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Gilgamesh, Genesis, and Deconversion

The many parallels between The Epic of Gilgamesh and the book of Genesis have raised questions over the source and inspiration of these texts and led to debate over the authority of the Biblical scripture among many evangelical Christians. While the Biblical text has long been a part of western culture (having been canonized in many variations starting from ancient times), we did not have access to the text of Gilgamesh until sometime in the 19th century. For this reason, we can understand the controversy that ensued in 1872 when, after many years of sitting in a collection in the British Museum, the Epic of Gilgamesh was translated by George Smith. Sermons and newspaper articles appeared discussing what this epic meant for the truth of Biblical history. The front page of the New York Times read, “For the present the orthodox people are in great delight, and are very much prepossessed by the corroboration which it affords to Biblical history. It is possible, however, as has been pointed out, that the Chaldean inscription, if genuine, may be regarded as a confirmation of the statement that there are various traditions of the deluge apart from the Biblical one, which is perhaps legendary like the rest.” The translation of this epic was now front and center in a controversy that was already brewing during the Victorian times concerning creation vs evolution and science vs religion (Damrosch 4-5).

While many evangelical Christians will dismiss texts such as The Epic of Gilgamesh as being myth or allegory, they will argue that the Biblical text is not to be viewed this way. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an allegory is “the use of symbols in a story, picture, etc., to convey a hidden or ulterior meaning, typically a moral or political one; symbolic representation” (Allegory). Indeed, we have examples of many ministers throughout western history who take the Biblical account literally. One such example of this is the well known pastor Charles Spurgeon, a contemporary of George Smith, who delivered a message to his parishioners in September of 1890 saying: 
“May we be helped this morning to learn something with regard to Ruin, Redemption and Regeneration from the passage now before us! I pray you, never regard that story of the serpent as a fable. It is said, nowadays, that it is a mere allegory. Yet there is nothing in the Book to mark where history ends and parable begins—it all runs on as actual history and as Bishop Horsley forcibly remarks, “If any part of this narrative is allegorical, no part is naked matter of fact.” It seems to me that if there was only an allegorical serpent, there was an allegorical Paradise, with allegorical rivers and allegorical trees. And the men and women were both allegorical and the chapter which speaks of their creation is an allegory. And the only thing that exists is an allegorical Heaven and an allegorical earth. If the Book of Genesis is an allegory, it is an allegory all through….”

This excerpt from Spurgeon’s sermon exemplifies the teaching of a large part of the evangelical church up to modern day (Spurgeon).

On the other hand, many scholars and theologians view these stories in the context of the area where they were written. This view has been commonly held by many prominent theologians prior to the Victorian era which brought us Darwin and Smith. For example, theologians such as St. Augustine, John Calvin, and John Wesley did not hold the six-day interpretation of Genesis 1-2 to be literal. Instead they supported the idea of accommodation which explains that this text was written as an allegory in order for it to be relatable to the people of the time. Most theologians understand this concept in the way that John Calvin explained it – God speaks in human terms in order to accommodate himself to our understanding. Augustine argued that the creation story in Genesis 1 actually happened in a single day. To go a step farther, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued that God’s creation itself is still evolving since he did not create things in their final state. This is an important concept because it allows Christians to read the Gilgamesh text without finding it to be a threat to their beliefs. It could also be considered consistent with a popular evangelical concept of free will and the belief that we all strive to become more like Christ – to be perfected (“How Was the Genesis Account of Creation Interpreted before Darwin?”) (Wedgeworth).

The modern day understanding of accommodation explains that God and the Biblical writers use speech that was appropriate in the times that they were writing. They presented their message within the context of what would have been understood and accepted during that period of time. This type of accommodation could even include falsehood. This view point has grown more popular in recent times. In his book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Dr. Peter Enns explains accommodation in this way:
“This is what it means for God to speak at a certain time and place—he enters their world. He speaks and acts in ways that make sense to them. This is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people—he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are. The phrase word of God does not imply disconnectedness to its environment. In fact, if we can learn a lesson from the incarnation of God in Christ, it demands the exact opposite. And if God was willing and ready to adopt an ancient way of thinking, we truly hold a very low view of Scripture indeed if we make that into a point of embarrassment. We will not understand the Bible if we push aside or explain away its cultural setting, even if that setting disturbs us. We should, rather, learn to be thankful that God came to them just as he did more fully in Bethlehem many, many centuries later.  We must resist the notion that for God to enculturate himself is somehow beneath him. This is precisely how he shows his love to the world he made” (Enns 56).

Regardless of how you interpret it, there are many similarities between Gilgamesh and Genesis but my focus will be on the idea of paradise, the serpent, and the tree of life; the flood; and woman’s betrayal of man. Both Gilgamesh in The Epic of Gilgamesh and Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis experience life in the land of paradise which includes the themes of the tree of life and the presence of a malicious serpent whose purpose is to cause the downfall of these characters. While there are strong similarities between the elements in these stories, the way that they have been interpreted varies. Scholars and theologians who support the idea that these text are both fully analogous point out that the paradise that we read about in both Gilgamesh and Genesis is a common theme in ancient Mesopotamian stories. It is seen as the home of the immortals. While we see Gilgamesh seeking out this paradise and ultimately finding it elusive, Adam and Eve had it and lost it due to their own sin/disobedience. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are created in paradise which can be seen as abiding with God and living in his perfect grace. They were given very simple instructions (not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil) but their prideful nature caused them to fall and thereby put a distance between them and their creator God (Genesis 2:28).

The serpent makes an appearance to both Gilgamesh and Eve and neither are happy to see him. In both stories, he leads man to lose paradise. In Genesis, the serpent tempts Eve and thereby Adam to eat of the forbidden fruit thus leading them to being kicked out of the garden. He instills in Eve a sense of distrust in God by telling her that God knows this tree will give her knowledge of good and evil and that partaking of it would make her more like a god (Genesis 3:1). After this they were all punished, including the serpent who was made to crawl on his belly, eating dust, for the rest of his life. While Adam and Eve had paradise, Gilgamesh was in search of paradise. Fearing death, Gilgamesh sets out on a long journey to find Utnaphistim the Faraway in the land of Dilmun to ask him how he gained his immortality. When he arrives in the garden of the god, Gilgamesh takes in the beauty of the land that he journeyed so far to see:
“There was the garden of the gods; all round him stood bushes bearing gems. Seeing it he went down at once, for there was fruit of carnelian with the vine hanging from it, beautiful to look at; lapis lazuli leaves hung thick with fruit, sweet to see. For thorns and thistles there were haematite and rare stones, agate, and pearls from out of the sea” (Sanders 89).

This land truly was paradise and a fitting reward for someone like Utnapishtim who had proven his faith in god and his obedience. After arriving, Gilgamesh meets Urshanabi, the ferryman, and he helps Gilgamesh to cross the ocean to get to Utnapishtim. He spends some time when Utnapishtim and hears the story of how he gained his immortality (the flood story). He didn’t however, obtain immortality for himself. Upon leaving the land of Dilmun, Utnaphistim tells him a secret – “there is a plant that grows under the water, it has a prickle like a thorn, like a rose; it will wound your hands, but if you succeed in taking it, then your hands will hold that which restores his lost youth to a man.” Gilgamesh goes down and retrieves this tree and brings it back. His intentions are to take it home to his people so that the old men could become young again. During the journey, Gilgamesh stops to bathe in a well of cool water and a serpent rises up and takes the tree away. He returns home sad and empty handed and accepts his fate (Sandars 102-104). In Genesis, the serpent is described as being, “more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1). I am sure if we asked Gilgamesh, he would echo this sentiment.

The flood myth, found in many cultures in the area of ancient Mesopotamia, is a central theme in both The Epic of Gilgamesh and the book of Genesis. These two accounts are very similar to one another. The points of similarity in these stories are: building of a boat, entry of the animals, the flood, loosing of birds, the ending sacrifice and the promise given by the gods/God. In both accounts of the flood, the gods/God are angry at mankind and intent on destroying them but for slightly different reasons.

In Genesis, we see that though most men were wicked, Noah was favored of God, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:8-9). The people in this time were carnal and corrupt. They were marrying outside of the faith. God was displeased with the actions of mankind but did not immediately punish them. He gave them an opportunity to course correct but when they did not, he set about punishing them (Henry 22).

In The Epic of Gilgamesh we learn that Utnapishtim and his family were spared simply because they were favored by the god Ea. It seems that the rest of humanity was loud and annoying to the gods, “In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamour.” All this noise bothered Enlil so he decided to put an end to it. He convinced the other gods to go along with his plan to destroy all of mankind. Since Utnapishtim had garnered favor with the god Ea, he was warned in a dream about the coming destruction. Ea told Utnapishtim to tear down his house and build a boat. He told him to “abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your soul alive.” He was given specifications of how to build the boat and to take into the boat “seed of all living creatures.”

Though Noah and Utnapishim were spared for different reasons, the instructions that they received were very similar. They were both instructed to build a boat to a certain specification and to take two animals of each kind onto the boat with them along with food they needed and their families. In both stories, the rains came and covered the Earth, destroying everything. Once the water has subsided, both men sent out birds to see if the land was dry enough to leave the boat. In both instances, several birds were sent and eventually one did not return. This was the indication that it was safe to disembark. Both men offered sacrifices to God as a sign of gratitude for their safety. We see, however, that after learning that Utnapishtim had survived, the god Enlil was furious but the goddess Ninurta took him to task saying that this scheme of his should not have been devised without the god Ea. So, Enlil went to Utnapishtim and his wife and blessed them and told them that they would live forever in the mouth of the rivers (Sandars 98-99) (Genesis 6:1-8:14).

Noah’s behavior prior to the flood differs from the behavior of Gilgamesh. In the book of Genesis, Noah attempts to warn the people of the coming flood while in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim, with guidance from the god Ea, told his neighbors that he was being punished and that they would be blessed. Gilgamesh made no attempt to warn the people or to try to save them. In both accounts, Utnapishtim and Noah exhibit faith in the gods/God to spare their families from the coming flood. Both men follow the instructions as given to them and both are subsequently rewarded for their obedience (Genesis 6:1-8:14) (Sandars 98-99).

The women in both Gilgamesh and Genesis are portrayed as real characters who have both good and bad qualities. They are both pivotal to the action of these stories. We see that both of them are impressionable and given to following the suggestions of outside influences.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the harlot Shamhat serves the purpose of domesticating Enkidu. Enkidu was created in order to be a companion to Gilgamesh, but initially he spends his time living with the beasts – sharing their food and drinking their water. He is causing problems by tearing up traps and scaring the hunter so when the hunter asks his father what to do, he is advised to go to the city of Uruk and get a harlot to try to tame Enkidu (Bailey 137).

Once Enkidu has relations with the harlot, he is immediately transformed. He is no longer a beast. He loses his wild nature as well as his quickness and ability to keep pace with his former companions. They lose interest in him and run away but Enkidu has gained knowledge and wisdom. His changed natured is described thusly: “So he returned and sat down at the woman’s feet, and listened intently to what she said. ‘You are wise, Enkidu, and now you have become like a god” (Sanders 61). He has gained his wisdom and god like status through sexual experience. Having served her purpose (to tame Enkidu), the harlot takes him to the city to become friends with Gilgamesh (Bailey 138-140).

The introduction of woman in the book of Genesis is different than The Epic of Gilgamesh. In Genesis, the woman (Eve) is created for man as a helpmate – one who he is meant to treasure and care for. She is created from the rib of the man (Adam) while he sleeps. Adam recognizes her importance when he exclaims, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” With the woman now firmly alongside the man, creation is finally seen as complete (Bailey 142-143).

While Eve serves as a helpmate for Adam, she is not without her flaws. She is weak and quickly becomes seduced by the serpent in the garden who easily convinces her to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge which was expressly forbidden by God. In addition, she subsequently lures Adam into her scheme and convinces him to eat as well. Though they try to hide, they are caught and questioned by God (Bailey 143-144).

In both stories, the women entice the men and convince them to go against their nature or what they know to be right. The difference in these stories comes when we look at the motivation of these women. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the harlot’s sole purpose is to tame Enkidu. She does this through sex. Since the culture surrounding this epic is one that sees sexuality as akin to godliness, it is no wonder that the harlot is used in a manner to give the man a godlike status. In this culture, sexual experience would be the way of initiation into civilization (Bailey 147). Since the culture surrounding the Genesis story is not as focused on fertility, the knowledge of good and evil does not hold sexual connotations. Instead, it is viewed as meaning, “everything possible”. Though Adam and Eve, after eating the apple, become acutely aware of their nakedness, this is not seen in a sexual way since nakedness in the Old Testament often refers to a loss of dignity. Eve, then, is not seen in the same way as the harlot of Gilgamesh. She is not simply a tool but rather a true companion. Her fall and the fall of her man is purely an example of the human condition – to be weak and lacking in faith. She distrusted God and it led her to original sin and she subsequently led Adam down the same path. In both stories, the woman acts as an agent of change.

Neither man is the same after the woman appears on the scene and both resent her to various degrees. We see this demonstrated through Adam’s response to God. Once caught in his sin, he says, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat” (Gen 3:12). Regardless of the circumstance of Adam’s temptation, he is still held responsible for his sin of disobeying God, as is Eve. Though both are punished, this fall does not change the value that Eve has to Adam. She is his wife and eventually the mother of his children. She is held in great esteem and honor. Conversely, the harlot in The Epic of Gilgamesh is seen only as a tool. She is used in the way she is needed and never given the place of honor that Eve received. Enkidu, like Adam, resented the woman at the end of The Epic of Gilgamesh and cursed her saying, “Come, prostitute, I will decree thy fate, A fate that shall not end for all eternity” (Bailey 144-149). Once chastised by Shamash, he alters the curse with a blessing saying, “On thy account shall be forsaken the wife, though a mother of seven” which is an indication that he wishes her to be a successful courtesan (Bailey141).

In both The Epic of Gilgamesh and the book of Genesis, we see the gods/God using dreams as a way to communicate with humans. In these instances, scholars of these text will agree that these dreams are used as allegories. They are not taken literally and do require interpretation. While most of the dreams in Genesis appear later in the book (specifically in the case of Jacob) and not in the story of Adam and Eve or Noah, we see that in The Epic of Gilgamesh dreams are the primary way that the gods communicate with humans – especially on the voyage that Gilgamesh takes to the Cedar Forest. Enkidu listens to each of these dreams and provides his interpretation of the dreams. This, however, proves to be an ineffective way of communing with God since they often have little to do with what actually happens. In addition, and more importantly, Utnapishtim received his instructions on how to build his boat in a dream. In this case, the message was very specific and left no room for confusion (Sandars 98-99).

The end result of the type of debate that we see in religious circles about the origin and authenticity of scripture is part of the reason why we have seen a great departure from the modern day church. Often as people grow up and go off to college or start their careers, they find it hard to retain the same childlike faith that they had in the stories of the Bible. Adding to the confusion, we see many people going into courses of study where they are challenged to question the source of these materials but are left with very few answers. Andy Stanley, a modern-day pastor of a mega church in the Atlanta area, addresses this problem. Stanley points out that while most people are not willing to embrace the idea of a creator-less universe, many have stepped away from the organized religion in which they were raised. He says that most deconversion stories have some similar threads. One of the chief reasons why people leave the faith is that they are relying on what he refers to as “The Bible Told Me So Jesus” which implies that the reason we believe in God (and Jesus) is because of the Bible. He says, “If the Bible is the foundation of our faith, as the Bible goes, so goes our faith.” This becomes problematic when we start to see contradictions in a text that we were raised to believe was inerrant. This type of Christianity puts the Bible at the center of the debate where it need not be. Christianity existed long before the King James Bible, therefore Christianity does not exist simply because of the Bible (Stanley).

Though the parallels between the epic of Gilgamesh and the book of Genesis have been part of an ongoing debate that scholars and theologians have had over many years about the divine inspiration of scripture and if we should read it literally or as allegory, we can rest assured that ultimately these debates do not matter. In fact, we need to remember that Christianity grew rapidly long before the existence of the Bible. As Stanley points out, “Before the Old Testament and New Testament were combined and titled the Bible, Christianity had already replaced the pantheon of Roman, Barbarian, and most Egyptian gods and was the state religion of the Roman Empire.” These early Christians did not choose to follow Christ because of an infallible Old Testament or a New Testament lacking in contradictions. They chose to follow because of what they had witnessed (Stanley). 

Works Cited
“Allegory.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Sept. 2012, ezproxy.latech.edu:2162/view/entry/5230?rskey=qwgyfn&result=1&isadvanced=false.

Bailey, John A. “Initiation and the Primal Woman in Gilgamesh and Genesis 2-3.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 89, no. 2, June 1970, pp. 137–150. doi:10.2307/3263044.

Damrosch, David. The Buried Book: the Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh. New York, NY, Holt Paperbacks, 2007.

Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 2005.

“Genesis 6:1-8:14.” The Old Scofield Study Bible: Authorized King James Version, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2003, pp. 13–16.

Henry, Matthew. “Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged.” Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged, Hendickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 2008, pp. 22–27.

“How Was the Genesis Account of Creation Interpreted before Darwin?” BioLogos, BioLogos, biologos.org/common-questions/biblical-interpretation/early-interpretations-of-genesis.

Sandars, N. K. The Epic of Gilgamesh: an English Version, with an Introduction. Harmondsworth, ENG, Penguin Classics, 1972.

Spurgeon, Charles. “Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 36: 1890.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons36.xliii.html?highlight=genesis%2callegory#highlight.

Stanley, Andy. “Who Needs God?” North Point Community Church, North Point Community Church, 27 Aug. 2016, northpoint.org/messages/who-needs-god/the-bible-told-me-so/.

Wedgeworth, Steven. “Theories of Accommodation in the Theology of John Calvin.” The Calvinist International, The Calvinist International, 31 Mar. 2015, calvinistinternational.com/2015/02/04/theories-accommodation-theology-john-calvin/#return-note-8908-9.

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