How Ancient Near East Writings Clarify Scripture

Many Ancient Near East writings have similarities to the familiar stories of the Old Testament text; the creation story of Genesis 1-2 with Mesopotamia and Enki, Noah with the Epic of Gilgamesh (text), and the Genesis account of the Tower of Babel in 11:1-9 with “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta”.  The Sumerian account that parallels the Tower of Babel is not quite as easy to see, as Gilgamesh and Noah, but it does try to explain where the many languages of the world came from.

The Ancient Near East text called the “Epic of Gilgamesh” is a story that has obvious similarities to the story of Noah in Genesis 7-8.  The epic, referred to as by some, as the “greatest piece of literature to come from Babylonia”, is the story of Gilgamesh’s meeting with Utnapishtim (referred to as the “Babylonian Noah”) who has obtained immortality by surviving a worldwide flood on a boat he built, with his family and all the animals of the world.[1]

There are numerous similarities like the call to bring aboard all the animals and the entire account of the dove and the raven.  The story and its history are important because it predates the Genesis account and many looking for ways to refute the Bible look to this story as proof. If the Gilgamesh epic predates the Noah account then, they conclude, the writer of Genesis must have taken the store from the Ancient Near East writing.

There are generally three explanations given.  The Babylonians took from the Hebrew account, the Hebrew account took from the Babylonian account, or each came from a common original historical event.  For a great in-depth study of this topic, see the thesis by Nozomi Osanai entitled A comparative study of the flood accounts in the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis.

Often, in our evangelical churches of today, these writings are never mentioned or referenced, and realistically there is probably little time on Sunday mornings to broach such a deep topic any more.  Still, there is so much to be gained from their readings.  These texts can actually clarify scripture in some cases, as well as affirm our beliefs and understanding of scripture.

The comparison of Gilgamesh and Noah is a good example.  If we follow Osanai’s examples above and conclude that each account came from a common historical event, it confirms, although perhaps not conclusively, the fact that the flood account actually happened.  This may not help or support a case like the exodus where almost all accounts of the Israelites exodus out of Egypt other than the Biblical account are seemingly extent, but that is addressed in a completely different manner scholastically.

As with many topics, this barely even scratches the surface, but is an area often missed in casual Biblical study today, for many reasons, which can yield many benefits.[2] This of course just barely scratches the surface of the question, “How Does Ancient Near East Writings Clarify Scripture” but it opens the door for future study and discussion.

[1] Arnold, B. T., & Beyer, B. E. (2002). Readings from the Ancient Near East. Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Acedemic, 66.

[2] This was an excerpt from a longer discussion on applying the Old Testament laws to our world today.  If the Mosaic Law is revelation from God, how do you explain its similarities to other ancient Near Eastern law codes? What is truly distinctive about the OT Law as revelation from God? What insights are gained from reading Hays’ article on how to apply the OT law as God’s Word today (or deal with ethical issues related to the Christian use of the Law) even though we are no longer under the Mosaic covenant (see Applying the Old Testament Law Today by J. Daniel Hays).  Read Full Text on Ancient Near East Writings post.

One response to “How Ancient Near East Writings Clarify Scripture”

  1. I just ordered a book called “Learning to Read the Jewish Bible” by Marc Z Brettler that goes through the Old Testament in the context of the culture and history of the Jewish people. I am very interested to read the relation between “historical” writings and the Bible. It’s such a fascinating subject! Great post.


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