It has often been claimed that the flood account found in Genesis Chapters 6-9, and later referenced in the New Testament, was actually a legend borrowed from other cultures, namely the Babylonians in their “Epic of Gilgamesh.” Is there any validity to this claim?
In the mid-1800s in modern day Iraq, excavations uncovered many Mesopotamian-era tablets. Included among these was the Babylonian flood legend, “Epic of Gilgamesh.” The 11th tablet of this series recorded the flood account, and many of the details were similar to the Biblical Flood. However, there were also many differences found.
This legend in particular tells the story of Gilgamesh, who, after losing his friend Enkidu, seeks out Utnapishtim to give him the secret of immortality. Utnapishtim tells him of the gods’ desire to flood the world because the gods could not sleep due to the noise man makes. Ea, the god of wisdom, warned Utnapishtim to convert his house into a boat, take the seed of all living creatures, and tell the people he was building the boat to escape the wrath of the god Enlil. Utnapishtim complied and built the boat in 7 days and took all the animals and craftsmen on board with him. The flood came but it was so terrifying even the gods fled in fear. The world was flooded for 6 days and the waters receded on the 7th day. Afterward, the boat came to rest on Mt. Nisir, and Utnapishtim sent out a dove, then a swallow, and then a raven. When the raven didn’t return, he made a sacrifice and the gods gathered together over the sacrifice.
As you can see, there are many similarities in this legend with Noah’s flood, but also, there are a great many differences. Only Noah’s family survived the flood, not Noah and the craftsmen. There is only one God who was grieved over the sin and evil of the world, and that was the cause of the flood. It was not because multiple gods of questionable moral character were bothered by men making so much noise. The flood lasted for about a year in the Bible, but in this legend it was only for a week. Noah took two of every kind of animal, but Utnapishtim took the seed of the animals. Noah sent out the raven before a dove. This is because ravens are scavengers while doves are vegetarian, and one of the goals was to see if plant life was available. In the epic, the dove was sent first and the raven was last.
The boat constructed in the Gilgamesh epic was cubical (the length, width, and height were all equal) and 7 stories tall. A boat like this would not be seaworthy, especially in a cataclysmic flood. Noah’s ark, which the Bible records to precise measurements in a rectangular shape, would be seaworthy in that it provided maximum comfort for its occupants and strength to protect those inside. A study was done on this by Dr. Seon Won Hong. You can read about it here.
Moses compiled and edited the Genesis Flood account during the wanderings in the wilderness in the 15th century B.C. The Gilgamesh Epic was dated between the time frame of 2200 B.C. and 620 B.C. At the most, the Gilgamesh Epic was written 800 years before Moses’ writings—assuming the dating is accurate. It does not require that Moses copied from the Babylonians. There are options that both cultures recorded the same event, but one had embellishments. Given the fact that there are almost 300 other flood legends, many of which have biblical similarities, most likely this Babylonian legend was written after the flood and embellished like the others.
Moses’ account of the worldwide, biblical flood contains the most detail as to who would be saved, the specific measurements of the boat, what Noah was to bring on board, and especially, why the world was going to be flooded. Although this Babylonia legend may have been written before Moses wrote about Noah’s flood, it does not demand that the Babylonia legend was correct. Given the shape of the Babylonian boat and its inability to be seaworthy, and given the lack of details in this epic as opposed to the details given in Genesis, most likely this version of the story was copied from Noah’s Flood and later embellished. Dating methods are not always accurate, and that is when the feasibility and reliability of the texts, such as in this instance, takes precedence.
For more information, RTG recommends the book “How do we know the Bible is True?” You can find it in our book store.