Of interest to us is the fact that there are other literatures, earlier traditions among the peoples of the ancient Near East that contain similar accounts. The story of a universal flood is found in the earliest literature ever written, that of the Sumerians. This account is repeated in the traditions of the Babylonians who succeeded the Sumerians in the same land, inherited essential elements of their civilization, many of their traditions and elements of their faith, and who recorded these traditions in their writings.
The story of the universal flood was also a part of the Hellenic tradition, recorded in their mythology and incorporated into their earliest writings. The Greek version speaks of the time when the gods were engaged in conflict, “at that very time Zeus, who thunders on high, was meditating marvelous deeds, even to mingle storm and tempest over the boundless earth, and was hastening to make an end of the race of mortal men.”2
A feature of the universal flood story is that in all of these pre-biblical traditions, as in the biblical account, it represents a boundary, a cutting-off point in time which separates that which preceded the flood from that which followed. In the biblical account it is expressed in the words:
Then the LORD said:
“My spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh,
and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”
This clearly indicates that there will be a separation between the pre-diluvian generations, when men lived for many centuries, and the age following the flood, after which the human lifespan shall be limited to 120 years. This is quite similar to the statement in Hellenic mythology, where we read the declaration of Zeus after the flood, that human life shall be limited to one hundred and ten years.4 This leads some to see a parallel between the passage in Genesis 6:1-4 and the Greek tradition of the Flood and its aftermath.5
This theme is also present in the Sumerian King List, which dates from the period 2500 B.C.E., at least one thousand years before the earliest recorded biblical literature.6 Although we don’t have a Babylonian record which parallels these Sumerian, Hellenic and Biblical accounts, there is little doubt that it existed in Babylonian tradition as well, but the clay tablets on which it was inscribed have yet to be discovered.