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In the Epic of Atrahasis and Epic of Gilgamesh flood myth, the gods are rash, foolish, even weak.

Genesis copies most of the myth. And although it's sanitized quite a bit, some actions seem to be inconsistent with an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God. God decides one moment that all animals must be killed 6:7, and the next that Noah must save them all himself 6:19–20. All humanity is evil and must be purged, except for Noah, but Noah is punished with spending the better part of a year on a tiny boat filled with polar bears. At the end God promises never to try the scheme again 8:21, apparently one step from an outright apology.

What higher narrative purpose does this myth fulfill, that it's included in the Bible despite its extremely subversive origins and troublesome implications?

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I think the question here is a good one. (What narrative purpose does the flood have). I've tried to neutralize the POV a bit (although not fully) and removed the lengthy quotation as I'm not sure it really adds anything here. Instead I'll link to wikipedia on the epics if people want more info. –  wax eagle Mar 22 '12 at 12:09
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3 Answers

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The narrative purpose of the flood account is actually quite simple. It reminds us of one simple truth of God's character: God is just.

To the Jew for whom this exact version of the narrative is written (I can leave aside Gilgamesh because it differs in thrust), there is one overwhelming truth- God will punish the wicked. In a world where the wicked often seem to prosper, this is too easily forgotten. To say, the Jews of the exile, this is actually a very comforting thought - that even though they may be temporarily defeated (and that happened a lot in Jewish history) God is simply "slow to anger" not completely silent or ineffectual on the matter.

In punishing the wicked, the righteous will be protected. To an enslaved and defeated people, this is good news indeed. There will be an accounting when God's wrath is complete. He is not slow in keeping his promises, as some count slowness to be. Neither is he unconcerned, nor is he Powerless.

Peter (who, it should be remembered, was a Jew) says

if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven other ... if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment. (2 Peter 2:5,9)

For the Christian it holds a secondary meaning, namely that God may be love, but he is more than love. God is not just "nice," but he is also just. It is too easy to forget that because God is good, it doesn't mean he can't be powerful too.

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I remember preaching on the flood once, and telling a friend before hand, whenever I use the word, "Holy," feel free to substitute the word "bad-ass". God is good, but he is not to be trifled with. –  Affable Geek Mar 18 '12 at 11:51
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Yeah, that makes sense. But God also saves the wicked and saves the just at Passover, and at Soddom and Gomorrah. These also feature a uniquely Biblical God with the power and confidence to snuff out humans with a snap of his finger. In comparison the deluge is God: the awkward teenage years where he sends a flood, then afterward says, "Wow, that sucked. Let's never do it again." And more to the point of my question, the myth originally told how unjust the gods were – I'd trust the Biblical authors to steer clear of it unless it told a message which couldn't be told any other way. –  rdhs Mar 18 '12 at 18:00
    
So, I'm going to really push back on the comparative analysis for a minute. When, say, an episode of Star Trek retells the Gilgamesh story (ala Darmok), the narrative purpose of the thing need not necessarily have anything to do with the source material. Knowing the source may be interesting, but has itching to do with the reinterpretation. The story stands alone and it's best interpretation would be those that simply see the story on its own. –  Affable Geek Mar 18 '12 at 18:32
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I can buy that: The authors simply take the myth, purge it of its subversive elements as best they can, and then make it their own. It would certainly fit in with the other modifications, like the flood lasting much longer in the Biblical story. –  rdhs Mar 18 '12 at 18:48
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Your answer reminds me of the description of Aslan from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (which of course is intended as an allegory for God in the first place) when one of the children asks Mr. Beaver, "Is Aslan tame?" and the reply was (paraphrased) "Tame!? Certainly not! But he is good." –  Flimzy Mar 19 '12 at 7:14
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First off, it's highly intellectually dishonest to claim that the story of Noah is a redacted version of the Utanapishtim myth found in the Epic of Gilgamesh. That notion was discredited at least half a century ago with the discovery and translation of the much older Sumerian Epic of Atra-Hasis. The Atra-Hasis tale contains a deluge myth that both differs from Gilgamesh and agrees with the Genesis account on many important points--including the cowardly character of the gods as mentioned in the question above--making it clear that the Utanapishtim story is the one that's been edited and changed from the original account. (see Hilprecht, The Earliest Version of the Babylonian Deluge Story and the Temple Library of Nippur, p. 61) It's hard to believe that people are still dredging up the Utanapishtim-Noah theory after all these years!

Having said that, the purpose of including the story of Noah and the Flood in Genesis is very simple: the author believed it! This is one of the interesting things about the ancient Israelites: almost uniquely among ancient cultures, they saw their stories handed down from older times still as literal history rather than mythology.

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@Marc: What exactly do you mean by "doubles"? What it does is show conclusively that Gilgamesh is not the source of the Genesis account, and furthermore that the places where the Utanapishtim myth differs most significantly from the Genesis account are interpolations. It shows that the Genesis account is significantly closer to the original than the Gilgamesh account. And it provides yet another example of the long pattern of people finding supposed absurdities, anachronisms or made-up or borrowed stories in Scripture, only for Scripture to be later vindicated by new discoveries. –  Mason Wheeler Mar 18 '12 at 23:34
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Biblical scripture is not really "vindicated" by the existence of an older, also-non-Biblical precursor for Gilgamesh. If anything it shows even more progression of flood stories leading up to the Genesis version. –  Marc Gravell Mar 18 '12 at 23:44
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@Marc: How does the existence of later stories that diverge significantly from the Genesis story show "a progression of stories leading up to it"? Sounds like the exact opposite to me: a progression of flood stories moving further and further away from the true account because they have lost the original context. –  Mason Wheeler Mar 18 '12 at 23:52
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Later? I'm confused - is there an archaelogical/historical claim to a Genesis version that pre-dates either of these? My understanding is that Genesis is the youngster here...? Or are you talking in religious terms, i.e. "the Genesis story is the oldest, since that is the one that happened, regardless of when it was recorded"? –  Marc Gravell Mar 19 '12 at 0:12
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I will never understand is why people don't seem to get the idea that if indeed a flood had wiped out all of humanity early on in our history, then the prevalence of various accounts of the incident, reflecting various levels of distortion, in many or most human cultures is exactly what one would expect if it was, in fact, a historic reality. It is, therefore, entirely reasonable for Christians and Jews to then believe that the Biblical account, being inspired of God (capital G), is an accurate account, and these others (whether predating Genesis or not) are distorted accounts. –  Lawrence Dol Mar 19 '12 at 23:23
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As Flimzy said your question seems argumentative so I will answer as concisely as possible.

First thing of note, stories and information did not travel back then as they do in this day and age. So while Gilgamesh is perhaps older (not saying it is we have no actual date on the writing of Genesis so it could in fact be older) its quite possible that the writer of Genesis had never even heard of the story before. The Jews were well known in their devout stages(when they actually followed the commandments of God) for not mingling with other societies which makes it even more likely that the writer had never heard the myth before.

Secondly, as Marc said the narrative is there to record events and therefore is not a myth. Whether you believe that or not depends on your interpretation of the bible but for most they take it as fact not myth that the Noah flood actually happened.

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On the contrary; culture very much did flow, by commerce, roaming nomads, and conquest. You may recall recorded Jewish history starts mostly in Egypt, which is remarkably close to Mesopotamia (Gilgamesh). I don't think a credible argument can be made that it is unlikely there was no bleeding of discussion between these cultures. Here's a map: emersonkent.com/images/ancient_egypt_mesopotamia_map.jpg –  Marc Gravell Mar 18 '12 at 10:44
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I am very aware of the distances involved. And I did not say at all that cultures did not flow. However a simple look at that map and realizing how many different languages evolved in such a small space shows that while communication happened it was nothing like it is today. Which was my point in the first place. stories and information did not travel back then *as they do in this day and age*. –  ryan Mar 18 '12 at 17:52
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I think you're severely underestimating some rather sophisticated civilizations. The Amarna letters, dating to 1390, detail a system of international trade and diplomacy involving Egypt, Babylonia, Hatti, and Assyria. There's even several letters from the chieftain of Jerusalem to Amenhotep III, written in Akkadian. And Tablet IV of Gilgamesh, first written in 2200, is essentially about a trip from Basra to Tripoli to get lumber for a door. –  rdhs Mar 18 '12 at 19:33
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Really people? I'm not trying to debate or get in an argument what part of as they do in this day and age do you not get? I have studied history extensively, two of my interests are ancient Rome and Egypt and there in absolutely NO way you can say that information traveled back then as it does today. And NO way can you say that common men or even the semi-wealthy had access to large amounts of information from other countries. Ancient Rome had a very high literacy rate and yet most common citizens would not of been able to tell you stories from Egypt or Israel both parts of the Empire. –  ryan Mar 20 '12 at 5:10
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