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Compare And Contrast Between The Flood In Gilgamesh And The Old Testament

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Category: English

Autor: anton 02 January 2011

Words: 2001 | Pages: 9


Thesis: The flood stories in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis have many points of agreement, suggesting that they are somehow connected. Yet, there are also many differences. This term paper will identify similarities and differences in both.

I. Introduction

II. Gilgamesh

a. What is the Epic of Gilgamesh?

b. When was it written?

c. What is it about?

d. Describe the beliefs of the people.

III. The Old Testament

a. When was it written?

b. Describe the flood?

IV. Comparison of the Two

a. Which came first?

b. Describe the similarities.

V. Summary

VI. Works Cited


This term paper compares the flood story in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible and the flood story in Gilgamesh. It identifies links between the ancient Sumerian epic and the account of Noah in Genesis as well as similarities between the two. Similarities include the use of an arc and sacrifices made after the floods to the respective gods.

While conducting the research for this paper, I reviewed a total of five books. The first was our current textbook, The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume A. I naturally used this textbook since it was readily available and in my personal library.

My father has an extensive religious library in his home so I sought his advice on where to begin. He offered two books he felt would be helpful. The first was Old Testament Commentary by H. C. Alleman and E. E. Flack. The second was The New Harper's Bible Dictionary by M. Miller and J. Miller.

After reading the aforementioned books, I took a trip to the public library and to search for additional reference material. There I found two books, which I found to be useful. The first was The Epic of Gilgamesh edited by N.K. Sanders. The second was Introduction to the Old Testament by J. West.

Comparison of Floods in Gilgamesh and Genesis

The flood story recurs in many ancient civilizations, though the nature of the story may be very different in some cultures. There appear to be links between the flood story as told in the ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh and the flood story of Noah as told in Genesis in the Old Testament of The Bible. Some believe the older Sumerian tale may have served as the basis for the biblical account. There is recent evidence that there may have been a great flood in the area of the Black Sea, which may have become a continuing tribal memory that was eventually embodied in The Epic of Gilgamesh and reshaped to fit the theology of the Israelites for the tale told in Genesis. The two versions of the flood story have many points of agreement, suggesting that they are somehow connected. In the flood in Genesis, the role of God differs from the role of the gods in Gilgamesh.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a cycle of poems preserved on twelve incomplete Akkadian-language tablets found at Nineveh in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. The tablets were found in the nineteenth century and date from the seventh century B.C. The time of the tale is one in which human beings felt close to the gods and believed that the gods intervened in their lives. Gilgamesh is a ruler who is portrayed as too devoted to war. The gods hear the lament of his people and send their own created hero, Enkidu, to do battle with Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh defeats Enkidu, after which they become friends. They set out together against Humbaba to do battle. When Gilgamesh refuses the marriage proposal of the goddess of love, Ishtar, she sends a divine bull against him, and he and Enkidu kill it. Enkidu dreams that he must die for his role in killing the bull, and he does die. Gilgamesh finds the “hollowness of moral fame” at the death of Enkidu and goes on a journey to in search of mortality. In his search Gilgamesh is seeking Utnapishtim, the one man who survived the Great Flood (Lawall 12).

Many of the elements in this epic can be found in other heroic epics, from the journey as a quest for some advantage to the slaying of a creature sent to do destruction. The epic also echoes certain social values in its celebration of the hero, its reverence for the gods, and its belief in the ruler-hero as a god himself. The people of this time also believe in fate and place their fate in the hands of the gods. Gilgamesh lives in a way that is ordained by the gods: "The destiny was fulfilled which the father of the gods, Enlil of the mountain, had decreed for Gilgamesh" (Sandars 118). The leader is not overly revered and is seen as embodying the fate, security, and stability of the people and their kingdom. When Gilgamesh dies, the people lament. Every aspect of life is ascribed to a god or gods. The death of Gilgamesh is attributed to Ereshkigal, the Queen of Death, and "to all the gods of the dead" (Sandars 119). The people see the world as a place of many dangers, ruled by different gods who behave as rulers of their particular kingdom. Humbaba is such a ruler, and his domain is the forest known as "the Country of the Living," "lying somewhere on the outer bounds of earth and reality" (Sandars 33). The people value the warlike strength of Gilgamesh because he can protect them from these other gods, as well as from other rulers who might attack them.

In ancient Sumeria, the people came more and more to depend on any leader who could accomplish such a feat and protect them from their neighbors, intruders from outside the area, and anyone who might want to plunder their villages. The tendency was thus toward greater centralization and increased power in the hands of whichever leader could achieve this. The story of Gilgamesh shows how such a leader might develop, and in time the leader would be able to anoint his own successor, consolidate power and create a dynasty. Great empires were formed in this manner and lasted for centuries. War in Mesopotamia helped shape the nature of civilization.

The composition of the bible took over 1,000 years with the Old Testament being developed between c. 1200 B.C. to 100 B.C., long after the creation of The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Bible includes oral material handed down over several generations that was put into written form by various people. According to Miller and Miller, many different people rewrote each book. The primary segment of the Old Testament is a historical and legal work originally in nine volumes and extending from Genesis through II Kings 25. The first five books were separated from the whole about 400 B.C. as the Pentateuch, and Jean Astruc in the eighteenth century noted that the Pentateuch is based on even earlier sources. The two chief sources have since been identified in Genesis on the basis of their respective uses of Yahweh or Elohim in referring to the deity. They are called J for the Jehovistic or Yahwistic source, E for the Elohistic source, and P for the Priestly source was later separated from the E source (Miller and Miller 698-699).

The account of the flood in the Old Testament is considered to be an interweaving of the J and P versions, both of which derive from Mesopotamian originals. Nearly all authorities find the story of the flood to be a composite. In the older, Yahwist version, the flood was caused by rain which continued forty days, while in the Elohim story it was caused by a cosmic convulsion causing the waters to rise and prevail for 150 days. In the Yahwist, J version, the flood disappears after three times seven days, while in the Elohim, Priestly account, the water subsides slowly over a period of a year and 10 days. Noah offers a sacrifice in the J version, and God makes a covenant with Noah in the Priestly account (Alleman and Flack 181).

The flood epic is framed by two J traditions, the first the sons of God and the daughters of men, and the second the cursing of Canaan. These are set in turn within the genealogies of Adam and Noah, respectively. The flood in this story is removed from Creation by 1,656 years. The life spans of the antediluvian fathers are exaggerated with an average of better than 850 years each, which is typical of ancient conceptions of the longevity of earlier human beings. West cites a Sumerian list of kings showing each king reigning for an average of 30,000 years.

West further states that the flood story is the first example in Genesis of a close interweaving of the Yahwistic and the Priestly sources into a single narrative. Two separate versions can be distinguished on the basis of the different names for God and characteristic vocabularies and styles, and the two versions virtually duplicate the basic features of the familiar Noah story. In both, God beholds the prevailing wickedness of man and decides to destroy his creation, though He exempts Noah because of his righteousness. Noah obeys God precisely, and when the waters recede finally and the land is dry, then Noah and his family venture forth from the ark as activity upon the earth is renewed, with God vowing never to repeat the Flood (West 1-93).

The flood story as found in The Epic of Gilgamesh derived from an oral tradition in Sumeria that probably reflected long-term historical memories of a real cataclysmic flood, probably in the Black Sea region. The flood story of Noah and the ark was very likely derived from the Sumerian story.

There are numerous points of similarity. In both, a god or God caused the flood due to his dissatisfaction with man’s behavior. In Gilgamesh, the flood was announced in a dream to Utnapishtim. In Genesis, God announced the flood to Noah. In both, the extent of the flood was global. Both floods were sent to cleanse the earth. Both featured an ark, though they are described differently. In Gilgamesh, the ark was seven stories high with many compartments, one door, at least one window, and was shaped like a cube. In Genesis, the ark was three stories high with many compartments, one door, one window, and in the shape of an oblong box. Both arks landed on a mountain. In Genesis, the ark landed in the mountains of Ararat. In Gilgamesh, the ark landed in the mountains of Mt. Nisir. Both Noah and Utnapishtim released birds to find land. Both make a sacrifice to their god. In the Sumerian story, Utnapishtim and his wife are made immortal, while Noah has a covenant with God. In both stories, after the flood, human beings begin living to normal ages rather than the long life spans described before. Both end with the god or God promising never to use a flood to destroy humankind again. The two stories derive from different social structures and serve different purposes in teaching lessons to the reader, though the primary lesson of giving fealty to the god or God remains the same.

Works Cited

Alleman, H.C. and E.E. Flack. Old Testament Commentary. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1948.

Lawall, Sarah, ed. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume A. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

Miller, Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller. The New Harper's Bible Dictionary. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Sandars, N.K. (ed.). The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Penguin, 1972.

West, James King. Introduction to the Old Testament. New York: Macmillan, 1981.

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