Hebrew Bible

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Student Question

What similarities and differences exist between the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Bible, and what do they suggest about the people and circumstances of the region?

Quick answer:

The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Bible both have flood stories that have similarities with each other. The Epic of Gilgamesh focuses on the divinity of Enlil’s reaction to noise, while the Hebrew Bible focuses on God’s reaction to immoral activity. Bibliography: Dr. Timothy Renner, Old Testament Survey (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).

Expert Answers

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Since the Epic of Gilgamesh has so much content, I will narrow my comments to one story. The closest parallel between the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis is the story of Utnapishtim and Noah. In the story of Utnapishtim, the Sumerian water God, Enki comes to tell Utnapishtim that there will be a huge flood. So, he begins to build a ship to save himself, his family, and other living things from the coming floods. The rain finally does come (for 12 days), and the ship comes to a rest.

This story is very close to the story of Noah in the book of Genesis (chapters 7-10). Here God comes to him and tells him to build an ark to save himself and his family. Noah, by faith, makes the ark, and the rains come (40 days). He becomes a new “head” of humanity, like a new Adam. Even the language in this narrative resembles Genesis 1-2.

When it comes to differences, there is one enormous one. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the god, Enlil, is very angry because of the noise of men. People are building a city called Shurrupak, and Enlil says that the noise is so loud that he cannot sleep. So, he will about the kill them all through a flood. In the biblical account, God is not angry on account of noise, but he is angry about the immorality of men. It starts with Lamech who commits adultery and kills another man. After this, the sons of God take the daughter of men (probably referring to dynastic kings making harems for themselves). When God see this immorality, he brings judgment. The difference is the divinity of Genesis cares about the morality of people more. The rest of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament will follow this trajectory.

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