Gilgamesh and the Bible by Shawna Dolansky

The Epic of Gilgamesh, a literary product of Mesopotamia, contains many of the same themes and motifs as the Hebrew Bible. Of these, the best-known is probably the Epic’s flood story, which reads a lot like the biblical tale of Noah’s ark (Gen 6-9). But the Epic also includes a character whose story bears even more similarities to stories in the Hebrew Bible: Gilgamesh’s possession of a plant of immortality is thwarted by a serpent (compare Gen 3), he wrestles in the night with a divinely appointed assailant who proclaims the hero’s identity and predicts that he will prevail over all others (compare Gen 32:23-32), and he is taught that the greatest response to mortality is to live life in appreciation of those things which make us truly human (compare Eccl 9:7-10).

The Gilgamesh Epic was familiar in the biblical world: copies have been found at Megiddo, Emar, Northern Anatolia, and Nineveh. It shares many motifs and ideas (such as the Flood) with other ancient Near Eastern texts. Because of this, it is difficult to state with any certainty that the Epic directly influenced the stories of the Bible. For example, it was widely believed that dreams could be divinely inspired, cryptic forecasts of the future. So when Joseph dreamed of sheaves of corn and bowing stars (Gen 37:5-11), the author was probably not copying Gilgamesh’s oracular dreams. Likewise, the idea that it is mortality—the impetus behind Gilgamesh’s quest—that separates gods and humans is found in other Mesopotamian and Egyptian writings, as well as in Gen 3:22.

In the Epic, the gods create Enkidu, who runs wild with the animals in the open country, as a companion for Gilgamesh.  There are particularly interesting similarities between the Garden of Eden story in Genesis and the story of Enkidu’s movement from nature to culture and civilization. In both stories, a woman is responsible for the transition of a man who had once eaten and drunk with the animals to a state of estrangement from nature. Once Enkidu is rejected by the animal world, the woman Shamhat gives him clothing and teaches him to drink beer and eat bread—all technological developments that separate humans from animals.

In Genesis, once Adam has eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, he covers his nudity and is sentenced to a life of cultivating food by harsh labor. This is the cost of divine knowledge. In Gilgamesh, when Enkidu becomes estranged from the animals, Shamhat tells him that he has become “like a god.” Later, on his deathbed, Enkidu laments his removal from a state of nature, only to be reminded by the god Shamash that while civilized life is more fraught with difficulty and the knowledge of one’s own mortality, it is a worthwhile price for cultural knowledge and awareness.

The closest parallel between a biblical text and the Epic of Gilgamesh is seen in the wording of several passages in Ecclesiastes, where a strong argument can be made for direct copying. The author of Ecclesiastes frequently laments the futility of “chasing after the wind” (for example, Eccl 1:6, Eccl 1:14, Eccl 1:17, Eccl 2:11, Eccl 2:17, Eccl 2:26, Eccl 5:16, etc.), a notion reminiscent of Gilgamesh’s advice to the dying Enkidu: “Mankind can number his days. Whatever he may achieve, it is only wind” (Yale Tablet, Old Babylonian Version). Earlier in the story, Gilgamesh persuaded Enkidu that two are stronger than one in a speech containing the phrase, “A three-stranded cord is hardest to break” (Standard Babylonian Version, IV, iv). Similarly, Ecclesiastes tells us, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work…. Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Eccl 4:9-12). These may simply be common sayings picked up by both authors, but Eccl 9:7-9 seems to directly quote the barmaid Siduri’s advice to Gilgamesh on how to deal with his existential angst:

When the gods created mankind,
They appointed death for mankind,
Kept eternal life in their own hands.
So, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,
Day and night enjoy yourself in every way,
Every day arrange for pleasures.
Day and night, dance and play,
Wear fresh clothes.
Keep your head washed, bathe in water,
Appreciate the child who holds your hand,
Let your wife enjoy herself in your lap.
(Meisner Tablet)

This advice sums up the message of both the Epic of Gilgamesh and Ecclesiastes, two texts that wrestle with the search for meaning in the face of human mortality.

Shawna Dolansky, "Gilgamesh and the Bible", n.p. [cited 28 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/gilgamesh-and-the-bible

Contributors

Shawna Dolansky

Shawna Dolansky
Adjunct Professor, Carleton University

Shawna Dolansky is an adjunct research professor and instructor in the Religion Program and College of Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of two books and numerous articles on the Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions. Her current research focuses on sex, gender, and sexuality in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.

The region of Asia Minor, including modern Turkey, location of the Hittite Empire and Hittite-Luwian languages.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A 14th to early 12th century B.C.E. Bronze Age trade city, located in modern northern Syria, where over 1,000 cuneiform tablets have been found.

A wild man created to be the equal and friend of Gilgamesh by the goddess Aruru. Enkidu’s death compels Gilgamesh to search for immortality.

A Mesopotamian epic centered around the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, and his quest for immortality, with themes of humanity, friendship, and the duties of kings.

A Mesopotamian king from ~2500 B.C.E.; he became the hero of a major epic poem and was addressed as a deity in later religious texts.

A Mesopotamian epic centered around the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, and his quest for immortality, with themes of humanity, friendship, and the duties of kings.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

A recurring element or symbolism in artwork, literature, and other forms of expression.

The god of the sun and justice in ancient Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian cultic tradition, whose chief cult-centers were at Sippar and Larsa in the Fertile Crescent.

A cultic prostitute in the Epic of Gilgamesh who brings Enkidu into humanity with sex, beer, and bread.

A wise goddess in the Epic of Gilgamesh who keeps an alehouse at the edge of the world and attempts to discourage Gilgamesh from seeking the immortal Uta-napishti.

Gen 6-9

The Wickedness of Humankind
1When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them,2the sons of God saw that they were fair; ... View more

Gen 3

The First Sin and Its Punishment
1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘Yo ... View more

Gen 32:23-32

23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.25When th ... View more

Eccl 9:7-10

7Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.8Let your garments always be white; do not ... View more

Gen 37:5-11

5Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more.6He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed.7There we were, b ... View more

Gen 3:22

22Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of li ... View more

Eccl 1:6

6The wind blows to the south,
and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.

Eccl 1:14

14I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Eccl 1:17

17And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.

Eccl 2:11

11Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing t ... View more

Eccl 2:17

17So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Eccl 2:26

26For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who p ... View more

Eccl 5:16

16This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind?

Eccl 4:9-12

The Value of a Friend
9Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.10For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one wh ... View more

Eccl 9:7-9

7Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.8Let your garments always be white; do not ... View more

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