There are remarkable similarities between the biblical story of the flood and the more ancient version of Gilgamesh. The Babylonian epic Gilgamesh was written around 2000 BCE and has survived in several versions. It predates the scriptural story. A tradition dates the revelation of the Bible to 2448 after creation, or about 1312 BCE. Scholars offer a date of around 1200 BCE.
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.”
Utnapishtim’s account of the flood
The myth describes Gilgamesh as being partly a god from his mother’s side and partly human from his father. He is a human with “all knowledge.” He is considered to be the greatest king on earth and superhuman, but he is a vicious king. Influenced by the pagan philosophy, he insists that he can enjoy sexual intercourse with all brides on their wedding nights. The gods attempt to control Gilgamesh by sending him a friend Enkidu, but this does not work; Gilgamesh and Enkidu engage in battles against others, including one with a demon. The gods are appalled and kill Enkidu.
Gilgamesh is obsessed with the fear of dying himself. He decides to seek help from his ancestor Utnapishtim, who had also been a king, who was the survivor of a world-wide flood and who was granted eternal life by the gods. Gilgamesh goes to a splendid garden where Utnapishtim and his wife are living. The trees in the garden grow gems.
Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that the gods created humans but were soon convinced that they had made a mistake. Humans become so numerous that the gods are 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 will not reveal the approaching flood to humans. Ea, one of the gods warns the king Utnapishtim 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 large square boat and bring all living things into it. Utnapishtim loads the boat with gold and silver, his wife, and all animals.
The flood lasts for seven days and seven nights until the boat rests on a mountain top, where it remains for another seven days. Utnapishtim releases a dove to discover whether the water waned, but the dove returns, indicating that the land is still flooded. He then sends a swallow with the same result. Finally, he dispatches a raven, which does not return, and thereby shows that the water receded.
As soon as Utnapishtim exits the boat, he offers a sheep as a sacrifice to the gods and a libation (sheep meat and wine). The gods like the sacrifices so much that they feel 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 Gilgamesh that he could achieve eternal life if he would stay awake for seven nights. Gilgamesh tries but falls asleep on the first night. Utnapishtim’s wife feels sorry for him and persuades her husband to tell Gilgamesh about a plant that, while not giving eternal life, can make a person who eats it young again. Gilgamesh obtains the plant but, when he leaves it unguarded, a serpent eats it. This is why snakes shed their skin and become young again.
Similarities to Noah
- Gilgamesh is described as being partly divine and Scripture portrays humans as having the tzelem 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 until Shavuot, etc.)
- The number twelve also occurs frequently in both the myth and the Bible.
- 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 that the boat occupant sends out birds on three occasions to discover whether the land is still flooded.
- Noah and Utnapishtim 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 offers a sheep and a wine libation.
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 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 is righteous.
- Gilgamesh is continually fighting even after the arrival of Enkidu, who was created to moderate his behavior. This reflects the Babylonian martial 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. When Aaron’s sons die, he is silent.
- The philosophy of life recounted in the myth is the pursuit of pleasure, while proper ethical conduct is the way of life 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 is fearful of dying, but Noah expresses no fear.
- The principle theme of the Gilgamesh epic is the hero’s attempt to find eternal life. Proper behavior is the core of the biblical story of the flood.
- 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 of the serpent 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 yield food.
- The principle theme of the garden in Gilgamesh is eternal life. While the Garden of Eden contains a tree of life, it plays no central role in its plot.
- 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 and saves Noah and his family. In Gilgamesh, the gods decide to destroy people and a single god goes against the decree and saves humanity.
- In Scripture, Noah and his family are saved because they act justly. In the myth, the gods decide to wipe out humanity because of the noise they produce. The first focuses on proper behavior; the second on the gods’ 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 lasted seven days and seven nights. Noah’s flood 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 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 does not offer wine as a sacrifice, but drinks it himself.
There are many similarities between the Gilgamesh myth and the Bible. Yet there are many differences. These differences are the result of the different world view of the Gilgamesh author and the Bible. The two have a totally dissimilar 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.