Units I and II
The Flood: Noah versus Gilgamesh
With the discovery of texts from ancient civilizations, many people have come to believe that various texts are common to one another. Examples of these texts are the creation stories from the Hebrews found in the Bible, The Hymn of Ra from the Egyptians, and the Enuma Elish stories from the Babylonians. In addition to these stories are the flood stories. These stories have caused many discussions among scholars involved with ancient civilizations.
The two main stories largely discussed are the Genesis and Gilgamesh flood stories. Although different in regards to the details, the main plot is similar between the two stories from two different civilizations. Because of this similarity, many people believe that either “Genesis was copied from an earlier Babylonian story, or the Gilgamesh myth was copied from an earlier Hebrew story, or both were copied from a common source that predates them both (Robinson).
There are many similarities between the Noah flood story and the Gilgamesh flood story. In both stories, the divine are annoyed with humanity. In Genesis, God notices that man has become sinful and wicked in their actions and their thoughts. In Gilgamesh, the divine assembly find that humankind are too numerous and noisy. So to rid the earth of humankind, both stories tell of a flood that will destroy everything including animals. However, in each story, a righteous man finds favor with God (god) and has his life spared. In the bible, God finds favor with Noah and warns him of his plans to destroy the world. In Gilgamesh, Ea does not agree with Enlil and his plans to flood the earth, so Ea warns Utnapishtim through a dream of Enlil’s plan. After finding out about the flood, Noah and Utnapishtim build an ark using the specifications provided to them and bring in every living creature into the ark in order to spare them.
After building the arks, Noah and Utnapishtim close the doors and it begins to rain. It continues to rain and the flood covers the earth and kills everything that is not in the ark. After the rain stops, both Noah and Utnapishtim arks land on a mountain, Mount Ararat for Noah and Mount Nisir for Utnapishtim; both mountains are located in the Middle East, only a few hundred miles apart (Robinson). Then, Noah and Utnapishtim each send out birds at regular intervals to see if there was any dry land. After repeated trials, the bird that Noah sends out and the bird that Utnapishtim sends out do not return, and because of this incident, they both know that the water is receding and they will soon be able to leave the ark. Once they are able to leave the ark, Noah and Utnapishtim prepare a sacrifice to their divine being(s). When God smells the aroma from the sacrifice, he is pleased with the sacrifice and blesses Noah. Similarly, when the gods in Gilgamesh smell the aroma, they also bless Utnapishtim. After the flood, the Babylonian gods and the God of Noah both regret creating a flood.
Although the plots are similar, the details included in the stories have numerous differences. To begin, when Noah receives warning about the flood and directions about how to build and fill the ark, he receives the message directly from God. When Utnapishtim receives his message, Ea indirectly sends it through a dream.
Another difference in the story is the instructions on how to build the ark. In the bible, God tells Noah to build the ark 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high (New International Version, Gen. 6:15). God continues to tell him to “make a roof and finish the ark to within 18 inches of the top” (New International Version, Gen. 6:16a). Then “put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle, and upper decks” (New International Version, Gen. 6:16b). In Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim builds his ark 155 feet high, and the decks 175 feet wide. He also built a top deck and six lower decks (Matthews and Benjamin 26).
After building the ark, Noah puts himself, his family, male and female of all living creatures, and seven of every clean animal, also bringing a male and its mate, in it (New International Version, Gen. 7:2). On the other hand, Utnapishtim brings himself, his wife, and loads the ark with all his gold and silver, domestic animals, wild animals, and craftspeople (Matthews and Benjamin 26). Unlike Noah, Utnapishtim brings additional people on board, like the craftspeople, and he does not have any specifications in regards to what types of animals to bring on the ark.
When the earth begins to flood, in Genesis 7:11-12, it says, “on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.” In the Epic of Gilgamesh, “at dawnthe horizons turned black with cloudsNergal, divine patron of the dead, unlocked the fountain of the deep. Ninurta, son of Enlil, opened the dikes. The divine assembly strafed the earth with lightning, Adad turned the day into night; the land was smashed like a pot” (Matthews and Benjamin 27). However, the flood Utnapishtim experiences only lasts for six days and six nights.
After the raining ends and the water begins to recede, both Noah and Utnapishtim want to find out if there is any land that has surfaced. To find out the answer to their question, they each send out three birds. This is where there is a difference in the stories. Noah sends out a raven once and a dove three times. Noah sends out a raven first and it “kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth” (New International Version, Gen. 8:7). After that, Noah releases a dove to see if there is any land, but the dove returns because it cannot find any land to rest on. On his third try, Noah sends out the dove again. This time, the dove returns with an olive leaf. After waiting seven days, Noah once again sends out the dove again, however, the dove does not return.
On the other hand, when Utnapishtim tries to find dry land, he sends out three different birds, a dove, a swallow, and a raven, three different times. On the seventh day, after the storm stops, Utnapishtim sends out a dove, but it returns because it cannot find a place to rest. Then he releases a swallow, which also returns. On his third try, Utnapishtim releases a raven. This time, the bird flies away and does not return.
After Noah and Utnapishtim open the doors of the ark and release the animals, they both offer sacrifices to their God (gods). In both stories, after the divine smell the aroma of the sacrifice, they are pleased and bless the person who offered the sacrifice; this is where the similarities in the stories end. In Genesis, after the God of Noah smells the aroma of the sacrifice, he promises to never to “curse the ground because of man” again (New International Version, Gen. 8: 21a). God continues later by making a covenant with Noah that “never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (New International Version, Gen. 9: 11). To show Noah that this was a true covenant, God places a rainbow in the sky and tells Noah that the rainbow is a sign of the covenant between him and the earth. God then blesses Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:1-3 saying to them:
Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. (NIV)
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, after Utnapishtim offers his sacrifice, and the gods smell the aroma, they “swarmed like flies around the sacrifice” and eat the sacrifice (Matthews and Benjamin 28). When Enlil finds out that people have survived the flood, he is furious. However, when he discovers that Utnapishtim deciphered his dream and that is what saves him, Enlil decides to bless Utnapishtim. Enlil lays his hand on Utnapishtim and his wife and proclaims, “Utnapishtim and his wife have been mortal, now they are immortal. They shall live far away, they shall dwell at the mouth of the rivers” (Matthews and Benjamin 28).
Although, native to different civilizations, Noah to the Hebrews and Utnapishtim to the Babylonians, these two stories are very similar to each other, with only the specific details that are different. These similarities have brought some people to believe that one of the stories developed from a copy of the other story. Regardless of what people think, however, there is one thing that is for sure, these stories tell of the power of the all-powerful God (gods) of the people and how the people fear to displease their God (god).
Matthews, Victor H. and Don C. Benjamin. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. New York: Paulist, 1997.
Robinson, B. A. Comparison of Babylonian and Noahic Flood Stories. 1 Feb. 2004. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 12 Mar. 2004 .
Women’s Devotional Bible (NIV). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.