THE BIBLICAL FLOOD:
© Carl Olof Jonsson, Göteborg, Sweden, 2001
The chronology of ancient Mesopotamia
Are the chronologies of Mesopotamia and Egypt in conflict with the Biblical date of the Flood, i.e., c. 2500 BCE according the the Masoretic text and c. 3500 BCE according to the Greek Septuagint version (LXX)? Many seem to believe that the chronologies of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt are safely fixed, while in fact they are very loosely founded and changeable. The chronology of ancient Mesopotamia, for example, was considerably shortened, step by step, during the past century, as illustrated in the table below, which show the gradual lowering of the datings of the reigns of Sargon I and Hammurabi. The chronology of ancient Egypt has been shortened in a similar way during the same period.
The problems with the ancient chronologies are far from solved, and it is more than likely that they will be further reduced. One problem is that they are often in conflict with C14 dates.
The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 1:2 (1971) tentatively dates the Early Dynastic period (E.D.) in Mesopotamia to c. 3000-2450 BCE, and it seems appropriate, therefore, to quote what this work has to say about one of the problems with this dating. Chapter XVI, “The Early Dynastic Period in Mesopotamia,” was written by the famous British archaeologist Max E.L. Mallowan (d. 1978), who explains:
“Unfortunately, this apparently satisfactory estimate for the length of the E.D. period does not agree with recent carbon-14 findings, particularly material from Nippur lately tested, which may require a reduction of third millennium dates by as much as six or seven centuries. We have to face the possibility that if the newly emerging carbon-14 pattern for the third millennium is the right one, we must jettison the whole of the previously accepted basis of Egyptian chronology upon which the Mesopotamian in large part depends. But we should be reluctant to do this without much stronger contrary evidence, for Egyptian calculations based on written evidence can be checked on astronomical grounds with but a small margin of error [this supposed “astronomical” support for the Egyptian chronology is increasingly being rejected by modern scholars! – C.O.J.] and, if we accept a low carbon-14 chronology for the E.D. period, we are faced with a big and unexplained hiatus between this and the neolithic, for which the same method has given unexpectedly high dates. Some authorities are therefore for the present inclined to believe that at this end of the third millennium there was some physical disturbance in the solar magnetic field, which may have affected the level of the carbon-14 activity in the carbon exchange reservoir.” (Pages 242-243)
True, this was written back in 1971, well before calibration curves had been worked out and extended back to this early period. But still, archaeologists excavating the early civilizations of the ancient Near East are usually distrustful of carbon-14 dates.
The backbone of the Mesopotamian chronology before the first millennium BCE is the Assyrian Kinglist tradition. Five copies of the Assyrian Kinglist (AKL) have been found, but as two are only fragments, the three others are the most important. The list gives the names and the lengths of reigns of Assyrian rulers from ancient times down to the Neo-Assyrian period, one of the copies ending with Shalmaneser V, 726-722 BCE.
The lists were updated at various times. All the extant copies are late, the oldest having been compiled in the reign of Tiglath-Pileser II, 966-935 BCE. (The “editorial history” of the AKL is discussed by Shigeo Yamada in Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie, Band 84:1, 1994, pp. 11-37) In the later parts, the list may be checked against the Assyrian Eponym Canon (covering the period 910-649 BCE), and for this period at least it seems to be reliable. From there and back to the end of the Kassite period, c. 1155 BCE, too, it seems to be on the whole in agreement with other sources.
The earlier parts of
the list, however, have been shown to be far from reliable. The earliest parts
are believed to be partially based on oral tradition. Further, a number of
rulers and dynasties that are presented in the list as consecutive may in
reality have been contemporary. Thus, discussing the evidence found for
concurrent kings in Kish, scholars Wu Yuhong and Stephanie Dalley state: “If it
is possible for a district to have two kings at one time, the one ruling the
settled, urban population and the other the peripheral encampments, it becomes
possible to apply to the Assyrian king list the same criteria as are now well
established for the Sumerian king list, namely that parallel dynasties are
represented as successive.” (Iraq, Vol. 52, 1990, p. 163)
Attempts have been made to date the First Dynasty of Babylon (to which Hammurabi belongs) by the aid of a number of astronomical texts containing observations of the planet Venus. These tablets are known as the “Venus Tablets of Ammisaduqa” because they are dated to the reign of Ammusaduqa, the next to the last ruler of the dynasty. However, the observations are difficult to interpret and may be given a number of alternative dates. Based on these tablets, scholars in general have proposed three different chronologies for the First Dynasty of Babylon, the so-called “high”, “middle”, and “low” chronologies (see the table above). The difference between the high and the low chronology is about 120 years, and there is still wide disagreement among scholars about this. Some have also proposed other alternative dates for the Venus tablets.
The actual state of the Mesopotamian chronology for the second millennium and earlier periods is aptly described by Professor F. H. Cryer:
“In contrast with dating of the first millennium, the absolute dates of other chronological periods in Mesopotamia are conjectural. The beginning of the first millennium and the transition from the second millennium is very unclear in all our extant sources, as far as Mesopotamia is concerned. An extreme lack of sources is usually cited as the reason for our ignorance, and in fact, we are largely, if not entirely, reliant on the some times widely divergent kinglists to obtain even a shadowy picture. In this connection, we are hindered by the fact that it appears to have been important to the local chronographers, especially in Assyria, to sketch out at least the illusion of dynastic continuity, so that numerous simultaneously reigning kings of rival principalities (that is, collateral reigns) seem to succeed one another in the records. The same is also true of diverse ancient editions of the Sumerian kinglist, a document that gives as a sequence the city-states, together with their succession of rulers, on which gods bestowed the institution of kingship.” – F. H. Cryer in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Jack M. Sasson et al (eds.), Vol. II, 1995, p. 657.
These problems with the Assyrian kinglist tradition and the chronology for the early civilization of Mesopotamia have quite recently been emphasized by Dr. Julian Reade at the British Museum in a lengthy article, ”Assyrian King-Lists, The Royal Tombs of Ur, and Indus Origins,” published in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 60:1, January 2001, pp. 1-29. In his detailed and very interesting discussion, Reade concludes that the Mesopotamian chronology for the period 2500-1500 BCE is ”distorted,” and he argues for ”much lower chronologies than are usually cited for this period.” He also demonstrates that such a lowering of the chronology is supported by recent tree-ring studies. (pp. 1, 10)
That an enormous Flood, at present dated by geologists to approximately 3500 BC, drowned the plain of Mesopotamia and swept away the pre-Sumerian Ubaid civilization seems now to have been clearly established by geological and geomorphological research performed in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf area. A summary of the evidence is presented by Theresa Howard-Carter in the article, “The Tangible Evidence for the Earliest Dilmun,” published in the Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 33, 1981, pp. 210-223.
In her discussion of the Flood, Howard-Carter starts by pointing out that, “Nearly all the authorities who have attended seriously to the flood question in writings before 1975 are generally proved right insofar as they merely refer to existence of floods in Mesopotamia. But recent research in the geomorphology of the Gulf area now forces us to think in larger terms.” She then briefly presents the new evidence of an enormous Flood, dated to about 3500 BCE, that was much more extensive than the local floods discussed in earlier works:
“Previously the Flood had always been discussed in terms of the area which includes the head of the Gulf, the Delta, and lower Mesopotamia. The new evidence forces us to consider the entire Gulf area quite literally in depth. … This giant of all floods occurred just at the middle of the fourth millennium [c. 3500 BCE] at a point already distinguished archaeologically as the beginning of the Uruk period. This is stratigraphically demonstrable at Eridu, Ur, and Warka.” (Pages 221-222)
Marine shells, marine terraces, and other evidence show that the waters that drowned the cities of the Ubaid civilization was caused by a massive movement of the sea from the Gulf. This finding agrees with the statement at Gen. 7:11 that the waters of the Flood had two sources: (1) “the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and (2) the windows of heaven were opened.” The “great deep” (Hebr. tehom rabba) is used in the Bible especially of the sea (e.g., Isa. 51:10; 63:3; Jonah 2:4). The inundation from the Persian Gulf explains why the ark of Noah (= the Sumerian Ziusudra, who is stated to have lived in the city of Shuruppak in southern Mesopotamia) was brought northwards to the mountains or hills in the area of Ararat. If the Flood had been caused only by rains from above and inundations of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, the ark would have been brought southwards to the Gulf.
It seems obvious that this disastrous catastrophe was the historical background of the Biblical and Mesopotamian Flood traditions. How far northward this “giant flood” reached is still an open question. An enormous sea wave from the Persian Gulf could reach a very long way northwards along the plain, even up to the mountainous districts of northern Iraq. It should be remembered that most of the Mesopotamian plains below that area are very low. The whole delta lowland south of Baghdad, for example, is extremely flat and rises only a few meters from the Persian Gulf to Baghdad 600 kilometers north of the Gulf, so that Baghdad is still less than 10 (ten) meters above sea level!
For a local flood to last for more than a few hours or days there has to be an enclosed region that includes the entire Tigris-Euphrates region. And the fact is that Iraq is often described as a “trough”. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 12 (1969), for example, explains: “Iraq consists of a lowland trough lying between asymmetrical and very different upland massifs to the east, north and west, and continuing southeastward as the Persian gulf.” (Page 527) Similarly, Dr. Susan Pollock says in her recent work, Ancient Mesopotamia (Cambridge, 1999):
“Mesopotamia is, geologically speaking, a trough created as the Arabian shield has pushed up against the Asiatic landmass, raising the Zagros Mountains and depressing the land to the southwest of them. Within this trench, the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers and their tributaries have laid down enormous quantities of alluvial sediments, forming the Lower Mesopotamian Plain (also known as the alluvial Mesopotamian plain). Today the Lower Mesopotamian Plain stretches some 700 kilometers, from approximately the latitude of Ramadi and Baquba in the northwest to the Gulf, which has flooded its southeastern end.” (Page 29)
As it is not known exactly what caused the massive movement of the sea to inundate the Mesopotamian plain, there may have been circumstances involved unknown to us today that prevented the waters from turning back too quickly to the sea again. Clearly, much research remains to be done.
It is very likely that the Flood was related to one of the risings of the sea level that occurred after the end of the last Ice Age, presently dated to about 11,000 years ago. In recent years it has been found that this end occurred much more quickly than had been held previously. Scientists Olaf Jöris and Bernard Weninger, for example, state:
”The Holocene climatic conditions, as it now appears at least for the northern hemisphere, are not a result of slow, gradual changes. On the contrary, they have come about by leaps and abruptly, in just a few decades.” – Olaf Jöris & Bernhard Weninger, ”14C-Alterskalibration und die Absolute Chronologie des Spätglacials,” Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt, Vol. 30:4, 2000, p. 461.
In their book, Ice Ages and Astronomical Causes (Chichester, UK: Praxis Publishing Ltd, 2000). authors Richard A. Muller & Gordon J. MacDonald, who are leading experts on the Ice Ages, further explain on page 4:
”The abruptness of the termination is startling. Agriculture, and all of our civilization, developed since this termination. The enormous glacier, several kilometers thick, covering much of North America and Eurasia, rapidly melted. Only small parts of this glacier survived in Greenland and Antarchtica, where they exist to this day. The melting caused a series of worldwide floods unlike anything previously experienced by Homo sapiens. … The flood dumped enough water into the oceans to cause the average sea level to rise 110 meters, enough to inundate the coastal areas, … . The water from melting ice probably flooded down over land in pulses, as ice-dammed lakes formed and then catastrophically released their waters. These floods left many records, including remnant puddles now known as the Great Lakes, and possibly gave rise to legends that persisted for many years.” (Emphasis added.)
This rising of the sea level has been shown to have occurred in a number of sudden stages, the last of which is dated to about 3,500 BCE. That this last catastrophe was identical to Noah’s Flood is geologically fully possible and even probable.
In a sense such a Flood may be regarded as worldwide, as the rise of the sea level affected the coastal areas and lowlands all around the world. There is evidence to show the a catastrophe of enormous proportions depopulated other areas outside Mesopotamia about this time, ending the so-called Chalcolithic period in the Near East. Margie Burton and Thomas E. Levy at the University of California, San Diego, explains:
”The end of the Chalcolithic period–the Chalcolithic/Early Bronze I (Early EB I or EB IA) transition–has been described as a case of social, political, economic, and demographic collapse (Gophna 1998). … current stratigraphic and radiometric evidence indicates that most of the large Chalcolithic sites were abandoned by the mid-4th millennium BCE [c. 3500 BCE] and not resettled, although some may have had limited and ephemeral occupation extending into what may be termed the Early Bronze IA (EB IA).” – M. Burton & T. E. Levy, ”The Chalcolithic Radiocarbon Record and its Use in Southern Levantine Archaeology,” Radiocarbon, Vol. 43:3 (2001), p. 1232.
The evidence, then, shows that there was indeed a Flood. It may very well have been “local” in the sense that it did not cover all the land masses of the earth, but was limited coastal areas and other low-lying areas of the earth, places where people usually settled in ancient times. In the Sumerian Flood tradition, at least, it is indicated that the Flood may have thought of as a more or less local catastrophe, as it is stated that “the Flood swept over the Land [Sum. kalam].” Kalam was the name the Sumerians used of their own country, which roughly covered the area from the Gulf up to present Baghdad, before their land in the later Akkadian period was divided into Sumer and Akkad.
The Biblical and Mesopotamian Flood traditions are closely related, although it cannot be shown that the Biblical story was derived from the others or vice versa. They clearly have a common origin and speak of the same event. For this reason it is possible, and even probable, that the Bible, too, like the Mesopotamian traditions, speaks of a local area affected by the catastrophe, using the Hebrew word erets in the sense of “land” or “area” rather than “earth”. That the Biblical story of the Flood in Genesis 6-8 may be understood in this way is demonstrated, for example, by Professor Franz Delitzsch, a leading conservative Bible scholar in the 19th century, in his work, A New Commentary on Genesis, Vol. 1, pp. 222-282. (This commentary was originally published in German in 1887.)
It should be emphasized that the Bible generally uses the word erets in the sense of “land”, and more rarely in the sense of “earth” (= the globe). In the Theological Dictionay of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, p. 393, Dr. Magnus Ottosson explains: “It is not always easy to determine whether erets means ‘earth’ or ‘land’ in a given instance.”
Translators have the same problem with the Greek word for ‘earth’, ge. It may mean either ‘earth’ or a more limited area, such as ‘land’ or ‘district’. In our space age we are used to think of the “earth” as the whole globe, but in ancient times people seldom did. In Colin Brown’s The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 518, Dr. R. Morgenthaler says:
“It is frequently difficult to decide whether a particular passage is speaking of a particular country, especially the land of Israel, or of the populated earth as a whole. With our modern outlook on the world we are inclined to think globally and universally. However, the NT can use ‘the earth’ in a very particularistic way.”
It is quite possible, therefore, that the erets in the Biblical Flood story primarily refers to the ”land” or area of Mesopotamia, like the Sumerian word kalam. The context must always decide whether erets means ”land” or ”earth”. And if the Scriptural context is not enough for deciding the matter, the historical context in which the story originated may be our best guide.
The later Biblical references to the Flood, too, need not be understood as referring to a submersion of all the land masses of the earth. It is interesting to observe that Jesus, in speaking of his second coming as an unexpected event, compared it not only with the coming of the Flood, but also, in the very same passage, with the destruction of Sodom. And just as he said that the Flood “destroyed them all,” he also said of Sodom that the fire and sulphur from heaven “destroyed them all.” (Luke 17:26-30) The word “all” in both cases refers, of course, to all those involved in the respective catastrophe, not necessary to all the people on earth. Peter, too, mentions both of these catastrophes in a similar way. (2 Peter 2:5-9)
That the Jews in ancient times were aware of the possibility that the Biblical Flood might have been a more limited catastrophe is evident from the fact that the rabbis, according to the Talmud, were discussing whether the Flood waters had reached the land of Israel or not. (Babyl. Talmud Zeb. 113b; Gen. Rabbah 33.6; Lev. Rabbah 31.10; Cant. Rabbah 1.15, par. 4; 4.1, par. 2)
According to Genesis 7:19 the waters of the Flood covered “all the high mountains under the whole heaven.” This does not necessarily mean that the waters covered all the high mountains of the earth. “Under the whole heaven” may simply mean that the waters covered all the mountains above the horizon visible to the people on the ark.
Further, the Hebrew plural noun harim can mean either ”mountains” or ”hills”. Not only the translators of King James Version, but also the modern translators of the New King James Version translate harim as ”high hills” at Gen. 7:19. So does also Bullinger in his The Companion Bible: “All the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.” Ferrar Fenton’s The Five Books of Moses, too, has ”all the hills”, but adds “and mountains”. These translators chose the word ”hills”, certainly not because they believed the Flood was local, but because this was what the word harim often meant, and because they felt it was quite proper to render it this way in this context. This would be especially appropriate if the Flood story, as is commonly believed, originated in Mesopotamia, where the only “mountains” the inhabitants could see were hills. For someone living in southern Mesopotamia, like Ziusudra who lived in the city of Shuruppak between the rivers of Euphrates and Tigris, the high Persian mountain range in the east was 250 kilometers away and could not be seen because of the curvature of the earth’s surface.
At the end of the Flood the ark of Noah came to rest “upon the mountains [or, ‘hills’] of Ararat.” (Gen. 8:4) Originally, Ararat was not the name of a mountain, but of a geographical area, which later, in the Assyrian period, was consolidated into a kingdom. (See 2 Kings 19:37; Isa. 37:38; Jer. 51:27.) This later kingdom lay north and northeast of Mesopotamia with its center around the seas of Van and Urmia. In Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions the form of the name is Urartu. The kingdom of Urartu was destroyed late in the 7th century BC, after which the name disappears.
Thus, when Gen. 8:4 states that the Ark ”came to rest on the mountains [hills] of Ararat,” this means that it came to rest on the mountains or hills in the area of Urartu. The plural, ”mountains, hills,” should be noted. It is only in later Christian tradition, from the 11th century CE and on, that the high mountain of Agri Dag in northeastern Turkey came to be called ”Ararat” and was identified as the site of the landing. However, the Bible does not mention the name of the mountain, nor does it say that it was a high mountain.
The Targums and the early Syriac translation (Peshitta) render Ararat as ”Korduene” (Karduchia), and this is also where Berossus locates the site of landing, according to Josephus (Ant. I.3.6). Korduene seems to refer to the area occupied by the Kurds, Kurdistan, the former Armenia. The Latin versions, in fact, render Ararat as ”Armenia”, the territory of which roughly corresponded to the earlier kingdom of Urartu. An excellent recent work on the Urartu/Ararat kingdom is Urartu-das Reich am Ararat (“Urartu-the kingdom at Ararat”), written by Ralf-Bernhard Wartke (Mainz am Rhein, 1993).
Archaeological findings show that the southern border of the kingdom of Urartu extended down to the area of Nineveh (close to present-day Mosul) and the Zab rivers. It is quite possible that the earlier geographical area called Urartu was larger and extended further south and southeast. Vast areas of the southern kingdom of Urartu was only between 300 and 200 meters above sea level. The Hamrin range to the northeast of Baghdad reaches to about 500 meters.
But at the time of the Flood these areas may have been much lower, as the mountain building movements of Iraq and southwestern Persia have been going on since that time. Drs. G. M. Lees and N. L. Falcon point out:
“This mountain system has developed out of a broader zone of depression or geosyncline, by a relative approach between central Persia and the stable massif of Arabia which compressed the mobile strip between and formed a series of giant earth waves or fold mountains. The time of the maximum tangential movement was in the late Pliocene but the elevation of the mountain belt as a whole, as distinct from fold movements, continued into recent time and is in fact still active.” (”The Geographical History of the Mesopotamian Plains,” The Geographical Journal, Vol. CXVIII, 1952, p. 27. Emphasis added.)
There are reasons to believe that the mountain upon which the ark of Noah came to rest cannot have been very high. When the ark had come to rest on a mountain in Urartu, Noah sent out a raven and then a dove. When he sent out the dove a second time, it returned with a fresh “olive leaf”. (Gen. 8:11) People in the Middle East knew very well (and still know) that olive trees can grow only up to about 500 meters above sea level. The ark, therefore, can hardly have come to rest higher up than that, and possibly at a much lower level. This, too, supports the understanding of the Flood as a more or less local catastrophe.