Sample Essay On Comparing The Flood Stories In The Old Testament, Gilgamesh And The Qu’ran
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The tale of the Flood is an oft-repeated one in many old myths and religious stories – the story of God (or gods, in the case of Gilgamesh) wiping out all of humanity with a great flood in order to start again. While the most well-known example is in the Old Testament of the Bible, there are also flood accounts within the epic of Gilgamesh and the Islamic Qu’ran. While all three of these tales feature many similar attributes, their differences are sufficiently evident to reveal the distinct biases and values imported by these unique texts. While the polytheism and Indian relocation of the main story differentiates Gilgamesh from the other two texts, the unusual similarities in structure between all three texts shows how the basic nature of the story transcends geography and religion to express the different ways in which human beings related to their gods and the messages they received from them.
Both the Old Testament and the Qu’ran feature uniquely similar accounts of the Flood, particularly in the role of Noah (or Nuh, in the Qu’ran) as the man who would build an ark to save those God deemed worthy to save. While the basic building blocks of the story are the same, there are some striking differences. In the Old Testament, God is shown to be very disappointed in mankind, with only Noah being worthy of survival due to his faith: “God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh is come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth” (Genesis 6:13).
However, in the Qu’ran the opposite is true, as Nuh is disappointed in his fellow man, and is rejected by the rest of mankind and mocked when he tries to warn them of the flood. The choice for God to flood the world comes at the command of Nuh, who is angry at his ostracized status among his people. He essentially commands the flood to happen for God: “Noah said: “O my Lord! Do not leave of the Unbelievers, a single one on earth! For, if You leave them, they will but mislead Your devotees” (Qu’ran, 71 Noah 26). Unlike Noah, who was able to bring his family aboard (“Noah, and Noah’s sons and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them, entered the ark”), Nuh’s wife and son end up drowning as he can only bring other believers on the boat (“And the waves came between them, and the son was among those overwhelmed in the Flood”) (Genesis 7:13; 11 Hud 45).
Most of the basic facets of this story are also found in the epic of Gilgamesh, though this particular figure takes the form of Utnapishtim. Instead of receiving his instructions from God, Utnapishtim receives them in the form of a dream from Ea, one of multiple gods. Unlike Noah, who could only load his family onto the boat, and Nuh, who could only load true believers on, Utnapishtim was able to bring on “all that I had of gold and of living things,” including the craftsmen of the boat and all his relatives (Gilgamesh 20).
Comparing these three men, there are distinct differences in the major roots of the figures’ names, particularly between Noah and Utnapishtim. Noah’s name means “rest,” and Utnapishtim stands for “finder of life” (O’Brien 62, 63). These points are somewhat significant to consider, as they dramatically change the nature of each character; Noah is a much more passive figure in relation to his God, who instructs him on what to do, while Utnapishtim plays a slightly more active role in the creation of the ark due to being suggested to do these things by Ea, rather than being commanded. In this way, Gilgamesh paints its picture of gods working in groups to convince humans to do things for them, whereas God has singular command over men and also grants them their wishes (in the case of Nuh).
Many of the details surrounding the actual flood circumstances and the Ark provide unique differences between the Noah/Nuh account and the epic of Gilgamesh. In the epic of Gilgamesh, the flooding takes place in a much shorter span of time than the Biblical flood, taking only six days and nights rather than the 40 days and 40 nights Noah must endure in the ark. The shape and makeup of each of these arks presented unique similarities and differences as well. Noah’s ark and Utnapishtim’s ark are both incredibly large in size, as they were meant to carry all of the creatures meant to survive the flood. They also featured just one door and one or more windows. However, while Noah’s ark is rectangular, Utnapishtim’s is square in shape. Both stories also feature birds as a significant messenger for helping to locate land. In the Old Testament account, a raven and three doves are sent out; in Gilgamesh, however, it is a dove, a swallow, and a raven.
When the flood was over, both Noah’s and Utnapishtim’s arks rested on a mountain as well. While Noah’s rested on Ararat, Utnapishtim rested his boat on the mountain of Nisir. At a difference in distance of about 300 miles, this is a significant departure from the other tales. In all instances of the flood, sacrifices were offered in thanks to God (or the gods) for allowing them to survive the flood. Noah and Utnapishtim both received blessings for their sacrifices, though their blessings varied. While Noah was given the gift of repopulating Earth and having authority over all animals, Utnapishtim was granted eternal life. The gods in all three flood stories also promised never to destroy humankind again.
Examining the accounts in all three flood accounts, the relationship of man with their gods is unique in each instance. In the Old Testament, Noah’s relationship with God is as a rare, honest disciple in a world with a vengeful God. Noah does God’s bidding and saves his family, and is rewarded while God takes his dissatisfaction with humanity out on the rest of mankind. Nuh, on the other hand, is a spiteful man who lashes out with the help of God against a mankind that mocks and shuns him, and whose spite is punished by him losing his wife and son. In this way, God is a reflection of Nuh’s own inner evil, rather than Noah’s loyalty to God being rewarded. Utnpishtim, on the other hand, is granted godhood because of his role in the flood, and his instructions come from but one of many gods who plan to flood the earth in committee; this places them on much more equal footing with mankind than the Biblical/Qu’ranic accounts.
The uncanny similarities in the flood accounts of Noah and Utnapishtim in the Old Testament, the Qu’ran, and the epic of Gilgamesh, respectively, demonstrates the striking links in religious and historical history that maintain themselves over thousands of years and between cultures on opposite sides of the world. The mix of monotheism and polytheism that comes from comparing the Flood stories offers unique variants on each of these stories, including the differences that come from the different accounts of Noah/Nuh/Utnapishtim. In varying accounts, the man in charge of the ark is a pious man with faith in God, a spiteful man with no faith in mankind, or a man sent on a dream journey by one of many gods. Still, the basic story remains the same, a set of parallels that proves to be extremely fascinating to behold.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Assyrian International News Agency Books Online.
The Holy Bible.
O'Brien, J. Randall, "Flood Stories of the Ancient Near East", Biblical Illustrator,
volume 13, number 1 (Fall 1986): 61.
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