The History behind Noah’s Ark

The building of Noah's Ark | Courtesy of the film "The Bible"

Over the years there have been several adaptations regarding the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, whether the comedy film starring Steve Carell, or a film narrating the Bible story. However, the adaptation that the majority of people do not recognize is the Bible story itself. The story of Noah and his ark was actually adapted from the eleventh and twelfth tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem that narrates the adventures of a fictional hero named Gilgamesh.1 The reason that Noah’s Ark is an adaptation is due to the many parallels between the two stories. Some similarities include the wrath of a deity upon humankind, as well as the creation of a type of vessel in order to survive the flood.

Before the 19th century, the Bible was believed to be the most credible source of historical information about the Ancient Near East. However,“The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving epic poem in history, dating from about 2500 B.C.E.”2 The discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh, specifically the tablets containing the excerpts detailing the Great Flood myth, caused turmoil among the ancient historical community, due to the fact that the Great Flood myth was written about a thousand years before the Bible story of Noah.3

The Flood Tablet. This is perhaps the most famous of all cuneiform tablets. It is the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic, and describes how the gods sent a flood to destroy the world. Like Noah, Utnapishtim was forewarned and built an ark to house and preserve living things. After the flood he sent out birds to look for dry land. ME K 3375.
The Flood Tablet. The eleventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, describing how the gods sent a flood to destroy the world | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The eleventh tablet narrates one of Gilgamesh’s adventures in search for immortality.4 Yet his search leads him to a wise man named Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim then reveals to Gilgamesh how he achieved immortality. He begins to explain how the god Ea informed him of the devastating flood created by the gods in order to extinguish humanity. He was instructed to construct a boat of immense size and to tell the people of Shuruppak to assist him in the building of the boat. Once the boat was complete, he was to load it with every living thing and his family in order to survive. Seven days later the great flood began its reign of destruction upon humankind. During this time, Utnapishtim and his ark ran aground on a mountain peak. He then released a dove in order to find land but the dove returned, not having found land. The same thing happened when he sends a swallow. However, the third time he releases a raven that never returned. Upon reaching land, the gods in heaven realized the great service Utnapishtim had done by saving humankind; thus, they granted him and his wife eternal life.

Much like the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of Noah’s Ark conveys a similar destruction tale.5 The book of Genesis narrates how God began to despair over the creation of humankind due to humanity becoming sinful and evil. Therefore, God decided to create an immense flood in order to destroy and cleanse the world. However, God chose a man named Noah due to his immaculate behavior, and He instructed him to build a boat or an ark. Once he completed the ark, he was to load it with a pair of every animal on earth along with his family. For the next forty days, God plunged the earth with devastating rains, causing the earth to be flooded for a whole year. Noah then released a dove and it never returned, meaning that it had found dry land. Once the water receded, the earth was restored and became once again fertile. God made a covenant with Noah promising that his lineage will be fertile and that he will never destroy humanity again by flood.

The parallels between both stories are clear to see, due to the similarity in content and story structure. For example, both narratives include an extremely powerful deity or deities, that form a plan to wipe out humankind by creating a great flood in order to restore the earth, as well as how a single man was chosen by a higher power to save humanity.6  Another parallel is how both individuals were instructed to construct a boat in order to survive the coming flood. The content of both vessels is also similar due to them being loaded with all the living things on earth, even though in the Epic of Gilgamesh it was all living things while in Noah it was the pair of every animal on earth, along with their families. Once the earth was flooded, both Utnapishtim and Noah release birds in order to find out if the land was yet dry. Finally, both men upon reaching land are rewarded by higher powers, due to their involvement in saving humanity, and the creation of a new world.

  1. Benjamin R. Foster, Douglas Frayne, and Gary M. Beckman, The epic of Gilgamesh: a new translation, analogues, criticism (New York: Norton, 2001), 60-65.
  2. Jerry Bentley, Herbert Ziegler, Heather Streets Salter, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History Volume 1 (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Publishers, 2016), 17.
  3. James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969), 3.
  4. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern texts, 273.
  5. Jerry Pinkney, Noah’s ark (New York : SeaStar Books, 2002), 20-30.
  6.  Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern texts, 10.
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90 Comments

  • This was a very interesting article on Noah’s Ark. I think it is worthy to note that Noah’s Ark is an adaptation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written in 2500 B.C. The eleventh tablet in the Epic of Gilgamesh goes into detail on its version of the flood. Overall, this was a great article that looked at the comparisons between Noah’s Ark, and the Epic of Gilgamesh.

  • I’m sure many people have heard the story about Noah’s ark from the bible and how he was told by god to take 2 of each animal and his own family onto a giant ark to escape the cataclysmic flood that was coming. I personally don’t believe in that story because there is no way that two of each animal willingly walked onto a boat and a flood made by god wiped everything out.

  • In Christianity, the story of Noah’s Ark is one of the tales everyone first hears from a very early age. The article helped to provide more background on the story as well as inform of the correlation with the Epic of Gilgamesh. I personally never knew about the two being related to one another and the similarities are uncanny. I wonder what caused the particular story to be written about in the Epic of Gilgamesh and how exactly the story of Noah’s Ark was so similar. The most peculiar part was that the Epic of Gilgamesh preceded the story of Moses by one thousand years.

  • This article was very interesting to read! I find it fascinating to read more about the origins of the bible and the stories in it. I had read both the story of Noah’s Arc and the Epic of Gilgamesh and noticed how similar the stories were. However, in the Epic of Gilgamesh the gods seem to be more impulsive and full of rage.

  • In reading this article it was interesting to read the parallel between the two stories. Growing up I heard the story of Noah’s Ark so I am familiar with it, on the other hand I had not read the Epic of Gilgamesh. It was interesting to know that there was a very similar story to Noah’s Ark thousands of years before.

  • Every Christian and their mother know of the story of Noah. I have not heard the story the Epic of Gilgamesh, so it was very interesting to read that the biblical story was actually adapted from the Akkadian tale. I enjoyed reading all the parallels between both stories. Interesting that the stories share so many similarities and yet I hadn’t heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

  • I’ve known the story of “Noah and the Ark” since I was a toddler. As I’ve grown up I’ve gotten new bits of the story, but never did I know about “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. So, now knowing there is a parallel story to that of “Noah and the Ark” it really convinces me more to the idea of this flood happening, because it would have to be a coincidence for there to be such similar stories and both be false. From my perspective it seems that maybe after the flood Noah’s family went on to live their lives and tell the story of the flood in different ways so that’s how we get so many interpretations. All in all, this was a very well analysis of the interpretations and extremely enlightening.

  • I find it very interesting that different cultures and religions can use similar stories, yet still give them different meanings and significance. I’ve always found the story of Noah’s Arc to be very fascinating and I enjoyed this article and seeing that story I’ve heard so many times, being compared to the Epic of Gilgamesh. Because the Epic of Gilgamesh was created before the Bible, I wonder what made the writers of the Bible decide to include a story similar to that one.

  • The stories being compared in the article have many similarities with minor differences. After reading this article it brings up so many questions. For example, are the floods 2 different floods with two different stories or is it one flood with two different stories. Either way, both stories show a higher power getting rid of any sinful or bad nature in the pure land. This article showed that each religion or historian have their own explanation while another is surfaced.

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