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THE SUMERIAN ACCOUNT

Before proceeding to an analysis of the length of the Deluge in the biblical account, it is expedient to consider first the length of the Deluge in the Mesopotamian tradition.

The Mesopotamian representation of the Deluge has been preserved by four sources of information:

  • a fragmentary Sumerian tablet;
  • a story which must have originally had independent existence and was later inserted into the national poem of the Assyro-Babylonian-speaking peoples of Mesopotamia, the Epic of Gilgamesh
  • an episode in another Assyro-Babylonian poem called the Epic of Atarhasis
  • the summary compiled in Greek by the Babylonian priest Berossos.

The earliest presentation of the Deluge is the Sumerian one which dates from as early as the third millennium B.C. This presentation, which has been preserved by a Sumerian tablet, is of fundamental importance, but it has not received the attention it deserves because of the timing of its discovery and because of the condition of the cuneiform tablet that preserves it.

From the excavations of the city of Nippur, conducted in 1892 and 1893, there was brought to the Pennsylvania University Museum an unusually rich collection of cuneiform tablets: about 35,000 in all, many written in Sumerian. It will require the diligence of a few generations of specialists to sort and interpret them. In 1913 the Sumerologist Arno Poebel, while searching through this collection, was able to identify and decipher a tablet containing the earliest known account of the Deluge. It was an extraordinarily important discovery, but it had a disappointing aspect, in that two thirds of the precious tablet were missing and large sections of the rest were chipped off or illegible. The text had been written in three columns on the face and the reverse of a clay tablet: what remains is the bottom third of the three front columns and the top third of the three back columns. Scholars who have dealt with this text have been so concerned with bemoaning the fragmentary nature of what we have that they have overlooked the conceptual unity of the entire presentation. Even by reading the scattered pieces, one should sense the formal and intellectual compactness of the original text, some 350 lines.

Poebel's discovery of a Sumerian presentation of the Deluge was a momentous one, but it came as an anticlimax after the shattering impact of the revelation of the account of the Deluge contained in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The announcement in 1862 that the biblical account of the Deluge had a close counterpart in an older piece of Babylonian literature marked a turning point in the history of biblical studies. It came just at the right time in terms of readiness of the audience. Several writers have understood the historical coincidence that the communication by Sidney Smith in 1862 followed closely the publication in 1859 of Darwin's The Origin of Species, a book which has been understood as inflicting a mortal blow to Judeo-Christian cosmology and even ethical system. More specifically, it changed entirely the way in which biblical scholars approach the text of Genesis. Since the last century the Epic of Gilgamesh has been the object of intensive investigations not only because some parts of it are relevant to biblical studies, but also because it was of great general significance, being the national poem of the Semitic-speaking people of Mesopotamia. It was so popular that it was translated into other languages, as the discovery of fragments of Hurrian and Hittite translations indicates. Because of the attention focused on this extensive and complex work, the Sumerian presentation of the Deluge has been studied as a supplement to the interpretation of the later Epic of Gilgamesh, and has not been evaluated on its own terms.

In pointing out what has been overlooked in the interpretation of the Sumerian presentation of the Deluge, I shall start with the interpretations submitted by Samuel Noah Kramer, because his works enjoy a popularity that makes them accessible to the general reader and because the opinions of this leading figure of Sumerian studies are based on a full awareness of all research conducted by other specialists in the field.

The longest uninterrupted section of the surviving text of the Sumerian presentation is composed of the bottom of column III and the top of column IV. In Kramer's translation it reads:

The flood. . .
Thu[s wa]s treated . . .
Then did Nin[tu weep] like a . . .,
The pure Inanna [set up] a lament for its people,
Enki took coun[sel] with himself, Anu, Enlil, Enki, (and) Ninhursag . . . ,
The gods of heaven and earth [uttered] the name of
Anu (and) Enlil.
Then did Ziusudra, the king, the pashishu [of] . . . ,
Build a giant . . . ;
Humbly obedient, reverent|ly| [he] . . . ,
Attending daily, constantly [he] . . . ,
Bringing forth all kinds of dreams, [he] . . . ,
Uttering the name of heaven (and) earth, [he] . . .
. . . the gods a wall . . . ,
Ziusudra, standing by its side, list[ened].
"Stand by the wall I will say a word to thee, [take my word],
[Give] ear to my instruction:
by our . . . a flood [|will sweep|] over the cult centers;
To destroy the seed of mankind . . . ,
Is the decision, the word of the assembly [of the gods].
By the word commanded by Anu (and) Enlil . . . ,
Its kingship, its rule [|will be put to an end|]."

Interpreters understand that a decision had been reached in the council of the gods to send the flood, and that some gods, being dissatisfied with the decision, tried to contrive a way to save the seed of mankind. This would be an example of "primitive democracy" in the relations among the Sumerian gods. I would rather understand that the decision of the council of the gods was to take away power from some gods; this entailed the destruction of the cosmic order they represented and hence of the cult centers that conformed to this order. The destruction of mankind was a byproduct of this decision. When a city was destroyed by another city, the Sumerians understood that a decision had been reached in the council of the gods to crush the god of the defeated city.

The divinities that bewail the forthcoming disaster for mankind are Nintu, also called Ninhursag, the goddess of childbirth, and Inanna, the mother goddess of the Sumerians; they represent the biological aspect of life. The representative of the intellectual aspect of life is Enki, god of wisdom, mathematics, science, technology, and any form of rational structure. Apparently he plans to create a new cosmic order.

Column IV mentions the decision of the gods to destroy the seed of mankind and then breaks off. About the missing lines that followed the section I have been discussing, Kramer states: "The text must have continued with detailed instructions to Ziusudra to build a giant boat and thus save himself from destruction."

Interpreters understand that Ziusudra, king of Shuruppak, was saved because of his great piety and that the construction of the Ark was mentioned in the lines of column IV that followed the preserved ones. Here interpreters have misconstrued the Sumerian text by reading into it the biblical presentation of the Deluge. I understand that the means of salvation is mentioned in the lines that are preserved. Following the instructions of Enki, King Ziusudra, who is described as a pashishu, keeper of the counting table in a temple(120) that is, as a mathematician, builds "a giant . . ."; unfortunately a key word is missing at this point, but it can be gathered that it was a matter of a construction in which walls were of essence. Ziusudra may have built a ziggurat or a temple; either one had the function of embodying the basic structure of the cosmos and of preserving it. It must be kept in mind that the fundamental element in a ziggurat or a temple was its dimensions and that Enki was first of all a god of surveying, particularly of the surveying that went into the construction of canals and embankments which made life possible in Mesopotamia. The missing section must have dealt with the transition by which a construction of bricks, a temple or a ziggurat, came to function as a boat. I will discuss the problem in my explanation of the structure of the Mesopotamian and biblical Arks. The difficulty of this leap, a difficulty that exists at least for us, has been realized by those biblical commentators who ask how Noah could have built the Ark on dry land. The Egyptians bridged the conceptual gap physically by burying a boat next to the tombs of their kings, tombs that were intended to lift them up to heaven. The notion that a sacred building would help in escaping the flood was not a difficult one for the ancients, as indicated by the rabbinical sources that argue whether the Temple of Jerusalem was submerged or not.

We must not read into the Sumerian text the biblical view that Noah was saved because of his simple piety; the Sumerian view was more intellectualistic. Ziusudra was saved because he was able to follow the instructions of Enki. The fact that Ziusudra was a king is not incidental, since Sumerian kings were conceived as the first surveyors of the state. In Mesopotamia kings are often represented as holding in their hands instruments of surveying as symbol of authority; in Egypt the pharaohs are regularly portrayed as holding in their hands tools such as a ruler or a coil of rope. It must also be remembered that in all ancient cultures to measure accurately was understood as an aspect of religious piety.

Genesis, too, preserves a version (9:20) according to which Noah is a man of technical skill. I will discuss this passage in detail below. The fact that in this part of Genesis there surfaces a tradition about Noah's figure different from the main one can be explained by the Sumerian presentation and by the reference to artisans in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Even Kramer, the greatest living Sumerologist, has not been able to escape the prison of our biblical conditioning when he explains the lines about Ziusudra in these terms: "He is described as a pious, god-fearing king, who is constantly on the lookout for divine revelations in dreams and incantations. Ziusudra seems to station himself by a wall, where he hears the voice of a divinity. . . ." The wall was not an incidental detail, but the key element of the means of salvation.

If we can free ourselves from our ethnocentric blindfolds, we should realize that it is the biblical account that is puzzling: why should Noah have been singled out from all mankind? This peculiarity of the biblical account is made clear by the Quran where Noah is mentioned again and again. The unusual case of Noah is exploited to the full by Islamic revelation: among all the prophets Mohammed identified himself most of all with Noah, whom he lists among the prophets. The case of Noah explains how Allah could have chosen as the instrument for his dispensation an ordinary man without any supernatural powers. Further the figure of Noah is used in the Quran to convey one of its basic tenets, a tenet which can be roughly compared with the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers: any man, without unusual personal gifts and without outside help, can be saved if he follows obediently the commands of Allah. Kramer thinks like a Muslim when he writes:

5; Since man was created for no other purpose than to serve the gods, it was obviously his major duty to perform and perfect this service in a manner pleasing and satisfactory to his masters. Why was Ziusudra saved from the destruction of the deluge? Because he had humbly and piously performed the daily rites of the gods.

As a final remark I may observe that it is correct to refer to refer to Ziusudra as pious, provided one is clear about what pious means in this context. We must keep in mind that the Romans called pius a person who is scrupulous and exact in fulfilling his tasks in all spheres of life, not just the religious one.

We must not be misled by the fact that the instructions which Enki gave to Ziusudra were conveyed in a dream. Even careful scholars like Kramer who are perfectly acquainted with Sumerian culture have been led astray by our modern attitude towards the significance of dreams. For the Sumerians dreams were a superior way of access to truth, but more exactly to truths of a specific rational order. King Gudea received in a dream the mathematical specifications for the construction of a temple, starting with the exact definition of the lineal standard to be employed.

Islamic thought may help us in penetrating the view of dreams in Sumerian culture. Only the words that came to Muhammad when he was in a state of trance are held sacred by Muslims; these are considered to express verbatim the will of Allah and are never confused with those the prophet uttered when he was in a conscious state. Some of the visions came to Muhammad in his sleep.(121)

In order to elucidate this point I may refer to the opinion of al-Ghazzali (1058-1111), the greatest theologian of Islam.(122)

Al-Ghazzali states that there are three worlds: one is the world of our senses which is subject to change; the other (alam al-malakut) is the one that exists by God's eternal decree, without development, without addition or diminution; between these two there is a third one which also appears to be eternal, but could be changed by God's decree. The soul of man comes into contact with the alam al-malakut in dreams and ecstasies; this is the way prophets obtain divine knowledge. As examples of the entities that belong to the alam al-malakut al-Ghazzali lists the following: The things of the heavens, the preserved tablet, the pen, the balance, measures, etc. These examples indicate how close al-Ghazzali still was to what had been the thinking of his native Mesopotamia more than three millennia earlier.

In the preserved part of column V of the Sumerian tablet we can read the account of the flood. The Deluge is described as being brought by a great windstorm, which apparently caused rain to pour, and the waters of the seas, which were an extension of the primeval great water, to rise. What remains of column V reads:

All the windstroms, exceedingly powerful, attacked as one,
At the same time, the flood sweeps| over the cult centers.
After, for seven days (and) seven nights,
The flood had |swept over| the land,
(And) the huge boat had been tossed about by the windstorms on the great waters,
Utu came forth, who sheds light on heaven (and) earth.
Ziusudra opened| a window of |the huge boat,
The hero Utu| brought his rays into| the giant boat.
Ziusudra, the king,
Prostrated himself before Utu,
The king kills an ox, slaughters a sheep.

There is a possibility that a cosmology was assumed here which is close to that presented in the Quran. In dealing with creation, the Quran does not distinguish between the landmass and the seas, as we would. In the thinking of the Quran the emerged land is unimportant; when the Quran refers to tracts of land it mentions rivers, sources, and other bodies of sweet water. This conception is understandable in the case of people who lived in areas where land is worthless without sources of water; the people of Mesopotamia lived in a similar geographical environment. The Quran divides the surface of the earth into al-bahrain, "the two seas." One of the most prominent aspects of creation was the separation of the two seas: begin

25:23

And He who has untied the two seas; one palatable, sweet, and the other salty, bitter; and has set a barrier and a forbidding ban between them. ;

begin

55:19-20

He has untied the two seas, though they meet. There is no barrier between them. They encroach not.

It could be that in the Sumerian conception the flood consisted in letting the waters of the two seas run together, breaking the barrier established at creation.

There is definite evidence that the Sumerians understood the cosmology of the two seas separated by a wall in the sense of al-bahrain of the Quran. Geoffrey Bibby, a member of the Danish group that excavated the ancient Dilmun, observes that it may be significant that the Arabic name of the island of Dilmun is al-Bahrein, "two seas." He even wonders whether in some ancient language Dilmun may have meant "two seas." Bibby calls attention to the fact that in the Quran al-Bahrein occurs as a technical cosmological term: in creation there are two seas, that of sweet water and that of salt water. The sea of sweet water is what we would call today the landmass in opposition to the seas. Particularly revealing is Sura 25, verse 55. This Sura answers those who were asking Mohammed to show miracles that would prove the power of Allah; the answer is that the mere ordering of heaven and earth proves the power of Allah, and there is no need for further miracles.

There are some traces of this cosmology in the Old Testament. The clearest mention of it is in Job 5:22:

Have you no fear of me? says the Lord; will you not shudder before me, before me who made the shimmering sand to bind the sea, a barrier it can never pass? Its waves heave and toss but they are powerless; roar as they may, they cannot pass.

The barrier, however, will be broken, as in the case of the Deluge, by the sins of mankind, whose "wrongdoing has upset nature's order" (5:25).

Other references to this conception in the Old Testament, such as Proverbs 8:28-29, are not as clear:

When he made the skies above when he fixed the foundations of the earth when he set the sea its limit, so that the waters should not transgress its command.

An unprejudiced outsider could expect biblical scholars to establish parallels between the Old Testament and the Quran as a matter of routine, but even in our day and age there remains such a surprising parochialism among biblical scholars that they never quote the Quran. For this reason I have not been able to find one author who is aware of the occurrence of the mentioned cosmological conception in the Old Testament. Biblical scholars are aware only of the alternative cosmology by which the barrier that separates the waters is the vault of heaven which restrains the heavenly water. But this cosmology must be a later adaptation of the original one of the "two seas," since its presentation in Genesis 1:6 is not clear or consistent.

Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters,
to separate one body of water from the other.

A later hand in the writing of Genesis realized the difficulty involved in the fact that the vault of heaven does not separate two bodies of water, and to resolve it added 1:9:

Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in a single basin, so that the dry land may appear.

By ignoring the cosmology of the "two seas" (al-bahrain) biblical scholars create problems for themselves in the explanation of the "splitting" of the waters in the account of the Exodus from Egypt. They have to present this event as much more miraculous than it was according to the Old Testament.

The windstorm which stirred up the waters of the two seas also caused darkness. The flood wiped out the cult centers which were set and built according to the old geodetic system. I would understand that only the cult center of Ziusudra survived because he had built it according to the specifications of the new cosmic order. It is to be remarked, first of all, that the account is brief; this brevity requires an explanation. Given our biblical conditioning, we may find it surprising that the text should deal sketchily with a point that seems crucial to us: the explanation is that the flood itself was merely a prop used to convey a mathematical concept which was dealt with in the rest of the text. There is only one detail which seems to be colorful and which happens not to be mentioned in Genesis: the flood was accompanied by darkness and ended when Utu, the sun-god, brought its rays into the Ark. This detail seems colorful to us, but probably expresses the scientific concept that the reordering of the geodetic system involved a reordering of the celestial coordinates; there was darkness in the period of transition. One must compare the words of the Sumerian text with the words used by the people of our culture in referring to Copernicus in the period in which the Copernican revolution was being accepted.

In what remains of column VI we learn that Ziusudra was granted immortality "like a god." Some commentators express surprise at this raising of an ordinary man to the level of the gods, particularly since Ziusudra may have been an historical king. But we have a parallel in Egyptian culture: Imhotep, who was the vizier of King Zoser of the Third Dynasty, and was a man of humble origin who rose to high position because of his skill, was the only mortal whom the Egyptians worshipped as one of the gods. This happened because Imhotep was considered a great scientist, mathematician and architect; we know for a fact that he established stone architecture in Egypt and designed the first pyramid. In the Sumerian case, however, the immortality granted to Ziusudra had a more specific meaning: the new geodetic system was said to be the final one; it had to last forever. The immortality granted to Ziusudra is the equivalent of the statement of Genesis 9:8-17 to the effect that the divinity made a covenant with Noah and his sons never again to let the waters rise in a flood: "Never again shall all living creatures be cut off by a deluge, never again shall there be a deluge to destroy the earth." This statement is indeed surprising in the context of the Old Testament, because it would imply that never again shall there be sinners, never again will mankind stray from the right path. But the very words of Genesis indicate that in this episode the issue is purely of cosmological nature: no mention is made of man or mankind in particular, reference being made only to the destruction of living flesh in general and to the destruction of the entire earth itself.

In Genesis the rainbow is mentioned as the guarantee of the covenant never to send a Deluge again. The episode of the rainbow does not appear in the Mesopotamian representations of the Deluge. The followers of the anthropological school who try to explain the biblical narratives by comparative mythology and folklore have not found a convincing counterpart to the biblical symbolism of the rainbow in any culture. It follows that the biblical writers or their immediate predecessors invented the symbolism of the rainbow in order to express the idea that the newly established great circle was the final one. It was an obvious symbolism that did not require drawing on established mythological imagery. The symbol of the rainbow in Genesis is the equivalent of the statement in the Sumerian text that Ziusudra was immortalized as "the preserver of the name of vegetation and the seed of mankind."

There is no reason to express surprise at the information that the immortalized Ziusudra would live in the land of Dilmun, which was not in Mesopotamia, being an island in the Persian Gulf, visited by Mesopotamian sailors and traders. The adoption of the new geodetic system must have entailed the establishment of new basic meridians. For instance,

You gave us a new sun, a new earth,
You uncovered a whole new cosmos.

A full geodetic system required the establishment of a date line. The date line was conceived by the ancients either as the place where the sun rises or where the sun sets. I shall explain all this in a future study of ancient geoography in which I shall have occasion of interpreting the myth of Phaethon, which had to do with the fact that the course of the sun was conceived as ending abruptly at the meridian used as the date line.

The most specific statement about the flood was that it consisted of a period of rainstorms and darkness that lasted seven days and seven nights, because this number was the key to the new system of geodetic measures: All that was necessary in order to know the new radius of the earth and the height of the flood was to remember the number 7.

The specific information that the flood lasted 7 days and 7 nights does not seem very revealing, since the ordering of the cosmos was conceived as septenary in all cosmologies up to the Copernican revolution. The number 7 becomes more significant only when we compare it with the number 7+7 days in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

According to the account given in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the seastorm and the rainstorm raged for "six days and six nights," and quieted down on the 7th day. On this day Utnapishtim opened the window and saw nothing but an endless extension of level sea water. There follows a section full of repetitions in which Mount Nisir held "the ship fast and did not let it move" for the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth day. On the seventh day Utnapishtim sent out successively a dove, a swallow, and a raven; only the raven found a resting place and did not come back.

In conclusion, we can be sure that at least according to the Epic of Gilgamesh the episode of the Deluge lasted 14 days (7 + 7).

    120. One could say "keeper of the exchequer," using the English term in its original meaning.

    121. In any case Muhammad covered his head when he felt inspiration coming to him; the veiling of the head was a regular practice of Arabian soothsayers.

    122. Al-Ghazzali is as important in the history of Islam as St. Augustine in the history of Christian thought. His views are particularly significant because, although he was a theologian and as such a systematic thinker, he was militantly reacting against rationalistic and philosophical interpretations of Islam and tried to remain completely faithful to Islam's popular religious traditions; nobody questions his orthodoxy.


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