THE BABYLONIAN CREATION-FLOOD STORY:
THE ATRA-HASIS EPIC
(Analysis by SDA William Shea)I. Texts
The Atra-hasis Epic is named after its human hero who served as the Babylonian Noah. Several whole and partial copies of the cuneiform tablets comprising this series are known. All tablets and fragments have been edited together in a definitive edition of the textual series by W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard.
The commencement of the Atra-hasis Epic is set in a time before the creation of man, a time when Enlil forced the younger gods to dig rivers and canals. After forty years the junior gods rebelled, burned their work tools, and marched on the house of Enlil:
"Let us confront the chamberlin,Awakened and warned by a servant, Enlil called an assembly of the gods to deal with the situation. To satisfy the younger gods, Enki proposed that man should be created to be drudges. They agreed to this suggestion and summoned Nintu, the mother goddess, to cooperate with Enki in the project. Made from clay mixed with the blood of a sacrificed god (We-ila), man would be a mixture of the divine and human. We-ila's identity and nature remain obscure, and perhaps his name is a deliberate distortion of the word for man, awilum.
That he may relieve us of our heavy work.
The counsellor of the gods, the hero,
Come, let us unnerve him in his dwelling!"
Enki opened his mouthThese instructions were then carried out, as is related in an almost word-for-word repetition of the instructions.
And addressed the great gods,
"On the first, seventh, and fifteenth day of the month
I will make a purifying bath.
Let one god be slaughtered
So that all the gods may be cleansed in a dipping.
Let Nintu mix clay,
That god and man
May be thoroughly mixed in the clay"
The date of man's creation has not previously attracted much attention. Purifying baths for the god to be sacrificed took place on the 1st, 7th, and 15th days of the lunar month. Though not exactly chronological weeks, these quarters of the moon are relatively close in length. The god's execution and the Creation of man apparently followed directly after the purifying bath on the 15th day of the month. This places man's creation at the end of one lunar quarter or ''week.'' Similarly the biblical creation of man took place on the 6th day of a 7-day week.
Although the name for the 7th day of the lunar month was derived from the number seven, the name for the 15th day of the lunar month — the day of the full moon — was derived independently from this numerical cycle: sa-pa-at-tu or sapattu. Since the second sign in this word can also be read as ba, this word can be read either as sapattu or as sabattu. The significance of this resemblance to the Hebrew word šabbat (the final case ending vowel has been lost in Hebrew) has long been debated.
By linking sabattu/šabbat to the creation of man, the Atra-hasis Epic supports the idea that the names for these institutions may have been derived from the same source. Sabattu appears to have been the day in which We-ila was killed and his blood mixed with clay. This was the great initiating point in man's creation, though more steps in this process remained to be accomplished. The clay/blood mixture ensured that man would be a combination of the divine and human. In a sense, therefore, man was created on sabattu. In Genesis man was created on the day before šabbat, but this difference is much less important than the over-arching connection between sabattu/šabbat and the creation of man. It is unlikely that such a specific linkage occurred in both accounts by chance. Both accounts can be traced to the same basic conception which was known to both cultures.
Therefore the idea of the link between Sabbath and the Creation of man can now be found in an extra-biblical source from the first half of the second millennium B.C., and as is commonly believed by Assyriologists, many elements in this type of story undoubtedly derived from still older written or oral traditions. From the biblical point of view the differences involved in the Babylonian account would have been introduced by gradual corruption from polytheistic conceptions.
The second phase in the process of Creation involved Enki, Nintu, and some assistant birth goddesses who broke bits of clay from the central stock and formed these pieces into inert statuettes of seven men and seven women. These were located adjacent to the birth ''bricks," the place of parturition for Babylonian women in labor. The womb broke open in the 10th month and mankind was born. At this point Nintu diverges to give advice on marriage and obstetrics. Evidently the reading of this story served as a good-luck omen at the time of childbirth.
III. Antediluvian Life
The next major segment of the Atra-hasis Epic concentrates upon antediluvian adversities. With a brief introduction to the post-creation works of man,
the story considers three major episodes of adversity.
*Before 1200 years had passed, Enlil brought a plague to reduce the population and squelch their noise. Enki circumvented this plan by instructing Atra-hasis to offer sacrifice to Namtara, the goddess of the plague. This Atra-hasis and the people did, and the effects of the plague were averted.
*After another 1200 noisy years, Enlil developed another plan to reduce the human population by starvation through drought and famine:
"The noise of mankind (has become too intense for me),Again Enki instructed Atra-hasis to lead the people in offering sacrifice to Adad, the storm god. Thus satisfied, Adad yielded his rains and the fields bore grain.
(With their uproar) I am deprived of sleep.
Cut off supplies for the peoples,
Let there be a scarcity of plant-life to satisfy their hunger.
Adad should withold his rain,
And below, the flood should not come up from the abyss.
Let the wind blow and parch the ground,
Let the clouds thicken but not release a downpour,
Let the fields diminish their yields"
*The third plan also involved drought and famine. Frustrated by his failures, Enlil added the extra insurance of posting divine guards at every level of heaven and earth to prevent water from reaching the fields. There is no indication of another 1200-year interval, and it seems somewhat unlikely because this episode is cast in different terms than the first two. The text enumerates and describes the successive years of famine, estimated to have continued for seven years or some similar period of time.
The black fields became white,Although the tablets at the end of this episode are badly damaged, it appears that Enki removed the bar which held back the subterranean waters. Man was thus saved from drought and famine. Dissatisfied with Enki's attempt to explain away his interference, Enlil determined to use water — which had been a savior — to eradicate mankind. The gods in council agreed to Enlil's plan.
The broad plain was choked with salt.
For one year they ate couch-grass (?);
For the second year they suffered the itch.
The third year came
(And) their features (were altered) by hunger
(Their faces) were encrusted, like malt,
(And they were living) on the verge of death.
IV. The Flood
This portion begins with Atra-hasis communing with his divine protector Enki through the walls of his house. Enki told Atra-hasis to tear down these walls and use them to construct a boat in which to save himself, his family, and some of the animals:
Reed wall, observe all my words!Atra-hasis then informed his people that he would be forced to leave because his god Enki was disputing with Enlil.
"Destroy your house, build a boat,
Spurn property and save life.
The boat which you build . . . .
Roof it over like Apsu,
So that the sun shall not see inside it.
Let it be roofed over above and below.
The tackle should be very strong,
Let the pitch be tough, and so give (the boat) strength"
The damaged portion of the tablets contain the story of the building of the ark and the collection and loading of the animals which follows. Atra-hasis' family went aboard the boat while he attended a farewell banquet with his people. Overcome with horror at the prospect of the destruction ahead, he was unable to eat. The storm came and Atra-hasis entered the ark. He sealed its door, cut its hawser and set sail.
The next clear section of text describes the reactions of the gods to the Flood. Enki was distraught, and Nintu mourned and wept at the destruction of mankind. The destroyed agriculture deprived the gods of food and drink. They concluded that the Flood was not a very good idea.
Unfortunately there is another gap, but the story resumes as Atra-hasis promptly reinstituted offerings for the gods. Given the mental and physical condition of the gods, it was a religiously astute procedure. Meanwhile Enlil was enraged upon hearing that some humans had escaped the Flood:
(The warrior Enlil) saw the vessel,Enki received the blame, but in further negotiations in the divine council Enlil was cajoled into accepting the existence of mankind on earth. To limit the population and maintain the noise at a tolerable level, the gods agreed that some classes of women, e.g., priestesses, would not bear children. Further details have been lost in damage to the tablet copies.
And was filled with anger at the Igigi (gods),
"All we great Anunnaki (gods)
Decided together on an oath.
Where did life escape?
How did man survive in the destruction?"
This focus upon human reproduction provides a direct link between the first and last main sections of the Atra-hasis Epic. The Creation story ends on the note of assistance to women who were to bear children. The Flood story ends with an explanation for women who would not bear children or who were to lose their children.
The book of Genesis has a similar link. At Creation Adam and Eve were told to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen 1:28). The same instructions were repeated to Noah's family as they left the ark (Gen 9:1).
The more negative biblical note (which comes the closest to the statements at the end of the Atrahasis Flood story) occurs in the sentence upon Eve regarding the greater difficulty of childbirth after the fall (Gen 3:16). Since no moral fall is present in Mesopotamian texts, this biblical negative side of childbearing appears to have been transposed to follow the Flood story. Atra-hasis' "curse" upon the
Babylonian Eves differs in content.
Comparisons can now be drawn between the contents of the two tripartite Creation-Flood stories: the Atra-hasis Epic and the Eridu Genesis.
While comparisons between individual segments are possible, it is difficult to compare the Creation stories of the Eridu Genesis and the Atra-hasis Epic, because that portion of the Eridu Genesis is missing and its contents can only be inferred from later passages. Both Flood stories are somewhat fragmentary but appear to be relatively close in content.
The greatest difference comes in the middle segment dealing with antediluvian life.
*The Sumerian source — the Eridu Genesis — provides a relatively optimistic view of this period, and its duration is framed in a long chronology.
*In contrast, the Semitic source — the Atra-hasis Epic — takes a more pessimistic view of man's physical environment and frames its duration in a short chronology.
While there is no unified and monolithic view of Creation, antediluvian life, and the Flood in these Mesopotamian sources, it is clear that both had a distinct chronology or length of time for the antediluvian period. Both sources provide a number of points for comparison with relevant biblical passages that deal with these events.
* It is my opinion, just an opinion which may be right or wrong,
that the older Sumerian Eridu Genesis account, especially of the antediluvian period, has more elements of truth- a glimpse into what it might have been like from recent memories passed on by the flood survivors.
Whereas the later semetic Atra-hasis Epic is more hostile towards the "gods" and different from both the Sumerian and Biblical accounts....just an opinion....but interesting in the Eridu genesis account about that antediluvian Nintur who organized the cities.....as for a possible reference to some sort of "Sabbath" at Creation in the Atra-hasis Epic, remember that the older, probably more accurate Eridu Genesis account is missing it's first 30 lines dealing with the Creation-so it may have been there too....