When the clay tablets of the epic of Gilgamesh were first discovered and translated in 1872, scholars quickly noticed striking similarities between its narratives and those of the bible (Coogan 68). Specifically, the flood stories of these two pieces show the most clear resemblance to one another. In Gilgamesh, the main protagonist, Gilgamesh, seeks to become immortal. In effort to do so, he then speaks to Utnapushtim who tells him about his experience with a great flood. Utnapushtim explains that a council of gods sent a flood that engulfed the whole earth. Before this, a specific god named Ea warned Utnapishtim of the flood and told him to construct a large boat. The boat was to have Utnapishtim, his family, and the seed of all living things as the survivors of the flood. The gods brought rain and the water surged for many days. When the water begins to subside, Utnapishtim sets loose a dove and later, a raven who finds land. The boat lands on Mount Nisir. Following the flood, the god named Ishtar makes a rainbow and places it in the sky as a promise that the gods would never bring another flood. In the biblical flood story, God notes that mankind has become evil so he decides to wipe out all flesh with a flood that will cover all of earth. God chose Noah to survive the flood and commands him to build a large boat with specific dimensions. God also commands Noah to take his family along with him on the boat as well as animals of every kind. Noah does exactly as God says. The flood comes and surges for forty days and forty nights. When it subsides, the boat lands on Mount Ararat. After all the land is dry again, God forms a covenant with Noah to never bring another flood, and places a rainbow in the sky as a symbol of his promise. While these two stories may appear analogous, one must intently examine both the commonalities and the elements of discord between them in order to conclude the effect of Gilgamesh on the biblical flood story.
One can easily identify the plot similarities in both the floods of Gilgamesh and the Bible, suggesting the two may be related. Before the floods begin in both stories, the heroes are characterized equivalently as being righteous. In Gilgamesh, Utnapushtim receives praise for his demeanor less directly, but is nonetheless admired by the gods and known to be selfless. Noah is also admired by God. Genesis reads, Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God (The Harper Collins Study Bible, Gen. 6.9-10). In the Bible, Noah is chosen to be the survivor specifically because of his good nature, much like Utnapushtim. Another major similarity is the global scale of both floods. The Bible says, the flood continued for forty days in the earth; and the waters increased and bore up the ark and it rose high above the earth (Gen. 7.17). In this verse and the following verses, the word earth is repeated several times to emphasize that the flood was all encompassing of the world. In Gilgamesh, the flood is referenced as being indistinguishable from the sky because it was so far reaching. Utnapushtim says, The wind blew, flood and tempest overwhelmed the land (Dalley 113, line 133). When Utnapushtim recalls the flood he, like the bible, recognizes it as surrounding everything on the planet. The two floods also have more obvious alignments such as the mere existence of a flood, the construction of a large boat, bringing all animals along on the boat, landing the ark on a mountain, and the creation of a rainbow. While these similarities are numerous and compelling, one must also consider the inconsistencies between the floods.
The specific details of the Gilgamesh and biblical flood stories reveal several disagreements in narrative that establish them as separate entities. Contrary to Gilgamesh, at the very beginning of the biblical flood story, a motive for bringing on the flood is presented by God. Genesis reads, The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually(Gen. 6.5). Here, God justifies his intentions to wipe out mankind due to their corrupt behavior. On the contrary, in Gilgamesh, while the gods discuss a need to destroy everything on earth, they do not provide a reason to vindicate their idea. As the respective stories continue, another significant difference arises with respect to the means of announcing the flood. In Genesis 6:13, God clearly speaks directly to Noah when he first explains the flood and ark plan to him. Contrasting this, Utnapushtim does not learn about the flood from the gods themselves. Ea explains to the other gods, I just showed Atrahasis a dream, and thus he heard the secret of the gods (Dalley 115, line 141). In Gilgamesh, Atrahasis refers simply to the hero of the flood, i.e. Utnapushtim, who was never explicitly told the flood would come but was instead warned in a dream. Later in the stories, an additional critical difference is seen amongst the people who are instructed to be on the ark. God sees Noah as a righteous man, and instructs him to take only himself and his family. In Genesis he says, But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you(Gen. 6.18). God intently explains the family members Noah shall have by his side on the ark, whereas in Gilgamesh, Utnapushtim does not receive specific instructions on who to bring, and thus he decides for himself. He says, I put on board the boat all my kith and kin/[…]/[…], all kinds of craftsmen (Dalley 112, line 128). Unlike Noah, Utnapushtim is not seen as being someone with gifted lineage, therefore bringing craftsmen who are not his blood on the ark is not problematic. Finally, arguably the most fascinating difference in the floods involves the order in which birds are released to find land. The Epic of Gilgamesh details the order Utnapushtim send the birds; first he sends a dove that fails to find land, then a swallow that also fails, and lastly a raven that successfully saw the waters receding. Almost exactly opposite of the bird order in Gilgamesh, the Bible details Noah’s releases in Genesis, saying At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he made and sent out the raven, […], Then he sent out the dove from him, […], but the dove found no place to set its foot, […], He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf (Gen. 8.6-11). Here, we see that rather than releasing a raven last, Noah releases a raven first, and rather than releasing a dove first, he releases it last. Several other noticeable differences between the floods in Gilgamesh and the Bible also exist, but these previous examples are momentous when analyzing how the two stories may have developed.
Because the Epic of Gilgamesh predates the Bible, and because of its likeness to the Bible, many scholars have suggested that the Epic may have been a basis for the biblical flood story. However, when examining both the similarities and the differences between the floods, one cannot conclude this to be true. The flood in Gilgamesh compares to the biblical flood in several ways, these similarities involve mainly the general plot of the floods. Most notably, the character of the hero, the global scale of the flood, the construction of a large boat, survival of all animals, landing on a mountain, and creation of a rainbow are all plot elements that can essentially be interchanged with one another between the stories. Despite these commonalities, the floods establish themselves as separate tales because of their differences. The compelling differences include but are not limited to: the reason for flooding, modes of announcement, the people on board, and the order of the bird releases. Considering these differences, clearly the biblical flood story was not extracted from the Epic of Gilgamesh. However, when considering their comparability, the floods certainly have a relationship with one another. One explanation to this, as told by Coogan, is that a common and vague flood story existed in the ancient Near East. Therefore, the biblical writers may have known of a flood story that the Gilgamesh writers also knew (Coogan 69). Another possible way Gilgamesh may have affected the biblical flood story is in the modern interpretations of it. Retellings of Noah’s Ark often possess dramatized elements making them more similar to Gilgamesh. All in all, while the flood stories of both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible are comparable, their differences make it difficult to prove that Gilgamesh was a source for the bible and show that they likely separately developed out of a common, unknown flood story.
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