The Influence of Gilgamesh on the Bible

There are only a handful of non-cuneiform references to Gilgamesh. The Flood narrative from the Gilgamesh Epic remains the most overt connection between the Hebrew Bible and the Mesopotamian epic narrative, some hundred years after it was first noted by George Smith. The Flood narrative within the biblical text is not, however, the only point of contact between the two works of ancient literature. The name of the heroic protagonist of the Gilgamesh Epic may be found in a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls known as The Book of Giants.

See Also: Gilgamesh (Routledge, 2019).

By Louise M. Pryke
Hebrew, Biblical, and Jewish Studies
Sydney University
November 2019

Introduction

Gilgamesh is the headstrong hero of one of the world’s oldest epics, making him the literary “grandparent” of the many ancient and modern heroes that have followed. His story is recounted in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a literary masterpiece from ancient Mesopotamia. The Epic centers on the journey of the legendary Gilgamesh, a king traditionally described ruling over Uruk (an area in modern-day Iraq) around 2700 BCE. The modern rediscovery of the Epic was a watershed moment in the understanding of the Ancient Near East, one that would bring lasting change to the study of the Hebrew Bible.

Legends of Gilgamesh have survived in numerous versions and languages, reflecting the popularity of his character throughout the ancient Near East and beyond. Fragmentary copies of the text have been discovered in archaeological excavations from Iraq to Turkey to Megiddo. It is generally accepted that biblical authors had knowledge of Gilgamesh’s story, which they used to create allusions and contrasts in the Hebrew Bible (O’Connell 1988, 413-414).

A Timeless Story

Gilgamesh is written in cuneiform script, considered to be the world’s oldest form of writing (although there is some competition from Egyptian sources). The disappearance of the cuneiform writing system around the time of the 1st century CE saw knowledge of the Epic slip into obscurity. For almost two millennia, clay tablets containing stories of Gilgamesh and his companions lay lost and buried alongside many tens of thousands of other cuneiform texts and beneath the ruins of the great Library of Ashurbanipal.

In the Standard Babylonian Version, Gilgamesh leaves his home city of Uruk (in modern day Iraq) and travels with his best friend Enkidu to have many exciting adventures. Together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu forge the world’s first known literary “bromance”: they kill the forest guardian, Humbaba, with his seven auras of terror, and fight against the mighty Bull of Heaven—an animal so large that it creates sinkholes with every snort of breath it takes. Enkidu dies midway through the story, and Gilgamesh must journey on alone to find the secret of eternal life through the path of the Sun, across the Water of Death. He finally meets Utanapishtim, the legendary survivor of the Great Flood. Utanapishtim cannot give Gilgamesh eternal life, but he tells him the location of a secret herb which will give him renewed youth. Gilgamesh finds the plant, but it is stolen by a snake before he can eat it. He then finally returns home, and the story ends.

The Gilgamesh Epic was first translated by self-taught cuneiform scholar George Smith of the British Museum in 1872. Smith discovered the presence of an ancient Babylonian flood narrative in the text, which held striking parallels with the biblical flood story of the Book of Genesis. The story is often repeated (although it may be apocryphal) that when Smith began to decipher the tablet, he became so excited that he began to remove all his clothing.

From the very inception of the study of the Gilgamesh Epic when George Smith first observed parallels with the biblical Flood, Gilgamesh has been contrasted and companioned with the Bible. In the prologue to his famous comparison of ancient Flood narratives, Heidel observed that the narratives of the Flood form the most overt parallels between the Hebrew Bible and the Gilgamesh Epic. Heidel stated that the Flood stories provide “the most remarkable parallels between the Old Testament and the entire corpus of cuneiform inscriptions from Mesopotamia” (Heidel 1946, 224).

Decades after the publication of Heidel’s work, the situation remains the same, despite the rapid expansion of the field of Assyriology and numerous new discoveries (Tsumura 1994, 52). The Flood narratives of Gilgamesh and Genesis have inspired an abundance of scholarly research.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is not the only well-known Mesopotamian text to involve a Flood narrative. The story of Atrahasis, considered to be one of the masterpieces of Babylonian literature, is known from several versions and thought to be an earlier account of the Flood (McKeown 2008, 16). It is generally accepted that Tablet XI of the Standard Babylonian Version of the Epic of Gilgamesh has been interpolated with a version of the Atrahasis story, with this addition perhaps added by Sin-leqi-unnini (George 2008). The emphasis here will be on the Flood narrative as it appears in Gilgamesh.

Although the Flood narratives provide a starting point for scholarly consideration of the connection between Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Bible, other parts of Gilgamesh have also proven interesting subjects for academic work—although the parallels are by no means universally accepted. The search for the herb of rejuvenation in Gilgamesh and the theft of this plant by a snake has drawn comparisons with the biblical narrative of the forbidden fruit and the temptation by the serpent (Genesis 3). Further similarities have been suggested between the civilization of Enkidu by Shamhat and the civilization of Adam and Eve. As with the account of the Deluge, the search for Mesopotamian parallels with the story of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-5) has been a feature of Gilgamesh’s reception from the time of George Smith.

The Flood Stories

In Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utanapishtim (the Mesopotamian Flood survivor) recounts the story of the Flood to Gilgamesh. He tells the young king how the Mesopotamian gods decided to cause the Flood. The reason for this was “to diminish the people” in Gilgamesh (SBV XI 188-195), but elsewhere it appears that the humans made too much noise and disrupted the sleep of the primary deity, Enlil. The deities swear an oath to keep their plan a secret, but Ea, the crafty god of wisdom, circumnavigates this directive by telling the plan to the wall of a house in Utanapishtim’s hearing. Ea instructs Utanapishtim (through the wall) to build a boat to escape the coming Flood:

Demolish the house, build a boat!

Abandon riches and seek survival!

Spurn property and save life! (Gilgamesh SBV XI 24-26, translation in George 2003).

Ea tells Utanapishtim to bring the seed of all living creatures onto his boat and specifies some of the craft’s dimensions. Utanapishtim agrees to do as instructed but asks how he might answer people who will question his sudden interest in boat building. Ea tells him an answer which seems to be a type of riddle about the upcoming Deluge.

Utanapishtim gives a detailed account of the boat building, which is carried out by a team of craftspeople, and Utanapishtim finishes their work by oiling the boat, completing this day-long task just before sundown. Utanapishtim then loads up the boat with riches, seeds, his family, animals and creatures of the wild, and people possessing skills and crafts of every type. Utanapishtim’s choice to bring gold and silver (and the placement of these first on his list prior to his kinfolk) might have been intended to raise a few eyebrows, given the directive from Ea that he abandon his wealth.

In any case, the rain starts, and a description is given of several deities contributing to the force of the storm. The force of the storm is sufficiently great to frighten even the gods, who leave their homes on earth and retreat to the highest part of heaven. The storm lasts for six days and seven nights.

The mother goddess, Belet-ili, and the other deities are presented weeping with remorse when the destruction of the storm is revealed. After the storm dies down, Utanapishtim discovers all the people have turned to clay. He sends out three birds to check if the water is receding. When the last bird does not return, Utanapishtim finds it safe to disembark from the ark. He offers a sacrifice to the deities, who crowd around to consume it. They rebuke Enlil for causing the Deluge and offer instead various suggestions on how he might have instead gone about his efforts at population control. The deities form an assembly and agree never to flood the world in the same way again and bestow special immortality on Utanapishtim and his wife.

Readers familiar with the Book of Genesis will have likely noted a number of similarities with the Flood story of Genesis 6-9. While it is generally agreed there are several parallels between the two narratives, the relationship between the texts remains unclear.

Among many comparisons of the two texts, frequently noted are the divine commitment to the destruction of (at least most of) humanity, the selection of a named individual to ensure the continuation of life, the instruction to build an ark and its subsequent construction, the inclusion of animals on the ark, the Flood, the use of birds to test whether the waters have sufficiently receded for disembarkation, the sacrifices following the Flood, and the divine commitment not to diminish humanity with a Flood in the future. The two stories also display structural similarities.

The accepted cause of similarities between the two versions in biblical scholarship is that the Gilgamesh Epic account of the Babylonian Flood story is the source of the Genesis Flood Story (Rendsburg 2007, 121). The view, which assigns a Mesopotamian background for the biblical story, stems from the perception of the earlier date of the Babylonian Flood accounts, and the idea that the Flood story “fits the geo‐hydrological conditions of Mesopotamia more than those of Palestine” (Chen 2013).

Of course, there are numerous differences between the two accounts, such as the contrast in the number of deities involved in planning the Flood in the two stories, the vivid presentation of the storm in the Mesopotamian story—virtually non-existent in the biblical text—and Utanapishtim’s use of deceptive riddling to conceal his divine directive.

These differences are explained as resulting from the “distinctively Israelite theological position inherent to Genesis 6-8” (Rendsburg 2007, 116). As noted by Clines, the punitive aspect of the Flood, resulting from catastrophic human sin, gives a distinctive dimension to the biblical account (1998, 510-513).

It is interesting from this perspective to consider possible contexts for the differences between the two texts. The mirroring of deity and human in each text is worth noting, with an emphasis on piety in the Genesis account [“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth…” (Gen 6:5)] and [“Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation … (Gen 6: 9)], and the clever deceptions employed by Ea and Utanapishtim. This emphasis may be partly related to the perspective from which the story is told in the two literary works: the narrator providing the Flood account in Genesis and the Flood survivor giving his own depiction of the story in Gilgamesh.

The relationship of the Flood stories to the surrounding narrative is different in both texts, and this is of key importance to the differences between them. In Gilgamesh, the emphasis is on the secret wisdom of the Flood survivor, an emphasis reflected in the clever behavior of Ea and Utanapishtim. In Genesis, the Flood account is “intended to reveal the character of God” (Walton 2003, 323), resulting in a greater focus on holiness and morality.

It is interesting to note that there is a greater emphasis on communication in the Gilgamesh account, with Utanapishtim and Ea in dialogue with one another, but Noah remains silent (Pryke 2019, 195). Noah’s silence is not broken until Genesis 9. In Genesis 9, Noah’s son Ham sees him naked, leading Noah to curse Ham’s son, Canaan. This narrative episode again centers on the widespread consequences of human sin as Noah’s son Ham, who performs an act of violation, is “mysteriously displaced” by his son Canaan in Noah’s curse (Alter 1996, 40).

Communication is further emphasized in the narrative style of the Flood narrative of Gilgamesh, where Utanapishtim and Gilgamesh are presented in a dialogue about the Flood. This contrasts with the biblical Flood story, where the narrator’s account of Genesis is more one-sided. In both texts, however, the survival of humanity is contingent on positive relationships between an individual and their deity and the individual’s obedience to divine instruction.

Gilgamesh beyond Genesis

It is generally agreed that the Epic of Gilgamesh has, to some extent, had cultural contact with the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. The nature and extent of this contact remain contested areas of scholarly discussion. Arguably the most overt connection between the two works of literature is in the advice given to Gilgamesh by Siduri and in the advice given by Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes 9. The two passages are quoted below:

You, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,

Keep enjoying yourself, day and night!

Every day, make merry,

dance and play day and night!

Let your clothes be clean!

Let your head be washed, may you be bathed in water.

Gaze on the little one who holds your hand,

Let a wife enjoy your repeated embrace,

Such is the destiny [of mortal men]. (Gilgamesh OB VA+BM i. 6-14, translation in George 2003).

7 Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. 8 Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun (Ecclesiastes 9: 7-9).

It would be precipitous to surmise that the similarities between these two passages necessarily result from cultural contact or any direct contact between the texts. Good advice seems to have a certain timeless quality, particularly when it is expressed in broad terms that may be applicable to a range of situations and periods. The fluidity of the subject of wisdom is one of the more notable aspects of the genre. Interestingly, the text from Ecclesiastes seems closer to the Old Babylonian Version on its presentation of the subject of wisdom than the Standard Babylonian Version of the Epic (noted by van der Toorn 2007), although the composition of Ecclesiastes is thought to date from a chronological period closer to the later version of the Gilgamesh Epic.

The Book of Giants

There are only a handful of non-cuneiform references to Gilgamesh. The Flood narrative from the Gilgamesh Epic remains the most overt connection between the Hebrew Bible and the Mesopotamian epic narrative, some hundred years after it was first noted by George Smith. The Flood narrative within the biblical text is not, however, the only point of contact between the two works of ancient literature. The name of the heroic protagonist of the Gilgamesh Epic may be found in a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls known as The Book of Giants.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by a Bedouin shepherd boy and his two cousins in the 1940s at Qumran, located in the West Bank near the Dead Sea. The Book of Giants is written in Aramaic, a Semitic language once widely used as a lingua franca in the Ancient Near East. The Book of Giants is found in the apocryphal Book 1 of Enoch. The Book of Enoch gets its name from biblical Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah. In the Book of Genesis, Enoch appears as the very long-lived son of Seth, who is the third son of Adam and Eve (Genesis 5). In The Book of Giants, Gilgamesh is named as one of the Giants killed by the biblical Flood, an event which is detailed in another apocryphal work, The Book of Watchers.

The Book of Giants contains a narrative involving the exploits of the giants and describes visions they receive and their reactions to them. The Book of Giants is made up of several extremely fragmentary texts, and it is difficult to assign order to the narrative, or to be certain of its story, themes, or shape. The composition gives the names of several giants: Ohyah, Hahyah, Aḥiram, Mahaway, Gilgamesh, and Ḥobabish. The latter two resonate with the Gilgamesh Epic. The name Ḥobabish derives from Humbaba, the powerful monster slain by Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh and Ohyah appear to have a discussion in the fragmentary texts 4Q530 and 4Q531 about the challenges they face and dream interpretation. Enoch appears in The Book of Giants intervening with God on behalf of the Giants.

There is literary continuity between The Book of Giants and the Gilgamesh Epic in their focus on the reporting and interpreting of prophetic dreams, and of course, the Flood. The Book of Giants was later used by Manichean sects in the Middle East (George 2003, 60).

Conclusion

Gilgamesh has exerted a modern influence that is difficult to quantify precisely yet has emphatically altered the way audiences view the ancient world and ancient literature. Following the public recovery of the Epic on December 3rd, 1872, the awareness of a work of greater antiquity than the Bible—and the capacity of this literature to have influenced the biblical Flood account—created a change in perception of many long-standing tenants of biblical reception. Yet, as Bottéro notes, through returning biblical literature to the broader context of the collective of world literature, the capacity of biblical texts to engage with human thoughts, concerns, and fragilities, in addition to canvassing universal considerations, was arguably enhanced (1986).

There is no doubt that considering transcultural parallels between Ancient Near Eastern and biblical texts is useful for illuminating both sets of texts and the historical and contexts surrounding their creation. The Bible and Gilgamesh share a fascination with the human condition, the nature of divinity, and the power of the natural world, giving them timeless relevance for new audiences into the future.

 

Bibliography

Al-Rawi, F. N. H., and A. R. George. 2014. “Back to the Cedar Forest: The beginning and end of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 66: 69–90.

Bottéro, J. 1986. La Bible et l’historien, Naissance de Dieu. Paris: Gallimard.

Chen, Y. S. 2013. The Primeval Flood Catastrophe: Origins and Early Developments in Sumerian and Babylonian Traditions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clines, David J. 1998. “The Theology of the Flood Narrative,” in On the Way to the Postmodern: Old Testament Essays, 1967-1998, 2: 508-523. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic.

George, Andrew R. 2003. The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts, Volumes 1 and 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

George, Andrew R. 2007. “The Epic of Gilgameš: Thoughts on Genre and Meaning.” Pages 37–65 in Gilgameš and the World of Assyria: Proceedings of the Conference Held at the Mandelbaum House, The University of Sydney, 21–23 July 2004. Edited by Noel K. Weeks and Joseph J. Azize. Leuven: Peeters.

George, Andrew R. 2008. “Shattered tablets and tangled threads: Editing Gilgamesh, then and now.” Aramazd. Armenian Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 3.1: 7–30.

Heidel, Alexander. 1949. The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hess, Richard S., and David Toshio Tsumura, eds. 1994. I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1–11. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

Finkel, Irving L. 2014. The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. New York: Anchor Books.

McKeown, James. Genesis. 2008. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

O’Connell, Robert H. 1988. “Isaiah XIV 4B–23: Ironic Reversal through Concentric Structure and Mythic Allusion.” Vetus Testamentum 38.4: 407–418.

Pryke, Louise M. 2019. Gilgamesh: God and Heroes of the Ancient World. London: Routledge.

Rendsburg, Gary A. 2007. “The Biblical Flood Story in Light of the Gilgameš Flood Account.” Pages 115-127 in Gilgameš and the World of Assyria: Proceedings of the Conference Held at the Mandelbaum House, The University of Sydney, 21–23 July 2004. Edited by Noel K. Weeks and Joseph J. Azize. Leuven: Peeters.

Tsumura, David Toshio. 1994. “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood: An Introduction.” Pages 27-57 in I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1–11. Edited by Richard S. Hess and David Toshio Tsumura. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

Walton, J. H. 2003. “Flood.” Pages 315-326 in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. Edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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