World Civilization 101
Common Threads: Great Flood and the Flood in ?The Epic of Gilgamesh?
Did the authors of the Old Testament have a copy of ?The Epic of Gilgamesh?? Or was this fantastic plot, and its unmistakably recognizable specifics, simply a part of the broader oral history of the time, which possibly originated with a real event? The story of the Great Flood that takes place in Genesis would have probably sounded familiar to someone who lived thousands of years earlier, in the ancient Near Eastern culture that passed down ?Gilgamesh? in an oral tradition. The striking resilience of this tale told in the ?flood chapters? of the earliest known work of literature, could be evidence of an ancient flood so enormous as to remain in the collective conscience and culture of the surviving descendants for such periods of time. But most importantly, numerous facets of Noah?s heroic, adventurous tale correspond in surprising detail to very similar ones in Utnapishtim?s. With each matching description and event building a stronger case, it would be difficult not to imagine the former saga having evolved somehow from the latter.
Genesis tells us that ?Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth,? and it is subtly implied that Noah was allowed to live over five times as long as other men in order that he might carry out God?s orders. This relatively eternal lifespan was surely a reward for obeying God. In ?Gilgamesh?, Utnapishtim also was directly rewarded for his nautical efforts and outstanding character with eternal life, (and Gilgamesh?s quest for the secrets of this gift of the gods comprises the larger plot of the book. Presumably, many people also read the bible in search of an ?eternal life?). Thus, Noah?s tale resembles Utnapishtim?s thematically right from the beginning, and then in a number of details.
Why these two men are deserving of their pestilence-escaping privilege is also quickly made clear: Utnapishtim is awarded for ?his ingenuity and his faithfulness?, and God espouses Noah?s being ?a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time.? Again, just as the suggestion that compliant individuals would be rewarded with eternal life, both storytellers now reveal motives to suggest that the listener should strongly consider obeying the wills of the gods, or in the later version, of God.
Each man was told to construct an unbelievably large-sized boat, to comparable dimensions that are beyond the scale of what would surely have been an awe-inspiring ship by the standards of either era. Describing his boat?s vastness, Utnapishtim boasted ?One (whole) acre was her floor space,? and ?three sar [24,000 gallons] of asphalt I also poured inside.? Noah?s ark was equally staggering: ?450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high.? Both of these ocean- liners were then divided into the numerous chambers that would surely be needed, and again by orders from above: ??make rooms in it,? God said to Noah, and similarly, Utnapishtim followed the advice of Ea when he ?provided her with six decks, dividing her (thus) into seven parts. Her floor plan [he] divided into nine parts.? The only significant difference here was that wise Noah waited, and ?as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth.? Conversely, in the original story, Utnapishtim had reported that ?the launching was very difficult.? Imaginably so!
Ea?s instructions to Utnapishtim, regarding what to bring aboard the awesome-sized vessel, were to ?take thou the seed of all living things.? As one god of many, Ea was unable to stop the flood, but clearly intended for there to be human and animal survivors. This of course was God?s intention too, before bringing on His Great Flood, and His instructions to Noah were the same but in far greater detail: ?You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures?to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.?
In addition to the animals and a sensibly enormous amount of supplies, both men were told to bring along the wife and kids. Thus they were both further rewarded for good deeds with the future propagation of their families and their bloodline.
The only thing bigger than the boat was the flood, and it is described in equally terrifying detail in both of the sagas. In both cases, the earth?s mountains were reported to have been submerged, (though such claims provoke questions as to exactly what the people of that time conceived of as ?the entire earth?. It?s likely they could not conceive of the height of relatively nearby Mount Everest).
To create this unimaginably large flood, there were of course inconceivably relentless rains described in both stories. There was a significant disparity in the duration of the storms, as Noah?s famous endurance of ?forty days and forty nights?contrasted with Utnapishtim?s mere ?six days and six night? ordeal. However in both cases, the reader or listener is left with no doubt as to the terror that both storms must have wrought, perhaps more convincingly in the original tale, in which even ?the gods cowered like dogs.?
Lastly, it?s the similarity of the three events that end both stories which provide the most convincing evidence of the stories? common origin. Both ships came to rest on submerged mountains (damaging those unwieldy Cyprus keels for certain!) Then, both men release, retrieve, and re-release birds after the rain stops in order to detect any emerging dry land. The fact that doves are specifically indicated in both cases make the relatedness of these stories even more convincing, though it also suggests that this story emerged and propagated in a time and place in which doves were abundant. Finally, each of our heroes disembarked their arks, and expressed gratitude in nearly identical fashion: they offered sacrifices to their deities. The smells of the sacrificial pyres pleased the gods in ?Gilgamesh?, and then pleased God much later, in Genesis: When Utnapishtim ?offered a sacrifice?, the gods smelled the sweet savour?,? and then ?the gods crowded like flies about the sacrificer.? Similarly, ?Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ?Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.??
The process of analyzing and comparing these similar tales has left me with a strong sense of what purpose they probably served in being retold countless times through the generations, regardless of whether they were originally inspired by a truly catastrophic event or not. The implications in both the (nearly) pre-historic and the Old-Testament versions are the same: deities can become fed up with humans and strike them down vengefully and violently; they?re apt to wipe clean and start anew you might say. Furthermore, you can always increase your chances of being spared what might be coming, and of even being rewarded with eternal life, simply by ?living close to God?, as did Noah.