A comparative study of the flood accounts in the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis
Published: 21 February 2006 (GMT+10)
The purpose of this research has been to examine the relationship between the flood accounts of the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis. Three possibilities of relationship are commonly discussed: (1) that the Epic derived from the Genesis account; (2) that the Genesis account used the Epic as its source; and (3) that both accounts depended on a common source.
The first possibility—that the Epic account derived from the Genesis account—has been discounted in this research because of the dates of the extant copies of the Epic and Genesis. The original compilations of the Epic are older than the original compilations of Genesis. Few scholars would consider this theory credible. Therefore, this writer has investigated the remaining two popular theories about the relationship between the Epic and Genesis.
The second hypothesis—that the Genesis account is dependent on the Epic—has significant difficulties. According to this hypothesis, the author of the Genesis account would have needed to revise the Epic as follows: change the concept of god from polytheism to absolute monotheism and add the strong, consistent moral motivation for the Flood by establishing God as righteous and gracious; write clear descriptions that show the Flood as universal in order to make the whole account consistent; change the character of the survivors to portray them as righteous and worthy to be saved; specify the survivors as four couples who are capable of replenishing the human race; add their descendants’ genealogy which agrees with the secular historical records; add the details about animals being included in pairs of every kind for the preservation of the created kinds; improve the source of the Flood from only rain to rain and underground water sufficient to cover the whole world; specify the duration of the Flood from only six days and nights and unspecified days to more than one year which is adequate for a universal Flood; redesign the structure of the Ark from the unstable cube to the ideal safe design for floating; change the order and the kind of the birds of the test flights in order to make them more logical; specify seven days interval between each test flight; and add the account of the freshly plucked olive leaf which is botanically realistic and more informative than the Epic.
Therefore, despite the many similarities between the two accounts, it would have been inconceivable to rewrite the Epic to the Genesis account, the more reliable one, unless the author was not only ethical, creative and logical, but also had enough knowledge about zoology, biology, physics, naval architectural skill, botany and ancient ethnic histories. If one does not accept the Genesis account as an historical record, there is no escaping the fact that an heroic effort has been undertaken to make that account appear to be historical. This has been remarkably successful at point after point, as the preceding pages have shown. Hermann Gunkel can only explain these facts by positing a long history of rewriting:
If a man such as our narrator became acquainted with the Babylonian material, filled with the most crass mythology, he would have only felt disgust. Furthermore, a comparison of the Babylonian and the very different Israelite narratives teaches that a long history must lie between the two.1
This writer believes the third theory—that both accounts descended from a common origin—is the most plausible one. As noted in chapter one, the Epic was likely derived from the Sumerian story which was probably based on an historical event, though distorted. On the other hand, according to the specifics, scientific reliability, internal consistency, the correspondence to the secular records, and the existence of common elements among the flood traditions around the world, the Genesis account seems to be more acceptable as an accurate historical record. If all human races are descendents of Noah’s three sons, the survivors from the universal Flood, and the two accounts had derived from the same historical event,2 the reason the accounts have many similarities is explicable. As K. A. Kitchen states, it is likely that “The Hebrew and Babylonian accounts may go back to a common ancient tradition, but are not borrowed directly from each other.”3 Even though the Genesis account was written in Hebrew which was used later than Akkadian in which the Epic was written, the historical event of the Flood was much earlier than the publication of the Epic. Henry Thiessen writes
First, it is known generally that a considerable portion of the people could read and write as far back as the time of Hammurabi; that genealogical tablets and lists were known in Babylonia centuries before Abraham; that it is possible that Abraham carried cuneiform tablets containing such records with him from Haran to Canaan; and that in this manner Moses may have come into possession of them. Whether because he had access to such records, or because he had only oral tradition, or because he had only a direct revelation from God, or because of a combination of these, conservative scholarship has always held that Moses wrote Genesis.4
Even if Moses had used some source materials which are not extant today, the process of his gathering and compiling them to write Genesis would have been guided correctly by God.5 Thus, after investigating the differences between the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis, it seems reasonable for this writer to conclude that the flood account in the Epic is the story which lost historical accuracy and was distorted, whereas the Genesis Flood account is the accurate historical record of the Flood event.
- Gunkel, p. 73. Return to text.
- Barton, p. 331. Return to text.
- Kitchen, p. 90. Return to text.
- Thiessen, p. 51. Return to text.
- Vos, p. 44. Return to text.