The two stories closely parallel each other, though Gilgamesh was written down before 2000 BCE and the version in Genesis was compiled ca. 400 BCE. Biblical writers probably knew of the much older myth but revised it so that it fit with their own history and worldview. They intended it to fit with their own mythology. Despite the many similarities between the two stories, this difference in intention is revealed in a number of motifs that distinguish the biblical story from the ancient myth:
1. Flood is caused by the fickle nature of the gods We are told in 11.1 lines 14-17 that the gods who were reclining at Shuruppak, “up the constant Euphrates,” sent the flood by “intent.”
1. Flood is sent by God to destroy his creation, which has become corrupt and evil The humans are so wicked and evil that “it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart” (Gen. 6:6). He says,”I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth. . . ” (Gen. 6:7)
2. On earth one can still find demi-gods and great heroes, like Gilgamesh This is a Golden Age, like that described by Hesiod, when heroes walked the earth and humans and gods commingled.
2. Earth once had giants and heroes, but they became part of the evil These “giants in the earth” (Gen. 6:4) were the sons of God and of the daughters of men, but they were only men of renown in the old days (Gen. 6:4). There is no Golden Age at the time of the flood.
3. One good man is saved (Utnapishtim), who obeys the god’s orders to build a boat Ea warns Utnapishtim (11.1 lns. 26ff.) to build a covered boat to save himself and the “seed of all [he’ll] need” (11.1 ln. 34), to “Reject the corpse-like stench of wealth” (11.1 ln. 28) and live a charitable life of moderation. U. agrees to do this to “honor god” (l1.1 n. 39), but he will tell people he does so because Enlil hates him and he must flee by boat to where Enlil waits to kill him.
Biblical Flood of Noah in Genesis and the Gilgamesh Flood
The Flood of Noah and the Gilgamesh Flood
The Sumero-Babylonian version of the epic of Gilgamesh, after two and a half millennia of dormancy, was resurrected by British archaeologists in the nineteenth century. Amid the rubble of an Assyrian palace, the twelve clay tablets inscribed the adventures of the first hero of world literature – King Gilgamesh, whose oral folk tales go back to at least 3000 years before Christ (Harris 1). Tablet XI contains the story of the Flood. In this essay let us compare this flood account to the more recent Noah’s Flood account in Genesis of the Old Testament.
Column 1 on Tablet 11 begins the Sumero-Babylonian Flood narrative (Gardner 226). The sage Utnapishtim from Shurippak (100 miles south of Babylon), says:
The great gods stirred their hearts to make the Flood.
[. . .] Build an ark.
[. . .] Load the seed of every living thing into your ark,
the boat that you will build.
Let her measure be measured;
let her breadth and length be equal.
Cover it with a roof as the abyss is covered. (Gardner 226)
There is no reason given by Utnapishtim for the deluge. On the contrary, the Judaic version of the Flood in Genesis states in Genesis 6:5-8 a very clear, explicit reason for the Flood:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that very imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
Likewise in Genesis 11:13 God gives a reason for the Flood:
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…ks Cited and Consulted
Bailkey, Nels M. Readings in Ancient History: Thought and Experience from Gilganesh to St. Augustine. Third edition. Lexington, MA: D.C.Heath and Co., 1987.
Budge, E. A. Babylonian Story of the Deluge and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Montana, USA: Kessinger Publishing Co., n.d.
Gardner, John and John Maier. Gilgamesh: Translated from the Sin-leqi-unninni version. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.
Harris, Stephen L. “Gilgamesh.” The Humanist Tradition in World Literature. Ed. Stephen Harris. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co., 1970.
Heidel, Alexander. The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.
Ignatius Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1966.
Sandars. N. K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Penguin Books, 1972.