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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Compare and contrast the flood stories in the Bible and The Epic of Gilgamesh.

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The "Epic of Gilgamesh" was written over 3000 years ago, but it is still being studied and compared against the Bible today. In fact, it has been compared to Genesis 6-9 by many scholars such as Dr. Stephen Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell commented that this epic poem is an "unacknowledged source for Genesis." This epic poem also seems to have similarities with the Biblical story about Noah'

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Similarities between the biblical account of the flood and the flood of Gilgamesh:

In the Bible, Noah is told to build an ark, a type of boat, out of cypress wood. Specific measurements of the ark are also given to him directly by Yahweh, the living God. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim is similarly instructed to build a boat, by one of the gods, Ea. He is given specific measurements to use in building the boat.

Noah’s ark is supposed to carry two of all living creatures. Similarly, Utnapishtim’s boat is supposed to carry all living creatures.

In the Bible, Noah’s ark finally rests on the Mountain Ararat. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the boat finally rests on the Mountain Nisir.

Differences between the biblical account of the flood, and the flood of Gilgamesh:

In the Bible, Yahweh decides to destroy the earth with floodwaters because the earth has become corrupt and violent. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the council of gods decides to exterminate all life on earth because of how noisy and crowded the earth had grown.

Noah is told to build a boat by Yahweh, the living God, in a live conversation between the two of them. Utnapishtim is told to build a boat, by the god Ea, in a dream.

Noah’s ark is to have the following dimensions: three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Utnapishtim’s boat has these dimensions: hex beam should be the same as the length of the boat, the roof of the deck should look like the “vault that covers the abyss.”

In the Bible, the flood lasts forty days and forty nights. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the flood lasts six days and six nights.

Noah sends out a raven, then a dove, to test whether the floodwaters have receded enough to show land. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim sends out a dove, then a swallow, and finally a raven, to find out whether the waters have left the land.

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Both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the book of Genesis in the Old Testament contain a story of a major flood and both stories have a male hero that survives the flood, Utnapisthtim and Noah, respectively. Utnapishtim, however, entered "the company of the gods" and came to have everlasting life after he survived the flood. Noah lived to an old age, but his religious tradition allows only one everlasting divinity.

In Utnapishtim's flood story, the gods decide to wipe out the human race because they are too noisy; in Genesis, God decides to destroy humans because of their wickedness.

Both Utnapishtim and Noah are advised by their respective gods to build a boat before the flood comes and they also take their families and have animals aboard the boat with them.

Utnapishtim's rains only last for six days and six nights, whereas Noah's last for 40 days and 40 nights.

Both men release birds three times from the ship to determine whether any dry land has appeared. Utnapishtim releases three different birds (dove, swallow, raven), while Noah releases a raven, a dove, and then a dove again.

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What are the similarities and differences between the flood stories that appear in The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible?  Flood stories are common in ancient cultures. It is interesting that many of them are very similar, like those in the Bible and Gilgamesh. 

When studying ancient texts, whether religious or mythological, it is always interesting to find particular parallels in the various stories that appear here. Religious texts like the Bible, for instance, contain many stories to demonstrate moral or religious principles. In many cases, the same is true of mythological or ancient texts, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh. Particularly, an interesting parallel that can be found in both the Bible and Gilgamesh is the story of the flood.

There are many similarities between the two accounts of the flood. Both, for example, concern the destruction of the entire world by flood. In both cases, the main cause of the flood was human wickedness. Both the Bible and Gilgamesh contain righteous main characters who are divinely instructed to construct a boat. Both Noah and Gilgamesh use their boats to save a variety of land animals.

There are also significant differences between the two accounts. In the case of the Bible, for example, a single god, Yahweh, speaks directly to Noah. Gilgamesh receives his divine instructions in a dream from several gods. Another major difference is the duration of the respective floods. In the Bible, the flood lasts for 40 days and nights. In Gilgamesh, the flood spans only six days and nights. 

What is interesting about the two stories is the debate they have caused among scholars and within religious circles. However, perhaps no debate is as important as the deeper meanings that might be derived in terms of the sense of morality within ancient cultures. Either way, both The Epic of Gilgamesh and the story of Noah in the Bible remain important in world literature for their ability to capture the imagination of their audiences.

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