A comparative study of the flood accounts in the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis

Introduction

by Nozomi Osanai

Index

2004; Posted 3 August 2005

Comparing the flood stories in the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis, one is impressed with the numerous similarities between the two accounts. The common elements between the two have been perplexing for some scholars. Alexander Heidel shows the three main possibilities about the relationship between the two accounts: “first, the Babylonians borrowed from the Hebrew account; second, the Hebrew account is dependent on the Babylonian; third, both are descended from a common original.”1 Because the Epic written in Akkadian predates the Old Testament written in Hebrew, “The most widely accepted explanation today is the second, namely, that the biblical account is based on Babylonian material.”2 This theory poses an awkward problem for Christians. While the fact that there are flood legends like the Genesis Flood account in most cultures around the world is used to testify to the reliability of the Bible,3 the Gilgamesh Epic is used to deny the authority of the Bible because of its predating. According to the extant clay tablets, scholars reckon the time of the first compilation of the Epic in Akkadian around the second millennium BC4 Since there is a Sumerian version behind the Akkadian, the Epic is, “…upon any view of the date of the Book of Genesis, considerably older than the biblical narrative.”5 Therefore, it is important to explain the relationship between these two accounts. Thus, this thesis is the result of this writer’s commitment to the authority of the Bible and interest in flood traditions.

Statement of purpose

This writer’s research question is this: what is the relationship between the flood accounts of the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis? Through this study, this research question is investigated by comparing five perspectives of these two accounts. The purpose of this thesis is to support the trustworthiness of the Bible in order to strengthen Christians’ faith in the Bible.

Significance of the study

It is indispensable for Christians to have faith in the authority of the Bible. Without trusting the Bible, no one can have confidence for one’s salvation and sanctification. Needless to say, it is an important thing for a pastor to proclaim the trustworthiness of the whole Bible. Today, Christians who do not believe the Bible as the truth, or who cannot distinguish the true and false are increasing in number. Especially, Genesis is regarded as a mere myth by some Christians. However, if someone loses his faith in one part of the Bible, it will be difficult to believe other parts of the Bible. Therefore, it is important for the authority of the Bible to investigate the theory that the Flood account in Genesis was derived from the Gilgamesh Epic. Some Christians may weaken or lose their faith because of this theory. It is fatal for Christians to lose faith in the authority of the Bible. Thus, it is evident that there is need for examining the relationship between the flood accounts of the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis in order to distinguish the true and the false and to demonstrate that the Epic cannot be used to deny the authority of the Bible.

Delimitations

For the purposes of this study, the following delimitations are made. This study is limited to the exegetical study of the Gilgamesh Epic tablet XI, the flood account, and to Genesis 6–10. As the Akkadian text of the Gilgamesh Epic, R. C. Thompson’s version, the reprinted Oxford edition,6 and Simo Parpola’s version of The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project7 are used. For exegesis of the Genesis account, Biblia Hebraica8 is used. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version.9

Methodology

Though there are many translations of the Gilgamesh Epic, some of them seem to be linguistically unreliable. Thus, it was important for this project to work from the original Akkadian. This is difficult because many parts of the tablets were broken and some words are unclear. Nevertheless it is vital to read the Gilgamesh Epic in its original language to identify the original contents correctly. For exegesis of the Gilgamesh Epic, its Akkadian text, linguistic dictionaries and grammar books are indispensable. Biblia Hebraica, scientific resources, unpublished material, and some historical resources are also used to analyze the reliability of both accounts.

In the first chapter, this writer will briefly explain the background of the Gilgamesh Epic. In the second chapter, this writer will summarize the flood accounts in the Gilgamesh Epic tablet XI and Genesis and analyze their common elements and differences. Then, this writer will compare the differences between the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis in several ways. In the third chapter, this writer will compare both accounts from the aspect of their ethics. In the fourth chapter, this writer will compare specific points of both accounts. In the fifth chapter, this writer will analyze these accounts from the angle of the scientific reliability. In the sixth chapter, this writer will compare both accounts to examine their internal consistency. In the seventh chapter, this writer will compare both accounts with secular historical records. By this process and method, this writer expects to find that in spite of their similarities, their differences will show that the Gilgamesh Epic has little reliability, and it would be unlikely that the author of Genesis would use the Epic as the source for the Flood account.

Chart: “Language Families of the Ancient Near East”10


Click on image to enlarge.

G. Herbert Livingston, “The Pentateuch In Its Cultural Environment,” (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1974), p. 62. Used with permission.

Abbreviations
ATRAHASIS W.G. Lamber and A.R. Millard, Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood.
CAD The Assyrian Dictionary
CANE Jack M. Sasson, ed. Civilizations of the Ancient Near East.
Deut. Deuteronomy of the Old Testament
Ex. Exodus of the Old Testament
Ezek. Ezekiel of the Old Testament
Gen. Gensis of the Old Testament
Gil. The Epic of Gilgamesh
Isa. Isaiah of the Old Testament
Jon. Jonah of the Old Testament
NIV New International Version of the Holy Bible
Parpola Simo Parpola, The Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh: Cuneiform text, transliteration, Glossary, indices and sign list, State Archives of Assyria Cuneiform Text Volume 1.
Prov. Proverbs of the Old Testament
Ps. Psalm of the Old Testament

References

  1. Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1949; paperback edition, p. 260, 1963. Return to text.
  2. Ibid., p. 261. Return to text.
  3. Alfred M. Rehwinkel, The Flood in the Light of the Bible, Geology and Archaeology, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, p. 127, 1951. Return to text.
  4. E.A. Speiser, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd edition with supplement, James B. Pritchard (Ed.), Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1969; renewed 1978, p. 73 (page citation is to the renewed edition). Return to text.
  5. Heidel, pp. 260–261, 13–15. Return to text.
  6. R. Campbell Thompson, The Epic of Gilgamesh: Text, Transliteration, and Notes, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1930; reprint, AMS Press, New York, n.d. Return to text.
  7. Simo Parpola, The Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh: Cuneiform text, transliteration, Glossary, indices and sign list, State Archives of Assyria Cuneiform Texts Volume 1, The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, Helsinki, Finland, 1997. Return to text.
  8. K. Elliger and W. Rudolph (Ed.), Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, Germany, 1977. Return to text.
  9. Holy Bible, New King James Version, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1979. Return to text.
  10. [Ed. note: No new languages, such as Sumerian, would have developed until God confused human language at Babel (Genesis 11:7, between 2500 and 2000 BC). See also Real history: the timeline of the Bible/Bible timeline.] Return to text.

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