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.
The History behind Noah’s Ark
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75 Comments

  • There are so many different versions of Noah’s Arch. I watch the one movie with Emma Watson and it really set a different perspective on the story. But I really liked how you developed your own version. It is crazy how God works and how everything is for a reason. I think it is really creative to put the story of Gilgamesh along with this article. It was a good read.

  • This article was brilliant! The story of Noah’s Ark has always been a favorite of mine from the Bible. Although, I have never compared it with any other stories as this article did. I was so surprised to see the many similarities between the story of Noah’s Ark and the Epic of Gilgamesh even though they are both separated by a large period of time. This article took an approach that is not often seen in other articles and I loved it!

  • I found it quite fascinating to put both of these stories side by side. What surprised me the most from this article was that The Epic of Gilgamesh was written nearly one thousand years before the Bible story of Noah. I also found the story of Gilgamesh quite inspiring. Overall, I thought that this article quite interesting because it brings into perspective, two stories that are suspiciously similar.

  • This is extraordinary! I vaguely remember back in my literature class in high school that one of our readings said that there was no such thing as an original story anymore. The parallels between Noah’s ark and Gilgamesh’s is something that cannot be ignored due to the fact that they both survived a great flood caused by an angry deity. It also goes to show how influential the epic of Gilgamesh was since it lead into the Story of Noah’s Ark. Very interesting read.

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