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. It is worth exploring what Gilgamesh tells us about the flood because it helps us understand the biblical view of God and man better.
Utnapishtim’s Account of the Flood
In the eleventh of the twelve tablets, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about the flood. The gods create humans, Utnapishtim explains, but they soon recognize they had made a mistake. Humans became so numerous that the gods were unable to stand the noise. They meet in counsel and decide to rid the world of the clattering humans by washing them away with a flood. The chief god insists that the other gods swear that they won’t reveal the destruction to humans. Ea, one of the gods who was previously involved in creating the humans, warns King Utnapishtim by not talking to him directly, as required by his oath, but by talking to Utnapishtim’s wall while Utnapishtim is in the room. Ea advises him to build a large, square boat and bring all living things into it. Utnapishtim loads the boat with gold and silver, his wife, and a sampling of all living things.
The flood lasts seven days and seven nights until the boat settles on a mountaintop, where it remains for seven days. Utnapishtim releases a dove to discover whether the water had waned, but the dove returns, showing that the land is still flooded. Later, he sends a swallow with the same result. Finally, he dispatches a raven, and the raven does not return, for the water had receded.
As soon as Utnapishtim exits the boat, he offers a sheep as a sacrifice to the gods and a libation (meat and wine). The gods like the sacrifices so much that they regret having murdered the humans. They give Utnapishtim and his wife a gift of immortal life as an act of contrition.
Utnapishtim’s Advice to Gilgamesh about Immortal Life
Utnapishtim tells his descendant that he will achieve eternal life if he can stay awake for seven nights. Gilgamesh tries but falls asleep 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 him young again. Gilgamesh finds the plant but, when he leaves it unguarded, a serpent eats it. Therefore, snakes shed their skin and become young again.
- Gilgamesh is described as partly divine and scripture portrays humans as being born in the “image of God.”
- Both stories portray humans as knowledgeable beings, and in both stories, humans do not always use the intelligence they were given.
- The number seven occurs frequently in the Gilgamesh story and in the Bible (the Sabbath is the seventh day; Passover and Sukkot last seven days, etc.).
- The number twelve occurs often in both the myth and the Bible, where many biblical figures have twelve sons.
- A splendid garden appears in both stories. The gardens contain the potential to 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 rest on a mountaintop.
- Noah and Utnapishtim send out birds on more than one occasion to discover whether the land is still flooded.
- Both men offer a sacrifice when they descend 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 wine libation.
- As in most pagan myths, the gods behave in improper 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 given the power to make decisions and are encouraged to use that power properly.
- Gilgamesh is the leader of his people and a warrior. Noah was neither.
- While Gilgamesh is so barbaric that he needs to be controlled by the gods, the Bible states that Noah was perfect in his generation.
- The Babylonian myth emphasizes the pursuit of pleasure, while the Genesis story emphasizes the importance of proper conduct.
- Gilgamesh is 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 describe a plant/tree that gives life and a serpent that interferes with the future of humanity. However, the biblical account of the tree is not connected with the flood but with the initial creation story in the Garden of Eden.
- The trees in the Gilgamesh garden bear precious gems, while the biblical trees bear food.
- The principle theme of Gilgamesh and the garden is eternal life. While the Garden of Eden contains a tree of life, it plays a minor role in the story.
- Adam and Eve are stopped by God from eating from the tree of life. They are expelled from the garden before they can eat from it. Gilgamesh is given the opportunity to receive eternal life but is unable to perform the task required to achieve it.
- In the Bible, God decides to destroy people because they are acting improperly. God saves Noah and his family because they act justly. In the myth, the gods decide to wipe out humanity because of the noise they produce. The first story focuses on proper behavior; the second on the gods’ selfish pleasure.
- Noah does not try to save gold and silver on his ark.
- Noah’s ark is not square.
- Noah takes his entire family with him, while Utnapishtim only brings his wife.
- The flood in Gilgamesh lasts seven days and seven nights. Noah’s flood begins seven days after Noah enters the ark but lasts for forty days and forty nights.
- Noah sends a raven first, then a dove twice. The dove later became a symbol of peace. Utnapishtim releases a dove, which finds no place to land, then a swallow with the same result, and finally a raven, which doesn’t return, revealing that it had a place to land and food to eat. The raven is a symbol of violence.
- Noah does not offer wine as a sacrifice but drinks it himself.
There are remarkable similarities between the Gilgamesh myth and the Bible. The details in both accounts are very close. This leads one to think that the idea of the flood and its details were well-known in ancient times and the Bible used the ancient accounts to teach its own lessons.
The story of the flood is in only one of Gilgamesh’s twelve tablets. The other tablets contain details that are like other parts of the Bible.
Yet there are many differences. These differences are the result of the different worldview the Bible expresses. The two texts have totally different ideas about how God/gods function; how the divine feel about people; how the divine treat humanity; and how people should behave toward each other and toward the divine.