The Bible and Gilgamesh

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Did the Hebrews Plagiarize Gilgamesh?

If you are like me, you haven’t heard the word plagiarize since college. Remember the professors warning you against taking credit for someone else’s work? Were you careful to cite the authors you used in your research? While plagiarism in academic circles in unacceptable, it was common practice in early religious writing. As one culture encountered another, ideas were shared and incorporated into another. No one was concerned about whether a story, hero, saying, or setting was original. The Romans were probably the laziest and just adopted the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses wholesale by giving them Roman names.

The same is true for the Bible. As the Israelites formed their culture, they borrowed from the societies they encountered. Sometimes, they didn’t encounter these other societies willingly as in the case of the Babylonians. In 586 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Israelite tribes and carted off the elite, including the priests and scribes, to Babylon.

In Babylon, the Israelites encountered two important myths: Enuma Elish, the story of creation, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of the king of Uruk. It is this second narrative that concerns us here because of its flood story. In ancient narratives, flood stories were common. Just as today, rivers that flood can be very destructive. Imagine how fearful a primitive people would be who had built their homes near rivers only to see the floodwaters destroy them. In the Babylonian Empire, whose territory encompassed the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers, floods were very commonplace. Indeed, they are what gave rise to the name of the area, the Fertile Crescent. What is interesting about the Babylonian flood story, however, is the almost exact similarity with the flood story in the Bible. Listed below are quotations from both of the stories.

Building an ark

Bible: God to Noah “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.”[1]

Gilgamesh: “King of Shuruppak, quickly, quickly tear down your house and build a great ship, leave your possessions, save your life. The ship must be square, so that its length equals its width. Build a roof over it, just as the Great Deep is covered by the earth.”[2]

Taking all creatures aboard

Bible: “And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.”

Gilgamesh: “Then gather and take aboard the ship examples of every living creature.”

Devastation of all living things

Bible: “And the waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man.”

Gilgamesh: “The land was shattered like a clay pot. All day, ceaselessly, the storm winds blew, the rain fell, then the Flood burst forth, overwhelming the people like war.”

Regret of the deity for having caused the flood

Bible: “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

Gilgamesh: Aruru (the female goddess says): “How could I have agreed to destroy my children by sending the Great Flood upon them? I have given birth to the human race, only to see them fill the ocean like fish.” Later she adds, “I swear by this precious ornament that never will I forget these days.”

Boat landing on a mountain

Bible: “The ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ararat.”

Gilgamesh: “On Mount Nimush the ship ran aground, the mountain held it and would not release it.”

Testing to see if the waters had subsided with a bird

Bible: “Then he waited another seven days, and sent forth the dove; and she did not return to him any more.”

Gilgamesh: “I brought out a raven and set if free. It found a branch, it sat there, it ate, it flew off and didn’t return.”

Sacrifice to the god(s)

Bible: 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.”

Gilgamesh: “I slaughtered a sheep on the mountaintop and offered it to the gods.”

Comparisons like this can be made about many stories contained in the Bible. Biblical stories are not unique; they are not the divine word of a supernatural deity. They are the words of men written to try to understand reality, to explain the natural disasters that occurred, to form a cohesive society, and to create a history of a people. As such, the Bible is great literature that contributes to our present understanding of the history of mankind. It is not, however, a set of dictums to direct our actions in the 21st century.

Karen Garst

The Faithless Feminist

[1] All quotations are from Genesis 6-8, Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

[2] All quotations are from Tablet XI of Gilgamesh. Stephen Mitchell, Gilgamesh, A New English Version (New York, New York: Free Press, 2004.), p. 180-199.

About the Author Karen Garst

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