Legends, Lore and Logic
By Jack Kinsella
I received an email from a reader asking for some information about the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible’s account of Noah’s Ark.
“I have some co workers that argue that the Epic Of Gilgamesh shows evidence that the Genesis account of the Flood of Noah was taken from this document. I need some “ammunition” to refute this,” he wrote.
First, a little historical background. Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq.
Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down on clay tablets that still survive. The oldest existing fragments date to about 2000 BC — roughly the time of Abraham.
The most complete surviving version of the Epic of Gilgamesh dates from the middle of the 6th century BC and was found in the ruins of the library of Ashram, king of Assyria at Nineveh.
The Gilgamesh Epic itself dates to about 2700 BC, say the experts, relying on the text of the surviving fragments.
In it, Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim was granted immortality by the gods after he and his wife became the only human survivors of a world-wide flood, and Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is widely considered to be the oldest human composition ever found. By comparison, the first five Books of the Bible were penned by Moses around the 13th century BC, at least seven hundred years after the Epic of Gilgamesh had been in circulation.
Because the Gilgamesh story is older, the automatic assumption is that it was the inspiration for the Hebrew account of Noah’s Ark.
It sounds convincing, but only if one approaches it with a built-in bias. If one is looking for an alternative explanation for the Bible’s account, then Gilgamesh fits the bill.
On the other hand, if one is looking for the most logical explanation, then the entire argument collapses under its own weight.
There is a principle of logic attributed to the medieval philosopher William of Occam, commonly referred to as ‘Occam’s Razor’, also known as the ‘principle of parsimony’. It underlies all scientific modelling and theory building.
Occam’s Razor is a method by which to choose from a set of otherwise equivalent models of a given phenomenon the simplest explanation. In any given model, Occam’s razor helps us to “shave off” those concepts, variables or constructs that are not really needed to explain the phenomenon.
By doing that, developing the model will become much easier, and there is less chance of introducing inconsistencies, ambiguities and redundancies. In its shortest form, Occam’s Razor states that one should not make more assumptions than the minimum needed.
To beat a dead horse to death, let me simplify it even more: the simplest explanation is logically the most likely to be correct.
This isn’t an effort to ‘prove’ the Genesis account is true. I believe that it is true because it is the only logical explanation that fits the known facts.
The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the following story: In the time before the Flood, there was a city, Shuruppak, on the banks of the Euphrates. There, the counsel of the gods held a secret meeting; they all resolved to destroy the world in a great flood.
Gilgamesh may, however, be the explanation for the saying, the ‘walls have ears’.
All the gods were under oath not to reveal this secret to any living thing, but Ea (one of the gods that created humanity) came to Utnapishtim’s house and told the secret to the walls of Utnapishtim’s house, thus not technically violating his oath to the rest of the gods.
He advised the walls of Utnapishtim’s house to build a great boat, its length as great as its breadth, to cover the boat, and to bring all living things into the boat.
Utnapishtim, eavesdropping on the conversation, gets straight to work and finishes the great boat by the new year. Utnapishtim then loads the boat with gold, silver, and all the living things of the earth, and launches the boat.
Ea orders him into the boat and commands him to close the door behind him. The black clouds arrive, with the thunder god Adad rumbling within them; the earth splits like an earthenware pot, and all the light turns to darkness.
The Flood lasts for seven days and seven nights, and finally light returns to the earth. Utnapishtim’s boat comes to rest on the top of Mount Nimush.
The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Genesis account converge on several points, but one thing immediately leaps out. Gilgamesh’ account is a logical description from the perspective of man. It is an effort to put an ancient memory into an understandable historical context.
The Genesis account is a logical description of the same event from the perspective of God. The Genesis account fills in details missing from Gilgamesh that could be known only to God.
The Gilgamesh account is an effort to make sense of a global catastrophe — the Genesis account puts it into logical context, connecting the dots from Adam to the Rapture.
The Flood is a necessary part of the Bible’s outline of human history — remove it and the Scriptures lose all context. God’s promise to Noah is fulfilled at the Cross. The power of sin is destroyed, rather than the destruction of sinners.
Jesus refers to the ‘days of Noah’ to describe the last days, Peter uses the salvation of Noah as an example of the Rapture (2nd Peter 3:3-7)
The Genesis account provides answers. The Gilgamesh account only poses new questions.
Legends of a world-wide flood can be found in the folklore of such diverse places as the Middle East, India, China, Australia, southern Asia, the islands of the Pacific, Europe, and the Americas.
Was the Chinese legend of a global flood inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh? Did the Australian aborigines and the Native Americans read the Epic of Gilgamesh? The Pacific Islanders?
If the Flood is a myth, why does every civilization or culture share the same common, distant memory of a global catastrophe that NEVER happened? There must be a logical explanation. A Sumerian cuneiform tablet unknown until relatively recently doesn’t make the cut.
Occam’s Razor says that the only logical conclusion is that there must really have been a world-wide flood that a handful of survivors escaped by boarding a giant ark filled with animals that came to rest on a mountain top after the waters receded. No other explanation fits the facts.
There are many differing accounts, but all are rooted in the same historical occurrence. If there were no Biblical account, it is likely that the Flood would be an accepted part of the human historical record, like dinosaurs or cavemen.
It is precisely BECAUSE the Bible says the Flood was a Divine judgment against sin that the Genesis account is so vigorously opposed by its critics.
Remove the references to an all powerful God demanding personal accountability from His creation and a global flood is no more fantastic than concluding a giant asteroid hit the earth 85 million years ago and killed all the dinosaurs.
‘Stuff happens’ is a more comfortable conclusion to live with than personal accountability to an all-knowing and Perfect God. That is also perfectly logical, as Paul notes in Romans 1:28:
“And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind…”
The Genesis story fits a logical timeline, has a logical place in history and answers the questions Gilgamesh does not, (like, who told the Australian aborigines there was a world-wide flood if it is really a myth?)
Occam’s Razor says the simplest explanation is also the most logical.
“…for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure.” (Isaiah 46:9-10)
This Letter was written by Jack Kinsella on December 19, 2005.