Ezra 4:10 mentions King Osnappar of Assyria who settled foreigners into Samaria (northern Palestine) after Israel’s exile in 722 BC. This Ashurbanipal, as extra-biblical texts know him, had a library in Nineveh. In 1872, George Smith of the British Museum translated a tablet from this library belonging to the Gilgamesh Epic.
Notably, this ancient Mesopotamian myth, written near 1700 BC, contains a flood story. According to the epic, the gods had grown weary of the noise humanity was making and determined to destroy their race. However, a deity named Ea warns one man, Utnapishtim, to build a ship for the preservation of his family and all other creatures. Utnapishtim completes his vessel in seven days, and after sealing himself in with specimens of the animal kingdom, rains fall upon the earth so torrential that they frighten the gods. Later, the boat rests on some mountains and Utnapishtim releases three birds to find dry land. After disembarking from his ship, Utnapishtim offers a sacrifice to satiate the hunger of the gods and is granted eternal life.
Clearly, the Gilgamesh Epic is quite similar to the story of Noah. Yet vast differences exist as well. In Scripture, there is only one God, and His motivation for eradicating life is ethical, based on man’s evil and not on his clamoring (Gen. 6:5–7). The Gilgamesh Epic emphasizes Utnapishtim’s skill — he finishes his boat in only seven days, and the building process is greatly specified. Moses only tells us Noah obeyed; the ark’s construction is not detailed (vv. 11–22), and we do not know for sure how long he worked, although we may presume the ark’s completion took a long time. Unlike Utnapishtim, Noah dies (9:29; but he will be raised, Heb. 11:7, 16), and his sacrifice is for atonement, not to satisfy God’s hunger (Gen. 8:20–22). Man is not the principal actor in Genesis, the Lord directs the events and rules over the rain (7:4; 8:1b–3). He is not scared by the downpour.
Common memories of the flood among ancient peoples moved them to tell stories of it in works including the Gilgamesh Epic. Yet in keeping with man’s love for false gods (Rom. 1:22–23), these other stories twist the real history preserved in Scripture.
The story of Utnapishtim is not the only one offering us a history that remakes God in our image, downplaying His holiness and our depravity. Radical groups like the Jesus Seminar continue to offer us images of a Jesus who has more in common with modern liberalism than with first-century Judaism. Take some time today to investigate some evangelical resources that defend the historicity of Scripture, and refute modern revisions of biblical persons and events.