Gilgamesh and Genesis

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Much ink has been spilled comparing the earliest events recorded in Genesis and the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh. I have no intention to enter the fray in discussing whether one document inspired the other, or whether they record deeper traditions underlying both. I will say I am an evangelical Christian who believes the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) to be the inspired and infallible word of God. However, I would like to discuss some worldview differences the two documents show. Did Moses (or whomever you imagine wrote Genesis, if you doubt Mosaic authorship) borrow from Gilgamesh, either in written or oral form?  I’ll let others discuss that, or perhaps I’ll leave that for another article. Regardless of how many similarities one can show between the two there are essential differences between them. These show a very different view of the universe, humanity and divinity—beyond the basic issue of polytheism, henotheism and monotheism.

The Epic of Gilgamesh referenced in this article is found in volume 1 of Pritchard’s, The Ancient Near East. Differences in versions—textual arguments about what texts were and were not original to the epic are irrelevant because even material that is arguably extraneous helps us see a specific world view. References to Genesis will be the New Revised Standard Version. The most startling comparisons are found in the stories of creation and the deluge. While the two have interesting similarities, it takes little effort to see that each demonstrates a very different way of looking at things.

Some background information

For those who have never actually read the Epic, it is essential that I relate some basic outline details. According to the story, the city of Uruk was ruled by a tyrannical king—Gilgamesh. The people begged the gods to intercede, so the goddess Aruru pinched off some clay and formed a man named Enkidu. This man is wild and hairy, inhuman in his behavior and separate from civilized society. The people of Uruk go to Gilgamesh to ask for help controlling the wildman, so he sends a sacred prostitute to tempt Enkidu by exposing herself and copulating with him. After several liaisons, the prostitute teaches him to wear clothing, to eat human food and to drink beer, so that he becomes fully human and civilized. Enkidu became good friends with Gilgamesh—after they tried to kill each other in a pitched battle, of course. Because Gilgamesh was busily going on adventures with Enkidu he became a better and more compassionate ruler.

During one of the adventures, Enkidu was killed because Gilgamesh turned down the amorous advances of the goddess Ishtar. In his grief Gilgamesh went on a great quest to obtain a fruit that would give eternal life, but it was stolen from him by a great serpent. During the quest, however, he speaks to the man who saved humanity from the flood, who recounts the story of the flood. According to this story the people were making too much noise and keeping the gods awake so they decided to wipe man from the earth. One man was warned to make a boat by the god Ea to preserve the seed of all life.

Of course, the stories are vastly different but certain elements are noticeable between the two—some take a bit of stretching, of course. There is the idea of divine creation of man from clay. There is the idea that something acted upon man to make him different from the way he was created. We also see elements of sexuality, serpents, fruit and eternal life. While similar, they are not identical and I don’t want you to think I am saying one inspired the other. I’m not. Yet these similarities allow us to see the differences in a very interesting light. The similarities act almost as a highlighter to the differences helping us see them better. In these stories we see two vastly different world views.

In Gilgamesh we have polytheism and in Genesis, monotheism. But to simply stop there doesn’t really dig deep enough. In the Epic of Gilgamesh we see man created as less than human, elevated from a chaotic half-animal existence to full humanity through ritual sex, eating human food, drinking human water (beer), wearing human clothes, and taking part in human religion (when one copulated with a temple prostitute one was participating in a major part of their religion). These sacraments, if you will, took the uncivilized and barely human and fashioned him into fully formed man. In Genesis, man was created in the image of God. He was the representative of God on earth, the bearer of a soul, the bridge between the divine and the material. When he had created man, God looked at all he made and it was good (Genesis 1:31).

In the view of Gilgamesh the world is chaotic and through divine service in religion man is able to secure the benefits of civilization, pushing back the chaos. In Genesis, creation is good and God gives order to the universe. In the view of Gilgamesh, man must quest and fight, struggling to extend civilization over the chaotic world by overcoming great beasts. In Genesis, man is to care for the earth and all that grows and lives upon it.

The flood story of each shows, in one, a world where the gods petulantly decide to wipe out all mankind (Gilgamesh), as opposed to a universe ruled by God, who poured out retribution on mankind for sins against one another (Genesis 6:5). In Gilgamesh one god rebelliously decides to save a few people from the wrath of the other gods, but in Genesis, God who punished is the God who delivered.

In Gilgamesh, we see one grief-stricken demi-god foolishly seeking a fruit to live forever. In Genesis we see man’s foolish attempt to be a demi-god lose him eternal life. In both, a serpent steals eternal life from the men, but in Genesis, the loss of eternal life is justly deserved and in Gilgamesh the loss is just the reality.

In Gilgamesh sex is part of ritual religion, and in Genesis it is a blessed union of two into one. In Genesis, sex is part of natural reproduction created by God for human good. In Gilgamesh, it is used to wield power and to influence. In Genesis, nakedness was innocent before the fall; its shame after the fall is not based on some deficiency of the human body but the result of the changed human heart. In Gilgamesh nakedness was to tempt and entice.

God revealed to the people of Israel a very different view of the world, of himself and of humanity from the one shared by most of human thought. His revelation is of people created to be like him and to live peacefully with one another. So many blessings were given without man first deserving them—given by a God who wanted to give to his creatures. The rest of the world saw life as being lived on a razor’s edge of existence, where life was—in the words of Hobbes—nasty, brutish and short. To the rest of the world the gods were petulant spoiled brats that at best might be manipulated to help, but more often than not were too busy for man, or even man’s greatest threat. In Genesis, God is intimately involved with the people he created, loves them and has taken action many times to alleviate the conditions of their fallen state.

When we deal with the world around us, some have a worldview like ours because of the Christian history of our society. However, sometimes these similarities actually illuminate how different we see the world from those around us. Keep in mind that when you share your faith it is being interpreted through their view of the world, view of divinity and view of mankind. Is it any wonder that communicating our faith takes the power of God to navigate the many hindrances to being understood?

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