atop that mesa. Others note that more than one party escaped. The Yanomamo tell that some, the normal people, fled the rising waters by climbing to high ground, and these became the Yanomamo; while others, the crazy people, fled by building little rafts and boats, and these sailed away to become all the foreigners. Yet others remember that there was more than one flood. The Greeks distinguish the flood of Ogyges, which people escaped by climbing Mt. Parnassus, from the flood of Deucalion, which people escaped in a boat stuffed with every kind of animal. In other cases the story has entered the realm of fairy tales. In India, Vishnu saved Manu (“man”, who is also the author of the first law-code; “Adam”, “Noah” and “Moses” combined, as it were) by incarnating as a giant fish, which swallowed him up and did not spit him back out until it was safe: did this story make it into the Bible in the form of Jonah?

The Greek story of Deucalion’s Flood is noteworthy for containing a couple elements found in Noah’s Flood which are missing from Utnapishtim/Ziusudra’s Flood. Deucalion’s boat is also oblong, more seaworthy than Ziusudra’s odd craft; the shipwreck is in the mountains of Colchis (the Caucasus, by Ararat); and Deucalion invents wine after the Flood (although the story is a little strange: his dog gave birth to a white stick, which when planted became the first grapevine). And although they don’t look it, the names may be cognate. “Noach” is not a name that is meaningful in Hebrew although Genesis tries to explain it as from the root n-ch-m “to give comfort” (the loss of the third consonant out of a triconsonantal root would be inexplicable, as would be the insertion of a diphthong vowel; the prophet Nahum has a regular form for a name from this root). The only other occurrences of this name are for females, not males: aside from extra-Biblical sources we find it in Num. xxvii:1 for one of the “daughters of Zelophehad”; it is quite conceivable that in the case of the Black Sea flood, it was the mother of the clan, not the father, who “felt it in her bones that a hard rain’s a-comin” and built the boat for the family and livestock, but patriarchal conventionality required that the hero of the story be made masculine (the odd incident of incest between Ham and Noah, Gen. ix:22, becomes a little less bizarre under this hypothesis). Now, in “Deucalion” the suffix “-on” is a Greek nominalizer, and in various languages of the Caucasus an element like “-le” is a nominalizer, so the root is probably *Deuca, of uncertain meaning, although Deucalion’s wife Pyrrha “the fiery” may be a translation. *Deuca and Noach are no further apart than other divergences from a common root over the course of thousands of years which we can find in linguistics.

In sum, the Flood which the Hebrews had preserved in their racial memory was probably the Black Sea flooding, but the account we now have has been overlaid by copying from stories of a Tigris-Euphrates flooding, stories which had more preserved detail both because that other flood was more recent and because it happened where writing was invented early.

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