When British explorers discovered the ancient library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in 1852–1853, among its precious clay tablets was the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. First translated in 1872, its contents shocked the scholarly world because it seemed to closely parallel parts of Genesis, especially the Flood account. Indeed, many scholars accused the Bible of merely retelling the epic.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a long poem that describes a divine warning about a coming flood. A man is chosen to build a boat, animals are gathered, a single door opens into the boat, heavy rains fall, the man sends out a dove and a raven, the boat lands on a mountain, and the man offers sacrifices in thanksgiving. Is there any merit to the claim that the Genesis Flood is just another myth, perhaps even plagiarized from this Babylonian account?
The best way to answer this question is to get down to specifics. What does the Bible actually teach about the Flood, and how does it compare to the manmade myth? Was Moses describing real events or simply teaching a moral lesson or parable? If the Bible is God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16–17), truth (John 17:17), and a light to guide us (Psalm 119:105), then Christians ought to be able—with careful study and the aid of the Holy Spirit—to understand what the writer’s original intent was.
The book of Genesis was written in the style of historical narrative and is vastly superior to any myth. By simply knowing the Flood account well, you can show people how it outshines every manmade flood myth—including the Babylonian version most similar to the Bible.
Manmade Legend or Divinely Inspired History?
The Epic of Gilgamesh, a 12-tablet Mesopotamian epic poem, was written in the eighteenth century BC (around two centuries before Moses’s birth, during the Hebrew captivity in Egypt), although the flood account is believed to be a later addition to the poem. The warrior-king Gilgamesh has a series of adventures on his quest to find eternal life. At the end of tablet 10 and all of tablet 11, he goes to a faraway land to meet with Utnapishtim and his wife, who had long before built a boat to survive a global flood that had killed all of humanity except for the small remnant on the vessel. (Much of this information is also recorded in an earlier Akkadian poem, The Epic of Atrahasis, with a few additional details, which will be discussed later.)
This poem is just what the title says: an epic. The poet weaves a fictional tale to entertain his audience. The text employs lofty poetic techniques expected of such recited fiction, such as easy-to-memorize couplets and stock phrases. No hearer expected that it was to be taken as word-for-word history.
In contrast to The Epic of Gilgamesh, Genesis presents every detail of the Flood as a historical record to be taken seriously. The Bible claims to be divinely inspired (2 Timothy 3:16–17), and since God cannot lie, we expect all of His historical claims to be true. Unlike myths, the Bible carefully records minute details about ancient cultures, and it freely acknowledges the shortcomings of its “heroes.” Such honesty and attention to detail is highly unusual in ancient mythology, but appropriate for true history.
As it relates to the Flood, the language of Genesis 6–9 is so descriptive and matter-of-fact in stating the details of what God did and how Noah obeyed God, that there is no room for considering it allegory or mythology. While its writing style and literary structure are extremely sophisticated, the Genesis account avoids most of the poetic devices typical of Egyptian or Near Eastern epic poetry.
Moreover, the rest of Scripture considers the events of Genesis 6–9 to be factual history. For example, the writer of 1 Chronicles records Noah as being the ancestor of Abraham (1 Chronicles 1:4, 1:27). Jesus mentions Noah as a real historical person and the Flood as a real historical event (Matthew 24:37–39). Luke includes Noah in the genealogy of Christ (Luke 3:36), while Peter twice mentions that Noah built the Ark and was one of only eight people saved (1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5).
Consider the plausibility of the Gilgamesh epic versus the Bible.
The god of crafts and wisdom, Enki, warned Utnapishtim (the Babylonian “Noah” figure) about the coming flood and told him to tear down his reed house and prepare a large boat in the shape of a cube. Yet a cube is not seaworthy and would capsize quickly.
The boat was built in no more than seven days, during which time Utnapishtim also had to gather the animals from all over the world. Although the flood lasted only seven days, it still covered the earth. After a week of rain, the sea and wind calmed, and the boat ground to a halt on Mount Nimush.
In contrast to Utnapishtim’s ridiculously shaped boat and the unrealistically short construction time, the Bible gives a very reasonable account of all these practical issues. God gave Noah instructions on how to build a rectangular Ark that has been shown experimentally to be very seaworthy. Noah also received a much greater advance warning about the Flood, perhaps more than one hundred years. Furthermore, God, not Noah, brought the animals to the Ark.
The Bible mentions several natural mechanisms behind the drowning of the world, including the breaking open of the fountains of the great deep and the opening of the floodgates of heaven (Genesis 7:11). These mechanisms caused the Flood to last over a year, which is much more plausible than the seven-day rainstorm described in The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Epic of Gilgamesh may be entertaining, but it lacks internal consistency. For example, the gods arbitrarily decide to destroy life by a flood, but afterwards they decide to give Utnapishtim eternal life. This fickleness is typical. The gods carelessly use their power to wipe out most of humanity, but then they regret their decision and we discover that they depend on nourishment from the sacrifices offered by humans! Such inconsistencies make it difficult to find any unifying idea that gives any meaning, or indeed credence, to the myth.
The biblical account, by contrast, displays remarkable internal consistency.
The whole account revolves around a statement of great significance: “
remembered Noah . . .” (Genesis 8:1). Prior to that point in the account, every
detail shows, step by step, how God brings destruction upon the earth, while
He still provides a way of salvation for Noah. After Genesis 8:1, every detail
shows, step by step, how God brings a renewal of life to the devastated world,
while He demonstrates His faithfulness to His covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:18; 9:9–17).
There is a reason over two billion people today profess to follow the Bible, while nobody follows the gods of the Gilgamesh epic. Scripture reveals a God who is infinitely superior and more satisfying to human yearnings than the Ancient Near Eastern gods. The contrasts are profound and insurmountable.
In the Gilgamesh epic, a human being is the hero and is granted immortality by the gods; the gods are sinful, corrupt, and silly. In the biblical account, God is the hero who preserves humanity. He is the one who remembers Noah (Genesis 8:1) and eventually brings an end to the catastrophe. Human beings, by contrast, are the sinful ones. Even the human protagonist, Noah, later falls into drunkenness and shame. Contrary to manmade myths, the Bible gives God and mankind their rightful places.
What Gods Are These?
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the council of the gods decides to destroy humanity for no better reason than the overpopulation of mortals (at least, according to the earlier Akkadian version of the myth).1 The storm god who originally made man, Enlil, is irritated that humans are too noisy and interfering with his sleep. So he leads the council decision. But another god, Enki, secretly warns Utnapishtim.
Once the rain begins to fall, the gods are so terrified that they flee the lower heavens for fear that the storm will strike their own abode. The cowering gods weep as their devotees die, regretting what they have set in motion.
When Utnapishtim offers a sacrifice to the gods, they gather around the sacrifice like flies. (In the earlier Epic of Atrahasis, the famished gods, who have not eaten in a week, descend and eat up the offering.)
The gods are capricious, cowardly, and dependent upon humans for either worship or nourishment. Because the gods cannot “tune out” human noise, they have to seek ways to reduce human population.
How Infinitely Superior Is the God of the Bible!
The Genesis account makes very clear what is wrong. God judges the entire earth because mankind’s sin has corrupted the earth. God is in control of every aspect of the Flood. He is not fearful of it, but He uses the elements to ensure judgment and justice. God needs nothing from humans (Acts 17:25), so the preservation of Noah was not selfishly motivated. While a just and holy God punishes sin, He also chooses to show kindness and mercy (Psalm 8:4–5, 145:8–9).
While the Babylonians believed the gods made humans to perform their menial tasks, Genesis reveals that God made man in His image with the privilege of ruling as stewards over His creation. Once Noah’s family disembarked from the Ark, God blessed them and told them to refill the earth. In contrast, the gods of the Gilgamesh epic thought up cruel new ways to limit human population even after the flood.
The Genesis Flood narrative directly challenges and discredits the pagan myths of the day.
In every way the Bible’s narrative is superior to the Babylonian myths and legends. The author conveys real history, which happened at a distinct point in time (not in the “mists of legend”) and shows that God planned the event but displayed foresight in preserving people and animals.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the author of Genesis knew the Babylonian legend of Utnapishtim. (After all, Moses—whom the Bible attributes as the author of Genesis—would have had access to documents from around the world at the royal Egyptian library.) Whether intentional or not, the Genesis Flood narrative directly challenges and discredits the silly pagan ideas rampant in Moses’s world.
Where’d the Flood Myths Come From?
Anyone who accuses the Bible of repeating “just another flood myth” needs to take a closer look at the flood myths from around the world. Anthropologists have identified dozens so far, but many are filled with fanciful details and share little in common with the Bible.
Most similarities are superficial and easy to explain. After all, most cultures had access to the biblical version of the Flood. Even without the Bible, a storyteller would likely incorporate many of the same details about a flood. (For example, a boat is a good way to escape, and somebody has to survive to retell the story.)
With the exception of the Babylonian version, every flood myth we know about was recorded long after Genesis. A handful were written down before Christ’s coming—in places like Greece (fifth century BC), India (fourth century BC), and China (fourth century BC). But most myths were not recorded until the modern era, long after Western missionaries, traders, and conquerors had spread their culture and influence across the globe.
The only myth that is strikingly similar to the Bible account came from the Babylonians. (The Babylonian tablet is dated from the eighteenth century BC, while Moses wrote Genesis in the fifteenth century BC.) The similarities make sense if both were written near the time of the actual Flood. Later myths, however, have little in common with the Bible. Indeed, the Chinese myth says the flood was caused by an argument between a crab and a bird!
Christians can boldly declare that the Bible is infinitely better than any myth, as we would expect from its infallible Author.