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Gilgamesh Epic: The Flood Story

“Six days and seven nights the wind and storm flood” – Gilgamesh XI,127


Gilgamesh Epic


Three different Babylonian stories of the flood have survived- the Sumerian Flood Story, the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic, and the Atrahasis Epic. Of these, the best known is Gilgamesh XI, which was one of the earliest cuneiform texts to be discovered and published. In 1872 George Smith read a paper called “The Chaldean Account of the Deluge” in which he presented fragments of the flood story from the Gilgamesh Epic. These fragments, dating from the seventh century B.C., were discovered in the library of King Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. However, other examples of tablets of this epic date from about 1000 years earlier than the fragments from Nineveh. These earlier tablets are evidence that the composition of the epic and the flood story contained in it occurred no later than the beginning of the second millennium B.C.; also, many of the episodes included in the epic have prototypes in the Sumerian language which are much older than the composition of the Gilgamesh Epic.

It is not easy to compare the flood story in Genesis with that in the Gilgamesh Epic because they are told for different reasons and from different perspectives. In the Gilgamesh Epic the story of the flood is related as part of the tale of Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. Utnapishtim tells his descendent, Gilgamesh, the story of the flood in order to tell Gilgamesh how he, Utnapishtim, became immortal; in so doing, he shows Gilgamesh that he cannot become immortal in the same way. Gilgamesh has sought out Utnapishtim in order to find out how to become immortal, and asks him “As I look upon you, Utnapishtim, your features are not strange; you are just as I … how did you join the Assembly of the gods in your quest for life?” (Gilgamesh XI-2–7); that is, how did you become immortal? Utnapishtim then proceeds to answer Gilgamesh by telling him how he became immortal, i.e. by telling him the story of the flood. He relates how the god Ea instructed him to build an ark and to take on it the seed of all living things. Utnapishtim did so, informing the elders of his city that Enlil was angry with him, that he could no longer reside in the city and that he was going down to the deep to live with Ea. When the flood arrived Utnapishtim boarded the ship and battened it down. The deluge then brought such massive destruction that even the gods were frightened by it. After the week of storm all of mankind had returned to clay. The ship came to a halt on Mt. Nisir, and on the seventh day Utnapishtim sent forth a dove, which went forth but came back. Then he sent forth a swallow, which went and came back, and then finally he sent forth a raven, which did not come back. Utnapishtim then sacrificed to the gods, who had repented their hasty destruction of mankind, and they came crowding around the sacrifice like flies. Although Enlil was at first still angry that his plan to destroy mankind had been thwarted, the rest of the gods were grateful that man had been saved, and Enlil thereupon rewarded Utnapishtim and his wife by making them like gods, giving them eternal life. Utnapishtim concludes his recitation of the flood by admonishing Gilgamesh that his story is unique and that Gilgamesh cannot hope to find immortality by following in Utnapishtim’s path (Gilgamesh XI- 197–198)- “But now who will call the gods to Assembly for your sake, so that you may find the life that you seek?”

The nature of the story as “Utnapishtim’s tale” colors the recitation of the flood episode and makes it fundamentally different from the Biblical flood story. Utnapishtim can tell only those parts of the story that he knows, and he leaves out those aspects that do not concern him or fit his purpose. For example, Utnapishtim tells us nothing about the reasons that the gods brought the flood. This lapse is dictated by the literary format- Utnapishtim may not know the reason for the flood, or he may not record it because it is irrelevant to his purpose, which is to recount how he became immortal. Similarly, the only event after the flood about which Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh is the convocation of the gods that granted him immortality. The flood story in the Gilgamesh epic is essentially the personal tale of the adventure of one individual and the flood’s effect on him. The flood itself is therefore emptied of any cosmic or anthropological significance. The flood stories in Genesis and in Gilgamesh are, thus, far different structurally from each other so that the ideas in the two versions of the stories cannot be usefully compared.

Excerpted from Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “What the Babylonian Flood Stories Can and Cannot Teach Us About the Genesis Flood,” BAR Nov-Dec 1978.

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