Both the biblical flood story and the Epic of Atra-hasis depict a pre-historic era that accounts for both the creation of the human race as well as its destruction and subsequent revival. They also share a number of salient details, confirming that the two are derived from a common literary tradition: the construction of an ark, for instance, and the releasing of birds to gauge the weather conditions. However, what lies below the surface of each narrative reveals the great divergence in the two cultures that spawned them, with Atra-hasis providing a rich lode for biblical scholars to mine in their analysis, not just of Genesis, but of the meta-textual messages of Torah.
In a nutshell, the Babylonian flood narrative in Atra-hasis, relates the story "of an exceedingly wise man who built an ark and saved mankind from destruction," according to Dalley. As the flood’s sole human survivors, Atra-hasis and his wife were granted eternal life by the chief god, Enlil. Man was created in the first place to alleviate the workload of a pantheon of lesser gods, but in forming humans, mortality was overlooked. Periodically, the noise resulting from overpopulation became so disruptive to Enlil’s sleep that he sought to reduce the ranks. With each proposed form of destruction plague, famine, pestilence Enki, the god of wisdom and of the deep, who made it his special mission to protect mankind, managed to foil the plan. Finally, Enlil endeavored to bring on a deluge, but once again, complete annihilation was avoided because Enki warned Atra-hasis, issuing instructions for him to create an ark and wait out the storm there with his immediate family and pairs of each kind of living creature. Eventually, once the waters receded and Atra-hasis emerged, he alone (with his wife) were granted eternal life for their role in salvaging humankind, while the rest of humanity will henceforth be subject to the twin fates of mortality and infertility, thus eliminating the "noise complaint" for eternity.
In what remains the authoritative analysis of the link between Atra-hasis and Genesis, Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, a biblical scholar at the University of Chicago, wrote in "The Atra-hasis Epic and its Significance for Our Understanding of Genesis" (Biblical Archeologist, December 1977), "This Babylonian tale can almost be called a ‘myth for our times,’ for it points out what (by the clear logic of hindsight) should have been obvious to us all along .The importance of the Atra-hasis Epic is that it focuses our attention away from the deluge itself and onto the events immediately after the rains subside i.e., to Genesis 9."
In her ensuing analysis, Frymer-Kensky details the biblical author’s rejection of overpopulation as the pressing issue of his times. Indeed, she points out that after the flood, Noah is immediately commanded to go forth to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Genesis 9:1). Instead, naming hamas, utter chaos, that existed pre-flood as the challenge to be resolved, first by man’s destruction, followed by his salvation with the emergence of Noah from the ark, she also turns on its ear the conventional interpretation of the flood’s being simply God’s punishment for sin. Her conclusion, arrived at through deft dissection of the text, is that a covenantal relationship between man and God, embodied by the newly created Noahide legal code, would serve to temper man’s natural Hobbesian tendencies towards evil and unchecked chaos and therefore enable God to keep God’s destructive powers in check. Thus, she wrote, "The composer of Genesis 1-9 had reinterpreted the cosmology and the early history of Man [using] a framework that is at least as old as the Epic of Atra-hasis, the framework of the Primeval History of Creation-Problem-Flood-Solution, and has retold the story in such a way as to reinterpret an ancient tradition to illuminate fundamental Israelite ideas, i.e., the biblical ideals that law and the ‘sanctity of human life’ are the prerequisites of human existence upon the earth."
Despite their very different theological orientations, Atra-hasis and Genesis share basic parallels that make each new addition to the missing lines of the Atra-hasis Epic an exciting and potentially revealing step in the interpretation and understanding of Genesis. According to Spar, "These stories deal with contemporary issues: ‘What is humanity?’ ‘What is the nature of man’s relation to deities or a Deity?’" How we express and how humans through the ages have expressed both the questions and the answers may be found in myth, through the telling and retelling, subtracting and embellishing elements of these foundational stories. The more we learn about the literature of the ancient Near East, the closer we can approach an understanding of our heritage and of ourselves, Spar mused.