Sin and Redemption in the Bible and The Epic of Gilgamesh

This post assumes the reader is familiar with The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest writings archeologists have to date. It is an ancient Sumerian epic poem and mythological account, with some fascinating similarities to the Bible. This post compares The Epic of Gilgamesh to the Biblical story of creation (Genesis 1-2). Neither account is very long, so I encourage you to read them to expand your cultural knowledge. 🙂

Read The Epic of Gilgamesh

Read Genesis 1-2

Let Us Compare…

There are interesting insights to be found in comparing and contrasting the concepts of sin and redemption in The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the sins committed by Enkidu and Gilgamesh entail, “because they have killed Humbaba and because they have killed the Bull of Heaven” (Lawall, 26), for which Enkidu is chosen to die for retribution. In the creation story of the Bible, the sins of Adam and Eve are the direct disobedience of God’s one law, for which animal (and later, Jesus Christ) sacrifices are made.

In comparing the two ancient texts, three main similarities may be found. In both stories two people, in fact two life-partners, commit the sins. The gods/God in both tales required the sacrifice of a life for transgressions. At first, the God of the Bible requires animal sacrifices to atone for human sins, and then later Jesus is used as the perfect sacrifice for all people. The gods in The Epic of Gilgamesh take Enkidu’s life as reparation. “In my view, the Tanach (what Christians call “The Old Testament”) seems, more and more, to be the polar opposite of Gilgamesh” (Burell). In contrasting The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible, four major differences can be seen.

How the Two Works Define Sin

In looking to the concept of sin, it is much more difficult to discern just what the sin is that Gilgamesh and Enkidu commit since every god in their pantheon seemed to feel differently about the matter with Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. “Then glorious Shamash answered the hero Enlil, ‘It was by your command they killed the Bull of Heaven, and killed Humbaba, and must Enkidu die although innocent?” (Lawall, 26) This is opposed to the God of the Bible who makes it clear to Adam and Eve what He expects, and what the sin is. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree if the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Lawall, 58).

In a similar vein, the pantheon of gods in The Epic of Gilgamesh makes it nearly impossible to please one god without angering another. What one god considered worship, another viewed as abomination and it seemed to be the squeaky wheel who got the oil in most cases (whichever god complained the loudest got what they wanted). Again, in the Bible there is only one God who makes it clear what pleases Him, what doesn’t, and what the price of sin costs.

Another interesting opposite is how the characters approached their sins. Whereas Adam and Eve were actively tempted by an evil, outside source (the snake or Satan) Gilgamesh and Enkidu boldly sought their sins out. “I am committed to this enterprise: to climb the mountain, to cut down the cedar, and leave behind me an enduring name” (Lawall, 19). Addressing the issue of redemption, while God in the Bible required willing, individual sacrifices per person per sin, Enkidu paid with his life unwillingly, for the two listed sins of both he and Gilgamesh. “So Enkidu lay stretched out before Gilgamesh; his tears ran down in streams” (Lawall, 26).

In Sum

The similarities between The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible are fewer than the differences, but the overall idea between the two remains that death is the ultimate price to pay for one’s sins against a god. The main difference between the two stories relates to the idea of sin. God in the Bible clearly states the rules and punishment for breaking the rules, whereas one never can tell in Gilgamesh whether one’s actions are seen as honoring or angering to the gods. There really is no such thing as “sin” in Gilgamesh because one cannot disobey a law never set forth.

Sources:

Burell, Clay. Beyond School: Good, Evil, Nature, and the Hero: Unsucky English, Lecture 5. 23 September 2008. 15 November 2009 <http://beyond-school.org/2008/09/23/gilgamesh5nature/&gt;.

Sarah Lawall, General Editor. The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002.

2 comments

  1. handselkoan

    There is something else to say here, I think. It may be a bit off-topic, but the essential cause of both events bringing about the punishment are actions done pridefully. In the epic, two men chose to undertake something no others did before, and essentially they did this only because it was a means to immortality (if only in name, however). Immortality is not a mortal’s place, and perhaps this is part of the reason the gods were displeased, too. In the Garden of Eden, it has been argued the rebellion against God (eating the forbidden fruit) was the result of the real sin: arrogance, in believing a creation can be godly, and/or the ambition to become something God did not intend Adam and Eve to be.
    Also, wasn’t it a serpent who stole the means of immortality from Gilgamesh? That’s a parallel worth mentioning, too.

    Like

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