The Epic of Gilgamesh

Discuss the Flood story.

How does it compare to the Biblical flood story?

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There is an obvious parallel between Utnapishtim’s story and the account of the flood in the Bible. It should be noted that some scholars also believe that an editor added the flood story, based on the Epic of Atrahasis, to Tablet XI. In both Utnapishtim’s story and the Bible account, a large boat is constructed and filled with all the living beings on earth. In both stories, the boat comes to rest or is caught on a mountain peak. However, God chose Noah because of Noah’s exemplary righteousness. The rest of humanity is punished in the Bible for behaving wickedly. In Utnapishtim’s story, the gods give no reason for the flood. The decision appears to be arbitrary. In some older versions of the story, Enlil complains that humanity is too noisy and prevents him from sleeping. This appears to be a character trait of Enlil as he also decides that Enkidu must be the one to die, also without a concrete reason. Utnapishtim also does not ask the gods why the flood is coming.

Following the flood, all the gods display regret over their actions except for Enlil, who is angry that anyone has survived. He is quickly reprimanded by Ea. Ea’s cleverness is on show in this tablet, as it is he who gives Utnapishtim knowledge of the flood to come and instructs him to build a boat, complete with the dimensions necessary. Ea even provides Utnapishtim with an excuse in case anyone asks why the boat is being built. Linguistic scholars have noted that when Utnapishtim tells the people of Shuruppak that they will enjoy a great harvest of wheat and bread, he uses a pun that almost serves as a clue. The word for “bread” in Akkadian is very similar to the word for “darkness” and the word or “wheat” very similar to the word for “misfortune.”

Utnapishtim’s story illustrates that humanity perseveres. Even if each of us is to meet our own end eventually, the human cycle of life continues indefinitely. Although Enlil is initially upset that Utnapishtim has survived, the other gods are thankful that humanity has not been destroyed. For this, Enlil rewards Utnapishtim and his wife with the gift of immortality. This suggests a relationship between humankind and the gods that was mutually beneficial. Without the devotion of their human subjects, the gods of ancient Mesopotamia seemed to be without power. Some translations of the story state that the gods descend on Utnapishtim’s sacrifice offering not having eaten for days because no offerings had been made to them. The people, in turn, rely on the gods for assistance and protection. Both need the other to survive and prosper.