The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Old Testament

By "Shadow" Villanueva, Undergraduate, E.T.S.U.

Course: Ancient Religions

Professor: Dr. William Burgess, Ph.D.

April 20, 2004

The subject of this paper will compare the similarities between three stories of the Old Testament in The Bible : Noah's Ark , The Tree of Life, and Samson and Delilah with three similar stories told about the “Mightiest Mesopotamian Hero” (1), Gilgamesh. I will be discussing the origins of The Bible , The Epic of Gilgamesh, and will also cover who the real Gilgamesh was and why he was popular among his people.

The Bible and the Old Testament

The Old Testament is adapted from and finds its roots in The Torah , the sacred text of the Jewish religion. It is thought by many that The Torah accurately represents the true history of the Jewish people, their trials and the words of their god, and the teachings of the prophet Moses. It is believed that the laws of the god Yahweh - known as the “Ten Commandments” - were relayed to Moses, passed on to the “Children of Israel” and were written in the book of Exodus for all time.

The origins of The Bible are controversial at best. For literally hundreds of years there has been some debate, both academic and religious, as to where The Bible came from. Many in the Jewish faith claim that The Torah represents the literal history of the Hebrew people. Many in the academic field would contend that the Torah is roughly five hundred years off due to the timeline of some stories that are believed to be written by Moses and the creation of the written language of the Hebrews.(2)

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is believed to have been a Sumerian king from the city of Uruk who ruled around 2500 B.C.(3) Little is known about this actual historical figure or his mythological counterpart. What we know about the mythological Gilgamesh comes primarily from one of the oldest works of literature known to man: The Epic of Gilgamesh .(3) The written story of Gilgamesh possibly finds its roots as far back as 3,700 years ago but the oral story seems to have appeared circa 2100 B.C. (4) This is in stark contrast to the age of the main story in the Book of Exodus where Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt . The commonly accepted dates for this story, if it ever happened, would be circa 1300-1200 B.C.(5) If we were to accept these dates as being true this would make the tales told about Gilgamesh some eight hundred to nine hundred years older than any possible oral telling of the Old Testament stories in the Book of Exodus.

The Great Flood

Perhaps one of the foundations in the Old Testament is the story of Noah's Ark : “And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” Genesis 6:13.(6)

So it seems that Gilgamesh also had an adventure concerning a great flood: “Utanapishtim spoke to Gilgamesh, saying: "I will reveal to you, Gilgamesh, a thing that is hidden, a secret of the gods I will tell you Shuruppak, a city that you surely know, situated on the banks of the Euphrates, that city was very old, and there were gods inside it. The hearts of the Great Gods moved them to inflict the Flood.” Tablet XI 9-14. So it appears in both stories that the “sins” of man have angered their gods and so the gods are going to punish the human race. In both stories there is a warning of forthcoming disaster given to someone who is seen as worthy of being spared during the destruction of mankind. Both were given specific instructions on how to spare themselves and carry out certain wishes of the gods. Noah was instructed to: “Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.” Genesis 14-16. (6)

Gilgamesh was instructed: “O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubartutu: Tear down the house and build a boat! The boat which you are to build, its dimensions must measure equal to each other: its length must correspond to its width. Roof it over like the Apsu.” Tablet XI 24 and 28-30.

Both Noah and Gilgamesh spared their families and animals from the wrath that mankind faced: “But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons' wives with thee. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female.” Genesis 18-19. (6)

And from the Epic: “All the living beings that I had I loaded on it, I had all my kith and kin go up into the boat, all the beasts and animals of the field…” Tablet XI 84-85. They both also seemed to have the same idea to determine when it was safe to leave the safety of their boats and return to land: “And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth. Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground; But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark. And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.” Genesis 7-11.(6) Gilgamesh seemed to also use doves and ravens: “When a seventh day arrived I sent forth a dove and released it. The dove went off, but came back to me; no perch was visible so it circled back to me. I sent forth a swallow and released it. The swallow went off, but came back to me; no perch was visible so it circled back to me. I sent forth a raven and released it. The raven went off, and saw the waters slither back. It eats, it scratches, it bobs, but does not circle back to me.” Tablet XI 145-154.

The similarities between the story of Noah's Ark and the Flood of Gilgamesh are striking enough to cause suspicion in the authenticity of some of the Old Testament tales. Did the authors of The Bible simply reuse older tales? Perhaps the answer can be found in other similar tales.

The Magic Plant Vs. The Magic Tree

This story is not as obvious as the flood story but there are still some striking similarities here. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are instructed by God to not partake of the fruits of the “Tree of Knowledge”: Genesis 2:17. In the “Epic”, Gilgamesh is told of a “magic plant” called the "The Old Man Becomes a Young Man". This plant promises to make an old man young again and this offers immortality to anyone who partakes of it. Gilgamesh is denied this opportunity of immortality by a “serpent” who steals his plant while Gilgamesh was bathing Tablet XI 285-289.

The similarity starts here. In both stories mankind is denied immortality by a serpent and it all has to do with a plant or tree. In The Bible a serpent causes mankind to lose not only paradise but also innocence and immortality when he entices Eve to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: Genesis 3 1-6. Once they ate of the tree of Knowledge, their god said they would die: Genesis: 2:17 .

The Harlot: The Downfall of the Hero

The story of Samson and Delilah has served as a story of morals and sins of the flesh for thousands of years. In the story the hero Samson who had earned favor with God falls prey to the charms of a beautiful woman - Delilah - and reveals the source of his great strength - his long hair - to her. He is later arrested by Roman soldiers who cut his hair and thus leave him weak and vulnerable. The story of Samson and Delilah can be found in the book of Judges, chapter 16.

The story of Gilgamesh is different in that it is Gilgamesh who enlists the help of the harlot Shamhat to help him overcome the strength of Enkidu. As the story goes, Ekidu was made as a giant powerful man for the purpose of fighting Gilgamesh. When Enkidu came to earth, he had befriended the beasts and animals of Uruk and had sabotaged the traps of the hunters. One of the hunters sought help from Gilgamesh who told the hunter to find the harlot Shamhat. Gilgamesh told the harlot that she was to take off her clothes and reveal her attractions to Enkidu. Once Enkidu had fallen for her charms, he would become weak and lose his power over the beasts and they would be alien to him. Enkidu lay with the harlot for six days and when he awoke he discovered that the wild beast had fled and left him. When he tried to chase after the animals he found his limbs weak from his passionate affair.

The story of Enkidu seems to have an even deeper meaning than that of Samson and Delilah. As where the story of Samson was grimmer in its warnings of the power of women and falling from the grace of God, Enkidu underwent a loss of innocence and learned the ways of the world. The harlot Shamhat had taken his innocence but she offered him flattery and taught him the joys of passion. With Samson, he had already known the passions of women before he met Delilah “Then went Samson to Gaza , and saw there an harlot, and went in unto her.” Judges 16:1. Samson's affair with Delilah was also the beginning of the end of the hero. With Enkidu, it was more of a beginning of adulthood.

Similarities Between Epic and Testament

There is no doubt that scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have recognized the similarities between the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Old Testament. (8) The debate on how much of the Old Testament is based on older pagan stories and how indebted the Hebrew religion is to Mesopotamian story tellers continue to this very day. Although not as heated an argument as it has been in the past, there is no doubt that the similarities between the two are apparent and can not be ignored by anyone seriously exploring the origins of The Bible .

Gilgamesh: King, Hero, Legend

Not much is known at all of the historical Gilgamesh, however the recognition of Gilgamesh in Sumerian traditions suggest that he was considered a great success in his reign as king. There were many tales written about the military might of Uruk in which frequent mention of King Gilgamesh was made. These tales helped solidify his deification.(9) The first mention of Gilgamesh as a historical ruler is on the Sumerian King List where he is listed as “the fifth king of the First Dynasty, son of the semi-divine Lugalbanda and the goddess Ninsun. (10) This makes Gilgamesh two thirds god and one third human. This status shows the deep respect that was held for him among the people of his native land. Whoever King Gilgamesh was, he was well regarded and respected. So much so that his tales have become the literary crown jewel of Ancient Mesopotamia. This is a great honor and achievement that is not matched by many in history.

From Obscure Historical Figure to Divine Inspiration

Is it possible for an obscure historical king to inspire a series of legends that became the inspiration for two major world religions? The similarities are unmistakable and the tales of Gilgamesh do predate those of The Bible . When comparing the two literary pieces, the likeness of the two is striking and wide ranging. From the flood stories mentioned in this paper to death and the afterlife to guardians of forbidden lands, there is no mistaking that the mythological tales of this ancient king can easily compete with the same stories that are held sacred by many in modern society.

(1), (4), (9) “Mythology” Scott Littleton, 2002

(2) Dr. Burgess' Ancient Religions class, 2004, ETSU.

(3) “Gilgamesh The King” Robert Silverberg, 1984

(5) “Evidence For The Exodus From Egypt ”, BibleAndScience.com

(6) King James Version

(8) "The Gilgamesh Epic & The Old Testament Parallels" Alexander Heidel, 1946

(10) “Gilgamesh: A Modern Ancient Hero” Rivkah Scharf Kluger 1991

 

Bibliography

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Bible: Old Testament – King James Version.

Littleton , Scott C. Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling; Duncan Baird, 2002

Gardner, John & Maier, John. Gilgamesh. New York : Knopf Publishing, 1984.

Heidel, Alexander. The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament

Parallels. Chicago; University of Chicago Press,1946

Silverton, Robert. Gilgamesh The King; New York Arbor House, 1984

Kluger, Rivkah S. Gilgamesh: A modern Ancient Hero. Switzerland, Daimon Verlag, 1991

Bible&Science.com “ “Evidence For The Exodus From Egypt ”, 2002