Pondering the Spade: The Gilgamesh Epic

by Dr. David Schreiner

The earliest archaeologists in the Middle East were crude. They did not utilize any fine-tuned system of excavation, and their goals often centered on the pursuit of a priceless find. They would descend upon a site, work abrasively, and hope that they would find something of value in the truckloads of dirt they were moving quickly. Essentially, they were grave-robbers. If they did find something of value, they would quickly ship it back to their home country and display it proudly in their national museums.

In the middle to late 1800s, the British were sending teams to the Middle East, and one team found themselves at the ancient site of Nineveh, modern Mosul, Iraq. They found tons of stuff…I mean TONS of stuff, which would be expected of a place so rich in history and culture. For example, the British found the extravagant palace of Sennacherib (2 Kings 18-19), and true to form at that time, they promptly removed the gold overlays from the walls and had them shipped off to London where they are displayed today (much to the chagrin of many).

Gilgamesh 1
Figure 1

A few years later, excavators found another palace—Assurbanipal’s. Associated with this find was the palace library, which is essentially the GREATEST THING EVER for an archaeologist. You see, writing expresses things about a culture in ways about which material culture can only dream. Yet because writing required certain socio-economic and political factors, it was not ubiquitous (in contrast to today). Therefore, when an archaeologist studying sites from the first or second millennium BCE comes across any writing, it is significant. When it is an entire library, well…“High fives and hugs for everyone!”

As the archaeologists and linguists started combing through the trove of information, they eventually noticed some tablets that recounted a familiar story. It was the story of a great flood and the salvation from that flood.

Sound familiar?

As they continued to decipher this text, they realized that it was one element of a longer narrative, and ultimately this narrative would be entitled “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”

Gilgamesh 2
Figure 2

Of particular interest was the content of Tablet XI, which is the portion that echoes the biblical flood account. Both texts recount that in spite of a divinely sanctioned deluge, a small number of people survived by building a boat, upon which the earth’s animal population also gained salvation. And there are more similarities…and a number of them are remarkable. Of course, there are many significant differences as well. I am not going to go into those details here, but you can read these texts and opinions about those texts for yourself. Google it and watch the links fill your page.

Instead, I want to focus briefly on two issues that establish this find as one of the most important in the history of biblical scholarship.

  1. Development of Literature in the ancient Near East: As scholars continued to study the text, it became clear that there was a lengthy and complex history of transmission and revision associated with it. At the expense of sounding too simplistic, it became clear that the Epic developed in relation to the developments of the culture that preserved it. [The specifics of this reality have been systematically detailed by Jeffrey Tigay in The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982).] As for the importance for Biblical Studies, it offered a valuable comparative tool for understanding the conventions involved in the preservation of literature during antiquity. Models were developed that shed light on the transmission process of other important literature across the Fertile Crescent, even in Israel. Sure. A cross-cultural comparative method is never completely precise, and so comparing the Gilgamesh Epic’s process of transmission to Scripture will be deficient at some point. However, the Gilgamesh Epic has helped to establish literary-critical principles that must inform our understanding of the canonization process.
  2. Contextualization of the Old Testament in an ancient Near Eastern Thought-world: The archaeologists that excavated Nineveh may not have known it at the time, but they, and those who were on similar endeavors, were about to blow the doors off the field of Biblical Studies. With more excursions, more comparative data would be unearthed. With more comparative data, the thought-world of the ancient Near East could be filled in. With more of the thought-world filled in, the more scholars realized that Israel was a product of its milieu. They found that Israel cognitively processed and expressed things about their world in ways that were remarkably similar to its immediate and distant neighbors. However, this was not to suggest that Israel was “just another ancient Near Eastern people group.” Because when one fills out the thought-world of the ancient Near East and assesses fully the implications that ancient Israel was simultaneously alike and different from its neighbors, he or she realizes that Israel’s worldview was revolutionary in certain ways. For example, he or she realizes that Israel perceived its God as one who was not susceptible to short-sided emotional decisions that would ultimately undermine his own intentions, as is the case in the Mesopotamian Flood Narrative. Rather, Israel served a God who is always in control and moves the trajectory of the world according to his holy, redemptive purposes.

Much more could be said, but you get to drift. Moreover, there are other epic texts that have cast a long shadow on the field of Old Testament studies, such as the Ugaritic Epics. However, the Gilgamesh Epic was really the first, and it set a course to which Old Testament studies still adheres.

Figure 1: “Nineveh” in The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary. Edited by Mark Allan Powell. 3d. Edition. New York: HarperOne, 2011, digital version.

Figure 2: Brisco, Thomas V. Holman Bible Atlas. Broadman & Holman: Nashville, TN, 1998, 42

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