Today, as in the past, catastrophic floods are experienced universally, and stories are told about them. The stories share many features: land submerged, multitudes drowned, survivors in a boat. People living in basically similar ways in separate places will react similarly; hence, common features in flood stories are predictable and are not proof that all such ancient stories refer to one great flood.

On the other hand, the Babylonian and Hebrew stories share so much that a connection between them can hardly be denied. Surviving copies of the Babylonian story come from the seventeenth and seventh centuries BCE (the Epic of Atrahasis and the Epic of Gilgamesh, respectively); the age of the account in Genesis 6–9 in its present form is debated. Both narratives have a pious hero warned by his god to build a great ship (see Ark) and to load it with his family and selected animals in order to escape the coming deluge. Once all others have perished, the ship grounds on a mountain in Armenia (see Ararat), a sacrifice pleases the god, and a divine oath follows never to send another flood. The later Babylonian version describes the hero releasing birds to seek vegetation, but the clay tablets on which the earlier text is recorded have been damaged where that episode might have occurred.

Both the older Babylonian account (Atrahasis) and the Hebrew account belong to larger compositions passing from the creation of human beings to later history, the flood, and its aftermath. Other Babylonian records show a wider tradition preserving names of kings from the beginning of the human race onward, interrupted by the flood. Genesis 5 and 11 present comparable lists in a comparable context. All these similarities indicate a close connection. Scholars often claim that the Hebrew flood story depends on the Babylonian, with modifications in the interest of Israel's monotheistic faith. Consideration of certain differences, however, makes it more likely that both depend upon a common original.

Whether such a flood occurred, or not, is impossible to prove. Archaeologists finding layers of silt in three Babylonian cities associated them with the flood, but each was confined to one place and they were not contemporary. What physical traces such a flood would leave is debatable; though Genesis may imply a global flood, it need not, for the Hebrew word translated as “earth” (6.17; etc.) also means “land, country” (e.g., 10.10), so the narrative could report a deluge limited to the writer's known world.

According to Genesis 9.8–10, God promised never again to send “a flood to destroy the earth.” The covenant with Noah (9.12–17) sets human society on a basis of individual responsibility, and Genesis goes on to trace this concept in the special revelation that God gave to the line he chose.

Alan Millard