|Tablet XI of the Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh |
which contains the flood account from the Library of Ashurbanipal. 650 BC.
© Photo by David E. Graves.
By permission of the Trustees of the British Museum
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a masterpiece of the literary poetry of ancient Mesopotamia composed on twelve clay tablets in the ancient Akkadian language. It highlights the earlier exploits of King Gilgamesh, ruler of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk in around 1600 BC. Gilgamesh is described in the story as a great warrior/builder who is part god and part man. While he is not mentioned in the Bible, some scholars suggest that he is to be identified with biblical Nimrod (Gen 10:8–12).
In 1853 Hormuzd Rassam, protégé of Austin Henry Layard, uncovered 25,000 inscribed clay tablets from the libraries of Ashurbanipal in Khorsabad and the temple of Nabu in the ancient city of Nineveh. One of the tablets is now known as the Epic of Gilgamesh a famous Mesopotamian account of ancient creation and the flood. It was translated by George Smith in the early 1870’s. George E. Smith, an assistant in the British Museum, was examining the dusty tablets and later wrote: “The fragments of clay tablets were all sizes, from half an inch to a foot long, and were thickly coated with dirt, so that they had to be cleaned before anything could be seen on the surface.”1. Skilled in reading cuneiform texts, during his examination he recognized on one of the tablets (tablet 11) an ancient flood story similar to the biblical story of Noah with the words,
On Mount Nimush [Nisir] the ship ran aground, the mountains held it and would not release it. For six days and seven nights, the mountain would not release it. On the seventh day, I brought out a dove and set it free. The dove flew off, then flew back to the ship, because there was no place to land.2.Fant and Reddish describe the subsequent events:
His announcement of this discovery to the public, in a paper presented to the Society of Biblical Archaeology in England on December 3, 1872, created much excitement. The large fragment on display in the British Museum is a portion of tablet 11. The fragment contains lines 55–106 and 108–269. Smith subsequently carried out excavations in Nineveh. Amazingly, on May 14, 1873, after only one week of digging at Nineveh, Smith found the tablet fragment that contains the major portion of the seventeen lines that had been missing from tablet 1.3.His discovery of the missing lines after only a few days of excavation is one of the great coincidences of archaeology. As he continued translating he found more and more similarities with the biblical account. Carem tells the story best:
The farther he progressed with the decipherment, the more excited he became and the more anxious to know how the argument would turn out. . . . Indeed, the most essential section of the story was entirely missing — that is, the conclusion. What Smith had read of the Gilgamesh Epic left him no rest. Nor could he keep silent about his discoveries, though to disclose them was sure to rock the Bible-bound England of Victoria’s day. Later a powerful newspaper came to George Smith’s aid. The London Daily Telegraph announced that it was offering the sum of a thousand guineas to anyone who would go to Kuyunjik, find the missing Gilgamesh inscriptions, and bring them back to England.
George Smith himself accepted the offer. He traveled the thousands of miles separating London from Mesopotamia, and there boldly attacked the tremendous pile of rubble that was Kuvunjik — the mound, in respect of the total area, had hardly been scratched in search of the missing tablets. Smith’s task was about comparable to finding one particular water-louse in the sea, or the famous needle in the haystack.
And again there occurred one of the almost unbelievable wonders that stunned the history of archaeological excavation. Smith actually found the missing parts of the Gilgamesh Epic.4.Smith began work at Nimrud in April. By May he moved to Koujunjik and found “a vast picture of utter confusion and destruction.”5. The result of Layard’s looting of the site, and its ruthless quarrying by the builders of the Mosul bridge left it almost impossible to find the missing tablets. Amazingly within the first five days Smith discovered the missing portion of the Deluge Story, with the unfortunate result that the Daily Telegraph declared the excavation a success and cut off funds. However, Smith returned to London with some 384 clay fragments and the all-important missing piece of the Babylonian flood story.
On the occasion of a formal paper delivered at the Society of Biblical Archaeology where Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, was present, it is reported that:
Smith took the tablet and began to read over the lines which Ready [the conservator who had cleaned the tablet] had brought to light; and when he saw that they contained the portion of the legend he had hoped to find there, he said, “I am the first man to read that after two thousand years of oblivion.” Setting the tablet on the table, he jumped up and rushed about the room in a state of great excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.6.The Epic of Gilgamesh, Complete academic translations.
The critical text George, Andrew R. The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2003 is available as PDF at Vol 1. and Vol 2.
While some have suggested that the Assyrian word should not be translated as flood the majority of Assyrian scholars have translated the word as flood or deluge. The Assyrian word for flood is nabâlu, nābâliš (p. 9 “the highest flood”) or nabā’u (p. 24 “Said of a flood”).7 The flood account is on described on Tablet XI (see image above). And George translated the Assyrian as “deluge” (meaning “flood”).8 There are too many other parallels to the biblical account to say that the Assyrian people did not know of the actual flood story and described it in their cultural context with their gods and mythology.
The library of Ashurbanipal revealed a magnificent collection of cuneiform tablets opening the world of Babylonian law, commerce and religion.9 There are several varied copies known from Syria, Canaan, and Anatolia each reinterpreted for their audience, prompting Heidel to conclude:
The date of the composition of the Gilgamesh Epic can therefore be fixed at about 2000 BC. But the material contained on these tablets is undoubtedly much older, as we can infer from the mere fact that the epic consists of numerous originally independent episodes, which, of course, did not spring into existence at the time of the composition of our poem but must have been current long before they were compiled and woven together to form our epic.10When first published, the Epic of Gilgamesh flood narrative on tablet 11 shook the church as the parallels with the biblical creation and flood account (Gen 5–9) seemed amazingly similar. The hero Ut-Napishtim was seen as the epic’s Noah and it was used to call into question the uniqueness and authenticity of the Hebrew flood account.
- 1. George E. Smith, Assyrian Discoveries: An Account of Explorations and Discoveries on the Site on Nineveh, During 1878 and 1874 (New York, NY: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1875), 13.
- 2. Stephen Mitchell, Gilgamesh: A New English Version (New York, NY: Free Press, 2006), 189.
- 3. Clyde E. Fant and Mitchell Glenn Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible: Understanding the Bible Through Archaeological Artifacts in World Museums (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 18.
- 4. C. W. Ceram, Gods, Graves & Scholars: The Story of Archaeology, trans. E. B. Garside and Sophie Wilkins, 2d Revised ed. (New York, NY: Vintage, 1986), 313.
- 5. H. V. Hilprecht, Explorations in Bible Lands During the 19th Century (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2004), 195.
- 6. E. A. Wallis Budge, The Rise and Progress of Assyriology (New York: Hopkinson & Co., 1925), 153.
- 7. Oppenheim, A. Leo, Martha T. Roth, Erica Reiner, and Robert D. Biggs. The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: N. Vol. 11. 21 vols. (Chicago, Ill.: University Of Chicago Press, 1980), 9, 24.
- 8. George, Andrew R. The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts HELP. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2003), 704-705.
- 9. Brian M. Fagan, Return to Babylon: Travelers, Archaeologists and Monuments in Mesopotamia (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1979), 14.
- 10. Alexander Heidel, Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 15.
This bonus material was quoted from
David E. Graves, Key Themes of the Old Testament: A Survey of Major Theological Themes (Moncton, N.B.: Graves, 2013), 190-91.
Updated May 29, 2016 (C) Electronic Christian Media