Noah again last night

Good Friday night and ABC did a slight genuflect by rebroadcasting Joanna Lumley’s documentary The Search for Noah’s ArkTom Ballard tweeted: “I’m enjoying Joanna Lumley’s Search for Noah’s Ark, though I simply can’t WAIT for Dawn French’s Search for Santa’s workshop.” Yes, it is rather more style than substance, as Joanna Lumley: The Search for Noah’s Ark says, with considerable scholarship in that post. I referred to the doco recently in the context of having seen the movie Noah—which by the way I do recommend purely as a movie along the lines of Thor. See also a much earlier post Frameworks for belief–1 – a repost.

In both of those posts I refer you to a site I admire for the quality of its scholarship: Biblical Interpretation — “Dedicated to delivering the latest news, features, editorials, commentary, archaeological interpretation and excavations relevant to the study of the Bible for the public and biblical scholars.” It has been offline for several weeks but is now back!

Another take on Noah The Movie may be found in a very interesting blog called Away Point by Valerie Tarico, Author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. She writes:

Hollywood’s quest for sex, violence and disaster (or, better yet, the intersection of all three) is as voracious as British Petroleum’s quest for oil.  Now, with the dollars rolling in from the latest biblical blockbuster, Noah,— $160M globally and counting—the film industry may have tapped a lucrative pool of black ooze. Greek, Roman and Norse mythology have offered up rich sources of live action and titillation in recent years: Troy, 300, Ulysses, Immortals, Thor, and Clash of the Titans, to name a few.  But if the studios are looking for epic battles that span heaven and earth, supernatural special effects, sordid tangles of kinky sex, and heroes who live and die by their own rules with irrelevant extras dropping in droves, they can hardly do better than the book of Genesis…

Some Christian commentators have expressed pleasure about the fact that thanks to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, more people are reading the book of Genesis. Given the contents of the book, some atheist commentators have expressed pleasure at the same thing.  Whether the stories gathered in Genesis are assets or liabilities for Christianity may be open to debate.  But for Hollywood, where blood and sex have cash value, the first book of the Bible may be a literal treasure trove.

This may interest some of you who may be unfamiliar with it. I first encountered it when studying the history of the Ancient Near East at Sydney University in 1960.

The Deluge Myth

In reply Ut-Napishtim introduces the story of the Babylonian deluge, which, told as it is without interruption, forms a separate and complete narrative, and is in itself a myth of exceptional interest. Presumably the warning of the deluge came to Ut-Napishtim in a vision. The voice of the god said: ‘Thou man of Shurippak, son of Ubara-Tutu, pull down thy house, build a ship, forsake thy possessions, take heed for thy life! Abandon thy goods, save thy life, and bring up living seed of every kind into the ship.’ The ship itself was to be carefully planned and built according to Ea’s instructions. When the god had spoken Ut-Napishtim promised obedience to the divine command. But he was still perplexed as to how he should answer the people when they asked the reason for his preparations. Ea therefore instructed him how he should make reply, ‘Bel hath cast me forth, for he hateth me.’ The purpose of this reply seems clear, though the remaining few lines of it are rather broken. Ea intends that Ut-Napishtim shall disarm the suspicions of the people by declaring that the object of his shipbuilding and his subsequent departure is to escape the wrath of Bel, which he is to depict as falling on him alone. He must prophesy the coming of the rain, but must represent it, not as a devastating flood, but rather as a mark of the prosperity which Bel will grant to the people of Shurippak, perhaps by reason of his (Ut-Napishtim’s) departure therefrom.

The Babylonian Ark

Ut-Napishtim employed many people in the construction of the ship. During four days he gathered the material and built the ship; on the fifth he laid it down; on the sixth he loaded it; and by the seventh day it was finished. On a hull 120 cubits wide was constructed a great deck-house 120 cubits high, divided into six stories, each of which was divided in turn into nine rooms. The outside of the ship was made water-tight with bitumen, and the inside with pitch. To signalise the completion of his vessel, Ut-Napishtim gave a great feast, like that which was wont to be held on New Year’s Day; oxen were slaughtered and great quantities of wine and oil provided. According to the command of Ea, Ut-Napishtim brought into the ship all his possessions, his silver and his gold, living seed of every kind, all his family and household, the cattle and beasts of the field, the handicraftsmen, all that was his.

A heavy rain at eventide was the sign for Ut-Napishtim to enter the ship and fasten the door. All night long it rained, and with the early dawn “there came up from the horizon a black cloud. Ramman in the midst thereof thundered, and Nabu and Marduk went before, they passed like messengers over mountain and plain. Uragal parted the anchor-cable. There went Ninib, and he made the storm to burst. The Annunaki carried flaming torches, and with the brightness thereof they lit up the earth. The whirlwind of Ramman mounted up into the heavens, and all light was turned into darkness.” During a whole day darkness and chaos appear to have reigned on the earth. Men could no longer behold each other. The very gods in heaven were afraid and crouched “like hounds,” weeping, and lamenting their share in the destruction of mankind. For six days and nights the tempest raged, but on the seventh day the rain ceased and the floods began to abate. Then, says Ut-Napishtim—”I looked upon the sea and cried aloud, for all mankind was turned back into clay. In place of the fields a swamp lay before me. I opened the window and the light fell upon my cheek, I bowed myself down, I sat down, I wept; over my cheek flowed my tears. I looked upon the world, and behold all was sea.”

The Bird Messengers

At length the ship came to rest on the summit of Mount Nitsir. There are various readings of this portion of the text, thus: “After twelve (days) the land appeared;” or “At the distance of twelve (kasbu) the land appeared;” or “Twelve (cubits) above the water the land appeared.” However this may be, the ship remained for six days on the mountain, and on the seventh Ut-Napishtim sent out a dove. But the dove found no resting-place, and so she returned. Then he sent out a swallow, which also returned, having found no spot whereon to rest. Finally a raven was sent forth, and as by this time the waters had begun to abate, the bird drew near to the ship “wading and croaking,” but did not enter the vessel. Then Ut-Napishtim brought his household and all his possessions into the open air, and made an offering to the gods of reed, and cedar-wood, and incense. The fragrant odour of the incense came up to the gods, and they gathered, “like flies,” says the narrative, around the sacrifice. Among the company was Ishtar, the Lady of the Gods, who lifted up the necklace which Anu had given her, saying: “What gods these are! By the jewels of lapis-lazuli which are upon my neck I will not forget! These days I have set in my memory, never will I forget them! Let the gods come to the offering, but Bel shall not come to the offering since he refused to ask counsel and sent the deluge, and handed over my people unto destruction.”


The god Bel was very wroth when he discovered that a mortal man had survived the deluge, and vowed that Ut-Napishtim should perish. But Ea defended his action in having saved his favourite from destruction, pointing out that Bel had refused to take counsel when he planned a universal disaster, and advising him in future to visit the sin on the sinner and not to punish the entire human race. Finally Bel was mollified. He approached the ship (into which it would appear that the remnants of the human race had retired during the altercation) and led Ut-Napishtim and his wife into the open, where he bestowed on them his blessing. “Then they took me,” says Ut-Napishtim, “and afar off, at the mouth of the rivers, they made me to dwell.”

Such is the story of the deluge which Ut-Napishtim told to Gilgamesh. No cause is assigned for the destruction of the human race other than the enmity which seems to have existed between man and the gods—particularly the warrior-god Bel. But it appears from the latter part of the narrative that in the assembly of the gods the majority contemplated only the destruction of the city of Shurippak, and not that of the entire human family. It has been suggested, indeed, that the story as it is here given is compounded of two separate myths, one relating to a universal catastrophe, perhaps a mythological type of a periodic inundation, and the other dealing with a local disaster such as might have been occasioned by a phenomenal overflow of the Euphrates.

— Retelling from The Epic of Gilgamesh in Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria 1916.

“Silence is the language of God,
all else is poor translation.”

8 thoughts on “Noah again last night

  1. “Cultures around the world tell stories about a great flood. In many cases, the flood leaves only one survivor or group of survivors. For example, both the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Bible tell of a global flood that wiped out humanity and of a man who saved the Earth’s species by taking them aboard a boat. Similar stories of a single flood survivor appear in Hindu mythology, Aztec mythology, in the Greek myth of Deucalion as well as in the Quran.” Source Wikepedia. Joseph Campbell particularly is exhaustive on this particular myth. But, Rumi resonates with me too.

    • A point made in the documentary which gave quite a bit of attention to India too. From the historian’s viewpoint one needs to ask which actual floods — probably more than one — are being remembered in the myths and when and where were they. The Quran is hardly surprising as it derived the story from Christian and Jewish sources anyway, more likely than not. Unless of course you really think God wrote it, which I do not for a moment.

  2. Yes I did, in response to your last comment, and no I didn’t think you daft in response to the earlier one. However, if you follow the links in my post, especially at “I referred to the doco recently in the context of having seen the movie Noah—which by the way I do recommend purely as a movie along the lines of Thor. See also a much earlier post Frameworks for belief–1 – a repost.”, you will see that what I am talking about is not a high level of what we might call comparative mythology/religion but rather the entrenched views of literalists in all the Abrahamic traditions — Judaism, Chrsitianity, Islam — that see Noah and his deluge as much a real historical personage/event as, say, Nehru declaring the independence of India. So you get all those pointless searches for an actual ark on Mount Ararat, and — even worse — people who think they have found it. The documentary was far too kind and/or gullible about this.

    See Forget about Noah’s Ark; There Was No Worldwide Flood on just what is untenable about such views. That is from the Bible and Interpretation site I refer to, and the author is “Dr. Robert R. Cargill …a biblical studies scholar, classicist, archaeologist, author, and digital humanist in the Departments of Classics and Religious Studies at The University of Iowa. His research includes study in the Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, literary criticism of the Bible and the Pseudepigrapha, and the Ancient Near East.” So there is the purely historical question whether there was a Noah and a universal flood — or at least one affecting Mesopotamia and near regions — some time around 2348 B.C. My confident answer is “No”. But the story may reference an actual catastrophe or catastrophes in that part of the world. It may also reflect the archetype that other mythologies and religious traditions have of a deluge. Some speculate that behind the traditions may be some folk memories of the Ice Age.

    I note though that the reference you gave could hardly refer to something as mundane as the third millennium BCE, being of a completely different order of reality from mere earth history.

    One of the virtues, for me, of the Noah movie is that its very clever CGI work of the ark and the animals etc therein actually make a literal understanding of the story even less probable!

    Now I am sure we both agree that it simply is not the case that the Bible story and its Quranic descendant written centuries later literally reference events no different in kind from the settlement at Sydney Cove in 1788 or the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Clearly the stories are simply not history in any reasonable sense of the word. While there are plenty of Jews, Christians and Muslims who do not have a problem with that, unfortunately there are too many who can’t recognise myth, legend and poetry when they see it.

  3. Noah reappears in a political context in today’s Sun-Herald. Sam de Brito, Tony Abbott repeats himself? Noah way!

    If I told you a story about a 600-year-old man who built a 450-foot-long boat – with just one window – which housed millions of animal species (and dinosaurs and bacteria) while the planet turned into creation’s biggest drowning pool, you’d scoff.

    Yet Paramount Studios just dropped $125 million filming this particular fantasy, starring Russell Crowe, because the “key phrases” have been repeated so many times, by so many people, the tale has survived intact for more than 2000 years. That’s one hell of a marketing campaign.

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