Is the Biblical Flood Account a Modified Copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh?
by Rich Deem

Introduction

Skeptics claim that the flood narrative of Genesis1 is a rewritten version of an original myth, The Epic of Gilgamesh, from the Enuma Elish produced by the Sumerians. The flood of the Epic of Gilgamesh is contained on Tablet XI2 of twelve large stone tablets that date to around 650 B.C. These tablets are obviously not originals, since fragments of the flood story have been found on tablets that date to 2,000 B.C. It is likely that the story itself originated much before that, since the Sumerian cuneiform writing has been estimated to go as far back as 3,300 B.C.

The dating of Genesis is uncertain, since the preservation of papyri is not nearly as good as that of stone. Liberal scholars place the date between 1,500 and 500 B.C., although the events are claimed to have occurred several thousand years earlier.

Epic of Gilgamesh

Here is a brief background of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was an oppressive ruler of the Sumerians, whose people called to the gods to send a nemesis. One nemesis, Enkidu, became friends with Gilgamesh, and the two went out on many adventures. Enkidu was eventually killed and Gilgamesh then feared for his own life. In his search for immortality, he met Utnapishtim, who had been granted immortality by the gods, following his rescue from the flood. Utnapishtim then recounted the flood and how he became immortal.

Similarities between Genesis and Gilgamesh

Superficially, the flood accounts appear to be similar:

  1. Flood occurs in the Mesopotamian plain.
  2. Main character is warned to build a boat to escape the flood
  3. Main character is told to save himself, his family, and a sampling of animals
  4. The boats were sealed with tar
  5. The boats came to rest on a mountain
  6. Birds were released to determine if the waters receded
  7. Main character sacrificed an offering

Differences between Genesis and Gilgamesh

Despite superficial similarities, the differences between the accounts are quite significant. The table below lists most of the differences.

Significant Differences Between Genesis and Epic of Gilgamesh
Characteristic Genesis1 Gilgamesh2
Reason for flood human wickedness3 excessive human noisiness
Response of deity the Lord was sorry He made man because of his wickedness4 gods could not sleep
Warned by Yahweh (God)5 Ea
Main character Noah ("rest")6 Utnapishtim ("finder of life")
Why character chosen a righteous man6 no reason given
Intended for All humans except Noah and his family7 all humans
Decision to send flood Yahweh (God)8 council of the gods (primarily Enlil)
Builders Noah and family9 Utnapishtim, his family, and many craftsmen from city
Character's response Noah warned his neighbors of upcoming judgment as "Preacher of righteousness"10 Told by Ea to lie to neighbors so that they would help him build the boat
Building time 100 years11 7 days
Boat size 450x75x45 feet12 200x200x200 feet (unseaworthy cube)
Boat roof wood13 slate (top heavy?)
# Decks 314
Humans Noah and family7 Utnapishtim, his family, and craftsmen from city
Cargo animals and food15 animals, food, gold jewels, and other valuables
Launching by the floodwaters16 pushed to the river
Door closed by Yahweh (God)17 Utnapishtim
Sign of coming flood none extremely bright light sent by the Annanuki (collection of Sumerian gods)
Waters sent by Yahweh (God)7 Adad, with help from gods Shamash, Shullat, Hanish, Erragal, Ninurta
Reaction of deity to flood in control of waters18 gods scrambled to get away from water like "whipped dogs"
Duration of rain 40 days19 7 days
Duration of flood 370 days20 14 days
Boat landing Mt. Ararat21 Mt. Nisir
Deity's reaction to human deaths no regret mentioned regretted that they had killed all the humans
Birds sent out raven returns, dove returns second time with olive branch, then leaves22 dove returns, swallow returns, raven does not return
Offering after flood one of every clean animal and bird23 wines and a sheep
Aftermath God promises not to destroy humanity by flood again24 gods quarrel among themselves, god Ea lies to Enlil. Utnapishtim and wife given immortality like the gods
Repopulation Noah and family told to multiply and repopulate the earth25 Ea and Mami created 14 human beings to help repopulate the earth

What would be expected in any flood account?

Among the similarities between the Genesis and Gilgamesh there are some that would be expected to be found in any flood account. Since both cultures existed in the Middle East, it is not unexpected to find that both accounts occurred in the plains of Mesopotamia. The Bible described the creation of humans in the locale of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and never describes them expanding beyond that area prior to the flood. Therefore, this similarity (#1 on our list above) is just due to the nature of where the peoples lived.

Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the GospelsObviously, for humans to survive the flood, there would have to be a means of escape. A boat makes sense, since the cultures did not have the technology to build an airplane. Humans would not know that a flood was coming unless they were told so by someone. Therefore, the idea that the gods or God would warn certain humans would not be unexpected, either. Similarity #2 seems like an integral part of any ancient flood story, so does not constitute an unexpected similarity.

Since a flood would obviously kill livestock in addition to humans, it would make sense that the survivors should take some animals on board with them. They would probably want to eat during the time of the flood, so would be expected that food would be taken on board the boat. Therefore, similarity #3 would be expected in any flood account.

Since there was no glue or other sealing materials, it would be expected that the builders of the boats would use something natural that was water resistant. Hence, it is not surprising to find that both stories recount the use of tar or other natural resin. Eliminate similarity #4 as being significant.

The laws of physics require that wooden boats would float on top of the water (although this is questionable with the Gilgamesh boat, see below). When the waters began to recede, it would not be unreasonable for the boat to come to rest on a mountain or the foothills of a mountain. However, it would probably be expected that the boat would come to rest somewhere on the plains of Mesopotamia. Although superficially similar, the boats came to rest on different mountain ranges. The boat from Gilgamesh came to rest on Mt. Nisir, whereas the ark came to rest on Mt. Ararat. Why these details would have been changed is unknown.

Probably the most unique feature common to both accounts are the release of birds to determine when the waters had receded. However, there are some significant differences between the two accounts. In Gilgamesh, a dove is sent out first, whereas in Genesis, it is a raven. The second bird sent is a swallow in Gilgamesh and a dove in Genesis. A third bird, a raven, is sent out in Gilgamesh, whereas the dove is sent out again in Genesis and returns with an olive leaf. In Genesis, the dove is sent out a third time and does not return. If the Genesis account was copied from Gilgamesh, these details were changed significantly for no apparent reason.

The seventh similarity was a sacrificial offering made to the gods or God, when the main character had been delivered from the flood. The details of the offerings were quite different, since the Gilgamesh epic describes the offering of wines and a sheep. Noah sacrificed burnt offerings of all the clean animals on the ark, but no drink offering. Although it may seem like an unusual thing to do, in the cultures of the time, it would be expected that an offering would be made as an act of appreciation. In this age, it would be expected that religious people would offer prayers of thanks or at least a "Was I lucky" (depending upon one's religious worldview). Therefore, similarity #7 should not be seen as significant.

What would be expected if Genesis were a copy of Gilgamesh?

The first striking thing that one notices when reading the Epic of Gilgamesh is how silly the story is. Part of the silliness is because of the obviously human-like behavior of the gods. They are constantly fighting amongst each other, plotting and deceiving each other. One would expect this part of the story to be removed from a Genesis copy. Therefore, we would expect that the Genesis account would be changed to involve some kind of judgment, since Yahweh (God) does not capriciously destroy humans, as was done in the Gilgamesh epic. It would, therefore, make sense that Noah would be chosen for his righteousness although Utnapishtim was chosen for no apparent reason.

Even with these major changes not considered, there are many dissimilarities that would not be expected from a story copied from another story. For example, the timings of the flood accounts are vastly different. The Gilgamesh flood took only 3 weeks, whereas the Genesis flood lasted over a year. The Gilgamesh flood included several 7 day long events. This "perfect" number is found throughout the Bible, so would be expected to be retained if copied from the epic of Gilgamesh. However, the Bible uses numbers like 40 and 150 - much longer timeframes.

The boats in the two accounts are quite different. The Gilgamesh boat was an unseaworthy cube with a slate roof. Obviously, such a design would immediately flip over or roll around in the water. In contrast, the ark had dimensions that were ideal for a seaworthy ship. This fact might be surprising, since both cultures were not noted for their nautical skills. It is obvious that the gods of the Sumerians had no expertise in shipbuilding.

Conclusion Top of page

We have examined the similarities between the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis flood account of the Bible. Although there are a number of superficial similarities between the accounts, the vast majority of similarities would be expected to be found in any ancient flood account. Only two similarities stand out as being unique - landing of the boats on a mountain and the use of birds to determine when the flood subsided. However, both of these similarities differ in important details. In addition, there are great differences in the timing of each of the flood accounts and the nature of the vessels. Why these details would be so drastically changed is a problem for those who claim that the Genesis flood was derived from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

There are a couple possible explanations for the existence of multiple ancient flood accounts. One - that Genesis was a copy of Gilgamesh - has already been discussed and does not seem to fit the available data. The other possible explanation is that the flood was a real event in the history of mankind that was passed down through the generations of different cultures. If so, the Gilgamesh account seems to have undergone some rather radical transformations. The story is a rather silly myth that bears little resemblance to reality. In contrast, the Genesis account is a logical, seemingly factual account of a historical event. It lacks the obvious mythological aspects of the Gilgamesh epic.

(PDF version Is the Biblical Flood Account a Modified Copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh?)

�Es el Relato del diluvio B�blico una Copia Modificada de la Epopeya de Gilgamesh?



References Top of page

  1. Genesis 6-9- The Flood
  2. Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI.
  3. Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5)
  4. The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. (Genesis 6:6)
  5. Then God said to Noah, "The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth. (Genesis 6:1)
  6. These are the records of the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)
  7. "Behold, I, even I am bringing the flood of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life, from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall perish. But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall enter the ark--you and your sons and your wife, and your sons' wives with you." (Genesis 6:17-18)
  8. Then the LORD said, "My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years." (Genesis 6:3)
  9. Thus Noah did; according to all that God had commanded him, so he did. (Genesis 6:22)
  10. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; (2 Peter 2:4-5)
  11. Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah became the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Genesis 5:32)
    Now Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of water came upon the earth. (Genesis 7:6)
  12. "This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits." (Genesis 6:15) Cubit is ~18 in.
  13. "Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch. (Genesis 6:14)
  14. "You shall make a window for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top; and set the door of the ark in the side of it; you shall make it with lower, second, and third decks. (Genesis 6:16)
  15. "And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. (Genesis 6:19)
    "As for you, take for yourself some of all food which is edible, and gather it to yourself; and it shall be for food for you and for them." (Genesis 6:21)
  16. Then the flood came upon the earth for forty days, and the water increased and lifted up the ark, so that it rose above the earth. (Genesis 7:17)
  17. Those that entered, male and female of all flesh, entered as God had commanded him; and the LORD closed it behind him. (Genesis 7:16)
  18. Thus He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky, and they were blotted out from the earth; and only Noah was left, together with those that were with him in the ark. (Genesis 7:2)
  19. The rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights. (Genesis 7:12)
  20. In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on the same day all the fountains of the great deep burst open, and the floodgates of the sky were opened. (Genesis 7:11)
    In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. (Genesis 8:14) (12 30-day months plus 10 days)
  21. In the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark rested upon the mountains of Ararat. (Genesis 8:4)
  22. and he sent out a raven, and it flew here and there until the water was dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove from him, to see if the water was abated from the face of the land; but the dove found no resting place for the sole of her foot, so she returned to him into the ark, for the water was on the surface of all the earth. Then he put out his hand and took her, and brought her into the ark to himself. So he waited yet another seven days; and again he sent out the dove from the ark. The dove came to him toward evening, and behold, in her beak was a freshly picked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the water was abated from the earth. Then he waited yet another seven days, and sent out the dove; but she did not return to him again. (Genesis 8:7-12)
  23. Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. (Genesis 8:20)
  24. Then God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, "Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth. I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth." (Genesis 9:8-11)
  25. And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth." (Genesis 9:1)

http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/gilgamesh.html
Last updated October 8, 2008

 

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