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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98 Comments

  • Reading the first paragraphs took me by surprise that is crazy how their are strong similarities. I know that even people who were not raised in a religion setting still heard the story of Noah’s Arch. This is the first I am hearing of the Epic of Gilgamesh, it still boggles my mind how this story is not as popularized as Noah’s arch even though it came before it. Overall great article!

  • The story of Noah’s Ark is a common story in the bible, and it is one of main stories taught to many children in the church. I have known about Noah and the Arc ever since my days in the Sunday school. What haunts me so much about this story is how God claims he will not destroy the earth by flood ever again, and it seemingly hints he could simply destroy the earth through some other method. I never knew there was a similar story to Noah’s Arc and it makes me question the credibility of the bible and if the story wasn’t just taken from some other source.

  • I remember when I was first learning about Noah and the arc in my elementary school. I however, had never personally heard of the parallel story. I found it incredibly interesting. It seems like they are the same story but that they were told by different people. The similarities in the story are way too close to be two different stories.

  • I think we all grew up knowing the story of Noah from the book of Genesis. It is astounding how the Epic of Gilgamesh had an influence on this story. I always thought Noah’s arc was an original story. I never thought there would have been a story that is eerily similar would’ve preceded it. I like the correlations between the two stories, they preserve the details from one story to another, not counting the obvious name change.

  • I remember hearing The Epic of Gilgamesh in high school. I remember being told that it was similar to Noah’s Ark, but I had never had the chance to actually sit down and compare them. It is incredible to see the similarity. It seems that this story was written in different stances, by different people. This is seen in other stories as well, such as creation. All humans seem to have a similar experience, however they tell them in a different way. This was a very interesting topic to read about and explore.

  • When I used to attend a catholic school in my earlier years I was always fascinated with the story of Noahs Arc since as a kid I was absolutely obsessed with all kinds of animals! I always thought that since this was a biblical story there was nothing else out there even remotely similar to it, but after taking the Foundations of Civilization class and reading this article it’s clear that The Epic of Gilgamesh was a heavy influence on the story!

  • I grew up reading the story of Noah and his arc numerous during Sunday school but never knew there were stories similar to it. I find it hard to believe how similar these stories are. Especially in the end, when they use a bird to discover whether the earth is ready to sustain life once again and everything occurring because of a mad deity. It is obvious that The Epic of Gilgamesh had a strong influence, overall this was a very fascinating article.

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