Noah and the Flood

Babylonian Flood tablet

In the Gilgamesh epic’s Tablet XI (a seventh-century B.C.E. copy, found by Austen Henry Layard at Nineveh, is shown here), Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of the great flood that destroyed the world—a story with detailed similarities to Noah’s Flood in Genesis. Photo: British Museum.

Even if it didn’t happen, it’s a true story.

This is how Professor Ronald S. Hendel of U.C. Berkeley explains the beauty of the Biblical story of Noah’s Flood.

Even if, as a more-than-casual student of ancient texts, you’re aware of the Babylonian predecessors to the Biblical flood narrative, you may not understand the critical differences between them and the Genesis tale—or what those differences tell us about ancient Israel.

As Hendel explains it:

The best stories, of course, are a vehicle for profound insights into our relation to the world, each other, and God.

Flood stories live in many cultures, and, like an ordinary battle for a Late Bronze Age city in western Anatolia became Homer’s epic Trojan War, a flood that seemed large and tragic to an ancient Mesopotamian village could easily grow over centuries into a Biblical cleansing of the entire Earth at the hands of God.


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Why is this important?

Because it gives us an understanding of the framework used by the writers of Genesis to express a profound message.

The perfect story for teaching an important lesson

Assyrian relief on the slopes of Mt. Cudi near the Turkish village of Sah. Photo: Courtesy Professor Ibrahim Baz of the University of Sirnak, Turkey.

Although the great flood may not have happened exactly as Genesis relates it, as Hendel notes, that doesn’t mean it’s not a true story in some sense. “Many cultures have flood stories, and it is no coincidence that many cultures suffer from local floods,” said Hendel. “Even a relatively small flood can be catastrophic if it kills many people in your village, and from this local trauma a story can grow and grow, until it takes on cosmic proportions.”

In comparing the Babylonian and Genesis flood stories, Professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky provides the insight we need to understand their similarities and differences: The key is studying the significance of the flood stories in the different traditions and the solutions to the problems that were created after the flood.

What is that crucial difference between the Babylonian tradition and that of the Book of Genesis?

What does that teach us about ancient Israel?

And what does this knowledge mean for Jews and Christians today?


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These are the kinds of questions that keep people like you studying the Bible, Biblical history and archaeology. The kinds of questions that deliver not just new insights into our ancient past, but also into our current realities.

They’re the kinds of questions that are answered continually by the renowned Biblical scholars and archaeologists who contribute to the works of the Biblical Archaeology Society. And you can get the answers to these questions above and hundreds more when you unlock the BAS Library.

In Noah and the Genesis Flood, BAS editors have carefully compiled a special collection of articles from Biblical Archaeology Review and Bible Review that explore the questions posed here.

You’ll want to read all of the articles included in this collection:

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Noah and the Flood