Ancient literary texts are among the richest sources for research and history analysis. First of all, such works by themselves allow one to get an idea of the culture of a particular people. However, their research can also lead to broader conclusions by detecting intersections and similarities between completely different documents. This paper aims to prove this thesis by comparing The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Book of Genesis to identify such potential parallels and attempt to explain their existence.
At first glance, these works have little in common, belonging to completely different cultural layers. While the Epic of Gilgamesh describes ancient myths from Mesopotamia, the Book of Genesis lays the foundations of the Bible, Christianity, and Judaism. However, both stories have great religious significance that can be traced back to later cultures. Thus, for example, the heroic vision of Gilgamesh, celebrated for his deeds, can be traced to the image of Hercules from Greek mythology (Sandars 11). In addition, there are certain similarities between these literary works in various details. Thus, for example, Adam, the first man in the Old Testament, was made of clay, as was the hero Enkidu in the story of Gilgamesh (Genesis). However, such intersections are small enough to compare them all.
The significant similarity of the whole episode describing the flood is much more noteworthy. Old Testament tells the story of the flood, which God has brought on Earth being angry with human cruelty (Genesis). In the Epic, these events have already passed, and a direct participant in those events, Utnapishtim, tells about them himself (Sandars 20). In this context, there are many differences between the stories, from the duration of the tribulation to the number of gods involved in the story. However, both texts have many striking similarities: the construction of a boat, the collection of all living beings, the intervention of the gods, and their anger toward humanity.
These identical elements do not allow saying that the similarity of stories is a mere coincidence. Even the most minor details are the same: for example, the release of the dove by the protagonist in an attempt to find land. Although Utnapishtim released many birds, and Noah only once, but several times, the meaning of such an action is the same and coincides in both texts. Therefore, there must be some explanation for such coincidences and why such similar stories can exist in two completely different historical sources. From one point of view, this can be explained by the description in both Genesis and Epic of the same actual event associated with massive flooding and loss of life. A disaster of this magnitude would certainly be reflected in several cultures.
However, a significant time interval between works does not allow easy approval of this version. From another perspective, it is much more likely to use the Mesopotamian myth as the basis for writing chapters 6-9 of the Old Testament (Genesis). This is supported by the coincidence of events’ structure, the character’s motives, and even some specific phrases and passages (Norsker 55). The story unfolds from a cruel flood through the expectation of calm to the construction of a new life. The fullness of specific details almost peremptorily indicates the relationship between these two texts. The reason for such borrowing may be the need to show the wrath of the gods and reflect their interaction with the cruel world, which in the context of the Epic is exceptionally instructive.
Thus, this comparative analysis demonstrates that two completely different religious, literary works have many common elements. They can be traced both at the level of individual details, considered coinciding thoughts and at the level of entire stories, which indicates the borrowing of some elements from the Epic of Gilgamesh into newer texts. Therefore, this allows us to conclude that the culture of Mesopotamia and the culture of the ancient Jews were much more closely intertwined than it seems at first glance.
Genesis. Mechon Mamre.
Norsker, Amanda. “Genesis 6, 5-9, 17: A Rewritten Babylonian Flood Myth.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, vol. 29, no. 1, 2015, 55-62.
Sandars, Nancy. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Assyrian International News Agency.