The surprise discovery of an ancient Assyrian story about a world-wide flood produced its own flood of suspicion about the inspired nature of the Bible and the Genesis account of Noah’s Flood. Since its publication in 1872, the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its flood narrative, has been proclaimed as the true source of Moses’ documentation of Noah and the global flood.
Because of this significance, it is appropriate for Christians to look at the story of Gilgamesh and his epic journey. Misinformation is most effective when it can be promoted to the ignorant.
Ignorance and Assumption
Ignorance is highly dangerous among people who are prone to making assumptions. Misleading information fed into such a person will have great effect. Take for example the claim that scientists have discovered “life on Mars“. For those who know little about the planets and the conditions on those planets, the headline “life on Mars” could suggest living creatures, vegetation and the like, in living or fossil form. The tendency to assume an interpretation for information enables people to project images into their own mind, build from assumption that is unchecked. Ignorance means there is no boundary to the assumptions that can be made, based on the misleading or deceptive information.
To a well informed scientist the notion of any evidence for life on Mars is quite hard to accept. They would never expect living creatures or even fossils. The 1996 Headlines and Science magazine article proclaiming life on Mars was based on microscopic traces believed to indicate the former presence of primitive bacterial life. An astronomically far cry from the reality we take for granted on earth.
The 1872 proclamation that the story of Noah’s Flood had been found in a fanciful ancient story gives the impression that something closely paralleling the Genesis account must have been uncovered. That impression was enhanced by the ready assertion that the ancient tale paralleled the Bible account.
Self-taught Assyriologist, George Smith, who learned to read cuneiform at the British Museum in his lunch breaks, quickly rose to fame as the foremost translator of the clay inscriptions. His training as an engraver had given him a sharp eye that picked up details which were missed by the other museum staff.
When he translated the world’s oldest literary work, the Epic of Gilgamesh, he was stunned to find the final tablet talking about a flood. Elements of the story resonated with details of the Bible account. Assumption sprang to life, linking the two accounts as if there were directly related to each other.
The Gilgamesh story is readily accepted today, as it was when first translated, as directly linked to the Genesis account. Following is a quotation from a modern source, explaining the importance of the Gilgamesh story.
“The narrative he (Smith) was reading was nothing other than the Biblical story of The Flood-but the Epic of Gilgamesh was centuries old when Genesis was written! ….. it was all there: the Lord’s flood advisory warning, directions for building the Ark and stocking it with all the animals in pairs, the prodigious rainstorm. The landing on a mountain peak, the dispatch of birds as scouts, and the rainbow of promise at the end. Everything was the same except for Noah, who went under the name of Ut-Nipishtim in the earlier version.”
Note the assertions in this, as in many other references to Gilgamesh. “Everything was the same”, “it was all there”, “nothing other than the Biblical story of The Flood”.
The claim that “everything was the same” is a far cry from the truth. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a fanciful story involving the actions and jealousies of a group of deities, a monster, a giant and immortality. None of these things are remotely reflective of the Bible’s themes and even its discussions about monsters, giants and eternal life.
The Epic is not about the flood, but concludes with a flood story. The flood story occurs in the 11th and final clay tablet. The other ten tablets have no connection with the Bible account and so the link to Genesis is made on the basis of a small portion of the story, not some significant section.
The universe that is depicted in the Gilgamesh story includes many gods of capricious nature. The gods rely on eating what man sacrifices to them. A flood to destroy all mankind was planned by the gods, for no good reason. The story asks, “How couldst thou, unreasoning, bring on the deluge?”
One god warned a man to save his life, when the other gods intended for all humanity to be killed.
The boat was a significantly different specification to Noah’s ark and was built by paid tradesmen who were also rescued on the boat. Whereas only Noah and his family were saved in the real flood, the mythical flood story involves wealth and extended family and friends being rescued also.
There is no direct reference to a ‘rainbow of promise’ as claimed in the above comparison. There is no unique, holy God who acted on moral imperative and with righteous authority.
The Gilgamesh boat and survival was an act of defiance, not obedience. The actions of the Gilgamesh gods were capricious and situational, not purposeful and holy. The Gilgamesh gods were angry that a man had used a boat to survive the flood saying, “No man was to survive the destruction!” Yet the Gilgamesh story ends with the boatman and his wife being made immortal and being sent into exile.
The Gilgamesh flood story contains elements which we know from the Bible account, but it is a vastly different scenario in many ways.
Why the Similarities
Rather than the Epic of Gilgamesh being a fanciful idea that fed the development of the account of Noah’s Flood, the reality is that there was a worldwide flood, as described in Genesis. Following that event every culture had opportunity to remember it, and to distort its memory in their own way. That is why there are ancient flood narratives or allusions from around the world.
It is claimed that there are over 500 flood legends around the world, with many striking parallels to the Bible account. The Aztec story names the boat-builder as Nene, while stories from the Near East name him Atra-Hasis, Utnapishtim (in the Gilgamesh story) or Ziusudra. Stories have been documented from Australia, Africa, China, Mexico, Greece, Babylonia, Wales, Russia, India, USA, Hawaii, Scandinavia, Sumatra, Peru, and Polynesia
The Gilgamesh story did not prompt Moses’ writings, but was merely a distortion of the facts which had been preserved and passed down to Moses, for his inclusion in the Book of Genesis.
However, such an explanation is unpalatable to secular scholars who insist that God does not exist, the global flood did not happen and divine judgement will never take place. They, therefore, see the Bible account as fanciful, right at the outset. They can then readily connect the fanciful Gilgamesh with Genesis, since they cannot discern folly from facts.
What is unique about the Genesis account of the global flood is that it is morally consistent with all that the Bible teaches. Forty writers spanning more than a millennium in time and writing in different parts of the world, from different backgrounds to different audiences, in different languages, have their texts included in the Bible. The Genesis account of Noah’s Flood fits perfectly into the history, moral themes, character of God and divine plan which run seamlessly through those 66 books.
The Gilgamesh story is nonsense. It has no moral authority. The deities and personalities described in its tale have no lasting relevance or historical authenticity. It is now assumed that Gilgamesh, himself, was a real king from ancient times. But even that fact is not able to be confirmed.
Compare that to the continued confidence that the man Noah actually existed and the events recorded about him are historically accurate. Jesus Christ, living one and a half millennia after Moses, referred to Noah as a real person, whose historical life was a model for Jesus’ own situation.
The historian Dr Luke, held in high esteem for his historical accuracy with the Book of Acts, confidently identifies Noah (Noe) in the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Luke 3:36). There is no similar authority given to the identity of Gilgamesh or any of the other characters identified in the various flood stories from around the world.
The Bible account is the true historical record of a worldwide flood which actually took place, as described in Genesis.