The First Word: What George Smith discovered

The Torah relates to all three Mesopotamian flood myths, while giving each of them new meaning.

October 26, 2006 13:49
The First Word: What George Smith discovered

rosenberg88. (photo credit: )


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On a quiet day at the British Museum, just 134 years ago, a young "repairer" jumped onto a basement work-table, threw off all his clothes, and shouted: "It's the Flood!" George Smith, a former banknote engraver, had only been at the museum for a few months but had picked up the minute script of Babylonian cuneiform soon after Rawlinson deciphered it by 1851. Smith was given the task of sifting through and repairing the hundreds of clay tablets that Henry Layard, a British traveler digging in Nineveh and Nimrud, had been sending home in the 1840s and '50s. What George Smith had discovered, on a broken gray tablet about 15 cm. square, was the story of Utnapishtim and his wife, who had been the last humans to be saved from a massive flood and who had been given eternal life by the gods. He was relating his story to Gilgamesh, Prince of Uruk (Erech in the Bible), who was seeking everlasting life and came to Utnapishtim to find out how it was done. Needless to say, Gilgamesh was not successful in obtaining it but was told the story and thus it was recorded for posterity. THE MAJOR god of the sky, Anu, had a very clever son called Enki, who found a way of getting all the minor gods to do the work of digging irrigation channels and keeping them in good order, which was the main task confronting life in Mesopotamia. However, after 40 years the minor gods tired of this work and Enki helped them to make Man to do the work for them. This excellent plan soon faltered as men were making so much noise that the principal gods were disturbed and could not sleep. It was then they decided to rid themselves of this noisy crowd and they tried several ways of destroying them, by fire, by famine, and by pestilence, but to no avail. Finally they brought the flood, which destroyed all mankind except for the one couple. The wise Enki had foreseen that the gods would regret their decision and had warned Utnapishtim to prepare a boat, which he did over the following week. It was 120 cubits square and six stories high. He loaded it with animals and plants and set sail at the start of the storm that raged for six days and seven nights. Eventually the boat landed on Mount Nisir (perhaps 300 km. south of Ararat) from where Utnapishtim sent out a dove, a swallow, and finally a raven which did not return. The one human couple were saved and the gods were angry with Enki for having warned them, but soon gave way when they saw how right Enki had been to preserve men to do their work. They rejoiced when Utnapishtim ("He who will live forever") offered them a sacrifice around which they "swarmed like flies" and they granted him eternal life. It was the final reconciliation and to celebrate, the goddess Ishtar held up her necklace of colored lapis-lazuli to the sky and said, "By this token these days shall be remembered forever." THE TABLET that George Smith had found came from the library of the Emperor Ashurbanipal and was dated to the seventh century BCE but the story of Gilgamesh went back some 2,000 years before that. In the bowels of the British Museum there was another broken tablet, 1,000 years older than George Smith's one, that was found to tell a similar flood story whose hero is Atrahasis ("He who is very wise"), who is also saved from a disastrous flood by Enki. He arranges a great feast before he sets sail and again sacrifices to the gods after he returns safely to dry land. His flood also lasts for only seven days and, like Utnapishtim, he sends out a raven and a dove to check that the waters have subsided. Both these versions of the flood mention the beginning of the world and the necessity to make Man and then destroy him, to save a remnant and enable Man to live unhappily ever afterwards, working for the gods "by the sweat of his brow." But the basic version of the Babylonian Creation story, called Enuma Elish (after the first words, meaning "From on High"), does not mention a flood at all but tells how Enki takes over command of the world by sidelining his father Anu, killing his grandfather Apsu, and going on to beget a son called Marduk. This Marduk proceeds to split his great-grandmother Tiamat to form Heaven and Earth, and then creates Man to do all the menial work. Thereby he releases the minor gods from their tasks and enables them to go forth and found the great city of Babylon. This story goes back to at least 3250 BCE as we know, from evidence of the earliest city of Eridu in Mesopotamia, that Enki was worshiped there in the earliest temple of that period. We have then one Babylonian Creation story that ends with the founding of the city of Babylon, and two that end in the Flood, with two heroes, Utnapishtim and Atrahasis, being saved to restart mankind. It is perhaps significant that the Torah, which has a Creation story completely different from the Babylonian one, when it comes to the Flood has many points of similarity, such as the lone surviving family, the ark, the birds seeking land, the final sacrifice and even the rainbow, like Ishtar's necklace. But what is less obvious is the name of our hero, Noah, whose name means "restfulness." We were told that the men of Mesopotamia deserved destruction because they were too noisy and kept the gods awake. But the word for noisy can also mean evil in the Akkadian, a Semitic language like Hebrew. In Hebrew the word for evil, ra'h, is associated with ra'ah, to be noisy, to lack self-control, and it is related to ra'ash, a thunderstorm. The men (and women no doubt) were undisciplined and uncontrolled and had to be destroyed. In Noah's generation the world was full of hammas (Gen. 6:11), usually translated as violence, but the original biblical meaning of the word is "to be heated" and thus over-excitable and undisciplined. As his name implies, Noah was different; he was calm and collected, and deserved to survive amidst the chaos of his anarchic generation. He was certainly not precipitate in his actions. The record states that it was 500 years before he fathered his three sons, and then he took another 100 years to build the ark. It is significant that the Torah follows Noah's Flood with the account of the babble of languages at the Tower of Babel, easily identified with the famous ziggurat of Babylon. In this way the Torah neatly combines the ending of Enuma Elish, where the minor gods under Marduk founded the city of Babylon, with the other two versions that end with the saving of mankind after the floods of Utnapishtim and Atrahasis. So, in this way the Torah relates to all three of the Mesopotamian myths, while giving each of them a new meaning and a significant moral. The writer is a Fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.

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