A comparison of ethics

“A comparative study of the flood accounts in the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis,” chapter 3



The reason for the flood

In the Gilgamesh Epic, the assembly of the great gods1 decides to bring the flood (XI 14–19). While it is obvious that Enlil2 is mainly responsible for the decision (XI 167–169, 177–179) and that he had planned to destroy all humans in the flood (XI 170–173), the reason for the flood is not stated obviously.3 According to the utterance of Ea,4 “Impose his fault on the doer; impose his sin on the owner!” (XI 180), the flood seemed to be a retribution to man. However, the Epic does not explain how people had sinned nor whether the gods had tried to distinguish the people who were worthy to be punished from the others.5 The reproaches of the great goddess Ishtar (XI 162–169) and Ea (XI 177–185) concerning the mindlessness of Enlil sound as if the flood resulted from an unreasonable act caused by a mere impulse on the part of the gods rather than a moral motivation.6

On the other hand, in the Genesis account, it is repeatedly mentioned that God grieved (6:5–7) for man’s moral corruption (שחת, 6:11–12) and decided to bring the Flood as the punishment (6:13–17). The word שחת verbalizes “the spoiling and destruction of large variety of matters,” including morals.7 The term חמס (“violence,” 6:11, 13) seems to describe universal corruption (שחת) distinctively,8 whereas there are various interpretations for חמס. According to H. Haag, חמס signifies “cold-blooded and unscrupulous infringement of the personal rights of others, motivated by greed and hate and often making use of physical violence and brutality.”9 In fact, in Genesis 16:5, 2 Samuel 22:3, and Proverbs 16:29, חמס does not mention any physical violence.10 U. Cassuto interprets it as “anything that is not righteous.”11 According to E.A. Speiser, חמס is “a strictly legal term” which has broader sense than “violence,” and he defines it “lawlessness, injustice.”12 Actually, the term חמס is often used to portray physical violence and brutality and it is translated as “lawlessness” or “violence” by most scholars.13

In the Genesis account, not only the reason for the Flood, but also the object of the punishment is plain: “And God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth’” (6:13). The Flood was not a capricious decision, but a rational verdict caused by an ethical reason; therefore, God decided to punish the wicked but provided salvation for the righteous in His sight (6:8–9, 7:1).14

The character of god

An essential difference between the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis is that the former is a polytheistic mythology, whereas the latter is based on a monotheistic theology. In the Gilgamesh Epic, it is obvious that Enlil, who mainly decreed the flood, is not omnipotent or omniscient because a fellow god Ea thwarted him. Furthermore, as noted above, Enlil is blamed because of his lack of reflectiveness in the Epic (XI 168, 179).15 The other gods in the assembly, Anu,16 Ninurta, Ennugi, and Ea, i.e., Niššīku agree to bring the flood and take oath with Enlil (XI 14–19), but in fact the pact seems to be only superficial because they feared to object.17 According to the description of their fearing (XI 115), weeping (XI 124–125), and recriminating (XI 172–185), it is highly doubtful whether the gods were reflective or rational. Holzinger describes the gods as follows:

The gods of the Babylonian account are truly pagan in their lies and toleration of lies, in their hunger for the sacrifice, in their behavior, in the caprice with which they deal with people, and in the reversal of their moods.18

As an illustration, circumventing the oath, Ea hinted to Utnapishtim about the flood and gave directions to build a ship by speaking to him from outside the wall of the reed hut (XI 20–31).19 As noted above, the Epic does not give enough information about the reason of the flood. If Utnapishtim is really worthy to be saved, Ea should not approve or swear with the other gods in the council because they are unjust. On the other hand, if the flood was brought for ethical reasons and all people including Utnapishtim deserved the punishment, Ea is unrighteous and unfair to preserve Utnapishtim’s life. In either case, it is clear that not all the gods in the assembly act ethically. Ea even instructed Utnapishtim to mislead the inhabitants of Shurppak in order that they would not realize a flood was coming even when the huge ship was being built (XI 38–47).20 Utnapishtim had to say to the population that because he was hated by Enlil, he had to emigrate from the land and live with Ea, his lord, in order that Enlil would bless them. In addition, Ea advised him to tell a “half-truth”21 to the population. The following are the text, transliteration, and translation of XI 46–47:

page 27

Speiser states that “As has long been recognized, these lines feature word plays in that both kukku (plural kukki page 28) and kibāti (plural page 28_2, singular kibtu) may designate either food or misfortune” (parenthesis this writer’s).22 Heidel explains this line as follows:

This line can also be translated: “He will cause a destructive rain (lit.: a rain of misfortune) to rain down upon you.” This evidently is the real meaning of the passage. But Ea knew that the people of Shurippak would interpret these words differently.23

Ea used such a deceptive expression so that “To the populace, the statement would be a promise of prosperity; to Utnapishtim it would signalize the impending deluge.”24

In spite of the gods’ initial decision to destroy mankind, they were glad when Utnapishtim offered a sacrifice which was presumably for appeasement to the gods and thanksgiving to Ea.25 “The gods gathered like flies over the sacrificer” (XI 161) avariciously because of their hunger.26 As Heidel notes, in the Epic “the moral or ethical motive is almost completely absent.”27

On the other hand, the Genesis account is based on monotheism so that there is no opposition, division, or deception in one God. God has absolute sovereignty and a consistently dignified character.28 Although God promised that “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Gen. 9:15), He did not regret what He had done. As noted above, in Genesis, the Flood is “clearly and unmistakably a moral judgment, a forceful illustration of divine justice meting out stern punishment to a ‘faithless and perverse generation’ but delivering the righteous.”29 Morris comments about Gen. 7:16 as follows:

Once all were inside, Noah evidently being last, a remarkable thing took place. “The Lord shut him in.” How He did this is not recorded, but somehow the door to the Ark was shut and sealed, without the help of any human hands. This proved a final assurance to the occupants that they were in the will of God and under His protection.30

This is a significant difference from the Epic in which Utnapishtim had to close the entrance by himself (XI 93).

Some scholars interpret Gen. 6:3, “yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years” (והיו ימיו מאה ועשׂרים שׁנה) not as an individual’s lifespan, but as the respite before the Flood.31 Hamilton states as follows:

Is this an age limit, or is it a period of grace prior to the Flood (i.e., his [remaining] days shall be 120 years)? The first alternative faces the difficulty that most of the people in the rest of Genesis lived well beyond 120 years. It is possible to interpret the longer life spans of the patriarchs as mitigation or suspension of the divine penalty, just as an earlier announced divine penalty (“on the day you eat of it you shall surely die”) was not immediately implemented.

But the (imminent) withdrawal of the divine Spirit as a means of lowering the life span of humanity does not make a great deal of sense. Rather, it seems to presage some event that is about to occur. Accordingly, we prefer to see in this phrase a reference to a period of time that prefaces the Flood’s beginning. It is parallel to Jon. 4:5, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” God’s hand of judgment is put on hold.32

Even if the “one hundred and twenty years” had not been the respite before the Flood, at least, there is no passage in which God instructed Noah to deceive his neighbors so that they would not realize the Flood was coming. While it is not specified how God treated other people before the Flood in Genesis, the Apostle Peter writes that Noah preached (2 Peter 2:5) probably to the corrupted people, and the people “disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built” (1 Peter 3:20).33 Morris states as follows:

God has always been long-suffering, even under such awful conditions as prevailed in the days of Noah (1 Peter 3:20). Though all had rejected Him, He still granted 120 years to mankind in light of bare possibility that at least some might “come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). This was more than adequate time even for those who were infants to grow to maturity and have abundant opportunity to accept or reject God.34

A noticeable difference between the two accounts is that the Gilgamesh Epic portrays the ship as the means of escape through Ea’s deception, whereas in Genesis the Ark is the means of salvation through God’s mercy for the righteous.35

The character of the hero

In the Gilgamesh Epic, Utnapishtim is described as the son of Ubara-tutu36 and a wealthy citizen of Shuruppak (XI 23, 70–74, 81–82).37 Heidel deduces that Utnapishtim was a godly person because of his obedience to Ea and his offering of sacrifice after the flood.38 However, as Ea instructed him (XI, pp. 36–47), he intentionally deceived the inhabitants in spite of using them to build the ship (XI 49–55).39 In addition, he had them laboriously launch the huge ship which was made for the flood (XI 77–79).40 The absence of an obvious reason for saving Utnapishtim is baffling. The other survivors, especially the craftmen, seemed to be manipulated by Utnapishtim to aid his escape although they were also ultimately delivered from the flood. According to Ea’s speech, Utnapishtim is likely a wise man: “I revealed a dream to Atrahasis41 and he heard the secret of gods” (XI 187). These words sound as if Utnapishtim was saved not because of his ethical character, but because of his wisdom.42 Moran remarks

The gift of immortality strikes one as no less capricious or mysterious than the sending of the Flood. The god Enllil, who had been mainly responsible for the destruction of humanity and who only moments before, on arriving and finding a few survivors, had become quite enraged, now not only spares these survivors but makes them immortal. Why such extraordinary largesse? The conclusion of the story makes no more sense than the beginning. We start with an apparently arbitrary destruction of life and end with an equally arbitrary extension of life into eternity.43

Thus, it seems to be doubtful whether Utnapishtim is spared because of his ethical character.

On the other hand, in the Genesis account, not only Noah’s righteous character but also the wickedness of the other people who were destroyed by the Flood is clearly stated: “Then the Lord said to Noah, ‘Come into the ark, you and all your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation” (7:1).44 Noah was righteous and blameless, and he walked with God in his generation (6:9). According to Ramban,45 righteous (צדיק) derived from a legal term (Cf. Ex 23:7, Deut. 25:1, Prov. 17:15) and it signifies “one whose conduct is found to be beyond reproach by the divine Judge.”46 Hamilton writes

The word for righteous person (tsaddîq) is interesting. With tsdq, “righteous,” the only possibility is the one we have here—(tsaddîq, that is, one who is habitually righteous. There is no tsōdēq (participle), for Scripture makes no room for the person who, with God’s blessing, practices righteousness only occasionally.47

The term “blameless” (תמים) is “mostly found in ritual context, describes a sacrificial animal that is without blemish, as in Exodus 12:5 and Leviticus 1:3, 10.”48 Although this term does not mean to be sinless,49 “As applied to human beings, tamim acquired a moral dimension connoting ‘unblemished’ by moral fault―hence, a person of unimpeachable integrity.”50 Written in “The exceptional inversion of the Hebrew word order,” the phrase “Noah walked with God” (את-האלהים התהלך-נח) shows God is in the most important position.51 This formula is “expressive of a life spent in full accord with God’s will and in closest intimacy with Him.”52 In addition, Noah’s obedience to God is also noted repeatedly (6:22, 7:5, 8:18). Thus, it is obvious that the character of Noah was worthy to be saved, whereas the ethics of Utnapishtim are doubtful.


  1. “The Babylonian gods are frequently found in assembly, debating how to react to some new situation in heaven or on earth.” Martin L. West, Ancient Near Eastern Myth in Classical Greek Religious Thought, CANE, vol. I & II, p. 36. Return to text.
  2. In Babylonian poetry, while each of the gods rules different portions of the universe, “The two chief authorities are Anu and Enllil (Sumerian Enlil), heads of the two great groups of gods, the Anunnaki and the Igigi.” Ibid, p. 36. Cf. F.A.M. Wiggermann, Theologies, Priests, and Worship in Ancient Mesopotamia, CANE, vol. III & IV, pp. 1859–1861. Return to text.
  3. Moran, p. 2334. Cf. In the Atrahasis Epic, the reason of the flood is to eradicate the overpopulation because the noise of mankind which have multiplied for twelve hundred years since their creation hindered Enlil’s sleeping. (Tablet I 352–359; II i, 1–2; III iii, 42–43). ATRAHASIS pp. 66–67, 72–73, 94–95. Return to text.
  4. In the Atrahasis Epic, the great gods Anu, Enlil, and Ea divide the universe and Anu ascended to the heaven; Enlil took the earth, and Ea descended to the netherworld, Apsu. Lambert, Myth and Mythmaking in Sumer and Akkad, CANE, vol. III & IV, p. 1833. Cf. ATRAHASIS, p. 43. Return to text.
  5. Heidel, p. 268. Return to text.
  6. Ibid, pp. 225, 268. Return to text.
  7. William A. VanGemeren (Ed.), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, vol. 4, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, p. 92, 1997. Return to text.
  8. Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary Genesis בראשית, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, p. 51, 1989. Return to text.
  9. H. Haag, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, G. Botterweck and H. Ringgren (Eds.), Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 4:482, 1974; in Victor P. Hamilton, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis Chapter 1–17, Willam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, pp. 278–279, 1990, note 1. Return to text.
  10. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, pp. 278–279, note 1. Return to text.
  11. U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Vol. I: From Adam to Noah, Vol. II: From Noah to Abraham, I. Abrahams (Trans.), Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 2:52–53, 1961–64; in Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, pp. 278–279, note 1. Return to text.
  12. E.A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible: Genesis, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, p. 117, 1964. Return to text.
  13. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, pp. 278–279, note 1. Return to text.
  14. Walton, p. 319. Return to text.
  15. In the Atrahasis Epic, the flood was sent after the other disasters which Ea suggests to Enlil as more appropriate ways in the Gilgamesh Epic (XI 182–185). Claus Westermann, Genesis 1–11, John J. Scullion S.J. (Trans.), Fortress Press, Minneapolis, p. 400, 1997. Return to text.
  16. In the Sumerian Deluge tablet, Enlil is always mentioned as “Anu Enlil.” “This title indicates that Enlil has received the supreme power and functions of Anu, the highest god of the Sumerian pantheon, and that he thus exercises not only his own authority but also that of Anu.” Heidel, p. 103, note 4. Cf. A. Poebel, Historical and Grammatical Texts, Philadelphia, pp. 36–37, 1914. Return to text.
  17. L.W. King, Legends of Babylon and Egypt in relation to Hebrew Tradition, London, p. 64, 1918; in Heidel, p. 225. Return to text.
  18. Holzinger, quoted by Hermann Gunkel in Genesis, Mark E. Biddle (Trans.), Mercer University Press, Macon, p. 72, 1997. Return to text.
  19. The “reed hut” (kikkišu, XI 21–22) is probably the dwelling of Utnapishtim. Speiser, The Epic of Gilgamesh, p. 93. Cf. In southern Mesopotamia, there are huge reeds and such reed houses even now. ATRAHASIS, p. 11. Return to text.
  20. Brian B. Schmid, Flood Narratives of Ancient Western Asia, CANE, vol. III & IV, p. 2340. Return to text.
  21. Walton, p. 316. Return to text.
  22. Speiser, The Epic of Gilgamesh, p. 93, footnote 190. Cf. C. Frank, Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und verwandte Gebiete XXXVI, Leipzig, p. 218, 1935. Return to text.
  23. Heidel, p. 82, footnote 170. Return to text.
  24. Speiser, The Epic of Gilgamesh, p. 93, footnote 190. Return to text.
  25. “Since through the extirpation of humankind, with the exception of the occupants of the ark, all sacrifices had ceased, the gods had not been fed for some weeks and now were hungry.” Heidel, p. 256. Return to text.
  26. Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 1 Genesis 1–15, Word Books Publisher, Waco, TX, p. 165, 1985. Return to text.
  27. Heidel, p. 268. Return to text.
  28. Walton, p. 318. Return to text.
  29. Heidel, p. 269. Return to text.
  30. Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record: A Scientific Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings, with a foreword by Arnold D. Ehlert, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, p. 198, 1976. Return to text.
  31. F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes by C.F. Delitzsch and F.Delitzsch, vol. I, Genesis, James Martin, (Trans.), William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Michigan, p. 136, 1969. Bruce. K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, p. 117, 2001. Morris, The Genesis Record, p. 171. Speiser, Genesis, p. 46. Return to text.
  32. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, p. 269. Return to text.
  33. The Holy Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1973. Return to text.
  34. Morris, The Genesis Record, p. 171. Return to text.
  35. Walton, p. 316. Return to text.
  36. His name is listed in the Sumerian king list as an antediluvian king who ruled Shuruppak for 186,000 years. Oppenheim, Babylonian and Assyrian Historical Texts, p. 265. Return to text.
  37. Shuruppak (modern Fara) was “one of the oldest cities in southern Babylonia” and “about eighteen miles northwest of Uruk.” “According to Berossus, the deluge hero was the tenth prediluvian king in Babylonia,” whereas “Utnapishtim is not vested with any royal power” in the Gilgamesh Epic. Heidel, pp. 227–228. Return to text.
  38. Ibid, p. 228. Return to text.
  39. Foster, pp. 85–86. Return to text.
  40. Speiser, The Epic of Gilgamesh, p. 94. Return to text.
  41. “This name—in reality a descriptive epithet meaning ‘the exceedingly wise’—is another designation for Utnapishtim.” Heidel, p. 88, note 204. Return to text.
  42. Foster interprets Utnapishtim was “a favorite of the god Ea.” Foster, p. 84. Return to text.
  43. Moran, p. 2334. Return to text.
  44. “Words or phrases in italics indicate expressions in the original language which require clarification by additional English words, as also done throughout the history of the King James Bible.” Holy Bible, The New King James Version, v. Return to text.
  45. “Acronym for Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as Nahmanides (1194–1270). Philosopher, halakhist, Bible commentator.” Sarna, p. xxi. Return to text.
  46. Ibid, p. 50. Return to text.
  47. “Of Course, the righteous, the tsaddîq, may turn from and repudiate his righteousness (tseḏeq), and thus die in and for his sin (Ezek.3:20).” Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, p. 277.   Return to text.
  48. Sarna, p. 50. Return to text.
  49. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, p. 277. Return to text.
  50. Sarna, p. 50. Return to text.
  51. Ibid. Return to text.
  52. Ibid, p. 43. Return to text.
Published: 21 February 2006