Genesis 6-11 and other texts

The pages in this section examine the detail of the Genesis tradition about prehistory. Other Ancient Near Eastern texts are also discussed, most of which predate the writing of Genesis. They show that traditions about the creation of the world, a primeval garden, corruption of the original world, and a global flood were not unique to the Hebrews.

Hebrew evolved from Akkadian, which had a cuneiform script. Hebrew writing was alphabetic and developed during the sojourn in Egypt (first half of the 2nd millennium BC) long after cuneiform. Probably no text in the biblical canon predates Moses, and even its oldest book may not have attained its final form until the 7th century BC. If the first chapters of the Bible have any claim to be reliable history, it must be on the basis that they rendered stories about the deep past that had previously existed in oral form. Ancient Genesis-like traditions have been recorded from many parts of the world. Since they cannot have derived from the Hebrews or from Christian missionaries, they must have derived from a tradition once common to all mankind.

click for printable pdf The stories about the beginning of the world in Genesis 1–9 were already known in the 3rd millennium BC BC, existing then as part of an oral tradition. Distorted and somewhat dismembered elements also occur in earlier Sumerian and Akkadian 2nd millennium texts. A prime example is the flood story Atrahasis (c. 1600 BC). Here the two textual streams are compared and contrasted, with a view to determining to what extent one is derived from the other. Or are they linked only by a common origin?

A translation of the biblical text narrating the onset of the Flood-Cataclysm and its aftermath. The paragraphing, which is a matter of interpretation, has been misunderstood. The text is so structured that each paragraph begins with a statement of the period covered by the succeeding narrative (see also below). Once this is recognised, it becomes apparent that the period of destruction was only 40 days. So violent and total was the destruction that a further 330 days had to pass before it was safe for the occupants of the Ark to step out onto dry land.

The disaster described in Genesis 7–8 was not a flood caused by rising sea-levels but total destruction of the terrestrial crust, with subterranean waters coming up from below.

The Hebrew word used to denote the disaster is mabbul, translated in the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) as kataclusmos, ‘cataclysm.’ Paragraphing based on a close analysis of the text’s chronological structure shows that the term refers to the first 40 days of the total Flood period, and resolves the discrepancies commonly cited as evidence that the text was patched together from different sources.

Translations of, or links to, no fewer than five distinct texts from ancient Mesopotamia that refer to a uniquely devastating flood, some of them in considerable detail. These versions were a politically and religiously inspired conflation of two distinct events, the primeval Cataclysm of Noah’s day and a much later inundation that took place in the Early Dynastic period, c. 2700 BC.

According to Genesis 10–11, the building of Babel – later called Babylon – was part of a project to build a great kingdom or empire. Before it was finished, God confused the language of the builders, so that somehow the language of all mankind was confused. Is this just a fanciful story or did such an event really happen? Archaeological and other evidence indicates that it did, at the end of the Late Uruk period (carbon-dated to c. 3150 BC).