Evidence #122 | December 15, 2020

Flood Stories

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Scripture Central


Several non-biblical Flood traditions from ancient Mesopotamia have parallels with the Jaredite journey to the New World.

The book of Ether gives an account of the Jaredites who departed from their homeland (presumably Mesopotamia) and traveled across the sea to a land of promise in the Americas. Moroni, in his abridgment of the Jaredite record, compared the vessels used by Jared and his people to the ark of Noah (Ether 6:7).

In a pioneering study of the subject in 1957, Hugh Nibley compared Mesopotamian traditions about the Flood with the story of the brother of Jared. Nibley found that these non-biblical traditions, discovered long after 1830, compared favorably with elements of the Jaredite story.1 This article combines parallels first noted by Nibley with additional evidence of a shared ancient culture or literary tradition.

The Mesopotamian Flood Hero

New discoveries of ancient texts since the mid-nineteenth century have identified a handful of Mesopotamian accounts of the flood which show significant similarities and differences with the biblical account of Noah and the ark. In these stories, the flood hero goes by names, such as, Ziusudra,2 Atrahasis,3 or Utnapishtim.4 These accounts—“all of which tell some of the story, none of which tell all of it”5—were recorded in several different languages, and at different times. They are generally thought to contain some elements which date to the middle of the third millennium BC, if not earlier, although it can be difficult to tell which ones are original to the story.

Cuneiform tablet containing a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Image via the British Museum. 

A Prophetic Mediator

Ziusudra is the flood hero in the Sumerian version of the story. He is a humble king, priest, and seer who devoutly worships the god Enki.6 Atrahasis, the protagonist in the Babylonian and Assyrian accounts, is a man “whose ear was open (to) his god Enki. He would speak with his god and his god would speak with him.”7 When a god named Enlil cursed the earth with sickness and drought, Atrahasis prayed to Enki who told him what to do.8 In a later account, the flood hero, when asked where he was going, replied, “To the gods, in order to pray that men may have blessings.”9 He “repeatedly intercedes for mankind with the gods in preliminary visitations sent before the flood.”10 

In the book of Ether, the brother of Jared fills a similar prayerful and mediating role. When the Lord in his wrath decided to confound the language of the people, the brother of Jared was repeatedly asked to cry unto the Lord on behalf of his family and friends (Ether 1:34–43). He did so, and the Lord repeatedly heeded his requests, stating finally that He would make of them a great nation “because this long time ye have cried unto me” (Ether 1:43; emphasis added). The brother of Jared continued in this mediating role throughout his people’s journey (see Ether 2:4–7; 3:3). 

Veiled Communication

In the oldest known flood account, Ziusudra (who, as previously noted, was a priest) was warned of the flood and told how to construct his ship. This communication was given to him through a reed partition or wall which concealed the deity from his view. In the Sumerian version, the god Enki says, “Step up the wall to my left and listen! Let me speak a word to you at the wall [and may you grasp] what [I] say.”11 Similarly, Ea (a later name for the god Enki) spoke to Utnapishtim through a reed fence.12 Nibley observed that the Sumerian word kikkisu, through which Utnapishtim received these words from the god, is the same word for the veil-like partition found in some Mesopotamian temples.13

The brother of Jared is never specifically called a priest, but he did communicate frequently with the Lord. Recalling the veil-like partition mentioned in the Mesopotamian accounts, the Lord “was [initially] in a cloud, and the brother of Jared saw him not” (Ether 2:4; cf. 2:14). Only after the brother of Jared exercised great faith was the veil taken away, allowing him to enter into God’s presence (Ether 3:6–13).14

Sawest Thou More Than This? by Marcus Alan Vincent.

Obedience to Divine Instructions

Utnapishtim, as told in the Gilgamesh Epic, was obedient to the god Ea, who instructed him to build a vessel. “I understood Ea’s words, and I said, ‘My lord, I will obey your command, exactly as you have spoken it.”15 The brother of Jared, after receiving instructions about the construction of the barges, likewise, said, “O Lord, I have performed the work which thou hast commanded me” (Ether 2:18), “O Lord, behold I have done even as thou hast commanded me” (Ether 2:22).

Family and Friends

There were only eight individuals on the ark in the Genesis account—Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives (Genesis 7:7). In the Atrahasis story, he is told to take “thy [wife] thy family, thy relations, and the craftsmen.”16 The Gilgamesh version includes a pilot to help guide the vessel.17 In a later Babylonian version, the hero “embarked his wife and children and his close friends.”18

In the book of Ether, there are eight identical vessels instead of one. And like the non-biblical flood stories, these vessels carried additionally voyagers—namely Jared, his brother, and their families, as well as their friends and their families (Ether 1:41; 3:1; 6:14–16).

The Vessels Were Strong

Jaredite Barges, by Gary Ernest Smith

One notable feature of the vessels is that they had to be strong enough to protect against the danger from water above as well as below. The upper deck had to be especially strong. Atrahasis was told to “roof her over like the depth, so that the sun shall not see inside her, let her be roofed over fore and aft. The gear should be very strong, the pitch should be firm, and so give (the boat) strength.”19 Utnapishtim was told, “Build a roof over it, just as the Great Deep is covered by the earth.”20 In other words, the roof, or top deck, was to be “as strong as the earth, which holds the subterranean waters in their place.”21 Passengers needed to be protected from rain, wind, and waves which might crash down from above. The vessel was to be a house boat in which “men and beasts can live comfortably, fully protected against the waves washing over board, the drenching rain from above and against other inclemencies of wind and weather.”22

The Jaredite barges, loaded with people and animals, were similarly designed to be strong enough to withstand the violent forces of wind, rain, and even temporary submersion by the mountainous waves of the sea. “For ye cannot cross this great deep save I shall prepare you against the waves of the sea, and the winds which have gone forth, and the floods which shall come” (Ether 2:25).

Tight Like unto a Dish

One of the most important features of the Jaredite barges (a feature which was once the object of mockery) was that that their structure top to bottom, was “tight like unto a dish” (Ether 2:17), and “tight like unto the ark of Noah.” (Ether 6:7).23 This aspect of the barges is emphatically repeated in the Jaredite record.

In the Genesis account, Noah was directed to apply pitch on the ark, “within and without” to prevent it from leaking (Genesis 6:14). Utnapishtim, prepared pitch and “drove in water plugs into all the holes.”24 Paul Haupt in his study of this text explains, “the ship was made watertight by the wedging in pointed strips of wood between the seams and pouring asphalt over them.” Ezekiel’s word for calkers (mahziqe badq) on the ships of Tyre (Ezekiel 27:9), denotes a similar practice, but “the original meaning of hazaq, however, is tight.”25

Door and Window

Noah’s ark had both a door and a tsohar, which biblical translations usually render as “window” (Genesis 6:16). The Mesopotamian flood story says the vessel featured an “air hole” or “window,” but, as Nibley, observed, “the word nappashu, meaning ‘breather’ or ‘ventilator,’ designates no ordinary window.”26 The Jaredite vessels each had a door, but did not have windows. They did, however, have a hole in the top and the bottom which could be sealed and opened when needed for air and other purposes (Ether 2:19–21).

Image via apologeticspress.org


The biblical account provides few details of the destruction, apart from saying that all life died and that the waters covered the earth. By contrast, the Mesopotamian stories describe the terror of the event and highlight the darkness which accompanied the ordeal. When disaster fell “one person did [not] see another. They could not recognize each other in the catastrophe. [The deluge] bellowed like a bull, the wind [resoun]ed like a screaming eagle. The darkness [was dense], the sun was gone.”27

Even the gods were astounded and terrified.28 Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh, “what had been bright now turned to darkness …. No one could see through the rain, it fell harder and harder, so thick that you couldn’t see your own hand before your eyes.”29 One of the implications of the flood stories is that when covered by its impenetrable roof, the vessel was dark inside. It was constructed in such a way that the sun could not see inside it.”30

When the brother of Jared completed the barges according to the Lord’s instructions, he remarked, “Behold, there is no light in them. Behold, O Lord, wilt thou suffer that we shall cross this great water in darkness?” (Ether 2:22). He pled, “O Lord, look upon me in pity, and turn away thine anger from this thy people, and suffer them not that they shall go forth across the raging deep in darkness” (Ether 3:3). Mercifully, in contrast to the Mesopotamian flood story (and yet consistent with rabbinic legends that say Noah’s ark was illuminated by shining stones31), the Lord provided light for the Jaredite vessels. “And thus the Lord caused stones to shine in darkness, to give light unto men, women, and children, that they might not cross the great waters in darkness” (Ether 6:3).


Wind is not mentioned in the Genesis account until the Lord caused the waters to recede (Genesis 8:1). It is, however, described in the Mesopotamian versions. The Atrahasis story says that “the winds were furious as he set forth.”32 The early Sumerian account mentions the “strong winds” and says “the evil wind had tossed the big boat about on the great waters.”33

This sounds like the Jaredite story which refers to “furious wind,” “the fierceness of the wind,” and says the barges “were tossed upon the waves of the sea before the wind” (Ether 6:5–6). Moreover, “the wind did never cease to blow towards the promised land while they were upon the waters; and thus, they were driven forth before the wind” (Ether 6:8).

Records Revealed and Hidden Up

In a later Babylonian version recorded in Greek, the god Kronos “appeared to [Xisuthros, another name for Ziusudra] in his sleep” to warn him of the flood. “He bade him therefore, setting down in writing the beginning, middle, and end of all things, to bury them in Sippara, the city of the Sun.” After the flood, he vanished, and a voice revealed to those who were left that they must recover the buried records: “it was fated for them to recover the writings at Sippara and publish them to men …. They went, then, to Babylonia, dug up the writings at Sippara, founded many cities, built temples, and repopulated Babylonia.”34

In the book of Ether, previous to their journey across the waters, the Lord appeared to the brother of Jared and showed him “all the inhabitants of the earth which had been, and also that would be; and he withheld them not from his sight, even unto the ends of the earth” (Ether 3:25). He then commanded him to write these things down and seal them up to come forth at a future day (Ether 3:21–28; 4:6–7).35

Light of the World

In the Mesopotamian stories, after the tempest is over, the flood hero Ziusudra prostrated himself in the presence of deity after rending open the side of his boat: “Ziusudra then drilled an opening in the big boat, and the gallant [god] Utu sent his light into the interior of the big boat. Ziusudra, being the king, stepped up before Utu kissing the ground before him.” He then offered sacrifice to the gods.36 Similarly, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh, “I opened the hatch and the blessed sunlight streamed upon me, I fell to my knees and wept.”37

The brother of Jared asked the Lord to touch stones so that they would give light to him and his people as they journeyed across the waters in darkness. Jesus then touched each stone with His finger, and they were illuminated with His light. The brother of Jared, surprised to see the Lord’s finger, fell to the earth before the Lord (Ether 3:6–7). After recounting this event, Moroni quoted the Lord’s words, which identify Jesus as the “light” of the world (Ether 4:12) and promise that when those in the latter days exercise faith in Christ, are sanctified, and offer the sacrifice of “a broken heart and a contrite spirit,” they will see the very things which the brother of Jared saw (Ether 4:15).

Image via averdadesud.blogspot.com.

Life of the World

The purpose of the flood vessel was to preserve the lives of those inside. “Tear down your house and build a great ship,” the god Ea told Utnapishtim. “Leave your possessions, save your life.”38 In the oldest extant version of the story, the flood boat is given the name “Preserver of Life.”39 

When Jesus appeared to the brother of Jared, He similarly revealed Himself as the source of life (Ether 3:14). He also described Himself as the “light, and the life” of the world (Ether 4:12). The vessels in the Jaredite account are presented as a type of Jesus. There was no other way to cross the deathly waters than through the means He counseled and prepared. Similarly, those who are in Christ, through faith, and obedience to his words, will have eternal life (Ether 3:14).

Eternal Life Given

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the legendary king grieved over the death of his friend Enkidu. He undertook a long and vain quest to find a way to escape death and gain immortality. After traveling across land, darkness, and the waters of death, he found Utnapishtim, whose name means “I have found life.”40 He told Gilgamesh how he escaped the flood. When the storm had passed and the flood subsided, the benevolent Ea convinced the god Enlil to spare the flood hero and his wife from destruction.

Then Enlil boarded, he took my hand, he led me out, then he led out my wife. He had us kneel down in front of him, he touched our foreheads and, standing between us, he blessed us. “Hear me, you gods; until now Utnapishtim was a mortal man. But from now on, he and his wife shall be gods like us, they shall live forever, at the source of the rivers, far away.” Then they brought us to this distant place at the source of the rivers. Here we live.41

“Now then Gilgamesh,” said Utnapishtim, “who will assemble the gods for your sake? Who will convince them to grant you the eternal life that you seek?”42 The point that Gilgamesh was forced to accept, which reflects the negative Mesopotamian view, was that there was no god to intercede on his behalf.

You will never find the eternal life that you seek. When the gods created mankind, they also created death, and they held back eternal life for themselves alone. Humans are born, they live, then they die, this is the order that the gods have decreed. But until the end comes, enjoy your life.43

In contrast to that perspective, the Lord taught the brother of Jared, as he prepared to face his own perilous crossing, that there is indeed One who intercedes on our behalf.

Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and daughters (Ether 3:14, emphasis added).

When read against Mesopotamian traditions of the flood, this declaration seems particularly pointed and meaningful.


The parallels between the story of the brother of Jared and the flood stories from Genesis and Mesopotamia suggest that they may stem from a shared ancient culture and literary tradition. This type of literary repetition and borrowing found in separate stories can be seen in the Bible as well. For instance, aspects of the construction of the Israelite tabernacle have been found to mirror Noah’s construction of the Ark, which in turn mirrors the creation of the world.44

In a similar way, the story of the Jaredite exodus found in the book of Ether may intentionally hark back to stories of a previous flood hero, some of which may have been known to the brother of Jared and his people. It is possible, and potentially useful, to read the brother of Jared’s experience as a refutation or correction to Mesopotamian views about gods and man. Importantly, the non-biblical flood stories were only published in English after the translation of the Book of Mormon, making them inaccessible to Joseph Smith. 

Book of Mormon Central, “Where did the Brother of Jared Get the Idea of Shining Stones? (Ether 6:3),” KnoWhy 240 (November 28, 2016).

Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 340–358.

Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredite/There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988) 350–379.

Ether 1:34Ether 1:34–39Ether 1:43Ether 2:4–5Ether 2:14–15Ether 2:17Ether 2:18–19Ether 2:20Ether 2:22Ether 2:24Ether 2:23–25Ether 3:3Ether 3:6–7Ether 3:14Ether 3:25–26Ether 4:6–7Ether 4:15Ether 6:5Ether 6:6Ether 6:7–8

Ether 1:34

Ether 1:34–39

Ether 1:43

Ether 2:4–5

Ether 2:14–15

Ether 2:17

Ether 2:18–19

Ether 2:20

Ether 2:22

Ether 2:24

Ether 2:23–25

Ether 3:3

Ether 3:6–7

Ether 3:14

Ether 3:25–26

Ether 4:6–7

Ether 4:15

Ether 6:5

Ether 6:6

Ether 6:7–8

  • 1 Hugh Nibley, “Strange Ships and Shining Stones,” in An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 340–358.
  • 2 Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Eridu Genesis,” in The Context of Scripture, Volume 1, Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World (Boston, MA: Brill, 2003), 513–515.
  • 3 Benjamin R. Foster, “Atra-hasis,” in The Context of Scripture, 450–452. A more extended version can be found in Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989), 1–38. The protagonist is called Xisuthros in a late Babylonian version recorded in Greek. See W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atra-hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 134–137.
  • 4 Stephen Mitchell, Gilgamesh: A New English Version (New York, NY: Free Press, 2004).
  • 5 Nibley, “Strange Ships and Shining Stones,” 343.
  • 6 Hallo, The Context of Scripture, 514.
  • 7 Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia 18.
  • 8 Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, 18–29.
  • 9 Albert T. Clay, A Hebrew Deluge Story in Cuneiform (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1922), 82; Lambert and Millard, Atra-Hasis, 135.
  • 10 Emil G. Kraeling, “Xisouthros, Deucalion and the Flood Traditions,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 67, no. 3 (1947): 179.
  • 11 Hallo, The Context of Scripture, 515.
  • 12 Mitchel, Gilgamesh, 181.
  • 13 Nibley, “Strange Ships and Shining Stones,” 346.
  • 14 For analysis of the temple symbolism involved the brother of Jared’s encounter with the Lord, including the imagery of conversing through a veil, see Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Moroni Use Temple Imagery While Telling the Brother of Jared Story? (Ether 3:20),” KnoWhy 237 (November 23, 2016).
  • 15 Mitchell, Gilgamesh,182.
  • 16 James Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 105.
  • 17 Mitchell, Gilgamesh, 184.
  • 18 Clay, A Hebrew Deluge Story in Cuneiform, 83.
  • 19 Foster, “Atra-hasis,” 452.
  • 20 Mitchell, Gilgamesh, 181.
  • 21 Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 234.
  • 22 H. V. Hilprecht, The Earliest Version of the Babylonian Deluge Story and the Temple Library of Nuppur, Volume 5, facs. 1 of The Babylonian Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1910), 54–55.
  • 23 One critic, in 1835, dismissed Oliver Cowdery’s abilities as an editor and made mocking reference to the Jaredite barges. “His [Oliver Cowdery’s] selection, for ought we know, may have been dug up with the golden plates,—and, perhaps, preserved in that strange vessel, the second ark, which is mentioned in the Book of Mormon, ‘the bottom (whereof) was tight as a dish, and the sides thereof were tight as a dish, and the ends thereof were as tight as a dish, the top thereof was as tight as a dish.’” Chardon Spectator and Geauga Gazette, February 28, 1835.
  • 24 Mitchell, Gilgamesh, 183.
  • 25 Paul Haupt, “The Ship of the Babylonian Noah,” Beitrage zur Assyriologie und semitischen Sprachwissenschaft 10 (1927), 6, emphasis added.
  • 26 Nibley, “Strange Ships and Shining Stones,” 347; John A. Brinkman, et al., eds., The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (Chicago, IL: Oriental Institute: 1980), 288–291.
  • 27 Foster, “Atra-hasis,” 452.
  • 28 Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, 31–32.
  • 29 Mitchell, Gilgamesh, 185. An apocryphal Christian story imagined details missing from the Genesis story. “All the stores of winds, and the whirlwind, tick mist, gloom and darkness spread abroad. The sun, and moon, and stars, withheld their light. It was a day of terror such as had never been. Then the sea all round, began to raise its waves on high like mountains; and it covered the whole face of the earth.” S. C. Malan, The Book of Adam and Eve (London and Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1882), 155. The Ether account mentions the “mountain waves” that the Jaredites encountered on the journey (Ether 2:24; 6:6).
  • 30 Foster, “Atra-hasis,” in The Context of Scripture, 452.
  • 31 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Traditions of Shining Stones,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 32 Foster, “Atra-hasis,” 452.
  • 33 Hallo, The Context of Scripture, 515.
  • 34 Clay, A Hebrew Deluge Story in Cuneiform, 83–84.
  • 35 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Ancient Hidden Records,” November 18, 2020, online at evidence central.org.
  • 36 Hallo, The Context of Scripture, 515.
  • 37 Mitchell, Gilgamesh, 187.
  • 38 Mitchell, Gilgamesh, 181.
  • 39 James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Bible (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 105.
  • 40 Joseph Poplicha characterized the Mesopotamian flood story as the tale of a man who “made a journey through water and darkness to his glorious elevation and immortality.” “A Sun Myth in the Babylonian Deluge Story,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 47 (1927): 301.
  • 41 Mitchell, Gilgamesh, 191, emphasis added.
  • 42 Mitchell, Gilgamesh, 191, emphasis added.
  • 43 Mitchell, Gilgamesh, 168–169.
  • 44 See Alan Goff, “Boats, Beginnings, and Repetitions,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (1992): 67–84, esp. 73.
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