The Ancient Near Eastern Flood—or Floods—in a Nutshell

Robert Squillace

Noah in the Ark; mural from the Catacomb of St. Peter and St. Marcellinus, Rome; late 3rd century

The Flood and Extinction

            Until the late 18th century, the idea of extinction was inconceivable in Europe, North Africa, and the Near East; that is, those regions of the world in which Judaism, Christianity and Islam predominated.  The Bible and the Qu’ran, it seemed, ruled out such a possibility, for Noah (in Arabic, Nuh) had rescued at least one pair of every kind of animal from the cataclysmic Flood that had drowned every other living creature in the world.  Had God desired the elimination of any species, why so carefully instruct the earth’s one righteous man to preserve a breeding pair of every creature in order “to keep them alive with thee” (KJV Genesis 6:19)?  Nor, theologians argued, would God under any circumstances have created a species only to destroy it utterly; such an action would suggest an absence of foresight on the part of an omniscient being, clearly an absurdity.

            For many centuries, little empirical evidence seemed to contradict the idea, inspired in part by the Flood story, that earth had always been and always would be populated by the same fauna, until the end of time.  While species might have been driven into restricted ranges or even expunged from certain bounded regions, not even the oldest available written records referred to animals no longer in existence.  But as European conquests overseas and European development at home brought to light more and more fossilized remains of peculiar appearance, scientists first entertained the possibility that prehistoric creatures not mentioned in the Bible had once lived and lived no longer.  The bones of mammoths had been found  in Siberia for centuries, but

as late as the mid 18th century European scientists accepted the idea that they represented the remains of elephants swept far from their tropical homelands by the currents of the Biblical Flood. But in 1796, in a Europe already beset by political and social revolution, Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) proposed that bones, resembling those from Siberia, that he had obtained from North America represented a species distinct from the modern elephant, a species no longer to be found on earth; it would come to be called the mammoth. Cuvier would subsequently publish many papers making the case that numerous species of large mammals had become extinct in the distant past, thus demolishing the assumption that the Flood implied the divinely guaranteed stability of life on earth.  Extinction was thus established as an important scientific concept more than a decade before the identification of the first dinosaur species, then called Iguanadon, in 1822.

   Georges Cuvier  

            Scientific acceptance of the idea of extinction, however, hardly ruled out the historicity of an ancient, worldwide Flood.  Indeed, the English geologist William Buckland (1784-1856), who had published the first scientific treatise on dinosaurs in 1824, argued that it was precisely the great deluge described in Genesis that had killed off the prehistoric beasts

whose remains, now that people were looking for them, seemed to be turning up everywhere.  But Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) soon demonstrated that what Buckland took as geologic evidence of a universal flood instead suggested widespread glaciation: the descent in the past of a series of Ice Ages.  Agassiz made his case so thoroughly that it convinced even Buckland himself, and no geologist of any repute within the scientific community has since taken up the cudgel on behalf of the notion that the entire Earth was ever simultaneously flooded.  Nevertheless, many creationists continue to point to Noah’s Flood as the reason for past extinctions.

Louis Agassiz

Before and After Genesis

            But if the progress of geological science established the absence from the physical record of any testimony to a worldwide Flood, the torrent of young archaeologists inundating the Middle East in the hopes of determining the Bible’s status as history would soon complicate the picture once again.  That Europeans had easy access to these lands owed itself to the rising tide of

imperial rivalry; Henry Rawlinson, who did so much to break the cuneiform code by translating the inscription on the Behistun Rock (equivalent to Champollion’s work with the Rosetta Stone), had first encountered cuneiform while working with the British military in the region. Indeed, a schism still exists between those archaeologists bit of a whose work primarily concerns the investigation of Biblical history and those determined to escape the parameters that Bible-centric scholarship sets, by exploring thehistories of events and peoples it does not mention.


Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (above) The Behistun Rock (below)

           That other Flood narratives existed in the ancient world was no secret to scholars reared on Ovid’s Metamorphoses in an age when (Euro-American) higher education still centered on the study of Latin and Greek, but these works all clearly post-dated the account in Genesis.  But in 1872, a pupil of Rawlinson, George Smith, translated cuneiform tablets excavated from the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who reigned in the mid 7th century BCE, that contained a story of a vast flood clearly related to the Genesis account, but even older.  It appears as part of a tale we now know as Gilgamesh, the longest surviving literary text in cuneiform, but it is likely that the Flood narrative was originally separate from the (Royal Chariot of Ashurbanipal, story of the heroic king.  Over the decades from the Palace at Nineveh) following the translation of Gilgamesh, numerous versions of the Near Eastern  Flood narrative would be found, the oldest, Atrahsis, being a version in Old Babylonian that dates to 1700 BCE.  That later, fragmentary tablets record the tale in Sumerian suggests that it originated in oral tradition sometime before 2000 BCE, for Sumerian completely disappeared as a spoken tongue within a century or two of the turn of that millennium (it endured for some time in scribal use as the language of learning, much as Latin did in the Middle Ages and Renaissance).  Indeed, the Sumerian name for the Flood’s sole male survivor, Ziusudra, appears in a Sumerian king list as one of the earliest kings of Shurrupak; tablets from that city dating to the start of the third millennium BCE already look back to Ziusudra and his father as models of good government.  If the Ziusudra who became the hero of the Flood narratives actually lived, then, he likely did so around 3000 BCE.

Royal Chariot of Ashurbanipal, from the Palace at Nineveh

            The numerous variations in the Flood narrative, produced by centuries of oral transmission, provide an index of the cultural assumptions of the various redactors.  Indeed, scholars generally agree that the collator of the various oral and written traditions that became the book of Genesis combined two accounts of the Flood, one from the J-source (which uses “Jehovah” or “Yaweh” to name God) and the other from the Priestly source (which uses “El Shaddai”: the Almighty).  This explains why the Genesis account contains many redundancies and at times refers to Noah rescuing one pair of every kind of animal and at others to seven pairs of ritually clean animals.  While many elements of the tale endured as it traveled across different cultures, profound differences in

outlook also arose.  All versions of the story, for instance, portray the flood as divine intervention, rather than as a natural event.  But the Genesis, Qu-ranic, and Greco-Roman versions of the story attribute the flood to divine anger over the sins of man, while in Atrahasis the racket made by a rapidly expanding human population motivates the gods to take action.  Gilgamesh, curiously, offers no explanation at all of the reasons for which the gods unleash the flood—more evidence that the flood tale was an essentially separate tradition spliced into the epic.  Similarly, while the carnage is great in all versions of the story, only Genesis and Ovid’s  Metamorphoses specify the total annihilation of all human life besides the chosen few survivors; the flood is of somewhat more limited scope in Atrahasis and the third century BCE account by Berossus (a Near Eastern writer who attempted to encapsulate the Babylonian tradition in a work, only parts of which survive, for Greek speakers).  The Qu’ran does not specify the flood’s range; whether it submerged the entire globe or merely parts of the Near East remains a topic of debate within Islam.

            The story of such extreme divine retribution has, not surprisingly, challenged the ingenuity of theologians of every stripe.  What human transgression could merit such absolute judgment?  In Judaism, the Midrashic tradition of the Talmud (commentary on the Bible; some sects grant it equal authority with scripture) avers that Noah exhorted his fellow humans to repent, the Flood coming only after their failure to respond to his repeated warnings.  Similarly, Islamic teaching regards Nuh as a proponent of monotheism among backsliding worshippers of idols, a prophet saved for his faithfulness to Allah in a faithless world.  The

typological thinking of the Christian Middle Ages, which interpreted all events in the Hebrew Bible as signs and tokens of the coming Christian revelation and all the prophets as forerunners of Christ, read Noah’s preservation by passing through the flood-water as a symbol of salvation by baptism, inexact as the parallel may be.  In popular tradition, however, Noah was better known as a battered husband, abused in slapstick fashion by his wife (called “Uxor,” the Latin for “wife,” in medieval texts; the Bible provides no name) until the rain begins to fall and she learns obedience.  In the 17th century, the Protestant John Milton’s Paradise Lost depicted Noah as an exemplar of what, in the wake of the restoration of Charles II and the wreck of his own political aspirations, Milton regarded as the universal pattern of history: a righteous individual crying virtually unheeded in a wilderness of sin.  More recent theological discourse has fixed on many aspects of the Noah story—its hero’s commitment to his own inspiration in the face of mockery, the essential unity of a human species who are all (at least symbolically) Noah’s children, and so forth—but rarely engages the question of whether human wickedness could reach such profound depths that annihilation would result.  Perhaps the answer is self-evident.

Illumination from fol. 2v of the Morgan Crusader Bible (c. 1250 CE)

The Flood Today

            The debate over what historical status to accord this plethora of similar flood tales continues to this day.  Because all the surviving texts contain broad similarities but differ in often locally-significant details, scholars generally agree that all the written versions derive from oral tales that circulated for millennia in the Near East—after all, Genesis itself affirms that Abraham sojourned from the city of Ur, in Mesopotamia, to the land of Canaan, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea; further, it mentions many locations far from the historical territory of Israel, such as Shinar (Sumer) and Babel (Babylon). From Canaan, which the Greeks called Phoenicia after the purple dye that provided the basis for the wealth of coastal trading cities like Tyre and Sidon, the tale passed into Greece and eventually found its way to Rome.  But did the tale of the great Flood survive because it answered to some deep human need to envision universal disaster, because some actual flood had occurred in the later prehistoric Near East of such massive proportions that fragmented memories of it endured for generations, or both?

            Until recently, no convincing evidence of a Near Eastern flood truly Biblical in proportions had been found; while there were certainly local inundations, and while the system of canal irrigation instituted by the Sumerians made flooding a continual concern in lower Mesopotamia, nothing so massive as to inspire the belief that all the world had been submerged had apparently ever occurred.  But late in 1996, the marine geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman of the Lamont-Doherty Observatory

posited that the Black Sea, once a considerably smaller freshwater lake, had flooded with saltwater about 7600 years ago (thus, around 5600 BCE) when an earth-wall that held back the rising Sea of Marmara (an arm of the Mediterranean) first began slowly to crumble and then collapsed.   The resultant submersion of what had previously been dry, productive land might indeed have seemed like the end of the world to witnesses; Pitman and Ryan note that “Someone escaping the onslaught of the rising tide on this shelf would have had to travel, on the average, a quarter mile per day to keep up with the inundation” (Noah’s Flood, 160). By the time equilibrium had been re-established—a process that took over two years—the surface of the lake had risen by 330 feet, creating the much more extensive, saline Black Sea we know today. By comparison, the

Walter Pitman (l) and William Ryan (r)
Helicopter survey of flood damage caused by Hurricane Katrina

maximum storm surge produced by hurricane Katrina was a little over 30 feet, less than a tenth as high; the tallest waves of 2004's devastating Indian Ocean tsunami topped out at around 100 feet.  And, of course, these waters receded or were pumped out in a manner inconceivable in the time and under the conditions of the Black Sea flood.

            Ryan and Pitman’s theory has remained controversial, with evidence and arguments both for and against it continuing to appear.  But even if the catastrophic flood they envision did occur, were significant numbers of human beings living in the area to witness this event and pass its memory down?  In 2000, an expedition led by Robert Ballard (who has used submersible robot craft to find the remains of the Titanic, the Bismarck, and other marine disasters) discovered what appeared to be the remnants of a very ancient human settlement that now lies approximately 300 feet below the surface of the Black Sea.  The evidence was exciting, but not extensive; Ballard reported in his online dispatch from the site that “It consists of [the remains of] a single building with a hewn beam and wooden branches that formed the walls and roof of a structure—most likely a house. We have also found and photographed stone tools, possibly a chisel or an axe, and ceramic storage vessels, all untouched since the flooding of the Black Sea.”  This is a fairly narrow ledge of evidence on which to perch the theory that the event survived in the folk memories of far-flung peoples for thousands of years before being committed to writing, but most scholars do at least agree that the Euxine littoral (the area immediately surrounding the shores of the freshwater lake that became the Black Sea) would have been a lush and attractive place for humans to live at the time Ryan and Pitman theorize that the flood took place.

Lemba Elder

            Regardless of the evidence produced to confirm both the Black Sea flood itself and the size of the population that may have survived it, the idea that oral traditions regarding the event evolved into the various Near Eastern and Classical flood narratives remains suspect on purely literary grounds.  Certainly, historically accurate data may survive by oral transmission for hundreds or even thousands of years.  The Lemba, a Bantu-speaking tribe of South Africa, long insisted that they had departed from Israel around the time of Solomon (c. 900 BCE) and were actually Jewish.  Until recently, historians doubted the claim, chalking up the handful of Hebraic customs the Lemba practiced to their introduction by 19th century missionaries to the Bible.  However, DNA evidence has established very convincingly that a part of the Lemba’s genetic profile, and particularly that of the Buba branch of the tribe, genuinely originated in ancient Israel—in fact, an even greater portion than that of current Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewish populations (those populations hold many genetic markers in common with North Africans and Europeans of non-Jewish origin; the Lemba heritage includes significant Bantu and Arabic family lines).

            But to call the Black Sea inundation “the same” as the Flood of Near Eastern tradition merely invites the question of what constitutes identity between an event and a story.  Some puzzling aspects of the Flood tales might perhaps be clarified by reference to the Black Sea inundation; for instance, the contribution of waters welling from underground (the Sumerians envisioned all springs as originating in the abzu, a vast subterranean reservoir; traces of this concept can be found in both the Biblical and Qu’ranic accounts).  But all the Flood narratives also involve torrential rain; the Black Sea event was strictly a matter of rising water levels.  The Flood tales evoke visions of unspeakable carnage and destruction, with few humans surviving; indeed, one of the great attractions of this apparently indelible story of ecological disaster is how truthfully it envisions the fragile underpinnings of the whole contraption of human civilization.  The very water by which we live has the power to undo all our works.  But the Black Sea flood would have resulted in relatively few casualties and many survivors; in particular, it would have threatened the species of animals native to the Black Sea littoral hardly at all.  Its primary effect would have been to alter the landscape permanently, submerging what had once been productive land and turning fresh water to salt; in this respect, it more closely resembles Plato’s account of Atlantis in Timaeus, though it bears no other similarity to that much later work.

Ashburnham Pentateuch Codex, 7th C CE

           But, in any case, a permanent alteration of the landscape is precisely what the Near Eastern and Classical Flood narratives do not posit; in them, the waters invariably recede, returning the land to its previous state.  Nor can one easily square the necessity to build a great boat, an element common to the Near Eastern versions of the story, with the nature of Ryan and Pitman’s disaster.  One would not have escaped the rising waters of a lake swelling into a sea by sailing over them, but by outrunning them (particularly given that they rose at a far slower pace than an adult human can comfortably walk in a few hours).  Indeed, the great mortality of the Black Sea flood would have been produced by the starvation attending its displacement of populations, not by drowning.

Thomas Cole, The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge, 1829

            Even should the Black Sea flood of c. 5600 BCE become accepted as archeological fact, then, the degree to which it may have inspired the great Near Eastern Flood tales that continue to haunt imaginations even today must remain at best unfathomable.  So many of the details of the historical event have been altered in the retelling that the tales reflect little of the history, while the history offers almost none of what has given the tale its mythic resonance.  One is reminded of the man who showed off a gleaming, sharp-edged axe to his neighbors; “This,” said the man, “was my great-great-grandfather’s axe.  Yep.  It’s over one hundred years old, and in all that time it’s only had three new blades and two new handles!”

Images of the Flood
The Flood has long been a favorite subject of Artists. in this Link, you will find depictions in many media, from mosaic tile to stained glass, from ceramics to egg tempera, from oils to stone.  Indeed, the folder contains only a portion of the available images; search ArtStor for “Noah,” “Ark,” “Flood,” or “Deluge” to find even more.

Flood Images

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The Major Flood Texts
The Qu’ran

The Black Sea Theory
short, accessible accounts of the Ballard expedition ("A Victim of the black sea flood found" and "By Land and by sea") and longer, more technical analyses of the Ryan/Pitman theory. Volume 190, Issues 1-2, Pages 1-552 (15 October 2002) of Marine Geology, which is available as an e-journal from Bobst Library is entirely devoted to the question of the Black Sea flood.  A sample of three articles from that issue:

"Seismic Stratigraphy . . . "

"Abrupt Environmental Changes . . ."

"Constraints on Black Sea Outflow . . ."

Divan of Hafiz: Noah's Ark; Mughal, c 1590

Works Cited and Consulted

Crawford, Harriet, Sumer and the Sumerians (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991).
Dalley, Stephanie Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989).
Genesis (vol.1, The Anchor Bible), ed. E. A. Speiser (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1981).
The Koran, transl. N. J. Dawood, 4th revised edition (New York: Penguin, 1974).
George, Andrew, Gilgamesh (New York: Penguin, 1999).
Roux, Georges, Ancient Iraq, 3rd edition (New York: Penguin, 1992).
Ryan, William and Pitman, Walter, Noah’s Flood (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).