Written by the Winners
Book V of Gilgamesh
Although occasionally historical and usually dramatic, most literature sets itself apart from history in that it does detail not only these right and wrong scenarios but allows students to see that sometimes the “wrong” can prevail and that evil occurrences do happen to those who are undeserving of them. The characters in literature, occasionally based on historical figures, are given personalities that are intended for readers to attribute certain characteristics and values that allow them to develop the ideas of what is good or evil, moral or immoral and right or wrong. This article will examine and compare these key values in two ancient texts; the ancient Sumerian epic poem Gilgamesh and the Bible's Book of Job.
Although vastly different in many ways, these two texts are eerily similar in others. As a quick overview, Gilgamesh is a Sumerian poem about a tyrant king who befriends an arch enemy who is created by divine powers. Upon the death of his friend, Gilgamesh begins a journey to find eternal life. He fails miserably due to his humanity, which Ironically, dominates the divine and demigod powers that he does have. The Book of Job is about a humble man loved by God that is afflicted with many trials and tribulations when Satan tempts God into proving the faithfulness Job has for Him. Both of the main characters in these stories are, in a sense, loved by the celestial powers that govern their lives. A reader could marvel at the misfortune each encounter throughout their experiences at the hands of these powers.
One key value that permeates each story is loyalty. Enkidu, the friend/enemy of Gilgamesh, remains loyal to the end even after a bitter and painful death staged by the gods. In turn, Gilgamesh mourns and seeks vengeance for Enkidu’s death. The author writes, “He began to rage like a lion, like a lioness robbed of her whelps” (Part 3). Enkidu had left the world he knew to be with Gilgamesh and to take part in his journeys while at the same time, literature students will study how Gilgamesh began the epic journey that was to help Enkidu find himself again. Although it is easier to see Gilgamesh as having selfish and immoral qualities, there are facets of the opposite that do become apparent in the poem when he mourns Enkidu’s death.
In comparison, the Book of Job clearly defines the loyalty and faithfulness Job has to God even when He makes Job suffer afflictions at His and Satan’s hands. For example, at the taunting of Satan, God decides to test Job’s loyalty and takes his wealth, servants and even his children in a tragic accident but still, Job does not question his misfortunes or denounces his faith. God allows Satan to badly affect Job with boils and sores and even at the prompting of his wife, Job does not curse God or ask why he is the subject of such suffering. Instead, he says, “Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Book of Job, 2). The value of loyalty is never more evident than in the Book of Job, indicated clearly by this statement. Although Job does lose his composure toward the closing of the book, God intervenes and reiterates that He is all-powerful. Job repents of his sin and is once again taken in the bosom of God and is granted better fortune than he once had.
Another key value in both of the texts is the value of humility. Readers can grasp right away that Gilgamesh is far from humble at the beginning of the poem. His subjects plead to the gods immediately to create a deterrent to his selfish actions. Thus, Enkidu was created and Gilgamesh begins to understand the value of humility when Enkidu dies. He then loses the few chances he was given to obtain eternal life. The author writes, “He went a long journey, was weary, worn out with labour, and returning engraved on a stone the whole story” (Part 6). At the end of his epic, Gilgamesh returned to Uruk as a wiser leader and far more versed in reality than he had been at the start.
Similarly, when the trials Job endured from God and Satan ended, he still remained faithful and devout but yet humbled by God at the times when loyalty was demanded at its greatest and had been momentarily forgotten. Job told God, “Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth. Once have I spoken; but I will not answer: yea, twice; but I will proceed no further” (Book of Job, 40). Job accepts that with his humanity, he is not in a position to question or make demands of a God that is almighty and all powerful who has reasons beyond the comprehension of humanity. Upon repenting, Job is granted a life much richer than he previously possessed. He had kept his faith and remained loyal, recognizing that he is far removed from the divine power that oversees and creates all living creatures.
The Conversation of God and Satan
Literature is not defined by time, as these two texts may suggest. Although hundreds of years apart, the similarities in the ancient Gilgamesh and the biblical Book of Job with reference to human values are those which cannot be attributed to historical periods. Rather, these values permeate all eras, all literature and all the characters in it.