Noah’s Ark and the Epic of Gilgamesh: A Comparison
One may wonder how a biblical narrative and an ancient Mesopotamian epic could have anything in common, as biblical narratives, such as Noah’s Ark, are written by divine inspiration and ancient Mesopotamian writings, such as Gilgamesh, are steeped in mythology and written solely by human hand. Although fundamental differences are present in the two, Noah’s Ark and the Epic of Gilgamesh also feature distinct parallels. At first glance the discrepancies between Gilgamesh and Noah’s Ark appear to overpower any resemblances perhaps perceived as coincidences. However, further inspection uncovers startling similarities in these two accounts of the Great Flood, leading many to believe that the parallels are not coincidences at all.
In the Biblical account of the Great Flood, God looked down on His people and seeing that they had become wicked He decided it was time to wipe away the wayward world. Noah, who alone found favor with the Lord was given a great task. He was to build an ark and fill it with the animals and his family so that they would be saved. God said to Noah, “I see that the end of all mortals has come, for the earth is full of lawlessness because of them… I for my part, am about to bring the flood waters on the earth, to destroy all creatures under the sky in which there is the breath of life, everything on earth shall perish.” It is here that God warns Noah of the coming flood and begins His instructions for building the ark.
Likewise, in Gilgamesh the gods begin their plans to destroy the earth and those who live on it. Ea, the god of water, warns his servant Uta-napishti of the coming flood, “O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubar-Tutu, demolish the house and build a boat! Abandon wealth and seek survival! Spurn property, save life! Take on board the boat all living things seed!” Uta-napishti hurries to obey his god as Noah obeyed God. In both narratives only one man is warned of the earth’s approaching destruction by way of a great flood in order that he might save himself and the animals.
Another parallel can be seen in the instructions both Noah and Uta-napishti receive. After God warns Noah, He instructs him on how the ark is to be built, “Make yourself an ark of gopherwood, equip the ark with various compartments… the length of the ark will be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits and its height thirty cubits,” Noah complies and commences construction of the ark. In a similar fashion Ea tells Uta-napishti what the dimensions of the boat are to be, “The floor was two hundred square feet, the walls were two hundred feet high,” Uta- napishti goes on to describe the number of rooms and floors in the boat. Although the dimensions of the ark and the boat are not identical, the manner in which the instructions are given is indistinguishable between the two narratives.
Another theme present in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the story of Noah’s Ark is the preservation of the animals. Having been told by Ea to, “Take on board the boat all living things’ seed,” Uta-napishti states, “I sent on board all of my kith and kin, the beasts of the field, the creatures of the wild, and members of every skill and craft,” in this way the creatures of the world would not become extinct in the coming flood. In Noah’s Ark, God instructs Noah to take the creatures with him on the ark, specifying for Noah to, “bring two of every kind into the ark…of every clean animal, take with you seven pairs, a male and his mate; and of the unclean animals, one pair, a male and his mate,” thus the animals could repopulate the world after the flood waters disappeared. Despite the similarities shown here, many discrepancies between the narratives of Noah’s Ark and the Epic of Gilgamesh are also present.
Perhaps the greatest distinction in the tales, is the reason why the world was demolished by the flood. In Noah’s Ark, God gives the reason for the coming flood, “I will wipe out from the earth the human beings I created…I regret having made them… for the earth is full of lawlessness because of them.” Although His heart is grieved, God decides to wipe out the world because man has become corrupt. In Gilgamesh, however, the motivation behind the deluge is not clearly given.
Two more differences between the two flood accounts revolve around the number of days in which the flood took place and where the ark landed. God informs Noah that the rain would, “[come] down on the world for forty days and forty nights,” covering even the highest mountains in water. Uta-napishti relates to Gilgamesh that the flood he endured, “[blew] for six days and seven nights,” and even the gods took shelter from the deluge, climbing to a tall mountain. The difference in the duration of the storms is extreme. One question that is often asked is, where did the ark land? The ark from the biblical narrative is thought to have landed on Mount Ararat, 300 miles away from Mount Nisir, the mountain where Uta-napishti’s boat is thought to have landed.
Though there are fundamental discrepancies between the flood account of the Bible and that of the ancient Mesopotamians, the soul of the two tales remains the same. Both Noah’s Ark and the Epic of Gilgamesh remain timeless narratives of a Great Flood that served to destroy the majority of the earth’s human and animal life.