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 of Nineveh. Amazingly, the author’s name is written on 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 better understand the biblical view of God, man, and the Noah story.
Utnapishtim’s Account of the Flood
In the eleventh of the twelve tablets, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about the flood. Utnapishtim was a legendary king of Shuruppak in southern Iraq who survived a flood by making a boat. He explains how and why the gods created humans. They were disappointed in their creation. They recognize they have 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 they won’t reveal the destruction to humans.
Ea, one of the gods 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 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 has 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. The raven does not return, for the water has 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 feels sorry for him and persuades her husband to tell him about a plant that could make him young again while not giving him eternal life. Gilgamesh finds the plant, but when he leaves it unguarded, a serpent eats it. Therefore, snakes shed their skin and become young again.
- Gilgameshis 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 Gilgameshstory and the Bible (the Sabbath is the seventh day; Passover and Sukkot last seven days, etc.).
- The number twelve occurs often in 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 cannot 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 misbehave and leave humans no 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.
- Gilgameshis the leader of his people and a warrior. Noah was neither.
- While Gilgameshis so brutal 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 Genesisstory highlights the importance of proper conduct.
- Gilgameshis fearful of dying, but Noah expresses no fear.
- The hero’s attempt to find eternal life is the Gilgamesh epic’s principal theme. The flood story is not as central as it is in the Bible where the flood is brought because the people act improperly.
- 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 Gilgameshgarden bear precious gems, while the biblical trees bear food.
- The principal theme of Gilgameshand the Garden is eternal life. While the Garden of Eden contains a tree of life, it plays a smaller role in the story.
- God stops Adam and Eve from eating from the Tree of Life. They are expelled from the garden before they can eat from it. Gilgameshcan receive eternal life but cannot perform the task required to achieve it.
- In the Bible, God destroys people because they misbehave. God saves Noah and his family because they act justly. In the myth, the gods wipe out humanity because of the noise they produce. The first story focuses on proper behavior, and 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, while Utnapishtim only brings his wife.
- The flood in Gilgameshlasted seven days and seven nights. Noah’s flood begins seven days after Noah enters the ark but lasts 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 has 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 flood and its details were well-known in ancient times, and the Bible used the old accounts to teach its lessons.
The flood story 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 worldviews the Bible expresses. The two texts have different ideas about how God/gods function, how the divine feels about people, how the heavenly treat humanity, how people should behave toward each other, and what is sacred.