GILGAMESH Vs GENESIS: Essay, Research Paper
GILGAMESH Vs GENESIS:
In our society, which is overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian, students often
find it difficult to compare Bible stories with tales from other cultures,
because our own belief system is wrapped up in the prior, and it is hard for many
of us to go against our traditional faith to evaluate them objectively. But in a
comparison of the Biblical book of Genesis with the ancient Sumerian text, Epic
of Gilgamesh, many parallels suggest that the same type of spiritual searching
inspired the composition of both works. It would seem that both cultures shared
a concern for the nature of human life, and how its shortness affects the way life
should be lived. However, the conclusions each culture derived from their
observations are very different, and this led them to develop very different
philosophies of life.
Gilgamesh is an interesting story because it contains several
episodes in common with the Judeo-Christian Bible. For example, John Noss
?The original flood story was Sumerian and came out of grim
experiences of the overflowing of the two rivers [the Tigris and the
Euphrates]. Several of the later versions of the tale, mostly fragmentary,
have come down to us. The finest of these forms part of the Gilgamesh
epic, into which it was inserted as an interesting interpolation. According
to this narrative, the gods decided in anger to punish man?s sins by a
flood. Their secret decision was revealed to one man. The good god Ea
felt kindly toward Utnapishtim [Gilgamesh?s ancestor] and told him about
it. The man proceeded immediately to build an ark? (Noss 38).
Marietta Moskin agrees that many of the earliest Hebrew stories derived
from the Sumerian text. She writes that, ?The authors of Genesis surely must
have looked around to see what other people thought about creation. And there
was quite a lot. There were the Sumerian Seven Tablets of Creation; there was
the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. . . .? (Moskin 30).
The similarities should not surprise us, right down to the reason God was
supposed to have decided to destroy the earth by water. In the Biblical book of
Genesis, the author tells us that: ?The earth was corrupt in God?s sight, and the
earth was filled with violence? (Genesis 6:11). Part of this, the Genesis author
comments, was largely due to the fact that human beings on the earth had
become extremely sinful. ?The Lord saw that the wickedness of men was great in
the earth, and it grieved him to his heart? (Genesis 6:5). So He determined to kill
all the people of the earth, saving only one family which had steadfastly
maintained their righteousness. This, of course, was the family of Noah.
The parallels between this story and that of Gilgamesh are too obvious to
criticize. ?Of course the Hebrew iteration of the flood story is not coincidence.
For a time, the Hebrews lived in Sumer, home of Abraham?s people…, taking
with them ancient accounts of flood and righteous people whose obedience and
wisdom helped them to survive the consuming waters? (Near East 2).
However, several interesting points can be made here about the
characteristics of Sumerian religion. For one, it is clear that, like most primitive
peoples, the Sumerians took everyday happenings they observed occurring
around them, and elevated them into myth. The Hebrews did, too. Secondly,
the Sumerians believed that their behavior as a society directly impacted their
fate — in other words, if they behaved badly the gods would punish them.
Maureen Raymo, a marine geologist ?finds it very easy to believe this flood is the
origin of these myths…. You would invoke your god being angry if you didn?t
have the scientific basis to understand it ? (McInnis 3). Again, this belief
underlies Hebrew law as well. And finally, like the Hebrews, Sumerians believed
their gods had direct contact with man, in a manner specific enough to be able to
impart instructions for building an ark. Ea tells Utnapishtim, ?Tear down the
house. Build an ark? (Gardner 226).
This type of contact is made explicit in the passage where Gilgamesh
encounters the goddess ?Siduri the barmaid, who dwells at the lip of the sea?
(Gardner 209). Gilgamesh seeks entrance and is refused, but when he
explains the nature of his quest she lets him in, only to explain why he was being
foolish. In this passage she tells him to stop concentrating on death and to go
home and live. ?Thou, o Gilgamesh, let thy belly be filled! / Day and night be
merry, / Daily celebrate a feast, / Day and night dance and make merry! / Clean
be thy clothes, / Thy head be washed, bathe in water! / Look joyfully on the child
that grasps thy hand, / Be happy with the wife in thine arms!? (Gilgamesh,
quoted in Noss, 72). John Noss observes that ?Here breathes the spirit of the
people of Babylonia. They had no hopes such as the Egyptians had of
pleasantness in the world beyond. All joy was in this life? (Noss 39).
This cold fact became painfully real for Gilgamesh as he had to confront
the death of his best friend, Enkidu. After Enkidu?s death, Gilgamesh is
confused, and terrified. ?We [Enkidu and I] overcame everything. . .Six days and
seven nights I weep over him…[not burying him] (Gardner 210).? He cannot
deal with the fact that someone so dear to him, so much a part of his life, should
be so utterly gone. Enkidu?s death has become as if it were Gilgamesh?s
own, not only because their friendship has been extinguished, but because
Gilgamesh has been brought face to face with his own mortality. When he dies,
he will indeed be like Enkidu.. Weeping, he cries out, ?Me, shall I not lie down
like him, never again to move ? (Gardner 221).
Surely there must be some antidote to this terrible fate! Gilgamesh
decides to embark on a long journey to seek out Utnapishtim and ask him how
he survived the great flood. Gilgamesh believes that this journey will be worth it
if immortality lies at the end. When Gilgamesh finds himself in the presence of
the ancient Utnapishtim and learns the story of the flood, however, it is clear to
him that Utnapishtim has no ?secret? that will award immortality after all; it was a
one-time gift of the gods, and not something available to mankind at large.
Gilgamesh said to Utnapishtim, ?I look at you. Your features are no different
than mine. I?m like you? (Gardner 226).
Gilgamesh has been so keyed up over Enkidu?s death and the hardship of
his journey that he is overcome with exhaustion. He sleeps at Utnapishtim?s
home for six days and seven nights, and wakes up complaining that he had
barely fallen asleep when Utnapishtim woke him up. Gilgamesh immediately
asks ?What can I do, Utnapishtim (Gardner 245). Unfortunately, despite
Utnapishtim?s efforts to help, human beings are only allowed so much time, and
when it?s up, it?s up. Where can I go…Death lives in the house where my bed is
and wherever I set my feet, there Death is? (Gardner 245).
The Hebrews shared this lack of belief in a paradise after death. This
may come as a shock to many people of our day, for whom the promise (or
threat) of eternal afterlife is their main reason for behaving themselves. There is
no evidence in Genesis that the Jews of those ancient times believed that death
brought them either punishment, or reward. Isaac Asimov notes that like many
ancient peoples, early Jews seemed to believe that the dead ?crossed over? into
a land of shades. He writes that this underworld, which the Bible calls Sheol,
?was thought of at first as a dim place where there was no particular torture, but
where there was an absence of joy. Nor was there any distinction between good
and evil; all human beings went there upon death . . . .? (Asimov 173). He adds
that ?The moralization of Sheol, its conversion into a place of torture for the
wicked, while the good go elsewhere, came later in history, toward the end of
Old Testament times? (Asimov 173).
For obvious reasons, the Hebrews were in no great hurry to get to Sheol,
any more than Gilgamesh had been in a hurry to ?become like? Enkidu. In
Genesis 44, Joseph?s brothers plead with him for return of their youngest brother
Benjamin, they tell him that if the youth is not returned safely and soon, their
father will die of grief, and ?[you] will bring down the gray hairs of . . .our father
to Sheol? (Genesis 44:31). Clearly the Hebrews dreaded death, not because
they feared the tortures of Hell, but because life was so much richer, and so
The wish to remain alive is one that human beings share with animals, but
only the human being recognizes what the alternative is. According to the
psychologist Ernest Becker, man recognizes instinctively that he is very different
from the lower animals, because he alone shows evidence of a consciousness.
According to Becker, ?Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of
nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a
creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity. . .Yet at
the same time, . . .man is a worm and food for worms. That is the paradox; man
is out of nature and yet hopelessly in it? (Becker 26).
In both the epics of Gilgamesh and Genesis, the reader can clearly see
an effort being made to come to terms with the complex issues and emotions
surrounding the transitions of life and death. However, the Sumerians and the
Hebrews seem to have taken different paths in terms of their response to this
dilemma. Sumerians seem to have dealt with the inevitability of death through a
glorification of being alive. The Hebrews, on the other hand, found their own
?salvation? in community and tradition, which insured a consistent expression of
faith despite the deaths of individual member and this still remains true today.
In this way the Jewish faith is able to truly bridge life and death in a way that the
Sumerians could not.
Asimov, Isaac. Asimov?s Guide to the Bible. New York:
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