Gilgamesh vs. Noah
It is said that life is 10% what you make it and 90% how you take it. It is not the circumstances of life that determine a person’s character. Rather, it is the way a character responds to those circumstances that provides a display of who he is. “From the Epic of Gilgamesh”, as translated by N.K. Sandars, and “Noah and the Flood” from the Book of Genesis, both Gilgamesh and Noah face similar circumstances, but don’t always respond to them the same way.
Accepting immortality and the ultimate powerlessness to be in control of death’s inevitability is something that both Gilgamesh and Noah encounter. Gilgamesh faces the death of his closest companion, Enkidu, with hopelessness, fear, and anger. “In his bitterness he cried, ‘How can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that I shall be when I am dead. ‘” (p. 141) To Siduri’s questioning, Gilgamesh responds, “Because of my brother I am afraid of death, because of my brother I stray through the wilderness and cannot rest.” (p. 144) Noah, faced with the impending death of everyone except his own family and the pairs of creatures joining him in the ark, is unquestioning and obedient in following God’s instructions. After the instructions about the animals that he is to take into the ark, “Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did.” (p. 172) When God tells Noah that He will blot out all of creation in forty days and forty nights, “Noah did just as the Lord commanded him.” (p. 171 and 172) Both of the characters deal with death; respond differently, thus resulting in contrasting outcomes.
Both Gilgamesh and Noah build arks because of an impending devastation of the earth by rain and flooding. Shamash had warned, “In the evening, when the rider of the storm sends down the destroying rain, enter the boat and batten her down.” (p. 147) God told Noah, “For in seven days’ time I will make it rain upon the earth, forty days and forty nights, and I will blot out from the earth all existence that I created.” (p. 172) Both boats were built to detailed specifications in order to withstand the torrents of rain. Following the cessation of the rain, both Noah and Gilgamesh send out birds as a test of the recession of the waters so that they can safely exit onto the land. Gilgamesh sends first a dove, then a swallow, and then a raven, who, “saw that the waters had retreated, she ate, she flew around, she cawed, and she did not come back.” (p. 148) Noah first sends a raven which, “went to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth. ” (p. 173) He then sends a dove that returns to the ark having found no resting place. After seven days Noah again sends the dove which returns with an olive leaf in its bill. “Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth. He waited still another seven days and sent the dove forth; and it did not return to him any more.” (p. 173) Both Noah and Gilgamesh, immediately upon leaving their boats, make a sacrifice. Gilgamesh says, “Then I threw everything open to the four winds, I made a sacrifice and poured out a libation on the mountain topWhen the gods smelled the sweet savor, they gathered like flies over the sacrifice.” (p. 148) When God tells Noah to come out of the ark, “Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar.” (p. 174) The parallels in the actions of Gilgamesh and Noah are small, but they both began and ended their journeys alike in that they began with a boat and ended with alms to their god(s). Their emotional responses may have been different but they both performed the same acts.
While it is true that both Gilgamesh and Noah built arks in preparation for promised rain and flooding, each built with an entirely different motivation. Gilgamesh, responding to a warning from a dream that Ea, the god of wisdom, shared with him, followed Ea’s secret whisperings, “Tear down your house and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your soul alive. Tear down your house, I say, and build a boat.” (p.146) Gilgamesh’s only concern in attempting this self-preserving effort was “but how shall I answer the people, the city, the elders?” (p. 146) Ea tells him to say that he is leaving in fear of Enlil who, he said, was angry with him, and that once he leaves Enlil will bless them with great abundance. This deception Gilgamesh willingly complies with in order to continue his personal search for everlasting life. Noah, on the other hand, builds his ark out of obedience to God, realizing that “everything on earth shall perish. But I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives.” (p. 171) Noah never questions God, but displays instead a complete trust in the One who he knows as the creator of all life. The covenant with Noah continues in the promise that God makes following the flood that He will never again destroy the earth by a flood. The difference in motivation is obvious: Gilgamesh is acting out of protection for his own life, while Noah is acting out of reverence for the One in whom he believes.
There are many ways in which these two stories can be compared and contrasted, but there remains for the reader a question that is perhaps basic to all of life: How is someone to face and deal with the inevitability that his life on this earth will come to an end? Gilgamesh and Noah both show the aftermath of their decisions; for the majority they are opposite. It is the 90% -part of someone’s life that mostly affects those who share it in positive–or in negative–ways. Gilgamesh and Noah are a chief example of how to spend that 90%. Gilgamesh helps others not to make the same mistakes he did, while Noah serves as a model.