Monday, January 17, 2011

From Gilgamesh to Genesis

   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.

Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Phoenix Books) 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.


  1. The argument arises time after time, with story after story. Did one "come from" another, or was the later a spontaneous creation? And yes, then there is the competition for superiority. One of my joys in not being part of an academic world is not having to engage in these debates.

  2. P.J.: Ah, yes. It is nice to be reminded that being outside the academic world of literature has its advantages. There are times when I feel so hungry for the kind of teaching and sharing that would go on in a department! On the other hand, I do like being free to have very personal reactions rather than ones that might determine whether or not I got tenure.

  3. Slow, Plot-Driven ReaderJanuary 17, 2011

    It thrills me to consider that the stories of Genesis are far older than I was taught. It makes the history of literature alive with new possibilities. Your project is at least in part a chance to listen to the 'great dialogue' of Western literature. How amazing to be reminded that even when we can not hear it, authors, including Biblical authors, have been listening to the stories that surround and proceed them.

  4. Slow Plot: You have put your finger on it. Even what we think of as foundations are simply stories resting on top of other stories. That intricate intertwining puzzle of storytelling is at the core of the Great Conversation, as you say, and exactly what I want to teach myself to recognize--at least occasionally.

  5. Very interesting! I've not gotten to these older texts yet, though I have read (one) translation of the New and Old Testaments.

    I've read some of the Native American creation stories, and they also compare to Genesis pretty eerily... well, some. :-)

  6. How interesting, Jillian. I guess there is something fundamentally human in myth that gets replicated in different ways throughout cultures. Fascinating.

  7. You're quite right - the elephant in the room for the biblical story is the mass slaughter of humanity. The traditional Christian argument goes that the biblical God is moral and consistent because the reason for the flood was human wickedness and violence; the capricious Mesopotamian gods, on the other hand, are simply irritated by the noise created by their army of human workers. However, this argument completely ignores the human cost of the flood.

    At least the Babylonian gods regret their actions and lament the tragic loss of life. The chief instigator, Enlil, is severely rebuked for delivering such a disproportionate punishment and demonstrates his acceptance of this rebuke by rewarding Utnapishtim with eternal life. It is, consequently, completely fallacious to claim that the gods in the Mesopotamian story lack any sense of morality or justice. The God of Genesis, however, emerges as a mass murderer with no sense of remorse.

    When it comes to the links between the two flood stories, Heidel is equally unreliable. Today few scholars doubt that Genesis depends upon a Mesopotamian original. The existence of flood stories in other cultures is a red herring - none match the biblical story nearly as closely as the Mesopotamian one. The objection that flooding was a common phenomenon fails to explain the intimate literary relationship between the two stories, and it was low lying Mesopotamia that was constantly prone to flooding - not Canaan.

  8. Interesting to read about these parallels. When they popped up in Gilgamesh, I wondered about them but did not read further. I'm glad you took the time to do so and then to share it with us.

    I'm really enjoying your journey so far, even though it's only just begun. In a way, reading your blog is like taking a mini class on literature through the ages. I like that you're taking time to investigate each text, including your personal reactions but also looking at other aspects of the text and even other sources. I hope you're enjoying your reading so far, too!

  9. Humbahaha: Thank you! Your point about the commonality of flood stories in Mesopotamia but not Canaan is exactly what I was wondering about. And the similarity of the wording/plotting is astounding between Genesis and Gilamesh. I appreciate very much your sharing your knowledge with me.

    Erin: What a wonderful comment! I am enjoying this process immensely and am thrilled to have a few fellow classmates along for the ride. I just wish I had started journey when I was younger!


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