THE SUMERIAN CREATION-FLOOD STORY:
THE ERIDU GENESIS
(analysis by SDA William Shea)I. Texts
While the three major fragments of tablets comprising the Eridu Genesis have long been known and treated separately, only recently have they been united to form their original Creation-Flood story which began with a reference to Creation, continued with a description of antediluvian life, and ended with the story of the Flood. The reconstructed story formed by the tablets from Nippur, Ur, and
II. Antediluvian Life
The first thirty lines of the Nippur text are missing. The first available column recites the birth goddess Nintur's remedy for the nomadic and uncultured condition of mankind. She gave instructions for the building of the antediluvian cities not only as centers of culture and civilization, but especially for the worship of the gods, including herself:
"May they come and build cities and cult-places,Then follows a summary statement on the initial creation:
that I may cool myself in their shade;
may they lay the bricks for the cult-cities in pure spots, and
may they found places for divination in pure spots."
She gave directions for purification, and cries for quarter,
the things that cool (divine) wrath.
She perfected divine service and the august offices,
she said to the (surrounding) regions:
"Let me institute peace there"
When An, Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursaga [Nintur]Enki (the god of wisdom) and Nintur were particularly active in creation. The reference to the fashioning of the ''darkheaded people'' (the Sumerians' name for themselves) and the making of the animals indicates that a creation account probably preceded this passage.
fashioned the darkheaded (people)
they had made the small animals (that come up) from (out of)
the earth come up from the earth in abundance,
and had let there be, as befits (it), gazelles,
(wild) donkeys, and fourfooted beasts in the desert''
It is probable that the missing section of text related the development of mankind's plight. This idea is confirmed by the text from Ur which refers to a time when there was neither agriculture nor weaving of cloth. While these conditions produced poverty among the people, they lived in relative safety because there were no dangerous beasts, insects, or serpents, and "as there was no fear of attack, man had no opponent"
The next legible portion of the text discusses the establishment of kingship which was believed to be a gift from the gods. As the chief agent responsible for carrying out the gods' commands, the king directed the construction of cities and provided cult places and services for the gods. He also guided the people in the irrigation and growth of crops. Each city received half-bushel baskets from the harvest. Nintur assigned a patron deity to each of the five cities.
At the top of the next column another break occurs. The legible portion contains the end of the list of kings who reigned in these cities. The rest of this information has been preserved in the first portion of the Sumerian King List. Antediluvian kings had remarkably long reigns. Two cities had one king each, and one city was listed as having had three kings. The longest length of reign — 64,800 years — was listed for three different kings. Three more kings supposedly ruled 36,000 years. The shortest length of reign is 10,800 years. The scribe of this source totaled the dominions of all the cities to 352,800 years for the duration of kingship during the antediluvian world.
Although attempts have been made to relate this king-list to the antediluvian patriarchs listed in Gen 5, there is no linguistic correspondence.
III. The Flood Story
The great noise from the increasing human population prevented the gods from sleeping. Angered by this noise the god Enlil decided to eradicate mankind. Unfortunately, the text is broken at this point and resumes where the gods decided to send the Flood. Nintur mourned, but Enki foiled the plan by warning Ziusudra, the last king of Shuruppak:
"May you heed my advice:The remainder of Enki's advice is missing in the break at the top of column four. Parallels in other Flood stories indicate that Enki instructed Ziusudra to build an ark and load it with his family and
By our hand a flood will sweep over (the cities of)
the half-bushel baskets, and the country.
The decision that mankind is to be destroyed has been made,
a verdict, a command by the assembly, cannot be revoked.
An order of An and Enlil is not known
ever to have been countermanded.
Their kingship, their term, has been uprooted,
they must bethink themselves (of that)''.
the animals. The text resumes with the storm:
All evil winds, all stormy winds gathered into oneThe final scene records a speech by Enki who apparently obtained the agreement of the gods to accept the survival of Ziusudra and his family. When Ziusudra sacrificed to An and Enlil, they responded by offering him immortality and an eternal home:
and with them, the Flood was sweeping over (the cities of)
the half-bushel baskets for seven days and seven nights.
After the flood had swept over the country,
after the evil wind had tossed the big boat about on great waters
the sun came out spreading light over heaven and earth.
And An and Enlil did well by him,IV. Interpretation
were granting him life like a god's,
were making lasting breath of life, like a god's,
descend into him.
That day they made Ziusudra,
preserver as king of the name of the small animals
and the seed of mankind,
live toward the east over the mountains in Mount Tilmun.
T. Jacobsen was the scholar who synthesized the text of these fragments into a coherent story.
He has selected three main themes to explain the significance of this text.*In the first theme the culture that developed from Nintur's directions is considered to be superior to man's nomadic state.
*In the third theme Jacobsen holds that the Flood story was well-preserved and known in the ancient world because it is a story of survival rather than one of destruction.
*The second theme is important for our literary critical study. For the section of the Eridu Genesis which deals with the antediluvian kings and their cities, Jacobsen has noted:
In style this section is clearly modeled on the great Sumerian King list and its formulaic language and arrangement. As to its import one is somewhat at a loss. . . . the closest one can come is probably to credit the inclusion of this section in the tale to pure historical interest on the part of its composer.Since similar passages in Genesis also can be viewed historically, Jacobsen's conclusion about this section of the Eridu Genesis is significant for comparative purposes.
Next, Jacobsen compares the Eridu Genesis with the biblical parallel found in Gen 1-9. The tripartite divisions of both narratives obviously
correspond. The first two sections deal with Creation and the antediluvians, especially through lists of the leading figures of that period. Both conclude with a story of the Flood.
Jacobsen has further noted that both sources have arranged these main segments along a linear time line, rather than grouping them around a folk hero as is more common in such literature. This arrangement allows the successive events to relate logically to each other as cause and effect. Such arrangements in literary compositions from the ancient world are so unusual that Jacobsen was compelled to suggest a new designation:
. . . [this arrangement] is very much the way a historian arranges his data, and since the data here are mythological we may assign both traditions to a new and separate genre as mytho-historical accounts.An additional component is their unusual interest in chronology:
In both [traditions] we are given precise figures for respectively the length of reigns and the lifespans of the persons listed, and in both traditions the figures given are extraordinarily large. . . . This interest in numbers is very curious, for it is characteristic of myths and folktales that they are not concerned with time at all.Jacobsen believes that "interest in numbers of years belongs elsewhere, to the style of chronicles and historiography''. His best analogy for this literary style is in historical documents such as the royal annals which have provided further confirmation for categorizing the Eridu Genesis in the mytho-historical literary genre.
Jacobsen's study offers valuable contrasts. In the Eridu Genesis man's lot improved from his original wretched state while in the biblical account man's condition, along with his environment, worsened through his sinfulness which led to the Flood. This element of moral judgment is both absent in the Sumerian story and conveys a more pessimistic view of man's nature. Jacobsen urges caution in interpreting myths and their relationships because myths are fluid, relative and changeable in different cultural contexts, thus prohibiting easy generalizations.
And the LORD said,
My spirit shall not always strive with man,
for that he also is flesh: