The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, by Alexander Heidel

This classic book published in 1946 begins with a short introduction to The Epic of Gilgamesh, gives Heidel’s translation of the Epic, and finally provides a comparison of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other Mesopotamian tablets with similar stories. Heidel’s translation is organized into tablet format, with fragments and unsure translations represented with an ellipsis and brackets. 

Heidel begins his comparison with a chapter about death and the afterlife. In Mesopotamian literature, gods can die, evil was innate because humans were formed from the blood of a “bad” god, and there was an afterlife in which a person carried the objects buried with him into the afterlife. In Hebrew tradition, the one God can not die – he lives forever. However, there is a concept of original sin, similar to the Mesopotamian belief of innate evil. There seems to be some contradiction about whether Hebrews believed that there was an afterlife or not – most likely because of different beliefs of different sects. 

The Mesopotamians partook in ancestor worship, which suggested that the ancestors could somehow intercede on behalf of their descendants. On the other hand, in Hebrew culture, there doesn’t seem to be any contact between the spirits of the dead and the living people. 

The second, and final, chapter of Heidel’s book compares the Utnapishtim’s flood story that took place in the Epic of Gilgamesh with Noah’s flood story that took place in the Old Testament. There are obvious similarities. Utnapishtim and Noah both built ships to save them from a massive flood that the gods (or God) unleashed on the earth. They collected a male and female of every animal so that they could repopulate the earth. And at the end they released birds to let them know if the flood had subsided. Both the gods and the one God promised never to kill off humanity with such a calamity again. 

But there were some interesting differences. First of all, Utnapishtim was not directly told of the flood. Nobody was meant to be told. But a god that favored Utnapishtim whispered to him through the wall of his home while Utnapishtim was sleeping. He told Utnapishtim to lie to the people around him – saying that one of the gods hated him, and that in order to save the entire community, he must leave in a ship. If the community helped Utnapishtim build the ship, they would be rewarded with a season of plenty, which would start with a “wheat-rain.” The community built the ship. Utnapishtim loaded on his family and his entire household of servants. At the end of the story, not all of humanity had died – just most of them. Some had survived the flood. 

In the Old Testament, Noah was told directly by God to build a ship. He was asked to warn the community – telling them they must repent. The community did not repent. Noah built the ship and took only his family with him. All of humanity died. 
Finally, Heidel discussed arguments of whether the Old Testament story had been derived directly from the Gilgamesh Epic, or if they had the same origins from a different source. He also wrote an interesting, though incredibly theoretical discussion about whether the flood really did happen, and what could have caused such a flood. 

In the end, this book was very interesting, though I was hoping for a little more from it. However, I’m not quite certain what I expected, or why I expected it. After all, it delivered what was promised in the title. I think part of my higher expectations came from the fact that pretty much every list of references for studying the Gilgamesh Epic included this book. 

Besides the rather silly overly-detailed theoretical discussions about the origins of the flood, one other thing I found annoying about this book was his over-use of the word “obviously.” These points were certainly not obvious to me, so why did he keep using that word? Perhaps his target audience was nothing like me. 

3.5 stars for excellent research and being a classic reference book for Gilgamesh Epic. 

2 thoughts on “The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, by Alexander Heidel

  1. I remember reading The Epic of Gilgamesh and thinking about the Old Testament parallels. I have also enjoyed the very limited amount of reading that I have done on the origins of the Old Testament.

    I think that O would really like this book.

    Like

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