Noah’s Flood and The Epic of Gilgamesh
One of the most remarkable and memorable stories in the Bible is that of Noah’s Flood. One man’s righteousness and courage separated him and his family from a vile world of sin. God’s disgust at the world’s wickedness brought about the worldwide Flood in which Noah and the other seven members of his family were the only humans saved, along with representatives of each kind of land-living animal that was alive at the time. This story is so well-known that virtually every children’s Bible story book features a rendition of it, and there are numerous references to it in the New Testament.
As could be expected, some who have read the story in Genesis 6-9 have questioned its validity. How could so many animals fit in the Ark? What would a global Flood even look like? How could the Ark float while being loaded down with so much cargo? Etc. When each of these questions is considered, sufficient answers are available to show that the biblical narrative is both scientifically accurate and historically correct (see Miller, 2014). One challenge that has been repeatedly brought against the biblical account of the Flood is that the author copied the story from previously written material. The most common claim is that the biblical Flood story is a rewrite of an ancient tale from Babylon titled The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a 2,900-line poem, written on 12 tablets, describing the life of King Gilgamesh and his reign over an area near the perennial powerhouse of Babylon. The tablets date back to about 650 B.C.; and scholars suggest that the material they contain comes from legend and myth that dates back to between 1800-1600 B.C. (Kovacs, 1989, p. xxvi). The 11th tablet of this work contains an account of a massive flood. Supposedly since it predates the biblical account, and is so similar to the story found in the Bible, then the author of Genesis must have copied material from Gilgamesh or its source material. Does this challenge to the biblical record hold up under a thorough investigation? Not at all.
Does the Fact that One Account is First Prove the Later Account is a Copy?
In discussions of this nature, it is often helpful to ask the simple question of what would the situation look like if there really was a global flood that destroyed all but a few people. If those people survived such a flood, what would they have told their descendants? What would have happened in the retelling of the events when their children and grandchildren moved farther away from each other? After such an event, and so many retellings of the story over hundreds of years, would we expect to find differing tales that trace their origins back to the actual event? A brief moment of thought about these questions reveals that if a universal flood occurred, we would expect to find differing stories with (certain similarities) that date hundreds or thousands of years apart, and that arise from various geographical locations and ethnic groups across the globe.
Interestingly, that is exactly what we find. There are over 200 flood legends in different cultures all over the world. For instance, the Aztecs tell of a worldwide flood in which only two people, Coxcox and his wife, survived. Immediately following the flood, giants constructed a pyramid in an attempt to touch the clouds. In China, the legend is told of God sending a messenger to Earth to warn three sons that a flood was coming. The oldest was the only one to heed the warning, and he built a boat. As a result of his hard work he survived the flood. After the flood, the boat landed on a mountain, and the son had three sons that repopulated the earth. These are just two of the numerous flood legends from around the world (see Lyons and Butt, 2003 for more information).
The fact that one of these stories (such as Gilgamesh or various others) was preserved or written down first cannot be used to argue that it is (a) the correct and accurate description of what happened, or (b) the basis for the text of any narrative that was recorded at a later date. To illustrate, suppose that a certain battle occurred in the American Civil War. One soldier who was not there, but heard about it, told his friend. His friend embellished the story as he retold it to many others. One of those to whom he told the story decided to write it down just a few years after the battle occurred. Decades later, however, a young officer who took part in the battle decided to write a history of it. His memory was exceptional and he related the events much more accurately than the story that was being passed around by the soldier who was not even at the battle. If such events are possible, even probable, then we can show that simply because one telling of a historical event predates another does not make it more accurate, and does not mean the later story copied from it in anyway.
How Similar is Gilgamesh to the Genesis Account?
Even though the two accounts of the global Flood have similarities, it is actually quite striking to see the differences that exist between the stories. For instance, Gilgamesh tells of a man named Utnapishtim who, as a result of various gods wanting to destroy all people, was warned to build a boat 120 cubits on four sides by 120 cubits high, making the vessel a giant cube. The boat was finished apparently in five-six days, having six decks, and was loaded with gold, silver, ale, beer, butchered meat, “wine as if it were river water,” and a host of living animals. Just before the boat launched, the god Shamash rained down loaves of bread and wheat from heaven. Utnapishtim and all his family got in the boat, and a massive flood broke apart the Earth and drenched the ground for seven days. When it stopped and Utanapishtim looked out, “all the human beings had turned to clay.” The survivor then waited seven days and sent forth a dove, a swallow, and a raven. The dove and swallow returned, but the raven did not. The survivors then exited the boat and sacrificed to the gods. When the god Enlil saw that humans had survived, he was furious because “no man was to survive the annihilation.” The god Enlil then blessed Utanapishtim and his wife with the ability to be like gods and live an extended life (these details are taken from Kovacs’ translation of the poem, 1989, pp. 99-103).
While the similarities between Gilgamesh and the account of the Flood in Genesis are striking, there are vast differences that the Genesis-copied-Gilgamesh theory does not adequately explain. Why are the number of decks and the dimensions of the Ark different? How does Utnapishtim finish such a massive boat in so brief a time? Why such a large difference in the two accounts between how long the flood lasted (in the Bible Noah and his family don’t exit the Ark for a year, while Utnapishtim seems to spend only two weeks or a little more on the cubical boat). Why doesn’t the Genesis account include the swallow? Why does Gilgamesh say that one of the gods is unaware of the survivors?
The skeptic who insists that Genesis plagiarized Gilgamesh is then obligated to account for the various and serious differences. Once it is admitted, and it must be, that the Genesis account had some other source than Gilgamesh for those differences (i.e. God), then it must be conceded that the Genesis account could also have gotten all the details from that source, including the ones that are similar to the Babylonian poem.
What Would We Expect?
A closer look at The Epic of Gilgamesh presents Gilgamesh as a pagan, idolatrous king who tyrannically imposed his will on the land. One of his laws was to participate in sexual intercourse with every girl in his territory before they were married. This literature is just what one would expect from a society that had departed from the worship of the true God and distorted His Laws as well as an accurate account of the past. When we evaluate the biblical record, we can know that it was penned by Moses (Lyons, et. al., 2003) and is the most historically reliable collection of writings from the ancient world (Butt, 2004). The discovery of The Epic of Gilgamesh and other ancient writings that contain Flood stories does not call the Genesis account into question. On the contrary, it provides evidence that verifies the fact of a global Flood, and is exactly what any person who has given the idea much thought would expect to happen if the Flood were a historic reality.
Butt, Kyle (2004), “Archaeology and the Old Testament,” Apologetics Press, https://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=13&article=1347.
Kovacs, Maureen Gallery (1989), The Epic of Gilgamesh (Standford, CA: Stanford University Press).
Lyons, Eric and A.P. Staff (2003), “Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch: Tried and True,” Apologetics Press, https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=13&article=36.
Lyons, Eric and Kyle Butt (2003), “Legends of the Flood,” Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=9&article=64.
Miller, Jeff (2014), “Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate Review: Tying Up Really Loose Ends, Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=9&article=4801.