Monday, 7 August 2017

The Great Flood: Did it really happen?

The Biblical story of the deluge has been a bone of contention for a long time. Conservative Christians often believe that the Biblical story should be taken literally as saying that the whole earth was inundated during the Great Flood. Biblical Criticism scholars often think that it is nothing but a myth. So, what is the truth? What does the evidence tell us?

There are few Biblical stories that generate so much debate as the one about the deluge. This cataclysmic event still grabs the attention of large audiences as can be seen in the numbers who viewed the recent epic drama Noah (2014). In the Netherlands, one person even built an ark according to the specifications given in the Bible. Others search for the remains of the Ark on Mt Ararat in northeastern Turkey. Still others find evidence for the Great Flood all over the world.

People have widely divergent views on this topic. Some believe that we should read the Biblical narrative as saying that the waters covered the whole earth – Mt. Everest included. They read all archaeological evidence regarding cataclysmic events in the context of the Great Flood. Others believe that it is merely a myth – in their view, this is a typical myth which originated either in some way in the various great floods throughout the long history of mankind going back many millennia or from our collective unconscious (if you are a Jungian). The question is: who is right?

Giving a balanced account of the Biblical story of the deluge is a great challenge – not the least because some people are so fired up about it and are not open to any discussion that differs from their dogmatic position. One should, however, remember that the deluge is said to have happened long before the earliest Biblical text was written down. Traditional Christians believe that Moses wrote the story down in about 1400 BC which is (depending on the Biblical text used) a millennium or more after the event itself. This forces us to consider the question: Where did the author get the information used in this story? Where did that tradition originate?

At this point it is important to accentuate that the story of the Great Flood cannot be viewed in isolation; we should consider it within the context of the “ancient history” of Genesis 2-11. If we want to understand the story of the Biblical flood, we have to consider the background of the “ancient history”. I previously argued that this tradition was handed down within Abraham’s family since the time when they migrated from Ur in Sumer (part 8 of this series). I call it the Sumerian hypothesis. I showed that about everything in the ancient history – the deluge included – go back to persons and events that are also mentioned in ancient Sumerian tradition. As such it seems reasonable to begin our discussion by considering the Sumerian tradition in this regard.

The origin of the Biblical story of the deluge

The deluge made a very distinct impression on Sumerian tradition. As such it was remembered as a universal flood that did not merely change the Sumerian world but also that of humanity. We find this tradition in the Sumerian King List although the story of the deluge is also told in other literary works. What I show in this section is that 1) the Sumerian tradition about the deluge places it solidly within the framework of ancient Sumerian history and 2) archaeological data is consistent with that tradition.

There was a time when Sumerologists thought that the Sumerian deluge should be identified with one of the occasional floods which happen when the Mesopotamian rivers breach their walls such as the Kish flood of ca. 2800 BC which is attested at Kish and Surrupak. The problem is that this was a local flood and it is difficult to see why it would have been remembered in such exceptional terms even though it might have been a dramatic event. The scholar Benjamin R. Foster wrote: “A major defining event in the Mesopotamian view of the history of the human race was the deluge, known from several Akkadian versions [Akkadian was the language of the eastern Semites living in Sumer]. This was considered a one-time, universal flood that changed human history forever” [1].

When we consider the historical context in which the Sumerian King List places the deluge, we can pin down the flood more accurately in accordance with archaeological data. According to the King List, the antediluvian kings ruled for the most part in the southernmost city of Eridu whereas the first postdiluvian kings ruled in Uruk. This is consistent with the archaeological evidence, namely that Eridu, which was considered to be the oldest city in Sumer, existed since early in the so-called Ubaid period whereas Uruk was built in the subsequent Uruk period.

These periods, which have distinct material cultures that are attested throughout ancient Mesopotamia, are separated by evidence of a great flood that has been found at various places in Sumer and beyond [2]. One of these is the clay deposit of 2.7-3.7 meters which was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolly (1880-1960) at Ur. This archaeological data is consistent with the flood tradition in the Sumerian King List, not only insofar as its place in Sumerian history is concerned (i.e. regarding the rulers of Eridu and Uruk), but also in showing that this flood covered the whole of that ancient land since it divides Mesopotamian history into two very distinct material cultures, namely one before and one after the mentioned flood. 

In accordance with this correspondence between the Sumerian tradition and the archaeological data, the Sumerologist Theresa Howard-Carter wrote: “The reference to a [Sumerian] flood is more than casual and is remarked in a number of epic tales… recent research in the geomorphology of the Gulf area now forces us to think in larger terms. That research documents what appears to have been a major inundation just before 3500 BC, at which time the waters of the Gulf reached a point north of Amara… [It] was a massive movement of the sea which is not to be confused with later small floods… the geologic land tilt caused by the folding and faulting of the Zagros Mountains… covered effectively the cities of Sumeria… This giant of all floods occurred just at the middle of the fourth millennium at a point already distinguished archaeologically as the beginning of the Uruk Period. This is stratigraphically demonstrable at Eridu, Ur and Warka [Uruk]” [3].

There was a time when geologists thought that the layers of clay at Ur may be merely due to tectonic activity [4]. That has since changed. Geologists now think that the sea actually inundated the land and that the current meander patterns of the Mesopotamian rivers came into existence when that happened [5]. We are therefore not looking at a local flood where the river overflowed its walls but a massive flood during which the Persian Gulf overflowed the land.

The post-deluge period in Sumer

Before I proceed to discuss the questions about the extent of the flood and its date in more detail, it is important to first consider the evidence regarding the post-deluge period in Sumer and see how that corresponds with the story in the Bible. The important thing is to show that the Sumerian flood that I discussed above, is indeed the one mentioned in the Biblical tradition. As such one may mention that the Biblical Noah corresponds with the Sumerian Ziusudra, the last antediluvian king in Sumer mentioned in the Sumerian King List who was also the hero of the Sumerian flood epic (remembered in the Akkadian tradition as Atrahasis). Both are said to have built a boat/ark after being advised to do so by God or a god, which resulted in them surviving the deluge.

There are, however, more detailed correspondences between the two traditions. As such, there is an important Sumerian family who features in both traditions insofar as they ruled that ancient land directly after the deluge – which strengthens the case that the stories go back to the same original tradition. This is the Biblical Cush family, who corresponds with that of Meshkiagkasher (Kash for short) in Sumerian tradition (see part 8).

According to the Sumerian King List, Meskiagkasher was the founder of the House of Uruk who ruled over Sumer in the period directly after the deluge. His son was Enmerkar, who corresponds with the Biblical Nimrod. The consonants in the first part of the name Enmerkar, namely nmr, may be vocalized as Nimrod, and the “kar” at the end of the name may be read as “hunter”. It is not only the names that correspond: in both traditions Nimrod/Enmerkar was remembered as a great Sumerian ruler from the postdiluvian period whose kingdom included not only cities such as Uruk in Sumer but also cities in the distant north (for a detailed discussion, see part 8 of this series).

In the Sumerian tradition Meskiagkasher is remembered as migrating from the land of Aratta in the north [6] to settle at the temple of An in the land of Sumer. When he came to the southern plains of Sumer the city of Uruk did not yet exist – according to the Sumerian King List it was built by his son Enmerkar. This tradition is in accordance with archaeological data which shows not only a dramatic drop in the overall population density at the end of the Ubaid period (consistent with the flood), but also clear signs of large numbers of new settlers who then came to live in the area of the future city of Uruk [7]. This is consistent with the Sumerian tradition that Meskiagkasher came to this area after the deluge.

Where was the land of Aratta from where Meskiagkasher originated? According to the Sumerian tradition about Enmerkar, the land of Aratta was reached after crossing seven mountain ranges. These seven mountain ranges were obviously a well-known landmark in ancient times. It is also mentioned in later Mesopotamian tradition when the Assyrian king Sargon II travelled over these mountain ranges to the northern land of Urartu. When he came to the area south of Lake Urmia (in the northwestern part of present-day Iran) he is said to have crossed the Aratta river – the only authentic mentioning of this name outside the Sumerian tradition. In my view, the land of Aratta is merely that of Urartu, which was remembered in the Biblical tradition as the land of Ararat (Jer. 51:27; 2 Ki. 19:37).

What we now find is that the Biblical land of Ararat is none other than the ancient land of Aratta mentioned in Sumerian sources as the homeland of Meskiagkasher (Cush). According to the Biblical tradition, the Ark landed somewhere on the mountains of Ararat from where some of the descendants of Noah, such as the Cush-dynasty, came to live in the southern plains of Sumer. This means that the relevant mountain is not Mt. Ararat in present-day Turkey, but some range in the Zagros to the north of Mesopotamia. The reason why the current Mt. Ararat got that name is that the Urartians, with whom it is closely identified (taking its name from their own) – especially after their conversion to Christianity in the beginning of the fourth century AD – migrated northwards over the centuries to their current location.

So, what we find is that the Biblical story about the deluge and the family of Cush who migrated from Ararat/Aratta to Sumer in the subsequent period corresponds with the Sumerian tradition. I previously showed that the “ancient history” in the Book of Genesis corresponds to a remarkable degree with persons and events in ancient Sumerian tradition. This includes not only the story of the deluge but the whole outline of that ancient period – which is also consistent with a viable reconstruction of ancient Sumerian history (see part 8 of this series). I now conclude that the Biblical deluge is the very one that was remembered in ancient Sumer. In my view, that story was part of the Semitic tradition that was handed down from generation to generation within the Abrahamic family since they first migrated from Ur in Sumer to the land of Canaan.

Dating the deluge

There is, however, one problem, namely that the Biblical and Sumerian traditions date the flood differently. According to the Masoretic mother text used for most translations of the Bible, the deluge happened in about 2400 BC. The Sumerian tradition – when one reads it together with archaeological data – places the deluge way back in the fourth (or even fifth) millennium BC. In this case, the date is obtained from dendrochronological data which is extrapolated from the established Egyptian chronology. A few decades ago this date was calculated as c.a. 3500 BC; nowadays it is placed in c.a. 4200 BC.

The Flood (1616-1618) by Antonio Carracci (1581-1618)
The difference between these dates is substantial. Some readers think that we should just trust the Masoretic text. The problem is, however, that the date derived from the Masoretic text is in radical conflict with all archaeological evidence! The date 2400 BC falls within a period that is very well understood, namely in the middle of the Old Kingdom in Egypt and during the late Early-Dynastic period in Mesopotamia. Although some Biblical students are adamant about this date, there is absolutely no doubt that it cannot be correct! We find a much more realistic date in the Septuagint, the Greek version of an early Hebrew mother text that was translated during the third to second centuries BC in Egypt [8]. According to the Septuagint, the deluge happened in about 3300 BC.

I previously presented a detailed outline for a new chronology of the ancient Middle East in which I argued that the so-called “high” chronology of Mesopotamia should be correlated with the “low” chronology of K.A Kitchen for the Twelve Dynasty in Egypt [9]. This reconstruction of events explains many things that are otherwise difficult to understand (this goes beyond the current essay); it is also perfectly in line with the dates for Abraham given in the Septuagint. Since this new chronology brings the beginning of dynastic Egypt down to 2781 BC, the corresponding dates for early Sumer also come down (dendrochronologically arrived dates are not absolute and have to be adapted accordingly). In this case, we arrive at a good fit between Biblical and archaeological data, namely that the deluge happened in about 3300 BC.

A worldwide flood?

One of the most important questions about the deluge is: Was it something that happened only in the Persian Gulf area or do we have reason to believe that it was a worldwide flood? Traditional Christians have always believed that it was a worldwide flood. The reason for this is that the Biblical author (as well as the ones who wrote the Sumerian and Akkadian versions) depict the flood as an extraordinary event that nearly led to the extinction of the human race.

When we read the Bible, we should always keep in mind that the Biblical authors did not have a scientific understanding of the world and did not describe events in such terms. When the author, for example, says that “all flesh died that moved upon the earth” (Gen. 7:21), one should ask: Is this statement to be taken in a scientific sense or as an observational statement within the context of delivered tradition? I believe that it is the latter. And for good reason, which is consistent with other aspects of Biblical tradition.

When we, for example, consider the peoples who are said to have been descended from the Biblical Noah, they include Semites, Japhetites (usually interpreted as the Indo-Germanic peoples) and Hamites (usually interpreted as the Kushite peoples). But what about the aborigine peoples who do not belong to this classification (the American Indians, Bushmen and others) or the Chinese and Japanese peoples? It is obvious that these peoples are not descended from the Biblical Noah. Not only do they not feature in the Biblical genealogies; they were far removed from the context of the ancient Middle world where the tradition originated. This means that the deluge did not lead to the extinction of all flesh – people and animals included – in any final sense but only within the context of the world in which this tradition originated.

This observation is supported by basic science. If the waters of the deluge covered all the earth – Mt. Everest included – where did it come from? We know that there is not enough water on earth to even remotely cover the earth to about 8 km above sea level! So, the Great Flood did not cover all the earth. This, however, does not mean that the flood was merely a local phenomenon. It might still have been a worldwide event in accordance with the exceptional description thereof as nearly destroying humanity.

When we consider this question regarding the extent of the flood, it is important that all evidence of the flood be taken within the correct archaeological context! Although some people go to great lengths to prove the historicity of such a Great Flood, using data from all over the world that in some way shows that some cataclysmic event involving a flood happened, it is of no use if it is not found within the right period. So, what is necessary is to find other evidence of such a flood consistent with the Biblical dating of the flood. In this regard, we have to work with the currently accepted dendrochronological dates even though we might believe that these are too early. Dendrochronologically obtained dates are a good measure for relative dating, i.e. when events from different regions are compared (but not for absolute dating).

In my view, there is some evidence for inundations happening all over the world at that time. When visiting the city of Varna on the Black Sea coast, I found that a large deluge also destroyed an important civilization in this part of the world at the same time that the early Sumerian civilization was destroyed (both floods are dated to about 4200 BC). Archaeologists believe that the civilization centred at Varna was comparable with those of later times in Sumer and Egypt. This civilization was destroyed at the end of the so-called Eneolithic Age and the ruins thereof are today about 3-8 meters under the sea. What is also interesting, is that others towns in the wider area had also been abandoned at this time, such as one near Provadia-Solnitsata (5500-4200 BC) in Bulgaria [10]. Although the cause is uncertain (we know that floods are very difficult to prove in the archaeological record), it may have been due to the widespread destruction caused by the Varna flood.

In this very same period, we find some dramatic changes throughout Europe that may be related to the Varna flood. In about that time the farmers associated with the linear pottery culture (LBK) which had spread all over Europe to become the first “Pan-European culture”, suddenly disappeared with the arrival of newcomers on the scene who seems to have been the direct ancestors of the people living in modern Europe since they are genetically close to about 50% of them. It is unclear how the previous population became extinct – it may have been disease, climate change or one may suggest that it was due to the very same event that destroyed the Varna civilization.

In an article in the National Geographic, News Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, says in this regard: "All we know is that the descendants of the LBK farmers disappeared from Central Europe about 4,500 [B.C.], clearing the way for the rise of populations from elsewhere, with their own unique H signatures." [11] This is consistent with archaeological changes at about that time (c.a. 4000 BC) when the long house associated with the LBK farmers as well as their kind of stone tools disappeared [12].

Insofar as this may be due to a massive flood, I found some evidence for that in western Europe. Archaeologists found a mysterious black layer of organic material covering the oldest archaeological site found in Clare in southeastern Ireland which they identified with the remains of a tsunami. The layer is about 2-3 inches thick and disappears when it comes into contact with air [13]. The tsunami which inundated these remains may have been part of a larger one. At about 4200 BC, “Doggerland” [14], which refers to the land mass in the North Sea between Britain and the Continent, was finally inundated with water [15].

This data is quite diverse and as far as I know, there is no scholar that has argued that they all belong together as I do. We find inundations in c.a. 4200 BC which are as far apart as the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea, the North Sea and the Irish Coast. This is the time when the LBK farmers mysteriously disappeared from Europe only to be replaced by newcomers. I do not argue that one massive flood inundated the whole ancient world; rather, I suggest that something happened that impacted the whole world where many areas were inundated by massive floods. It is possible that the axis of the earth for some reason tilted (maybe due to a passing comet or something) and that this caused catastrophic events all over the world. This is as far as the evidence allows us to go at this stage.


In this essay, I discuss the Great Flood of Biblical tradition. I show that the details of this story do not belong exclusively to the Biblical tale; we find it also in Sumerian tradition. In fact, the detailed correspondences between the two traditions show that the Biblical tradition about the deluge came originally from Sumer. I argued elsewhere (see part 8) that it was brought from there by the Abrahamic family.

In my view, we should accept the Septuagint dating for the deluge as correct. The date obtained from the Masoretic text is impossible to defend. It is in conflict with everything that we know about that period – which is very well established through astronomical dating and king lists. Insofar as the Biblical Flood is said to have led to the near destruction of all flesh – just as we find in the Sumerian and Akkadian traditions – we should accept that this was part of the accepted ancient Middle Eastern tradition. The Bible, however, gives us good reason to think that the deluge did not destroy all people in any literal sense – the Biblical genealogies enable us to establish which peoples survived that period even though they were not in the ark. The Biblical tradition is consistent with the fact that the deluge did not inundate all the earth as we know from archaeological data.

What is important to the Biblical tradition, is that the descendants of the people with whom God established a relationship survived the deluge. As such, they were the heirs of the divine promise that had been made to their forefathers regarding the coming of Messiah, according to the Biblical tradition. Although others around the globe also survived the events associated with the deluge, the Bible is primarily concerned with the survival of the people with whom God established a relationship. This is the main theme of the Biblical story of the deluge.

[1] Foster, Benjamin R. 2007. Mesopotamia, in John R. Hinnells (ed.). Mari in Retrospect. Fifty years of Mari and Mari studies. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns. P187
[2] A “dislocation” of people of “regional significance” at the time of the end of the Ubaid period is also attested in the Elamite plains (Algaze 1986:6).
[3] Howard-Carter, Theresa. 1981. The Tangible Evidence for the Earliest Dilmun. Journal of Cuneiform Studies 33(3/4):210-223.
[4] Lees, G. M. & Flacon, N. L. 1952. The Geographical History of the Mesopotamian Plains. The Geographical Journal 118(1):24-39.
[5] Nützel, Werner. 1979. On the Geographical Position of as Yet Unexplored Early Mesopotamian Cultures: Contribution to the Theoretical Archaeology. Journal of the American Oriental Society 99(2):288-296.
[6] Vanstiphout, Herman. 2003. Epics of Sumerian Kings. The Matter of Aratta. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. P67.
[7] Akkermans, Peter M. M. G. 1989. Tradition and Social Change in Northern Mesopotamia during the Later Fifth and Fourth Millennium BC, in Elizabeth F. Henrickson & Ingolf Thuesen. Upon this Foundation – The Ubaid Reconsidered. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum. P346-7.
The city of Susa in Elam was also built at this time on virgin soil. See the “Concluding Remarks” by Mcc Robert Adams & Henry Wright in the same volume.
[12] The dates of 4500 BC and 4000 BC are derived from different methods (genetic and dendrochronological dating). Although these methods use different presuppositions, they are probably linked in that the last is used to calibrate the first. When studying events from that epoch, such differences are well without the scope of accepted error.
[14] The inundation of Doggerland is currently believed to have commenced with a tsunami in ca. 5800 BC. This also the date that is currently associated with the inundation of large parts of the Mediterranean Sea when the Black Sea may have overflowed into that area (i.e. 5600 BC). If it ever happens that these dates are lowered to ca. 4200 BC, then the scope of events associated with the Biblical deluge would increase substantially.
[15] A Farewell to Ice: A Report from the Artic, Peter Wadhams (2016).

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.
The author has written a book on the Sumerian roots of the Bible (Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)) and is a scientist (PhD in Physics; MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, science and eschatology.

Read also the other parts of the series on the Book of Genesis:
Intro: The Book of Genesis - the Sumerian hypothesis
Part 7: Who is Elohim?

If readers find the article interesting, they are welcome to share it or forward it to others, including their pastors or other scholars. 

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