For six days and seven night, the storm
demolished the earth. On the seventh day,
the downpour stopped. The ocean grew calm.
No land could be seen, just water on all sides....
I opened a hatch and blessed sunlight
streamed upon me.... On the seventh day,
I brought out a dove and set it free.
The dove flew off, then flew back to the ship,
because there was no place to land.... I waited,
then I brought out a raven and set it free.
The raven flew off, and because the water
had receded, it found a branch, it sat there,
it ate, it flew off and didn't return.
If you grew up with the Noah story from the first chapter of the Bible, this flood story sounds pretty familiar. You might even assume it is a translation with which you are unfamiliar. But it is not. It is instead Gilgamesh, as translated by Stephen Mitchell. The written version of the Gilgamesh tale predates when Orthodox Jews believe God handed down the stories of the Bible--in fact, predates it by roughly one thousand years.
The version of the flood story in Gilgamesh parallels the Noah story extremely closely. We get the story of a good man warned by the gods that the rains are coming. He is instructed to build an ark and given very precise directions about measurements. He fills the ark with his family, with "all kinds of animals, wild and tame" and (unlike in the Noah story) "craftsmen and artisans of every kind."
Scholars and readers debate why the stories are so similar. Some argue that floods were so common in this area that the stories arose naturally--and that the details about sending out the birds are simply a reflection that this action was culturally commonplace. Personally, I find it very hard to deny the intense similarity between the stories. Instead, the fact that at least fragments of the Gilgamesh story have been found all over the area--including in both Hittite and Palestinian lands--adds to the fact that early Israelites traveled widely in the area to imply they were almost certainly aware of the stories of Mesopotamia and incorporated them into their own oral storytelling.
There are other, less tangible similarities between Gilgamesh and the Old Testament. One is the central role of a snake (and a plant) in the loss of opportunity for human immortality. Another similarity between the texts is that knowledge and sexuality are intimately linked. (Interestingly, they are treated in almost opposite ways in the two stories.) Yet another similarity is that, as in Exodus, the gods hear the cry of the people and seek to respond to a tyrant.
Alexander Heidel undertook an academic analysis of this topic in the 1940s and published his findings, along with a dated and unappealing translation, as The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. His general conclusion is that the two works are fundamentally different from each other. As he writes, "The skeleton is the same in both cases, but the flesh and blood and, above all, the animating spirit are different." By "animating spirit," Heidel is of course referring to the fact that the controlling divinities are different in the two narratives. In the Mesopotamian epic, the gods are capricious or even childish. "Their moral or ethical motive is almost absent," he writes, from the decision-making process of the gods. They are not "actuated by moral ideals" and the flood is not a "divine visitation on human corruption."
In contrast, the God of the Old Testament is in Heidel's portrayal the true God, "the one omnipotent God, who is just in all his dealings with the children of men, who punishes the impenitent sinner, even if it means the destruction of the world, but who saves the just with his powerful hand and in his own way." Although I completely accept that individual people might hold religious beliefs that state that one source of divinity is real and the other is not, I cannot accept it as an academic argument. I therefore was extremely frustrated with Heidel's book.
It is not just the fact that Heidel states his beliefs as argument that troubles me. Sometimes, I simply can't follow his logic at all. For example, Heidel argues that the OT God is inherently good --unlike the Mesopotamian gods-- since the gods of Gilgamesh's world regret the destruction of man, while the Old Testament God regrets the creation of man. If I had been forced to state which was more moral in this situation, I would have argued exactly the opposite.
* * *
Although I don't intend to read the Bible right now, I'll be spending the next few posts talking about why I am not, what translations are available, and what we know about the history of the text.