The approximately 4,000 year old Babylonian tale “Gilgamesh” disturbs many religious people who feel threatened by the idea that a story that is very similar to the biblical flood story was written before the story of Noah and the flood. Gilgamesh was composed around 2000 B.C.E. and predates the scriptural version. A Jewish tradition dates the revelation of the Bible to 2448 years after creation, or about 1312 B.C.E. Both stories concern a flood caused by divinities: in the pagan myth by gods and in the Hebrew Bible by God. Both are saved by a boat and by using birds to discover if the flood water receded.
Since it is obvious that Gilgamesh was composed before the Bible, does this fact prove that the biblical account is a revised copy of the ancient Babylonian myth and that the events narrated in the Bible never occurred? Additionally, since the biblical report is filled with obviously unnatural events, such as Noah putting two or seven animals of every species in his ark, there is still more reason to discredit the biblical version.
It is possible that the scriptural account of Noah never occurred and that the Bible story was written to teach the Israelites a better concept of life than the concepts that are dramatized in Gilgamesh, an interesting tale that many early Israelites knew well.
There are differences between the two tales. The following are some of them:
1. In the Bible, God decides to destroy people and God saves Noah and his family. In Gilgamesh, the gods decide to destroy people and only a single god goes against the decree and saves Utnapishtim and his wife, but no one else, including no animals.
2. In Scripture, the flood is sent because the people acted improperly. In the myth, the gods decide to wipe out humanity because the noise people make bothers them. The first focuses on proper behavior; the second on the gods’ pleasure.
3. Noah does not try to save gold and silver on his ark, but Utnapishtim does.
4. Noah sends a raven first, then a dove twice. The dove later became a symbol of peace. Utnapishtim releases a dove, which found no place to land, then a swallow with the same result, then a raven which found a place to land and food to eat. The raven is a symbol of violence.
5. Gilgamesh has a hedonistic self-centered non-biblical world-view, such as: “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.”
6. As in most pagan myths, the gods behave in unethical ways and leave humans no real freedom to act: humans are subject to the will and whims of the gods. In the Bible, people are given free will, the ability to make decisions and are encouraged to use that power properly.
7. When the gods decide to punish Gilgamesh, they do so by killing his innocent friend Enkidu. Gilgamesh falls apart when Enkidu dies and, depressed, he stops caring for himself. This is contrary to the biblical view; when Aaron, Moses’ brother’s sons die, Aaron is silent.
8. The principle theme of the Gilgamesh epic is the hero’s attempt to find eternal life. The core of the biblical story of the flood is proper behavior.
In Summary, there are similarities but also many differences. It may be that the story of Noah and the flood was composed, not to relate facts, but to teach the people, who knew the Gilgamesh myth, these differences between the pagan world view of Gilgamesh and the Bible. The two have totally dissimilar ideas of how God/gods function, how the divine feels about people and deals with them, and how people should behave and relate to the divine.