The Epic of Gilgamesh and ancient scripture…


I have been thinking a little about ancient times recently- so humour me while I scratch a familiar itch- that of the relationships between culture, history and the formation of faith through the interpretation of Scripture.

I heard some of the ancient poetry from the Epic of Gilgamesh read out on a TV programme recently. It was beautiful…

‘Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to?
You will never find the life for which you are looking.
When the gods created man
they allotted to him death,
but life they retained in their own keeping.
As for you, Gilgamesh,
fill your belly with good things;
day and night, night and day, dance and be merry,
feast and rejoice.
Let your clothes be fresh,
bathe yourself in water,
cherish the little child that holds your hand,
and make your wife happy in your embrace;
for this too is the lot of man.’

But Gilgamesh said to Siduri, the young woman,
‘How can I be silent,
how can I rest,
when Enkidu whom I love is dust,
and I too shall die
and be laid in the earth for ever.’

One translation of the full text available here.

A summary of the text, and discussion about some of the themes is available here.

The Flood Tablet, relating part of the Epic of Gilgamesh -Nineveh 7th Century BC

I had heard of this ancient writing before, but knew little of it, so set off to find out more. It interested me for several reasons-

  1. As far as I can understand, this poetry is amongst the earliest literature known to have been written down, emerging from a little known civilisation that pre-existed the Ancient Assyrian and Babylonian empires- back to the earlier Sumerian peoples.  The poetry was held as significant to cultures for the next 3000 years, before being lost into history until tablets telling the story began to be unearthed in the 19th Century AD. The amazing endurance of the story, and it’s survival on tablets of stone is fascinating and intriguing.
  2. These civilisations occurred in the middle east, in the areas now known as Iraq and Iran, and the more understanding we have of middle eastern culture in this time of war and the ‘demonisation of the other’ the better.
  3. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a poetic recording that pre-exists the recording of the oral tradition that became the Hebrew Bible. There are many parallels between the creation stories in Genesis and those described in the Epic, as well as an account of a great flood. Clearly there are many differences too, but I find myself once again interested in the origins of Scripture- and its relationship with the culture and context that it was inspired within.
  4. There are also echoes of what appear to be perennial human pre-occupations- the origin and meaning of life, friendship, courage, and the approach of death. Consider again the poetry of Solomon from the book of Ecclesiastes- and compare this with the words from the Epic above…

7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, [c] where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

11 I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

12 Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
or birds are taken in a snare,
so men are trapped by evil times
that fall unexpectedly upon them.

(Ecclesiastes 9, NIV)


So the question on my mind, is whether this has any significance for how we Christians might engage with ancient Scripture, and in turn, encounter the Living God?

I have written some things before about my own struggles with these issues-  I asked a series of questions, which I tried to give my own incomplete answers to here.

But I find myself increasingly divorced from the way of understanding scripture that I grew up with in the left-of-centre-charismatic-evangelical-fundamentalist churches that gifted me with faith.

This is because the assumptions through which they appeared to approach scripture no longer make sense to me. They seem to include these-

  • The Bible is complete, sufficient, without error or contradiction, and was given to the Church complete as a gift from God.
  • Any challenge to the absolute authority of the Bible has to be resisted at all costs.
  • Any sources outside the Bible- be they writings of other early Christians, or the spirituality of other cultures- all these things are at best dangerous, or at worst, deceptions of the devil.
  • Appreciation and interest of history is highly selective, and should be focussed on the agenda and issues emerging in the 200 years following the Reformation.

I now find myself drawn into new areas of adventure- based on a new set of questions and assumptions. These are not my own, but rather ones that have ‘emerged’ into my experience of faith through a process of re-engagement. They include some of these things-

  • We stand on the shoulders of many other people of faith, who have been drawn by God into incomplete but inspired understandings.
  • Some of this was written down, and some of this writing survived and endured.
  • Over the period of one and a half thousand years, and after much deliberation, some this has been gathered together to form what we know as the Bible.
  • The original meaning of some of these words is lost to us.
  • But the words are still an amazing gift to us, as the Holy Spirit makes them sing again in our context.
  • Let us never pretend to understand fully or finally, or to restrict God to our narrow context or viewpoint.
  • Our ultimate engagement with the God is through the person of Jesus, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
  • But we too will fall short.
  • And others  that follow us will need to find their own adventure.

God bless them as they write their own Epics.