A Comparison of Religious and Secular Texts:
The Adaptations and Similarities between Noah’s Ark and The Epic of Gilgamesh
by Ian Taylor
for Advanced Composition, East TN State U, December 2011
Foreword: I, as the writer of this analysis, declare myself a Christian. I am saved by the grace of my God, attend church regularly, and pray on a daily basis. I am different, however, from what you might see to be your stereotyped Christian. I do not take everything in the Bible literally; instead, I take the Bible to be a text possessing good purpose and intent, but in great need of critical analysis. This paper will serve to do just that.
George Bernard Shaw stated, “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that is says what he means.” The Bible and its teachings are often used in philosophical debate. For example, in the discussion on abortion, one hears scripture from Jeremiah 1: 4-5 stating,
“The word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’"
In the great homosexuality debate, the name Leviticus will always be dropped, reading as follows: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” (NIV Leviticus 20:13). These scriptures represent solid evidence that God himself has spoken to man and provided the answer to some of life’s most heated debates; at least that is what literal readers of the text might argue. Why then are these topics still of heated debate amongst both believers and non believers? Leviticus also states (19:19) “Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woolen come upon thee.” Pack your bags, ladies and gentlemen; we are all heading to hell on a Walmart rack. The laws in Leviticus are archaic. They are made for their time. The confusion of religious texts and laws stems from the fact that most religious texts come from stories that were told even before the religious manuscripts that we all are familiar with were born. Does one believe that he will land in hell because he wore a cotton/polyester blend? Probably not. The laws in the Bible were written for their time and have been adapted for the generations that followed. Stories have also evolved over time to mold whatever message or moral that they try to produce; some have ended up as religious manuscript. Rather than literal texts of inerrant truth, religious texts should be taken as guides on how to live and stories of God’s love for us with room for interpretation. The epic of Gilgamesh and the famous story of Noah’s Ark are two stories of the same cloth and will serve to prove the adaptation and similarities of texts that many claim to be inerrant truth.
The origins of the Epic of Gilgamesh are lost in translation. For example, while many believe that the composition is a multitude of stories thrown into one epic (Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia), others believe that the epic exists as one solid poem. Jan Barendrecht in her analysis of the epic in The Epic of Gilgamesh says that these are a few agreed upon facts:
The Epic of Gilgamesh was originally written on clay tablets. The image above illustrates the age of the original text and proves that it does, indeed, outdate the text of the Bible.
· The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest known written stories, the earliest versions date to about 2000 B.C.
· The epic hails from ancient Babylonia, a kingdom that was located in the area between the rivers Euphrat and Tigris in what is now Iraq.
· The epic was originally written on clay tablets in cuneiform, the wedge shaped characters of the Sumerian language.
· The fullest surviving version of the epic, however, was written in Akkadian, another Babylonian language
One may compare the epic to many other texts that have been passed off as “secular,” such as The Odyssey or The Iliad. Gilgamesh possesses a king that is seen as oppressive, an adventure of epic proportions, the foil character that allows the king to realize his mortality, and allusion to other stories. Wait for it. Yes, this sounds like the exact format of some of the Old Testament texts found in the Holy Bible. (Recall the story of Moses and the Pharaoh). In analyzing the epic tale, one will see many similarities between the epic and stories from what many believe to be the sole events and word of God, as well as common themes found even in today’s literature. Such themes and connections include: the civilization of man, search for eternal life, which includes the undertones of temptation, and the Great Flood.
Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit
In order to answer the pleas of those who found themselves under King Gilgamesh’s rule, the gods created Enkidu, an uncivilized man who was created to distract Gilgamesh by presenting Gilgamesh with the challenge of civilizing him. Gilgamesh, a very proud king, (after all, he is 2/3 god), accepts the challenge. How does one civilize a man? Well, the answer is easy. Three things are said to be embedded within the realm of human needs according to Professor William Burgess (Professor of Ancient Religions at ETSU and cause for my interest in the subject): food, water, and sex (Professor Burgess, Lecture). The environment in which Enkidu is placed allows for the first two; thus, what else is needed? By process of elimination we are left with the answer of, yes, sex. King Gilgamesh sends a prostitute to engage in intercourse with the savage, and, as if there were any question, Enkidu becomes civilized. This civilization of man is paralleled to God’s creation of man in the Garden of Eden. According to Genesis, when God created man, He created them with no wisdom of themselves or their environment. They survived on basic natural instincts and communication with God. The serpent comes and tempts Eve to eat the fruit. Wisdom is gained, God is displeased, and the two naïve beings are cast out of the garden for insubordination. In a broad sense, the serpent is seen as a phallic symbol. Phallic symbols have sexual connotation (as implied by the very definition of the title). Thus, the serpent can parallel the prostitute tempting Enkidu with sex. When Enkidu “eats of the forbidden fruit,” he becomes civilized.
Noah’s Ark is one of the most famous Bible stories but did is it an original and authentic text?
When becoming aware of his own mortality and fear of death, Gilgamesh decided to venture out to find the only man that had been granted immortality from the Gods for surviving the Great Flood, Utnapishtim. When Gilgamesh finally meets with Utnapishtim and is told the story of the Great Flood. Utnapishtim tries to convey to Gilgamesh that these were unusual circumstances that granted he and his wife immortality and that they could not be repeated. To prove this he challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh fails the challenge but is given a parting gift that will make him young again. Sadly, the gift is stolen by a serpent. Gilgamesh returns home.
At this point, the reader may be questioning the validity of this account. Noah was, indeed, the only person ever to have survived the Great Flood, right? Who, then, is this Utnapishtim and why is his name so hard to pronounce? This is because the Great Flood story is an ancient story that is told in many texts and in many cultures (thus the difficult name). We see many similarities between this text, however, and the story of Noah’s Ark found in Genesis. The story enlists the characters of Noah and his wife who find favor with God in a world that becomes overridden with sin. Robbery, sexual deviance, and idolatry anger God and He decides to wipe out the entire human race via a worldwide flood. This sort of cleansing method requires that someone is there to replenish the population and because the creation of man is somewhat less impressive the second time, God decides to speak to Noah and tells him to build an Ark with specific parameters and to bring two of each animal on to the boat. We see this very same concept presented in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The only deviation we see from the text is that the one God represented in Genesis is seen as multiple gods in the Epic. We also see the symbolism in both accounts that has become a famous promise from God in Christian culture. In the Epic, Belitilit recognizes her beautiful necklace as the symbol that will always remind her of the great injustice that has been done to humanity. The Christian account recognizes God’s creation of the rainbow as a reminder that God will never flood the earth again. The reader of these two texts also recognizes similarities of the sending out of a bird to check for dry land. Though a minor detail, it further proves the obvious connections that these two texts possess.
What do we do with the Bible, even as far as to say the Christian religion? Well, we will recycle it. Unless God comes back as He promises in Revelations and as true as Christianity may prove to be, if the human race continues to exist, the texts that power the Christian movement will adapt and evolve to continue to fit society’s wants and needs. The scriptures will become mythological stories just as the Epic of Gilgamesh has become in time. What do I think? I consider myself very much a Christian. I believe in Jesus and his teachings and I believe in the Christian God. I believe that the Bible possesses stories that remind us of how to love and of God’s love for us. I do not necessarily believe that everything in the Bible is to be taken literally. I do not believe that a man built a boat and put two of every animal on the boat. I believe that the moral of the story is that God loves us and that He will never do anything to harm His people. The Epic provides a powerful look into the times, portraying the religious practices and beliefs of the time. It then stands to say that religious texts of the canon have evolved from ancient texts, proving that religion is adaptive and recycled from ancient times to fit the needs of the present society. Which religion is correct? We will not know until we die or the world is obliterated by some asteroid whose GPS happened to be malfunctioning that day; however, we do know that the texts will survive and be repeated to cause some unfortunate future society some heated discussion.
Barendrecht, Jan. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Luthar: The Premier Enlightenment Website. 26 January, 2001. Web. 12 October, 2011.
Burgess, William. Lecture on Ancient Religions. East Tennessee State University. Rogers Stout Hall. Johnson City, TN. 21 September, 2011. Lecture.
Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. United Kingdom. Oxford University Press. 1998. Print.
Heidel, Alexander. The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 1946. Print.
The Holy Bible: New International Version. New York. Harper . 1983. Print.
Tigay, Jeffrey H. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Repr. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2003.
Unknown Author. Epic of Gilgamesh. Wikipedia. 17 October, 2011. Web. 18 October, 2011.