The Gilgamesh Epic

Here is the quick summary of the Gilgamesh epic that I promised you last week. As you read it, think about how it compares to the garden of Eden story told in Genesis. To remind you: Genesis was written during the Iron Age, though was told (orally) much earlier. If you choose to believe it was first told/written by Moses, then the date of the Exodus was about 1446 (according to my own calculations).

(The link to my long ramble about when Moses should be dated is here:

The Story of Gilgamesh is actually an epic poem, written in Akkadian, about 2000 BCE (so before Moses). It was written in cuneiform script, which simply means it was written in wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets. A chap called George Smith was working at the British Museum in 1872, deciphering things that were stolen/bought/being kept safe (depending on your viewpoint) and he managed to translate a fragment of tablet found in the site that was once Nineveh. (You might recognise Nineveh? Story of Jonah and the whale.) Anyhow, this fragment seemed to have the story of the Genesis flood, and everyone got very excited and sent George back to try and dig up more. I think that this is when Gilgamesh was discovered.

The Story of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is the name of a king. He was pretty nasty, so the god Anu decided to create a counterpart, called Enkidu. He is created from clay (similar to Adam in Genesis story) and is made in the image of a god. Enkidu sets off to meet Gilgamesh, but is waylaid by the temptress Shamhat, and they spend a week making love. He is somehow transformed by this, and realises he needs to wear clothes. This frightens the animals (who previously had been his friends) and they run away. He goes off to meet Gilgamesh, they fight and then become friends.

They travel to a forest, which is guarded by Huwawa. They chop down trees, there is a fight, Huwawa is decapitated. The gods are angry and send a bull to punish them, but they kill that too. The gods are more angry, and decide one of the pair should die, so Enkidu is made ill, and then dies, going to ‘the house of dust.’. (There is stuff here about how the gods let him be like a god, but in the end withheld immortality from him, which also mirrors one of the themes in the Genesis story.)

Gilgamesh mourns his friend, and sets off to try and achieve immortality. The poem then has side stories of scorpion people, and lands of darkness, a beautiful garden and a ferryman. He is looking for Utnapishtim, who survived the great flood, as he holds the secret to immortality. As an aside (this story has a lot of asides) Utnapishtim survived a great flood by building a boat, and taking two of every animal inside. They floated until the boat came to rest on a mountain top.

Gilgamesh manages to find Utnapshtim, and asks how he can gain eternal life. At first, Gilgamesh is told not to sleep. He then sleeps for 7 days (not a great start!) He’s then told that he needs to acquire the plant of life (which mirrors the tree of life). He manages to get the plant, but then leaves it by a pool while he swims (as you do) and it is stolen by a snake. The poem then becomes very confusing, but I think that eventually Gilgamesh becomes both wise and immortal. Though in some versions he simply becomes content to be mortal. My Akkadian is non-existent so I can’t confirm either.

(There’s an entertaining video on Youtube if you fancy watching another quick summary of the story: )

Mesopotamian art has lots of images of Gilgamesh.

So, what are your thoughts? Remember, this epic was written before the Old Testament was written. Though if the events in the Bible are factual, they would of course have happened before Gilgamesh, so you could argue that the Bible events influenced the writer of the epic, which then potentially influenced the writers of the Old Testament. I guess there’s no way of knowing, but it’s worth thinking about, because whatever you believe, you should be able to defend the logic of it.

Next week I’ll tell you about the arguments of James Barr and Joseph Fitzpatrick, who are very convincing. They also don’t think the garden story was about ‘original sin’. Thanks for reading. Take care, and try to avoid talking snakes.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? by Ziony Zevit … A Synopsis

Hello, and how are you? I hope you enjoyed my blogs last week—I messed up and sent two by mistake (I usually keep one in hand for the next week). Too much on my mind. However, I promised you a quick review of the garden story, as told in the book by Ziony Zevit. If you want to check your English version, it’s at the front of your Bible, Genesis 3 and 4, the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.


The book is more interesting than the cover.

Zevit is a Hebrew scholar, and says the story can only be understood if you read it in Hebrew. His book is worth reading, and you don’t need to understand Hebrew to read it (but you probably do to evaluate his claims, so read it with a sceptical mind). He looks at the language used, and tries to assess what the story meant to the people who wrote it. It was told orally long before it was written down, and Biblical Hebrew is a translation of ancient Hebrew, so we can’t be sure, even when we read the Hebrew. Zevit makes some bold claims.

Firstly, he claims the story wasn’t written as a myth, but as an historically accurate event. (Of course, this doesn’t mean it was historical, only that those writing it believed it was.) He also says it overlaps a lot with the Gilgamesh Story, which would have been well-known to those reading it. You might not be familiar with Gilgamesh, so I’ll give you a quick summary next week—but Zevit is right, lots of it is very like the Genesis story (and it was written first).

Zevit makes some interesting translation choices. The one which has earned him a not-too-flattering nickname is his claim that Eve was not made from Adam’s rib, but from his penis. His evidence for this is the Hebrew word used means ‘side’ in most other places, and that Hebrew writing of this time used various euphemisms for body parts and this is just another example. He also notes that humans are the only species which don’t have a bone there, as it works on hydraulics (and he provides drawings of skeletons to prove it). Whilst it’s an interesting view, I think it’s bit speculative (and slightly weird). It’s true that the Hebrew doesn’t mean ‘rib’ and ‘side’ would be a closer translation (and every scholar I’ve read agrees with that). But I don’t think he’s correct on the rest of it.

Another point he makes is that humans were created mortal—in other words, they were always intended to die. I have heard lots of sermons (especially at funeral services) that say death is a result of sin, and not what was intended, but I think Zevit is right here. The story seems reasonably clear that humans were created with the intention to die when old. Otherwise the world would become too full (because reproduction also seems to have been intended) and why would ‘the tree of life’ have been created if people already lived forever? The Old Testament doesn’t see death as a bad thing, it talks a lot about people living to a good old age, and ‘going to sleep’ and joining their ancestors.

He also says that the idea of idle paradise is not what the story is about. The humans were created to work in the garden—first Adam, and then the woman to help him. (Please note, the word used to describe Eve as a ‘helper’ does not imply Adam was the boss! It’s the same word used many times in the Old Testament to describe God helping people, and if anything it implies a stronger being helping a weaker being. But we won’t go there.)

The most dramatic (for me) of Zevit’s claims is that the humans did not sin, and they were not punished. The language used to describe the command given to Adam (before Eve was made) was, Zevit claims, more of an ‘aside’ than a specific command. The main command was to eat from every tree, followed by, “Oh, but don’t eat from the tree of knowledge.” He sees the story as a ‘coming of age’ story, whereby humans gained knowledge, and this resulted in them becoming aware of certain things, which increased their discomfort. If you don’t know childbirth is painful, then you don’t fear it and it’s less painful.

I think some of his points are true, and I’ll discuss them in a later blog. Scholars such as James Barr and Joseph Fitzpatrick have similar beliefs and I found them more reliable. Certainly some of Zevit’s points are true—the woman was not cursed (a point worth making as I have heard the pain of childbirth described as a curse). He also makes the point that the words used about Cain being born, are pluperfect, so Eve ‘had previously given birth,’ before they ate the fruit. This ties in with Adam naming her ‘Eve’ and calling her ‘the mother of all living beings’ because that would make no sense if she hadn’t yet had a child. Only the snake and the ground were cursed, the people were simply told things would be harder for them. There is no evidence of anger in the story, nor do words akin to ‘punishment’ appear.

Of course, if you decide Zevit is correct, and the garden story is not primarily about sin, then Augustine’s notion of ‘original sin’ (which I mentioned last week) would need to be re-examined. But you need more information before you can do that. Next week I’ll tell you the Gilgamesh story—it’s bit weird (but possibly not more weird than a talking snake).

Have a good week, and take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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Bible Blog 2

I continued my read through the Bible. I’ve started adding notes to the margins, so I don’t forget things as I discover them. It makes it scruffy, but I’ve always thought that it’s the content of the Bible that’s important, not the physical book. (Unlike some other religions, where the book itself is holy – I know for example the Jews will not even touch the Torah with their hand, and use a gold pointer to follow the words.) Not sure if I’m right on this – let me know if you have an opinion, I’m interested.

I read the stories in Genesis about Jacob and his wives. Was rather interesting to read that his father, Isaac, didn’t much like his daughter-in-law, Judith. It’s funny when you read about relationships hundreds of years ago that mirror modern day ones – people really have not changed very much.

I read the part about Jacob’s two wives vying to have babies, and there was a story about Rebekah asking Leah (who was cross-eyed) for some mandrake. What is a mandrake? I thought it was an imaginary plant from the Harry Potter books! Apparently, it exists in real life too, is the size of a small apple and has a lovely aroma and narcotic properties (it’s related to the belladonna, deadly nightshade, plant.) It was also thought to increase fertility. Which makes you wonder if Rebekah was covering the odds, she’d asked God for a baby, now she was trying to improve the situation herself – first by eating dodgy plants, and secondly by giving her servant as a womb substitute. I guess sometimes we do that too. Not the dodgy plant bit (well, you might, I’ve never gone that route). Nor the offering a servant as an available womb. But the covering our odds bit. Do I sometimes ask God about something and then worry about it and look for other avenues? A bit like the teenager asking God for help with study and then wearing his ‘lucky socks’ to the exam, just in case.

The thing is, all these characters seem very flawed. I don’t think I would like them much. They deceived each other, looked for ways to get what they wanted and pretty much ignored God. But God used them anyway, he didn’t change his plans, even when they tried to sidestep him, even when they got it wrong. God had decided to work through them, so he did, even though they proved many times that they weren’t good enough. I find that reassuring.

There are more lists of names. Chapter 36 of Genesis is weird, because there’s a list of names, and in the middle is a mention of Anah, who found the hot springs in the desert while pasturing his Dad’s donkeys. Why??? I tried to research this, and found a few opinions about whether ‘donkeys’ represented stubborn people or if ‘hot springs’ is the best translation, but it felt like people were just trying to be clever and actually no one knows why this is included. I suspect as I read on, there will be several texts that I’ll put in the ‘don’t understand’ box, some bits are just odd. I guess the decision we all have to make is, does not understanding part of something make the whole thing irrelevant? I don’t think so. I don’t understand lots of things – like how gravity really works, or why if space is a vacuum we’re not all sucked up into it, or how a bulb knows when to start growing – but the bits I do understand are still useful.

I have read to the end of Genesis now. Whilst some of it was weird, it was interesting. I have a feeling some of the next books might be rather heavy going.

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Thanks for reading


Bible Blog

I’ve decided to read through the Bible. I have, since childhood, read various parts of the Bible many times, but I have never read through it, beginning to end. So I thought it was time that I did. I don’t have ‘a system’ – I’m not that sort of person. I’m just going to read, in order, from beginning to end, as time/enthusiasm allows.

I will try to post each Sunday a short update about how I’m getting on. Partly to motivate myself, and partly because you might be interested. (If you’re not, you can just skip the blogs headed Bible Blog each week – I will still continue to post my newsy, family, travel blogs every Monday.) I’ll be honest about what I read and think, I won’t just regurgitate churchy views.

April 30th

I started at the beginning (which is actually, NOT a good place to start if reading the Bible for the first time! Better to begin in the New Testament, with Mark’s book.) Here are my thoughts/ramblings thus far:

There are two different stories about creation. I have studied these before, when teaching RS, so could really write a whole blog on them alone. However, my only comment here is I think it’s important to remember what question they are answering – they are not explaining HOW God made the world, they are explaining WHO and WHY. I think they are pictures, illustrating ideas, clearly showing that God was the creator. They were told at a time when there were lots of stories from the Babylonians, about dragons using things to create the world, so the point about God creating it from nothing, using just his word, is important. Personally, I don’t think it’s meant to be taken literally. Things like plants being created before light just seem too illogical.

Having said that, the first bit of Genesis is still weird. It is full of pictures and giants and strangeness. It is, on first glance, every bit as unbelievable as the myths that other cultures and religions have about how the world began. I think to understand it properly, you need to do further reading. One excellent book (I think) is Creation or Evolution, do we have to choose?

After creation comes the flood. Most old cultures have a flood story, which is interesting – who knows, perhaps it really did happen. Certainly the instructions for building the ark (about the size of a multi-storey carpark) are detailed, if not especially interesting. After the flood, there’s a story about Noah getting drunk and his son having sex with him (they didn’t cover that little gem in Sunday School when I was a kid!)

There are many lists of genealogies. No idea why, they don’t make for an interesting read. However, recently I watched “The Good Lie”, about children being rescued in Sudan. One clip showed the children reciting all their ancestors. Perhaps in some cultures it’s important.

Next are the stories about Abram, Lot, Isaac. These seem more historically factual, they read like real events about actual people. One part that interested me was when Abraham plants a tamarisk tree. I did some research into what this was. It’s a tree that’s very unusual because it puts down very deep roots, and so can reach deep water tables. It uses a lot of water, so starves the surrounding soil of moisture, so other plants cannot grow near it. It also is able to take up salt, which it expels as a salty layer on its leaves. When they fall, this makes the soil salty, which again means no other plants can grow near it. So, it is a lonely tree, very different to other plants and not able to mix with them. It was introduced to the western states of America, where it flourished and is now seen as a pest, but hard to kill due to its deep roots. Now, Abraham is seen as ‘the father of the Jews’. It seems to me that the tamarisk tree makes a good metaphor for how the world views the Jewish race.

Another story I found interesting was the one where Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for his son. He feels that he wants his son to marry from his own people, so makes a plan. However, he also has a backup plan, he tells the servant to come home without a woman if she isn’t willing to go with him. So, he was doing what he thought God wanted, but if he was wrong, he had made a decision about what to do instead. He hoped he was right, that he was following God’s plan, but he didn’t assume it. Of course, when the servant did find the wife, Rebekah, it all proved to be what God wanted. But I found it interesting that Abraham didn’t know that for sure, he was just doing his best, doing what he thought was right. Which sometimes, is all that we can do.


Thanks for reading. I’ll let you know how I get on in the next week.

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