The Epic of Gilgamesh was found in 1839 in the ruins of a library in modern day Iraq. The fragments of the cuniform tablets found create a picture of a magnificent king of Uruk who probably lived in the mid to late 3rd Millenium B.C., around 2500-2200 B.C.
Some of the most interesting elements of the story are the parallels that exist between it and the Bible. The most commonly noticed and obvious parallel is the flood narrative. Utnapishtim is the Babylonian Noah who was saved from a flood in boat, landed on a mountain, sent birds out to find out if the land was dry yet, and offered pleasing sacrifices to gods afterward. But there are others parallels as well. Enkidu, the wild man created by the gods to rival Gilgamesh, is a beastly man who is raised in the wild as an animal. He reminds us of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who was reduced to a beast for his pride before the God of heaven. It’s intriguing that sex is what ‘tames’ Enkidu, but more truly weakens him from the status of beast. Enkidu is humanized by love with a harlot, but this actually makes him weaker than he was as a beast. But it is bread and wine that is the final mechanism of humanization. Obviously there are significant diversions from the Bible, but nevertheless sex, bread and wine make Enkidu human, human love (community), and sacrament: bread, “the staff of life” and wine “the custom of the land”.
Later after Gilgamesh has slain Humbaba, the monster of the Cedar Forest, he is accosted by Ishtar, the goddess of love and war (the two are never far apart). Gilgamesh says ‘no way’, and she throws a fit, asking her daddy to release the Bull of Heaven in order to bring great disaster on Uruk and Gilgamesh. In particular, she says that the Bull will cause seven years of famine, but (says she) she has saved enough food and grain from the last seven years in order to support the people of the land. Of course that reminds us of Joseph (of Joseph in Egypt fame).
When Enkidu dies (sorry, but it’s true), he lies for seven days while Gilgamesh mourns and rages against his death until “the worm fastens to him”. That of course reminds us of Christ’s words concerning death in the gospels. It is better to enter life maimed, with one eye, or with one hand than to be cast into the fire that shall never be quenched where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” This fact of having laid out until the worm fastened to him is repeated over and over again through the final chapters of the tale every time Gilgamesh relates the story.
Finally, Gilgamesh comes to be a kind of Solomon character by the end of the story. Gilgamesh is shaken up by the death of Enkidu and comes to face his mortality. The final portions of the story are his quest for eternal life, particularly hoping that Utnapishtim (who was granted eternal life by the gods) might tell him the secret. Gilgamesh comes to conclusions that sound like Ecclesiastes in many ways. Siduri, a young woman he meets on his quests says, “fill your belly with good things; day and night, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.” And the finale of his life is summed up describing Gilgamesh as a wise man, understanding the secrets of the world, and also having declared the stories of ancient times to his people. This coupled with the fact that he is also remembered as the king who built the walls of Uruk reminds us of Solomon who was also a renowned kind who had many building projects.
The point of these connections is not to try and score points with unbelieving archaeologists or historians. The Bible doesn’t need to take any test for reliability. It is God’s Word pure and simple. It is the test for everything else. So in some ways the fact that there are parallels may actually grant some credibility to archaeological finds like the Epic. But more importantly, these parallels show us the story of Christ unfolding outside of the covenant people of God. We know that the entire Old Testament is the story of Christ, a parable and play enacted before the nations pantomiming the purposes of God in history to save the world from its sin and transform it from glory to glory. But seeing these same themes in Babylonian literature is exciting evidence that God always planned to save the gentiles too. God raised up Josephs and Solomons in other cultures to be fuzzy shadows of the authentic Christ.
At the same time The Epic of Gilgamesh is still chalk full of lies and perversions, and that needs to be remembered too. Israel was so blessed to have the stories and promises direct from God, while the surrounding nations could only go off of what they saw and heard from a distance. But even the lies still bend around and show us the truth. For instance, throughout Gilgamesh, sexual prolificacy is extolled and praised as noble and godly. But this is hardly surprising when this is exactly what the gods of Babylon are like. Ishtar and her ilk are just as much sexual conquistadors as these so-called heroes. And the Bible clearly indicates that this is what we should expect. People become like the gods they serve. “Those who make them are like them, so is everyone who trusts in them.” (Ps. 115:8) What are the gods like? They’re deaf, dumb, blind, and senseless. And if your god happens to be a sexual predator, this is what you will become as well. Thus the lie that sexual promiscuity is godly turns out to be true when we consider who the god or gods are.
One last thought: It really enlivens the world of Christ when we realize that central to his ministry was the eradication of demons and evil spirits. Furthermore, more often than not, people that were tormented by these gods were deaf, dumb, blind or mad or some combination of these. Jesus came to an Israel enslaved by the gods and god of that old age. And central to his ministry was the work of freeing them to worship the true God who sees and hears and speaks. Refashioning Israel and the nations into true image bearers was the same as doing battle with the gods and demons of the old world. Not only was He casting them out, He was also recasting the image of man into the image of the one, true God.
I think it is somewhat interesting too that the stories from these other cultures seem like they are grasping for the true story. And I think it becomes even more interesting when you think about all the times that Israel forgot God’s faithfulness to them and twisted their own history. Why is this faithfulness forgotten when it seems to be the very thing that everyone else wants to get their hands on?