Creation stories in the Bible and The Epic of Gilgamesh: How are they similar?
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest poem known to mankind. It even predates the Bible. It was carved onto twelve tablets and many agree that it is one of the most beautiful poems of all time. There are several stories that Gilgamesh and the Bible share. There are three that are particularly interesting, due to their recounting in many different cultures.They both have an account of a flood wiping almost all of creation away, a story about a plant which gives desirable attributes, and a story about the downfall of a man by a harlot. The stories have similar plot lines, yet are extremely different in meaning.
Destruction by flood is a story that has been a staple in many different stories. Human from many different culture by nature have a certain relationship with water. The stories have differences that highlight the beliefs in that culture. This is why the bible and the epic are so different. Their first difference is how they depict their gods. The epic of Gilgamesh depicts its gods as cruel and only marginally powerful. The Bible depicts its God as omnipotent and omniscient. This is evident throughout the entire account of the flood. The gods of Gilgamesh want to destroy all of humanity. Utanapishtim the protagonist of Gilgamesh survives the flood despite the gods effort. This serves to prove that the god of Gilgamesh do not have total control over everything. The God of the Bible wants to save Noah in his family and His plans go accordingly. The main point in the story is that the Biblical God is omnipotent.
In each story the protagonist builds an Ark. However there is a difference in what goes into the Ark that they build. Utanapishtim fills the ark with gold and silver. It is clear that his people are materialistic, valuing gold over the rest of creation. The problem is that Ea, the god which told Utanapishtim about the flood also instructed him to abandon materialistic things. Ea specifically said to seek only the living to fill his boat with and to reject material objects. Utanapishtim disregarded that because it is within his power to defy the gods. Noah however put in his ark exactly as God instructed. Meaning nothing of earthly value was put into his ark and also what God instructs is law. The God of the bible has total control over the situation. Nothing goes out of plan. God wants to save Noah, and Noah is saved. God wants only a select list of things to go into the ark, and it is done. There is no leeway with the Biblical God like there is with the gods of Gilgamesh.
The duration of the Gilgamesh flood lasted seven days while the biblical flood lasted around three hundred and seventy days. Near the end of the flood each hero sends out birds to find dry land. Utanapishtim sends out a dove, a swallow, and a raven. The dove and swallow both return, and raven does not return. Upon this, he leaves the ark and prepares a sacrifice. Noah sends out a raven and a dove twice. The raven comes back, the first dove comes back with an olive leaf, and the last dove doesn’t come back. Even though Noah knows that there is dry land, he does not go out until God tells him. Utanapishtim doesn’t wait for any god and freely exits the ark as he sees fit. The relevance is here the bible is making commentary on Gilgamesh, no matter what you think you know God has the final word.
The last difference is the sacrifice that they make at the end. Utanapishtim sacrifices one sheep and he also boils perfume, which is probably an act to summon the gods. The gods swarm like flies around his sacrifices after smelling the perfume. Utanapishtim curses Enlil, the god which brought on the flood, saying that his actions were both harsh and stupid. He bans Enlil from his sacrifice, shunning him for destroying all of creation. It is then that Enlil turns him and his wife into immortals, perhaps so that Utanapishtim will no longer hold a grudge. Utanapishtim clearly has control over the gods, because he is able to ban Enlil from his sacrifice. This is vastly different from the biblical sacrifice. Noah sacrifices several animals by cutting them in half. God smells the sacrifice and makes a covenant with Noah. God promises not to destroy the whole world with water again.
The gods of Gilgamesh are rash only thinking about the present. This is a clear reflection of how Mesopotamians felt about their surroundings, the environment being the result of rash and selfish gods. The biblical god has complete control over the environment and foreknowledge until the end of time. Reflecting how its people feel about the environment even if it’s harsh.
Plants of Omipotence
The second story is one about a tree which provides everlasting life, and also how a serpent deceives the hero causing the hero to lose immortality. In the story, it also gives an explanation of a physical property of the snake. In Genesis, God forbids Adam and Eve from eating from a certain tree. A serpent deceives Eve into eating the fruit. Eve then gives the fruit to Adam which he eats. God punishes the snake by taking off its legs, causing it to slither on the ground on it belly eating the dirt for all the days in its life. This explains why snakes have no legs. God also punishes Adam and Eve, casting them off from the Garden of Eden. God also puts a sword of fire so that Adam and Eve cannot attain immortality. Adam and Eve were immortal before eating from the tree, and lost their immortality from eating from the tree. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh about a plant which will restore his youth. Gilgamesh acquires this plant, which happens to be on the floor of the ocean. Gilgamesh doesn’t eat the plant right away, showing that he is a flawed character. Gilgamesh bathes in a spring, putting the plant down. Where a serpent takes the plant and carries it off. It is assumed that the serpent eats the plant which gives it the property of shedding his skin, thus renewing his youth. This story lacks any act of Gods, Gods don’t appear to punish or aid. Utanapishtim isn’t active here and only tells Gilgamesh about the plant leaving the rest up to him.
There are clear differences from these two stories but there are also some deep similarities. Each story in its own way shows how flawed humans are. Gilgamesh loses his chance at immortality through his own folly. Adam and Eve lose their immortality when they disobey God and eat from the tree of knowledge. Gilgamesh was a human that is more closely related to the biblical depiction of Humans. Utanapishtim is nothing like a human even when he is human. This is why his flood story is in such contrast with the biblical counterpart.
Though there depiction of humans is similar, their depiction of serpents is vastly different. The serpent in the Bible has clear evil intent. This serpent is shrew and humanistic, when he tricks Eve. He rewords God, making God’s demand sound absurd. Eve falls for his trap and rewords God’s demand herself, saying that she was not allowed to even the touch the tree. She convinces herself that god was being unfair and she eats from the tree. The serpent gains nothing from this, and it is unclear why he does tricks Eve. God’s punishes the serpent giving all of its bad qualities including hatred between snakes and humans. It is clear that humans detest snakes in this story
The serpent of Gilgamesh however lacks evil intent. This serpent is simply an animal. He smells the plant, seeing that it is good to eat and takes it. Gilgamesh does not resist because either he is too occupied or more likely the serpent is stealthy, able to take the plant from under his nose. This serpent doesn’t lose anything either, in fact he regains his youth. There is a clear stab at Gilgamesh in this story. Gilgamesh is not smart enough to eat the plant when he acquires it. The snake however quickly eats the plant after he takes it away from Gilgamesh. Though the snake is an animal, the story seems to praise his nature by rewarding him with youth. The people were perhaps envious of the snake, because of his ability to shed its skin, and its stealth.
In each story immortality is lost because of human folly. The biblical version is harsher on humans though. In the beginning the humans already had immortality. They lose their immortality through an act of disobedience. Gilgamesh is only seeking immortality, he doesn’t start with anything. His loss isn’t as great, because he had nothing to begin with. Adam and Eve lose everything. In the bible, God is both active and perfect and because of this none of the mistakes happening can be put on him. All the blame is put on Adam and Eve. Gilgamesh however has no omnipotent being caring for him, which gives room for sympathizing.
Harlot and a Wild Man
The last story is where a harlot brings downfall to a man chosen by God or Gods. In the bible is story is about Samson and Delilah. In the Epic of Gilgamesh the story is about Enkidu and Shamhat. This story is very deep and intricate in the Epic of Gilgamesh, in the biblical version it is very short leaving much up to interpretation.
Samson is the last prophet before Israel decides to have king. Samson is chosen by god to help Israel overcome their oppressors which at the time was the Philistines. Samson falls in love with Delilah. The Philistines give Delilah money to find the secret of Samson strength. Samson tells her a lie three times, each time he is ambushed but recovers because the secret of his strength is still hidden. The final time Samson tells Delilah the truth and his enemies capture and blind him. Samson kills some philistines by pushing two columns apart.
Aruru is the creator of all humans, and was giving the task of creating Enkidu. Enkidu’s creation is somewhat similar to creation of Adam and Eve. Enkidu was created from clay and with a certain intimacy. Enkidu was created to be Gilgamesh’s equal, and teach him the ways of friendship and humility. Enkidu is created in the forest brought out by Shamhat. Enkidu is brought to Gilgamesh. Enkidu rebukes Gilgamesh for some of his ways. He then later dies regretting the day when he turned into a human.
Samson and Enkidu are nearly the same. This basis for each character for some reason remained unchanged in both stories. They both do not drink wine, both have long hair, both have superhuman strength and they both have the same weakness for a woman that leads to their demise. Their stories however end on a different note, which is how the story comments on a character like them. Since the characters are so much alike, is a good object to compare the bible and Gilgamesh. The bible looks at the defeat and flaws of Samson, while Gilgamesh looks at the good aspects of Enkidu while we was still alive.
Enkidu’s downfall is much later in the tablets, he is created in the first tablet and he dies in the seventh. Because the tablets are missing many lines at the end, it is unclear about the exact death of Enkidu. But there are things that are evident, Enkidu died with remorse for becoming human. He feels that his downfall was caused by Shamhat, and wishes to be a wild animal again. He curses Shamhat, and is rebuked by Shamash. Shamash presents Shamhat in better light which fills Enkidu with remorse. Enkidu ends up blessing Shamhat. There is plenty of ambiguity over the meaning of these actions.
One thing is clear however. Enkidu’s death was tragic, Gilgamesh mourned over him over the entire eighth tablet. This reflects such a love of life and a grief over death. The biblical story did not mourn over Samson. Samson’s final act destroyed both him and a few thousand philistines. There wasn’t any lament on his part, and further more he failed Israel.
The view of two harlots is on opposite odds of the spectrum. Shamhat is put in good light for bringing Enkidu out of the wilderness. Delilah is hated for causing the down fall of Samson. Even though each of their actions causes the eventual down fall of the hero, the intention is vastly different. Shamhat was following the instructions of Gilgamesh. She had no intent that was wicked, or any kind of self gain. Delilah sold Samson for silver pieces. She was all about self gain and slyness. This is perhaps a commentary on how women are.
Though the story goes down a similar path, the intent of all the characters is different and gives us a different feeling. We feel differently for Samson than we do for Enkidu. Samson clearly saw that Delilah was deceitful. Delilah tied him up three times. Samson fully realized that Delilah was going to be his downfall and he still gave her the secret of his strength. There’s no sympathy for a character like that. Enkidu was more animal than he was man. He had no idea that Shamhat was going to be his downfall.
The bible and the epic of Gilgamesh use the same storylines to make very different comments on humanity and divinity. When putting the stories juxtaposed, we can get an array of ideas that we couldn’t get from them each separately. The first story of Noah and Utanapishtim give us a great idea of how each culture views god. Noah’s story describes its god as omnipotent and omniscient. God knows everything and acts accordingly. He is portrayed as the ultimate good in the story, sparing the good and destroying the bad. The gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh are almost on the opposite side of the spectrum. The only similarity is that they have some control over nature. Each is able to bring on the flood. The gods of Gilgamesh however after starting the flood run away like “dogs with their tales in between their legs”. These gods are put in a constant bad light. They are stupid and irrational, and Utanapishtim has every right to scorn them. God in the bible and the gods in Gilgamesh is clearly the most paramount character in which they establish their different views.
The second stories however definitely a commentary on human beings. The bible judges its humans in a much more unsympathetic way. Adam and Eve were given everything, including immortality. They lost everything because of their disobedience. This is the starting point for the rest of humanity. Every story afterwards is a story where a human is messing up. Humans in the bible are foolish, and sinful. While, Gilgamesh also loses his chance at immortality when he loses the plant of immortality, we don’t judge him in an unsympathetic way. The outcome of his actions wasn’t entirely his fault. The snake coming by and taking the plant was purely chance. His bad luck was just as much as a factor as him putting down the plant to bathe. The epic does admit to human folly but it doesn’t blame it entirely on the human, giving leeway by explaining that things do happen by chance, and we can’t foresee them because we are human. Basically we make mistakes because we are human rather than we are human because we make mistakes.
These stories, though similar in plot, offer vastly different views on how the world is. The epic of Gilgamesh offers us a world where our fate is the hands of powerful beings who are chaotic and irrational, where humans are constantly struggling and suffering due to this.This view does explains how the first civilizations viewed our world in a sense. People make mistakes and the world can be a scary place where it seems as though powerful forces are against you. The Bible gives us another view of the world where an omnipotent being works through a story where though it seems at times things are bad, it will always work out. This view of the world is equally valid. Though we bring about a lot of misfortune to ourselves, God is always willing to protect us when we turn to him. God also must be fair and punish us according to our sins. The world is how the ancient Jewish people viewed it. There is always a consequence to our action. When humble ourselves and follow a righteous path we often find ourselves in a better place. These two works are ones that give us another window of understanding. We can understand our world in a better way when we see it through the eyes of others. The Bible and the epic of Gilgamesh have a profound impact on their readers by opening their minds to different ideas about how the world is.
Epic of Gilgamesh. Academy for Ancient Texts. Ancient texts library. Retrieved November 7, 2009, from http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/
The Jewish Study Bible: featuring the Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation. New York: Oxford University Press, USA