Why are the Genesis flood story and the flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh so similar?

There are many similarities between the Gilgamesh flood account and the biblical flood account (Genesis 6—8), beginning most importantly with God choosing a righteous man to build an ark because of an impending great flood. In both accounts, samples from all species of animals were to be on the ark, and birds were used after the rains to determine if flood waters had subsided anywhere to reveal dry land. There are other similarities between the Gilgamesh flood account and the biblical flood account.

One major point of clear agreement is that a global flooding disaster occurred in ancient times. Portions of the Gilgamesh account (Chaldean Flood Tablets) have been found dating back to 2000 BC or earlier. Tablets containing the full story, however, date to approximately 650 BC, or well after the Genesis account (c. 1450—1410 BC). These Chaldean tablets, from the city of Ur (modern-day southern Iraq), describe how the Babylonian God Ea decided to end all life except for the ark dwellers with a great flood. Ea, believed by the Babylonians to be the god who created the earth, selected Ut-Napishtim (or Utnapishtim) to construct a six-story square ark.

During the mid-nineteenth century, a complete “Epic of Gilgamesh” (from 650 BC) was unearthed in some ruins at Nineveh’s great library, and the depth and breadth of similarities and differences became evident. Here is a more extensive listing of the similarities and differences:

• God (or several gods in the Gilgamesh account) decided to destroy humankind because of its wickedness and sinfulness (Genesis 6:5–7).

• A righteous man (Genesis 6:9) was directed to build an ark to save a limited and select group of people and all species of animals (Noah received his orders directly from God, Utnapishtim from a dream).

• Both arks were huge, although their shapes differed. Noah’s was rectangular; Utnapishtim’s was square.

• Both arks had a single door and at least one window.

• A great rain covered the land and mountains with water, although some water emerged from beneath the earth in the biblical account (Genesis 7:11).

• The Noahic flood was the result of a storm lasting 40 days and nights (Genesis 7:12), while the Gilgamesh storm was much shorter: “Six days and seven nights / came the wind and flood, the storm flattening the land” (from Tablet XI, trans. by Maureen G. Kovacs)

• Birds were released to find land (a raven and three doves in the biblical account, Genesis 8:6–12; a dove, swallow, and raven in the other).

• After the rains ceased, both arks came to rest on a mountain, Noah’s on Ararat (Genesis 8:4); Utnapishtim’s on Nisir. These mountains are about 300 miles apart.

• Sacrifices were offered after the flood (Genesis 8:20).

• God was (or gods were) pleased by the sacrifices (Genesis 8:21), and Noah and Utnapishtim received blessings. Noah’s blessing was to populate the earth and have dominion over all animals (Genesis 9:1–3); Utnapishtim’s was eternal life.

• God (or the many gods) promised not to destroy humankind again (Genesis 8:21–22).

Most interesting is how the stories remain consistent over time. Although the complete Epic of Gilgamesh was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century, much earlier segments (before the writing of Genesis) have been discovered and dated. Yet most significant is the greater fidelity of the Hebrew account. This is attributed to the importance of Jewish oral tradition and the possibility that some of the story was recorded by Noah or from his time, which would make the Hebrew account precede the Babylonian version.

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