From the time that George Smith of the British Museum first recognized the ‘Flood tablet’ of the Gilgamesh Epic the strong tendency of scholarship has been to consign the Flood account in Genesis 6 to 8 to the realm of ancient myth, and also see the Genesis story as having been borrowed and adapted from Gilgamesh. One line of response to this has been to point out the profound differences between the two, and that Genesis is far superior in theology, morality, rationality, and so on. However, the lack of inner coherence, the composite origin, and the essentially mythical worldview of Gilgamesh has not often been pointed out in this connection. Furthermore, for all the dissemination of Gilgamesh in antiquity, it remained—recognizably—the Gilgamesh Epic. It is argued here that the oft-alleged ‘borrowing’ explanation for the undoubted similarities will simply not do.
In a previous article (See: Is Genesis 1 Just Reworked Babylonian Myth?), I discussed the allegation that the author of Genesis 1 borrowed from Enuma elish, the so-called Babylonian creation story, and concluded that there was no real relation at all, other than garbled—and generalized—versions of creation finding their way to mythologies about inter-necine conflicts among the gods, and attached thereto.
The present discussion looks at the Babylonian story of the Deluge, as enshrined in the Gilgamesh Epic. Here we do find quite a number of fairly close parallels—at least superficially so, and when seen in context with other Ancient Near Eastern literature relating a story of a great Deluge these parallels require explanation. However, some of the rather simplistic ‘explanations’ proposed by certain scholars will not stand examination, while the all-too-common discussion plays up the similarities, and at the same time glosses over, or even ignores, the profound differences between Genesis and Gilgamesh, not to mention the lack of inner coherence in the Gilgamesh story.
The Gilgamesh Epic was first found in the Great Library of Aššurbanipal at Nineveh, but its Flood story segment was not initially noticed. During 1872 George Smith, then an assistant at the British Museum, discovered the Flood story element on a previously unpublished tablet, and gave a public lecture in December of that year, one which caused a sensation. Later, in 1873, Smith went, at the behest of The Daily Telegraph, to the Kuyunjik site to seek further tablets with the Mesopotamian Flood story, and duly found a piece of missing text, and what later turned out to be fragments of the Atrahasis tale. Many other text portions and fragments of the Gilgamesh Epic have turned up since, including one portion of Tablet VII from Megiddo in Northern Israel, such that we have a substantially complete text, albeit still with several lacunae at various points.1
Smith’s discovery of Tablet XI (figure 1) caused a sensation at the time, since already for some decades on the geological front science had been moving away from commitment to Genesis and catastrophism to long-age uniformitarianism à la Hutton and Lyell. Here now, it seemed, was the perfect pretext to consign the entirety of the early chapters of Genesis, and the Deluge in particular, to the realm of ancient myth. So they did, and sadly many churchmen dutifully followed, or even led the charge.
The first thing we need to realize about the Gilgamesh Epic is that it is not primarily a story about a great Deluge, but a story of the fear of death and quest for immortality on the part of its hero and central character, Gilgamesh, king of Uruk (biblical Erech). The story of the Flood has, by general consent, been attached to the Epic as a kind of afterthought, in a rather incoherent and unconvincing manner. (See discussion part 2.) There are four texts in particular from Sumerian lore which stand as the background of the extant Gilgamesh saga, as follows:2
These tales indicate the pessimism regarding death in ancient Mesopotamia (a contrast with Egypt’s elaborate philosophy of the afterlife), and the consequent quest for immortality by some means or other. However, from these sources the scribes have welded together the ‘canonical’ Gilgamesh Epic. One important point is worth noting here in regard to a biblical connection: since we actually possess these literary precursors, we can trace the various adaptations along the line; unlike the JEDP theory of the Pentateuch. In the latter the whole procedure is fundamentally circular, the criteria yielding the hypothetical ‘documents’ or sources; then turning around to have these sources yield the criteria.7
Finally, as to the Flood story component of the epic, Sumerian lore has yielded the Ziusudra Epic, which quite clearly forms the background to the Flood story in Gilgamesh, and also Atrahasis, another version of the Deluge in Mesopotamian literature (figure 2). These, along with other Mesopotamian Flood stories, are discussed in part 2.
We turn now to the Gilgamesh Epic itself: the story line need not detain us in any great detail. The basic point to grasp is that it is occupied with the problem of death and immortality, since it tells the story of how the hero, Gilgamesh, befriends Enkidu, but after many adventures, including his encounter with, and slaying of, the Huwawa-monster, Enkidu dies (at the end of Tablet VII), a tragedy in Gilgamesh’s experience which sets him off on a quest for immortality, as expressed here:
From this point he longs to achieve immortality, a quest which leads him through hazards such as the dark mountain pass of Mashu to the shore of the waters of death, where he meets Šiduri. This ale-wife tells him of far-away Ut-napishtim, a man who has achieved immortality, whose very name apparently means, ‘he found life’.9 The hero determines to visit him, no matter what the difficulties. So Gilgamesh engages the boatman, who ferries him across the sea, to the land of Ut-napishtim.
At Gilgamesh’s request, Ut-napishtim proceeds to relate to Gilgamesh how he was granted eternal life by surviving the great Flood. Ut-napishtim, the ‘Noah’ figure of the story, confides to Gilgamesh how the gods in assembly decided to make a flood to destroy mankind (why is not explained). Meanwhile, Ea overheard the plan by listening through a wall, and informed Ut-napishtim in a dream, whereupon the latter dismantled his house and built a boat. Then came the flood.
After Ut-napishtim had endured the seven days of the flood, plus another seven days being within the boat on Mt Nimush he thrust out all on board, and made a sacrifice:
However, Enlil was furious that Ut-napishtim had survived along with the others. Ea, however, is not intimidated, but complains—after the event:
This response only highlights that the flood of Ut-napishtim was in the first instance not for human iniquity in any way. Instead, Ea pleads ex post facto that it should have been so, but even then it would have been gross overkill and a miscarriage of justice. However, Enlil then confers immortality on both Ut-napishtim and his wife:
This is really the climax of the Gilgamesh story; but then comes the anticlimax when Ut-napishtim tells Gilgamesh of a plant, possession of which will restore his youth, but, alas, just when he thought it was his a snake came and silently stole it away. Thus Gilgamesh’s long and arduous quest for immortality came to nothing.
At this stage it will be useful to summarize in the following table the differences between the Gilgamesh version of the flood and that of Genesis (see table 1).
However, the similarity-difference outline is but one important issue; there are further problems, not only in comparison with Genesis (table 1), but with the inner coherence of the Gilgamesh Epic itself, as the following discussion will highlight.
On the face of it the link between a quest for immortality and a story of survival from a flood does seem rather tenuous. However, we must remember that we are dealing with a culture which did not think in the rational categories and adherence to logic the way we have traditionally done in the West. Oswalt has highlighted this aspect of Babylonian mythology. Speaking of the way mythology blurs any distinction between the one and the many, he observes:
In other words, the law of non-contradiction does not apply in the mythical worldview.
Again, in observing how continuity of the divine, the human, and nature constitute the essence of myth:
Hence, in an epic such as Gilgamesh
The upshot of all this is that coherence and consistency are not an issue in the mythologies. Gilgamesh therefore becomes a symbol for the human quest for immortality; and the Deluge, being a unique event, likewise represents the impossibility of ever attaining it. The fact that these two different stories are married together, including inconsistencies of detail, is, for the mythologist neither here nor there. This whole approach, argues Oswalt, is utterly at variance with the biblical outlook, and we may add, Western civilization deriving from it.
All this said, however, the lack of coherence both in major elements as well as in the details does betray a composite make-up of the epic, even if the ancients were indifferent to that aspect. Tablet XII especially betrays notable inconsistencies. Hence it is proper to gain an insight into how, and roughly when, the Deluge part of the epic was incorporated into what became the standard form.
After a century or more of analysis in the light of earlier, particularly Sumerian, texts and the Atrahasis epic (still somewhat fragmentary), there is a general certainty that a Flood tradition circulated independently in early Mesopotamia. In the immediate circumstance the Atrahasis epic forms the background for Gilgamesh, as seen in the following clue from Tablet XI, line 194 (figure 1), where Ea is speaking to Enlil:
Consequent on this, Enlil confers immortality on both Ut-napishtim (!) and his wife.
Andrew George comments on this clue:
Another point of incoherence in Tablet XI concerns the need for Ut-napishtim to launch his (cubical) craft, as follows:
Previous commentators have seen a problem with the term gi-ir-MÁ.DÙ.MES (translated ‘poles’) in line 78, and have understood it variously as ‘road’, ‘gangway’, ‘floor-planks’, and other unlikely suggestions.18 However, the evidence from Assyrian reliefs compels the conclusion that the word denotes poles for rolling heavy objects (e.g. a statue, or in this case a boat), taken continually from the rear and placed at the front. So the term indeed denotes ‘launching poles’.
Why, then, in a great deluge which will sweep away cities, landscape, and all life, does our hero need to ‘launch’ his craft into a river, requiring ‘rolling poles’ for the task? Why does he not wait for the floodwaters to do this as a matter of course, as indeed they did? Consider XI, lines 102–103:
The epic gives no explanation of this. However, the Genesis account does not make such a mistake:
There is another incoherence, where Ut-napishtim from his ‘ark’ sends out a sequence of birds: first a dove, then a swallow, and finally a raven (XI, lines 147–156). Although Ut-napishtim is ‘Atra-hasis’, “the exceedingly wise”, he shows his folly in this sequence: the raven is a carrion bird, which could find debris and rotting material floating on the surface and settle there. Hence sending this one out after sending out a dove and a swallow would prove nothing. The sequence in Genesis 8:6–12 is far more coherent and logical. Moreover, from a biblical comparison perspective the swallow Akk. sinuntu [SIM.MUŠEN]) is well known in Palestine: the Hebrew סיס or סוס (Isa. 38:14; Jer. 8:7), and quite likely also דדוד (Psa. 84:4) refer to this bird, yet Noah did not send out a swallow.19
Tablet XII is not an original part of the epic in any way, but essentially an Akkadian translation of part of the Sumerian poem Bilgames and the Netherworld,20 and does not sit conformably with the Gilgamesh Epic proper, since in Tablet XII Enkidu is still alive, but descends into the Netherworld and returns. Hence this tablet will remain outside of the discussion.
This has become the standard critical approach, as seen in a sample of books and articles, but there are numerous and decisive objections to this.
Hence Gilgamesh, as two-thirds god and one third man24, along with the various gods and goddesses who permeate the story, interacting with man and vice-versa, plus the Huwawa-monster: all these and more express quite clearly an essentially mythological world-view. The world-view of the Bible, by contrast, is that of transcendence; i.e. the world order and nature is not God, but instead, God is other than, and not bound by, the world and man. Moreover, this outlook gives rise to the idea of history, the superintending Providence of a Supreme God over the affairs of men and events in our space-time world, and directing them towards a goal. We see this in the covenant which God promised to Noah before the Flood and confirmed afterwards (Gen. 6:18; 8:21–9:17 resp., a theme entirely absent from Gilgamesh), and in the dispersal of the various nations after the Flood, and thereby onwards to the call of Abraham and the covenant promise of blessing to the nations (Gen.12:1–13). This is quite opposite to the mythological outlook, whether of Enuma elish, The Gilgamesh Epic, or any of the other items of Mesopotamian literature.25 Furthermore, in Gilgamesh the outcome of the story relates to his own present circumstances, i.e. his mortality. It has nothing to do with the onward march of history.
Seen in this light, our erstwhile Hebrew ‘borrower’ had much more on his plate than the glib and superficial analyses of modern scholars would have us believe. It was much more than taking Gilgamesh and making some adaptations here, incorporations there, etc., and voilà, the Genesis story of Noah! The task required a wholesale restructuring of the whole genre of the narrative to reflect a completely different worldview and outlook.
Hence, on examination, we are forced to conclude that the ‘borrowing’ explanation completely lacks plausibility. There is indeed a superficial similarity in points of detail, but overall two very different narratives, with two very different sets of theological assumptions and foundations, two different worldviews, and a very different character to each narrative, all combine to force the conclusion that Genesis has no underlying relation at all to Gilgamesh. Superficial similarities do not prove literary dependence.26
Finally, there is the question of date. The main texts we have come from the 17th century, but these are clearly copies of earlier texts. The main body of Epic—without the Flood story—is one issue, while the incorporation of the Flood story is another. According to George, the Atrahasis version of the story of the Flood (see part 2) provided the source and model for the Gilgamesh poet to incorporate into his own epic, estimated to have been done around the mid-18th century BC.27 For Dalley and others the Gilgamesh epic proper (minus the Flood component) was compiled from earlier epics (as explained above) c.1800 BC—possibly earlier, while the Flood story was incorporated later, possibly during the early Kassite period of Babylon, c. 14th century BC.28 We may conjecture that the Flood component was incorporated into the main epic somewhere in the mid-second millennium BC.
A sequel article will examine other Flood literature from Mesopotamia, some of it well known, and one small tablet less so. These together lead to the conclusion that a Flood tradition similar to that in Genesis originally circulated in Mesopotamia. Just as apparent, however, is that it was quickly corrupted, garbled, and couched in Mesopotamian polytheism, and later incorporated into a larger narrative (Atrahasis), and in particular into the larger, quite separate story of a quest for immortality as we have in the Gilgamesh Epic.