By Israel Drazin
The biblical flood and the Gilgamesh myth – 3
There are remarkable similarities between the biblical story of the flood and the more ancient version of Gilgamesh. The Babylonian epic Gilgamesh was written on twelve tablets around 2000 BCE and has survived in several versions. It was discovered in 1839 among the ruins of a buried library in the excavated ancient city Nineveh. Amazingly, the author’s name is written in one of the tablets, Shin-eqi-unninni. He is the oldest known human author.
- What is the story that Gilgamesh tells about the flood?
- How does this Babylonian tale differ from the biblical account of the flood?
- What are the similarities between the two versions?
- Are they describing the same event?
- What can we learn about the scriptural report by comparing it to Gilgamesh?
The philosophy of man as recorded in Gilgamesh
The hedonistic self-centered world-view of the Gilgamesh myth is summed up in the advice given to Gilgamesh: “Fill your belly with good things day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace, for this too is the lot of man.”
The story of Gilgamesh
The author Shin-eqi-unninni reports the adventures of the warrior king Gilgamesh of Urik, Babylon. We know that he actually lived around 2700 BCE. He is said to have been the fifth king of Uruk after the founding of the city. Gilgamesh is described in the myth as partly a god from his mother’s side and partly human from his father. He was a human with “all knowledge.” He was considered to be the greatest king on earth and superhuman, but he was a vicious king. He forced his subjects to build a wall around his capital city. He also insisted that he have sexual intercourse with all brides on their wedding nights.
The pagan gods were concerned that Gilgamesh was so powerful that they needed to control his behavior, so they sent him a friend Enkidu to moderate his desires and control his actions. Like Joseph in Genesis 37, Gilgamesh has two dreams that foretell the arrival of Enkidu.
Enkidu was like a wild brutish animal when he was created, but he soon looses his strength and wild behavior when he has sexual intercourse with a woman. Enkidu hears how Gilgamesh is having sexual intercourse with all newly wed brides, thinks it is disgusting, and challenges Gilgamesh to a fight. Gilgamesh wins the battle, but the two become close friends.
Although Enkidu was sent to Gilgamesh to curb his ferocious nature, he persuades Enkidu to accompany him in a battle against a demon. The two assault the demon after a journey of seven days. Gilgamesh is successful because while the demon usually wears seven layers of armor, he is only clothed with one when the pair arrive to kill him.
The god Ishtar sees how successful Gilgamesh is and offers to become his lover. Gilgamesh, who slept with all newly wed women, rebuffs her because she had many human lovers before him. Ishtar is outraged and vows vengeance. The gods decide to punish Ishtar by killing his friend Enkidu.
Enkidu suffers for twelve days and dies. Gilgamesh falls apart. He stops bathing and otherwise caring for himself. He becomes obsessed by the fear that he would also die. He decided that his best solution was to seek help from his ancestor Utnapishtim, who had also been a king, who was the survivor of the world-wide flood and who was granted eternal life by the gods. Gilgamesh travels twelve leagues until he enters a brilliant garden of gems, where every tree bears precious stones.
Utnapishtim’s account of the flood
It is only in the eleventh of the twelve tablets that Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about the flood. (The twelfth tablet narrates about Gilgamesh’s rule of the “nether world” after his death.)
The gods created humans but soon felt they had made a mistake. Humans, Utnapishtim states, became so numerous that the gods were unable to stand the noise. They met in counsel and decided to rid the world of the clattering humans by washing them away with a flood. The chief god insisted that the other gods swear that they will not reveal the holocaust to humans. Ea, one of the gods who was previously involved in creating the humans, warns Utnapishtim, a king, by not talking to him directly, as required by his oath, but by talking to Utnapishtim’s wall while Utnapishtim was in the room. He advises him to build a great square boat and bring into it all living things Utnapishtim loads the boat with gold and silver, his wife, and all living things.
The flood lasts for seven days and seven nights until the boat comes to rest on a mountain top, where it remains for seven days. The boat remains on the mountain top for seven days. Utnapishtim releases a dove to discover whether the water waned, but the dove return, indicating that the land was still flooded. He then sent a swallow with the same result. Finally, he dispatched a raven, which did not return. Thus, the raven showed that the water receded.
As soon as Utnapishtim exited the boat, he offered a sheep as a sacrifice to the gods and a libation (meat and wine). The gods like the sacrifices so much that they fell sorry that they killed the humans. As an act of contrition, they give Utnapishtim and his wife a gift of immortal life.
Utnapishtim’s advise to Gilgamesh about immortal life
Utnapishtim tells his descendant that he would achieve eternal life if he could stay awake for seven nights. Gilgamesh tries to do it but falls asleep on the first night. Utnapishtim’s wife feel sorry for him and persuades her husband to tell him about a plant that, while not giving eternal life, could make the person who eats it young again. Gilgamesh obtains the plant but, when he left it unguarded, a serpent ate it. This is why snakes shed their skin and become young again.
- Gilgamesh is described as being partly divine and Scripture portrays humans as having the zelem Elohim, the “image of God.”
- Both stories picture humans as knowledgeable beings.
- The number seven occurs frequently in the Gilgamesh story and in the Bible (seven days is the Sabbath, seven weeks is Shavuot, seven months is Yom Hazikaron/Rosh Hashanah, etc.)
- The number twelve occurs frequently in both the myth and the Bible where many biblical figures have twelve sons.
- A splendid garden appears in both stories. The gardens contain something that could grant eternal life.
- In both tales, the protagonists are unable to obtain eternal life.
- Both heroes are saved from the flood in a boat/ark.
- Both the ark and the boat finally came to rest on a mountain top.
- Both tales relate about that the boat occupant sent out birds on more than one occasion to discover whether the land was still flooded.
- Noah and Utnapishtim offer a sacrifice when they descended from their ark/boat, although Noah “took from every clean cattle and every clean fowl and offered burnt offerings on the altar (that he built),” while Utnapishtim offered a sheep and a libation.
- Both heroes dispatch a raven and a dove, in three trips, to discover whether the land was still flooded.
Differences between the two tales
- As in most pagan myths, the gods behave in unethical ways and leave humans no real freedom to act: the humans are subject to the will and whims of the gods. In the Bible, people are give the power to make decisions and are encouraged to use that power properly.
- Gilgamesh was the leader of his people and a warrior. Noah was neither.
- While Gilgamesh was so barbaric that he needed to be controlled by the gods, the Bible states that Noah was perfect in his generation.
- Gilgamesh is continually fighting even after the arrival of Enkidu, who was created to moderate his behavior. This reflected the Babylonian thinking. Noah, in contrast, is appalled when he is mistreated by his son after the flood.
- One of Gilgamesh’s battles is against a demon. There is no mention of demons in the Bible.
- Gilgamesh falls apart when Enkidu dies and stops caring for himself. When Aaron’s sons die, he is silent.
- The philosophy of life mentioned in the myth is the pursuit of pleasure, while it is proper conduct in the Bible.
- When the gods decide to punish Gilgamesh, they do so by killing his innocent friend Enkidu. This concept of punishing a person for another’s misdeed is alien to Judaism.
- Gilgamesh was fearful of dying, but Noah expressed no fear.
- The principle theme of the Gilgamesh epic is the hero’s attempt to find eternal life. The story of the flood is not the central part of the story as it is in the Bible.
- Both the Bible and the Babylonian tale tell about a plant/tree that gives life and a serpent that interferes with the future life of humanity, but the biblical account is not connected with the flood but with the account of the Garden of Eden.
- The trees in the Gilgamesh garden bear precious gems, while the biblical trees have food.
- The principle theme of Gilgamesh and the garden is eternal life. While the Garden of Eden contains a tree of life, it plays no real role in the story.
- Adam and Eve are stopped by God from eating of the tree of life. They are expelled from the Garden before they can eat from it. Gilgamesh is given the opportunity to have eternal life but is unable to perform the act that would bring him success.
- In the Bible, God decides to destroy people because they were acting improperly and saved Noah and his family because they acted justly. In the myth, the gods decide to wipe out humanity because of the noise they produced. The first focused on proper behavior; the second on the gods’ pleasure.
- Noah does not try to save gold and silver on his ark.
- Noah’s ark was not square.
- Noah took his entire family with him, while Utnapishtim only brought his wife.
- The flood in Gilgamesh lasted seven days and seven nights. Noah’s flood began seven days after Noah entered the ark, but it lasted forty days and forty nights.
- Noah sends a raven first, then a dove twice. The dove later became a symbol of peace. Utnapishtim released a dove, which found no place to land, then a swallow with the same result, then a raven which did not return showing that it had a place to land and food to eat. The raven is a symbol of violence.
- Noah did not offer wine as a sacrifice, but drank it himself.
There are remarkable similarities between the Gilgamesh myth and the Bible. The stories of the flood in both accounts are very close. This leads one to think that the idea of the flood and many of its details was well-known in ancient times. When one realizes that the Gilgamesh account is only one of many non-biblical reports of the flood and they all have similar details, this conclusion is fortified.
The account of the flood is only in one of the twelve tablets that contain the story. There are many other similarities in the other tablets to other details in other parts of the Bible.
Yet there are many differences. These differences are the result of the different world view of the Gilgamesh and the Bible. The two have a totally different idea of how God/gods function, how the divine feels about people and deals with them. The two also have a different view of humanity, how people should behave and how they should relate to the divine.