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Epic of Gilgamesh

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The Deluge Tablet from the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Babylonian story of the heroic character Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. It was most likely written during the Third Dynasty of Ur (2150-2000 BC). The text of The Epic of Gilgamesh is available online in its entirety.

The Story of the Flood

The Epic of Gilgamesh contains what is arguably the most important flood legend known to exist, due to the age of the text and the close parallel with the Biblical narrative. Its existence establishes ancient knowledge of the global flood as written in the Hebrew book of Genesis. The ancient Epic of Gilgamesh tablet XI describes the deluge in great detail through the character Utnapishtim.

Excerpt:

For six days and six nights the winds blew, torrent and tempest and flood overwhelmed the world, tempest and flood raged together like warring hosts. When the seventh day dawned the storm from the south subsided, the sea grew calm, the, flood was stilled; I looked at the face of the world and there was silence, all mankind was turned to clay. The surface of the sea stretched as flat as a roof-top; I opened a hatch and the light fell on my face. Then I bowed low, I sat down and I wept, the tears streamed down my face, for on every side was the waste of water. I looked for land in vain, but fourteen leagues distant there appeared a mountain, and there the boat grounded; on the mountain of Nisir the boat held fast, she held fast and did not budge. One day she held, and -a second day on the mountain of Nisir she held fast and did not budge. A third day, and a fourth day she held fast on the mountain and did not budge; a fifth day and a sixth day she held fast on the mountain. When the seventh day dawned I loosed a dove and let her go. She flew away, but finding no resting-place she returned. Then I loosed a swallow, and she flew away but finding no resting-place she returned. I loosed a raven, she saw that the waters had retreated, she ate, she flew around, she cawed, and she did not come back. Then I threw everything open to the four winds, I made a sacrifice and poured out a libation on the mountain top.[1]

The Forest Journey

In The Forest Journey, Gilgamesh travels to a vast forest to make a name for himself by killing a "ferocious giant" or "monster" called Humbaba, which is known to reside there. Gilgamesh states: I will set up my name where the names of famous men are written; and where no man's name is written I will raise a monument to the gods.[2] The giant (Humbaba) is described in terrifying terms in the following descriptions.

Enlil has appointed Humbaba to guard it and armed him with sevenfold terrors, terrible to all flesh is Humbaba. When he roars it is like the torrent of the storm, his breath is like fire, and his jaws are death itself... His teeth are dragon's fangs, his countenance is like a lion, his charge is the rushing of the flood, with his look he crushes alike the trees of the forest and reeds in the swamp.[2]

In his book The Great Dinosaur Mystery and the Bible, Paul Taylor states that the giant (Humbaba) is a dragon and the story possibly a true event in which a dinosaur was killed.[3] However, it is noteworthy that the text never identifies the monster as a dragon, although the word appears in the text of the epic on five occasions. In addition, the description of Humbaba states that the monster has teeth like "dragon's fangs", which seems to explicitly imply that the creature was of a different type. Other questions as to the identify and historicity of the event are raised by the monster speaking with Gilgamesh and pleading for its life: Let me go free, Gilgamesh, and I will be your servant, you shall be my lord; all the trees of the forest that I tended on the mountain shall be yours. I will cut them down and build you a palace.[2]

Utnapishtim

It should be noted that Gilgamesh is not the hero of the flood story. Following the death of his comanion Enkidu, Gilgamesh is motivated to search for immortality and is advised to seek out Utnapishtim (Ziusudra in the Sumerian version) who lives "at the mouth of the rivers" or Dilmun. Gilgamesh undertakes the long and dangerous journey and it is Utnapishtim who tells him how the gods determined to destroy mankind but their secret was betrayed to Utnapishtim by Ea, who advised him to build a boat.

Then follows the description of the flood given above, after which the text states that in compensation for what they have gone through, Utnapishtim and his wife are given the gift of immortality. In commenting on the parallels between the epic and the Bible story, no one has remarked on this detail, yet it may preserve a truth.

If we compare the length of Shem's life with that of his descendants, we find that Shem outlived them all until the time of Abraham! To men like Peleg or Nahor it must have seemed as if Shem was indeed immortal and as the earliest versions of the epic predate the time of Abraham it could be that Shem was the prototype upon which Utnapishtim and his gift of immortality was based.

In addition, I am attracted to the idea that Ea is identifiable with Yah (Jah), the God of Abraham. It would seem surprising if the oldest writings in existence - Sumerian - had no memory of the true God.

Copying

It is commonly claimed that the Biblical story of the Flood is based upon the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Some Bible scholars have proposed that the copying is the other way round, though a majority prefer to think that both are based on a common memory of a real event in history.

The Epic of Gilgamesh has been found in three major rescensions: the Sumerian (c. 2100 BC), the Old Babylonian (c. 1800 BC) and the Akkadian (c. 1200 BC). Note that although the Akkadian version was found in the Library of Asshurbanipal, who lived in the 7th century BC, it is attributed to a certain Sin-liqe-unninni, a scribe who lived sometime between 1300 BC and 1000 BC. By conventional chronology this would be the period of the Judges in Israel, a time when there were no recorded contacts between Assyria and Israel.

Although the latest known version of the Epic dates to 130 BC, when Babylon was ruled by the Parthians, I am not aware of any versions from the New Babylonian Period of Nebuchadnezzar II, so we are unable to tell whether the Biblical account mirrors whatever may have been current during the Exile. However we do have a very similar version preserved by the Babylonian historian Berossus (340-278 BC) as quoted by the Byzantine scholar George Syncellus (died AD 810), so it is likely that what we today regard as "the Standard Version" was known in the time of Nebuchadnezzar.

There is clear development of the story between the three, with additional characters, motivations and details in the later versions which are not present in the earlier ones. It is notable that the Biblical account most closely resembles the latest version of the Epic - the Akkadian. This is contrary to what one would expect if a common memory was involved: in such a case it would be the earliest versions which were most similar and divergences would creep in over time.

Although this might seem to support the copying hypothesis, there are several problems with that idea. The first is simple pscyhology: it is hard to think of the Israelites eagerly incorporating the legends of a cruel and hated oppressor in their sacred writings! The second is that even if they did, it would have been the now-vanished ten tribes (the Lost Tribes) who were exposed to the Akkadian religion and culture. Not only did they never return to Palestine, but they were despised by Judah for their unfaithfulness, so any additions or modifications to the Torah that they might propose would be unlikely to succeed.

If, however, we propose that the copying occured during the Exile, not only do we have the psychological difficulty expressed above, but we have the fact that by that time the "Book of the Law" was known and familiar (however much it might be transgressed) and it would be incredible if a new story could be incorporated without protest. At the very least we would expect Ezra, so keen on purging all heathen influences from Israel, to have removed pagan innovations from the foundational document of Judaism.

It seems safest, therefore, to acknowledge the difficulties but to conclude, as did George Smith, discoverer and translator of the Gilgamesh Epic, "On reviewing the evidence it is apparent that the events of the Flood narrated in the Bible and the inscription are the same, and occur in the same order; but the minor differences in the details show that the inscription embodies a distinct and independent tradition."

References

  1. The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Story of the Flood by Assyrian International News Agency
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Epic of Gilgamesh: The Forest Journey by Assyrian International News Agency
  3. P. Taylor, The Great Dinosaur Mystery and the Bible, Denver, CO: Accent Publications, (1989) p.37

External links

See Also