Rabbi Paul Jacobson
When Original Isn’t Original
The first book that we studied in my “Classical Literature” class during my first year at Washington University was The Epic of Gilgamesh. According to scholars, Gilgamesh was king of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk around 2750 BCE (Mitchell, Gilgamesh, 1). The epic is a heroic story of legends – Gilgamesh battles monsters, builds friendships, searches for love, and even tries to attain immortality. According to translator Stephen Mitchell:
In 1872, a young British museum curator named George Smith realised that one of the fragments told the story of a Babylonian Noah, who survived a great flood sent by the gods. ‘On looking down the third column,’ Smith wrote, ‘my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning. I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean account of the Deluge (Mitchell 4).
The account of the Deluge or great flood in Gilgamesh is contained in the eleventh tablet (there are twelve in total and many more fragments), or as Mitchell calls it in his translation, “Book XI.” Gilgamesh holds a conversation with Utnapishtim who explains the gods’ plan to annihilate humanity by means of a flood. Utnapishtim was instructed to build a roof over a square ship and take aboard the ship examples of every living creature (Mitchell, 180-181). On the seventh day of the flood, Utnapishtim sends forth a dove, and later a swallow who with no place to land, return to the ship. Utnapishtim later sends forth a raven and because the waters have receded, the raven does not return (Mitchell, 187-188).
There are striking similarities between this section of The Epic of Gilgamesh and our Torah portion this week, Parashat Noach. With rampant corruption throughout the earth, God decides to destroy the world with a flood, leaving only Noah and his family, and two of each kind of animal to survive in an ark that Noah constructs. At the conclusion of the flood, Noah sends out a raven first, and then a dove. The dove is unable to find a place to land and returns to Noah. Noah waits another seven days, sends off the dove again, and the dove returns with a fresh olive leaf.
Even though there are notable differences in both narratives, the similarities raise some interesting questions with regards to the originality and authenticity of our texts. It was the practice of many ancient cultures to explain natural phenomena, the creation of the world, and catastrophic events like the flood with storytelling much like we find in both Gilgamesh and Genesis. Clearly, we are not the only historical nation to bear witness to a great flood, or use the story of a great flood as one of the foundational narratives of our people. Could this mean that the authors of Noah and the authors of Gilgamesh experienced similar historical episodes?
In some schools of thought, even highlighting the existence of a text like Gilgamesh would be considered heretical to the Jewish journey. To argue regarding the Divine revelation of Torah and the originality of the narrative therein is considered harsh critique, perhaps even blasphemy, even if such commentary may be grounded in academic scholarship. Thankfully, in the Progressive and Masorti world, we welcome this dialogue and we welcome this challenge.
Just as science and religion need not be mutually exclusive, the brilliance of Torah shines forth when we recognize the impact of other historical cultures upon our own, rather than deny or dismiss them. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors asked, “Given these historical and contemporary events, what is our perspective? How do these stories inform our lives? What is our take, our unique perspective on what this means for our emerging (Israelite/Jewish) culture?”
Our struggle today is no different. We like our ancestors before us, try to recognize the validity and place of Torah in our lives – against the secular culture and societal norms that have strong influence, informing and impacting everything we do. That the originality of the Noah story (or the lack thereof when compared against Gilgamesh) raises questions and forces us to think about our texts is challenging, but a thoughtful and welcome blessing – because the process of searching, questioning, and reflecting, is a process which brings meaning to our lives and enables us to grow further as a community, as a people, in the presence of God.