The Epic of Gilgamesh, a literary product of Mesopotamia, contains many of the same themes and motifs as the Hebrew Bible. Of these, the best-known is probably the Epic’s flood story, which reads a lot like the biblical tale of Noah’s ark (Gen 6-9). But the Epic also includes a character whose story bears even more similarities to stories in the Hebrew Bible: Gilgamesh’s possession of a plant of immortality is thwarted by a serpent (compare Gen 3), he wrestles in the night with a divinely appointed assailant who proclaims the hero’s identity and predicts that he will prevail over all others (compare Gen 32:23-32), and he is taught that the greatest response to mortality is to live life in appreciation of those things which make us truly human (compare Eccl 9:7-10).
The Gilgamesh Epic was familiar in the biblical world: copies have been found at Megiddo, Emar, Northern Anatolia, and Nineveh. It shares many motifs and ideas (such as the Flood) with other ancient Near Eastern texts. Because of this, it is difficult to state with any certainty that the Epic directly influenced the stories of the Bible. For example, it was widely believed that dreams could be divinely inspired, cryptic forecasts of the future. So when Joseph dreamed of sheaves of corn and bowing stars (Gen 37:5-11), the author was probably not copying Gilgamesh’s oracular dreams. Likewise, the idea that it is mortality—the impetus behind Gilgamesh’s quest—that separates gods and humans is found in other Mesopotamian and Egyptian writings, as well as in Gen 3:22.
In the Epic, the gods create Enkidu, who runs wild with the animals in the open country, as a companion for Gilgamesh. There are particularly interesting similarities between the Garden of Eden story in Genesis and the story of Enkidu’s movement from nature to culture and civilization. In both stories, a woman is responsible for the transition of a man who had once eaten and drunk with the animals to a state of estrangement from nature. Once Enkidu is rejected by the animal world, the woman Shamhat gives him clothing and teaches him to drink beer and eat bread—all technological developments that separate humans from animals.
In Genesis, once Adam has eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, he covers his nudity and is sentenced to a life of cultivating food by harsh labor. This is the cost of divine knowledge. In Gilgamesh, when Enkidu becomes estranged from the animals, Shamhat tells him that he has become “like a god.” Later, on his deathbed, Enkidu laments his removal from a state of nature, only to be reminded by the god Shamash that while civilized life is more fraught with difficulty and the knowledge of one’s own mortality, it is a worthwhile price for cultural knowledge and awareness.
The closest parallel between a biblical text and the Epic of Gilgamesh is seen in the wording of several passages in Ecclesiastes, where a strong argument can be made for direct copying. The author of Ecclesiastes frequently laments the futility of “chasing after the wind” (for example, Eccl 1:6, Eccl 1:14, Eccl 1:17, Eccl 2:11, Eccl 2:17, Eccl 2:26, Eccl 5:16, etc.), a notion reminiscent of Gilgamesh’s advice to the dying Enkidu: “Mankind can number his days. Whatever he may achieve, it is only wind” (Yale Tablet, Old Babylonian Version). Earlier in the story, Gilgamesh persuaded Enkidu that two are stronger than one in a speech containing the phrase, “A three-stranded cord is hardest to break” (Standard Babylonian Version, IV, iv). Similarly, Ecclesiastes tells us, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work…. Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Eccl 4:9-12). These may simply be common sayings picked up by both authors, but Eccl 9:7-9 seems to directly quote the barmaid Siduri’s advice to Gilgamesh on how to deal with his existential angst:
When the gods created mankind,
They appointed death for mankind,
Kept eternal life in their own hands.
So, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,
Day and night enjoy yourself in every way,
Every day arrange for pleasures.
Day and night, dance and play,
Wear fresh clothes.
Keep your head washed, bathe in water,
Appreciate the child who holds your hand,
Let your wife enjoy herself in your lap.
This advice sums up the message of both the Epic of Gilgamesh and Ecclesiastes, two texts that wrestle with the search for meaning in the face of human mortality.