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Noah and Gilgamesh

Talking about myth in the Bible is not always easy because myth has the connotation, for many, of being something that’s diametrically opposed to something that’s true. 

There are many elements within the Bible that reflect what we would ordinarily call myth in any other context.

An example of mythic element in the Bible would be with the flood narrative.  In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the eleventh tablet gives an account of the flood from the Mesopotamian point of view.  In that narrative, the outline matches the outline that we have in Genesis 6-9 where the flood hero is warned of this decision that the gods make to wipe out the earth by a flood.  The flood hero is told to build a boat and to put his family on it and animals on it and to cover it with pitch.  The flood comes; it destroys all aspects of life except for the people on the boat. 

The boat comes to rest on a mountain; the flood hero sends out birds.  The flood hero offers a sacrifice after getting off of the boat and that sacrifice is something that is pleasing to the gods and in the end, they square it up with him in this particular instance, it’s in giving him eternal life. 

That’s essentially the outline that you have in Genesis 6-9 with some differences because it doesn’t appear that Noah is given eternal life; you could say he is, in terms of progeny, for everyone is a descendant of Noah.  But, there are other aspects of the text that are explained or we make sense of it by looking at the Mesopotamian narrative. When it comes to something like the birds, the flood hero Utnapishtim, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, sends out a bird three times.  We remember three times from Genesis, which is not actually true, but people think of three times because he sends out, Noah sends out a dove three times.  The Mesopotamian hero sends out a bird three times.  It’s three different birds, it’s a dove, a swallow and then finally, a raven. And you know the progression, one goes out, nowhere to land, comes back, next one goes out, comes back, nowhere to land; finally the third one goes out, flies around, doesn’t return because there’s land. 

In Genesis, you have Noah sending birds four times and the first one goes out and flies around and doesn’t come back.  We’re told that he flies around until the waters were dried up on the face of the Earth; and it was a raven.  In the Mesopotamian account, it’s a raven that goes out and flies around until it’s dried up.  But then, Noah goes on to send a bird three more times and it’s a dove; and that follows the progression of three sending’s of the bird that we have in the Mesopotamian account. 

So, it appears that perhaps we have two accounts or two elements of two different accounts woven together in the same narrative and there are other things that seem to bear this out when you look at things like repetitions in the text.

  • Dexter Callender

    Dexter Callender is associate professor of religion at the University of Miami, Florida. He is the author of Adam in Myth and History (Eisenbrauns, 2001). He specializes in myth theory and ancient Near Eastern literature and history.