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A Comparison of the Flood of Genesis and Gilgamesh
A good number of people know the famous story of the Genesis flood, but do they know how it resembles to the Gilgamesh flood story? It is mind bending how the main stories are so alike. The main theme is the biggest similarity between the two. They also differ greatly in the smaller details in the events that take place. In both stories the number of days for events are different, but the same basic event takes place. Along with many other similarities and differences. The stories are very much the same, but when comparing the details within they are very different.
The flood of Gilgamesh was written before 2000 B.C, while the Genesis story was written in 400 BC Which was much later then the Gilgamesh flood. Biblical writers probably knew of the much older flood but revised it so that it fit with their own history and worldview. They most likely intended the original story with their own mythology. Despite the many similarities between the two stories, the differences are revealed in a number of different topics that distinguish the biblical version of the story from the ancient version.
In both versions of the flood story something angers God (in Genesis) and the gods (in Gilgamesh). "The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reasons of the babel" (Gilgamesh 12). The Gilgamesh reason seems very illogical. The Gods decide to destroy mankind because they are making too much noise. It seems that the gods didn't think over their decision wisely. They are gods, wouldn't they have the power to block out the sound? One would think so, but obviously that was not the case. This is the first major difference between the two stories.
In Genesis there is a much more acceptable reason for God to eliminate mankind. The humans are so wicked and evil that "It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart" (Gen. 6:6). He says: "I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth. . . " (Gen.
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Another major difference is something that most often is overlooked by many people; the presence of demi-gods and great heroes during this time period. When Gilgamesh story takes place the gods allow half-god/half-human being to exist on earth. They were still apart of the 'Golden Age', which was presided over by Saturn. This was when the final structures of the Olympian Gods, men, animals, and the underworld were still being risen up. Great heroes like Gilgamesh, even though he came much later, still existed. In Genesis the 'Golden Age' was completely over. There are no more heroes that were alive on the earth. These "giants in the earth" (Gen. 6:4) were the sons of God and of the daughters of men, but they were only men of renown in the old days (Gen. 6:4). These giants in the earth had become earlier and were destroyed long before the flood happened.
A very important similarity finally surfaces in the amount of people God or the gods choose to save. In both stories one good man, Noah from Genesis and Utnapishtim form Gilgamesh, is saved and chosen to build an ark or boat. In Genesis God decides to destroy all but Noah, who "found grace in the eyes of the Lord" (Gen. 6:8). Noah becomes the source of salvation for the creation of man in the future. A new hope for re-creation after the flood. He is also the symbol of God's mercy and grace. Ea warns Utnapishtim in a dream that he must help the human race survive. Both these men are symbols that God and Ea want the good in mankind to survive. By doing this they give the human race a chance to survive.
Another major difference between the two stories is how the floods began and how the whole event ended up. In both a great storm rages and wipes out everyone and everything except the passengers onboard the boat/ark. In the Gilgamesh flood story the gods cry and that creates the incredibly destructive flood. "The great gods of heaven and hell wept" (Gilgamesh 13). The rains last for 6 days and 6 nights in the Gilgamesh version, and finally when the waters receded the boat landed on Nisir. The boat is on the mountain for seven days. This is one of many instances where the number 7 is used in context to the flood stories. It is a mystical number symbolizing when gods and men interact.
In Genesis God sends down the flood with his divine power. "After seven days the waters of the flood were upon the earth" (Gen.7:10). Here the number 7 is used again for the interaction of God and Noah. The rain lasts a lot longer in the Genesis version then in the Gilgamesh story. The rain was "upon the earth forty days and forty nights" (Gen. 7:12). As the waters receded, the ark landed on Mt. Ararat. It is here for approximately two and a half months more until the other mountain tops surface. In both stories you have the same basic storyline, but as one can see the smaller details are much different.
In both stories when the ark or boat is floating around the endless sea, Noah and Utnapishtim send out birds. Utnapishtim sends out three different birds while Noah sends only two out. First Utnapishtim sends out a dove but it returns. The same thing happens when he sends out a swallow. Finally when he sends out the raven it finds land and eats, so it does not return. "I loosed a dove...but finding no resting-place she returned...then I loosed a swallow, and she flew away but finding no resting-place she returned...I loosed a raven...and she did not come back" (Gilgamesh 13). Noah sends out raven once and it doesn't not find land. He sends out a dove twice and the second time it does not return.
The two men send these out in order to find land. Each one of these birds has a significant meaning. The swallow lives around farms and it is sent out to find dry land for agriculture. In the Genesis version the dove brings back an olive branch, and that symbolizes peace. Peace would mean that the punishment by God has finally ended. Ravens were looked upon as the messengers of the Gods. It only makes sense that the messenger of the gods in the Gilgamesh version helps Utnapishtim find land. In both versions of the story birds that represent certain good things in life were used.
The final main similarity between the two stories is at the end. Noah and Utnapishtim both show proper reverence to the gods and are rewarded. Utnapishtim offers a sacrifice to the gods, but Enlil becomes very angry because he is excluded from this sacrifice and that Utnapishtim escaped his wishes for all man to be destroyed. Ea convinces Enlil that Utnapishtim escaped on his own and then Enlil grants Utnapishtim the gift of immortality. In the Genesis story, God orders Noah to leave the ark. Noah then gives god a sacrifice. God makes the first covenant of the Hebrew Bible with Noah. Then finally, in both versions a sign is given to show that the gods/God won't destroy the earth in a flood ever again; a rainbow in Genesis and a necklace in the Gilgmesh version.
When one compares the two versions of the flood story, Genesis and the Gilgamesh flood, one can find a broad category of similarities. In this broad category of there are also a lot of differences. Cultures can only develop over time. They learn from other cultures through past stories and events. I believe that the Genesis version of the flood used the whole basic concept of the Gilgamesh flood but changed the minor details around. This would be the only way to prove the similarities and differences in the two stories.
"Noah and the Flood" Genesis Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1991.
Sanders, N.K. "The Story of the Flood" The Epic of Gilgamesh Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1991.