Question:

Why is it that people try to compare the ancient Sumerian tablets, saying that they are similar to the book of Genesis? Why is it that people try to relate those gods to the God in the Old Testament?

Answer:

It is difficult to judge the motives of people I have never met. I am sure that those who do this do so for a variety of reasons.

It is only natural that anthropologists, historians and those who study religion to look for parallels between the earliest docoments of the Old Testament and the Sumerian/Babylonian/Akkadian religions in Mesopotamia. Presumably, the book of Genesis has its roots in Mesopotamia from the early part of the second millennium BC. The parallels are not just a figment of the imaginations of scholars. The parallels between the Gilgamesh Epic and the Genesis flood story are really striking. Both have a universal flood coming on mankind. Both have a man building a large boat and saving his family and a number of animals on the boat. I am copying and pasting an article on the parallels between the Gilgamesh Epic and the Genesis flood account. The question naturally arises: Where did these obvious parallels arise? Did the Jews borrow their flood story from the Sumerians? Did both accounts arise from a common real event in the distant past? Might the Sumerians have borrowed their account from the Jews? The last option seems unlikely because there is evidence for the Gilgamesh Epic from before 2000 BC, but we cannot rule out that the ancestors of Abraham passed along the account we now have in Genesis.

So, good, honest, open-minded scholars and students of religion will look for parallels and comparisons between Judaism and Mesopotamian religion. When they do so, the differences are far more striking than the similarities, although some scholars do not agree with the rather obvious (at least to me!) fact. Mesopotamian relition was polytheistic. It had elements of ancient animism as well. It was "primitive" religion when compared to Judaism. Skeptical, non-believing scholars try to paint early Judaism as polytheistic, but there is no solid evidence for this. Judaism appears from its inception to be a fully developed monothism, with out all the superstitions of Mesopotamian religion and the fantastic (and unbelievable) stories of gods and their petty intrigues. The Genesis creation account is absolutely unique among all creation stories, both in its simplicity and in its scientific accuracy. To conclude that Judaism evolved from a nascent polytheism is speculation which is not justified by the Hebrew text of the Bible. Nevertheless it is not true to say that there is absolutely nothing in common between Judaism and Mesopotamian religion. Both were formed in the cultural context of Mesopotamia. Both were influenced by a massive flood.

The local religion of Mesopotamia finds its way into Genesis indirectly, for example when Laban chased Jacob down in an attempt to get back his household gods. In conclusion, it is not just skeptics and unbelievers who look for parallels between Sumerian religious ideas and customs and the book of Genesis. This is a potentially fruitful area of research for Bible believers as well. (do not forget the Q & A below with more details about the Gilgamesh Epic)

John Oakes, PhD

Question: 

I recently viewed a documentary claiming that ancient tablets (older than OT manuscripts) were found in Iraq, telling a story almost identical to Noah’s… and that the soil there showed signs of an ancient flood as well (unlike the land around Mount Ararat). The final conclusion was that Israel received this "story" from the Babylonians while in captivity. Do you have any insight about this?

Answer: 

The ancient tablets you refer to probably contained what is commonly known as the Gilgamesh Epic, although it is difficult for me to say for sure without seeing the source of the information you refer to. The Gilgamesh Epic was known to the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian cultures. The epic was almost certainly composed before 2000 BC. It has been estimated by some to be based on a tradition as old as 3000 BC. If one takes Abraham to be the father of the Jewish nation, as supported by the Bible, then one can assume that the Gilgamesh Epic is older than the written, Jewish version of the story which is found in the Bible, as Abraham died somewhere around 1850 BC.

There are significant similarities between the Gilgamesh epic and the flood account in Genesis, which seem to defy coincidence. For example, in Gilgamesh, a god speaks to a man Utnapishtim in a dream, telling him to constuct a boat because of a great flood which is coming. Although the stories are not identical (for example, when God spoke to Noah, it was not in a dream) there is obvious parallel to the biblical flood account. In the Gilgamesh Epic, Utnapishtum took his family, some friends as well as many animals on the boat. Again, one can see parallels but also differences in the accounts. To deny any possible common root to these two flood stories seems unrealistic.

There are two possibilities to explain this. One possibility is that the flood is an actual event, the memory of which was carried forward by the survivors, finding its way into both Gilgamesh and the biblical account. Another possibility is that one or the other was created first, and the other borrowed from it. Assuming the second possibility, the question becomes who borrowed from whom? Logically, one might assume that since the Gilgamesh Epic precedes the Bible account, at least in its written form, it was the source for the biblical story of the flood. From an historical or literary point of view, this is hard to disprove. However, if one can assume that the book of Genesis is inspired by God, then the idea of the Genesis flood account being borrowed from Gilgamesh does not work. There is a great wealth of evidence supporting the belief that the books of the Bible, and specifically the book of Genesis is indeed the inspired creation of God. Of course, much of that evidence is found at my web site, to include prophecies in Genesis which are fulfilled in Jesus (see my book From Shadow to Reality www.ipibooks.com), historical and archaeological accuracy of Genesis (Reasons For Belief www.ipibooks.com), and so forth. 

If the Bible, and therefore Genesis, is indeed inspired by God, then the most likely conclusion is that Gilgamesh represents a tradition which goes all the way back to the actual flood which is recorded in Genesis, and that the account in Genesis, being inspired by God, is a separate, but much more accurate depiction of the actual events which occurred in this massive event as described in Genesis chapters 5-7. If this is the correct explanation, then the parallels between the accounts are due to the fact that they both describe the same, actual event, although with a different level of fidelity to the actual events. This is what I believe to be the case, but I leave it to you to decide for yourself. As to the Israelites receiving the story from the Neo-Babylonians while in captivity, I find this explanation very unlikely for a few reasons. First of all, the Gilgamesh Epic was around in the time of the first Babylonian Empire, about 1800 BC, not during the Neo-Babylonian Empire, under Nebuchadnezzar. Second of all, there is sufficient evidence, in my opinion, to conclude that the book of Genesis was written in essentially its final form well before the time of the captivity (586-538 BC). This would make the claim that it was borrowed from Neo-Babylonian sources not work.

John Oakes, PhD




What do you think?