A phenomenon that continues to baffle historians is the conflict between the flood stories of Moses and Gilgamesh. While Moses’ account predates Gilgamesh’s by centuries, the two tales do have some comparable features despite their overall contrasting opinions. Moses, of course, wrote by inspiration of God; Gilgamesh merely wove an interesting fictitious story based on the true fact that there had been a flood.
Moses begins his account by saying that Jehovah God was displeased with the wickedness of men. God only found one just man on earth, Noah. God told Noah to build an ark, because He was going to destroy mankind. Noah received specific instructions about the dimensions and construction of the ark. He was also ordered to take his family and two of every kind of animal and seven of every kind of bird into the ark for preservation. Noah obeyed the instructions in full. Once the ark was finished and everyone was inside, God shut the door and let the rains come. After the rains stopped, Noah waited for the flood to recede. He sent out a dove and a raven to find dry land. The dove returned with an olive branch which meant the flood waters would soon be gone. Finally the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. Noah and his family and all the animals disembarked. Noah then built an altar and sacrificed to God in thanksgiving. God promised to never flood the entire earth again, and He created a rainbow as a sign of that promise.
The Gilgamesh account begins by saying that the people had angered the gods. The god Enlil decided to destroy mankind with a flood. A lesser god named Ea appeared to a man named Utnapishtim and told him to build an ark for safety. Utnapishtim obeyed and took with him animals, family members, and craftsmen. The rains fell for seven days. Once the rains stopped, Utnapishtim sent out a dove and a raven to see if they could find dry land. Utnapishtim’s boat came to land on some mountains, and everyone descended. He offered sacrifices to the gods, and Enlil was angry to discover that some humans had survived his wrath. The other gods and goddesses came to Utnapishtim’s rescue, and he and his people were allowed to live.
The two stories do have a few similarities. Both tales begin with mankind multiplying on the face of the earth and doing evil. The next similarity is the fact that both arks were made of wood and sealed with pitch. As the stories continue, Noah’s and Utnapishtim’s arks came to rest on mountain ranges. In order to find out if dry land was available, both men sent out a dove and a raven, although the sequencing of the birds’ flights varies slightly. At the end of both stories, the men offered a burnt sacrifice in thanksgiving for being saved from the flood.
Though there are a few similarities, many differences exist between the two flood accounts. The overall premise of each story is different. Moses’ record is proof of not only God’s wisdom in judgment but also His provision for those who obey Him. Gilgamesh’s record involves a man who defied an angry god because he was warned off by a friendly one; there is no theme of righteous judgment or provision for obedient servants.
Once the stories unfold, more differences appear. First, Gilgamesh records that it took Utnapishtim only seven days to build his boat. Although scholars cannot be dogmatic about the dates, it took Noah around one hundred years to complete his ark.
Secondly, the boats differ in shapes and measurements. Gilgamesh states “[the] ground-space was one acre, each side of the deck measured one hundred and twenty cubits, making a square” (109). God told Noah to build an ark with a length of 300 cubits, a breadth of 50 cubits, and a height of 30 cubits. Utnapishtim’s boat would have been rounder in shape than Noah’s rectangular one.
Third, the number and nature of the people saved from the flood conflicts. Utnapishtim, who was not given any specific instructions about the matter, took gold, living things, his family and kin, animals, and craftsmen. God gave Noah a specific command that only his immediate family (consisting of his wife and three sons with their wives) would be saved. So Noah only took his family and animals on the ark.
Fourth, the timing of the rainfall and the time spent in the ark varies. Utnapishtim stated that the rain fell for seven days. Once the rain ceased, he claims that it was another seven days before they were able to disembark. This is completely different than Noah’s tale. Noah records that rain fell for forty days and forty nights. Even though the rain stopped, it would be another three hundred and thirty-five days before they could walk out on dry land.
The final difference between the two stories is how the tales end. Gilgamesh is able to appease the god Enlil through offerings and the intercession of the other gods. He is then told to populate Mesopotamia. Noah, on the other hand, received a blessing from God for being faithful, and God put the rainbow in the sky as a promise that He would never again cover the whole earth with a flood.
The importance of these two stories from a secular viewpoint is crucial. Although secularists do not agree with Christians that the Bible is infallible, they cannot deny that two ancient texts discussing a flood is mere coincidence. The Epic of Gilgamesh reinforces the fact that creation is the answer to how this earth began.
– Hannah S. Bowers
Sandars, N. K., trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. London: Penguin Books, 1972.
The Holy Bible. King James Version.