Lessons from The Epic of Gilgamesh

The ancient Babylonian story The Epic of Gilgamesh occupies a well-deserved spot in the Omnibus syllabus. Our recent study of the poem gave us opportunity to examine a whole host of worldview-enriching lessons for our students.

In case you’re not familiar with Gilgamesh, Sean Higgins provided a short rundown of the story and the main characters in his own blogpost, which I’d recommend. Sean’s recurring thought throughout his reading of Gilgamesh was one of gratitude: “Thank God that our God is not like Gilgamesh.” And that ought to be where we end up – and remain – at the end of our reading. But I was impressed with a few other takeaways from Gilgamesh. I’ll off your three of them for now.

Man did not write the Bible

Gilgamesh is one of many savior stories in the canon of Western literature. The notion of one person rescuing others, being a hero, and so on resonates deeply within men…for good reason: God made it like that. He’s a really great storyteller! It is evident from the reading of Gilgamesh that the ancient Babylonians were aware of the nature of man (that is in turn reflected in the nature of their gods): he is sinful and prone to destroy himself and is in need of rescuing; he needs a savior.

And Gilgamesh is the ancient Babylonians’ idea as to what sort of a savior men need. Gilgamesh is how men would (and did!) write the story; the gospel is how God would (and did!) write the story. John MacArthur often makes the case that Scripture is its own best defense. This is most evident in the gospel. If the Bible were from the mind of man, Jesus would look and act more like Gilgamesh. But it’s not! Think about it:

Jesus is humble; Gilgamesh is proud. Jesus delayed his glory; Gilgamesh manufactured and ensured his glory. Jesus is fully God and fully man; Gilgamesh is two thirds god and one third man. Jesus endures but does not fear death; Gilgamesh fears death. Jesus endured the cross for the joy that was set before him; Gilgamesh dreaded what awaited him upon death.

Men just wouldn’t write the story the way God did!

It’s no wonder Jesus was a stumbling block

If Gilgamesh is any indication as to what ancient pagans envisioned a savior should be like (and the Jews’ apparent expectations regarding the Messiah would also be consistent with this), then they would have expected the Messiah of the Bible to be a conquering demigod-type military hero who would subdue his enemies, establish his own greatness and promote his own glory…like Gilgamesh.

Imagine their surprise when Jesus shows up in his first coming, meek, humble and wise. His humility alone would have been difficult to understand.

Make no mistake: Jesus will ultimately vanquish and destroy his enemies and liberate the captives and establish his governmental authority on the Earth. It was just not in his plan when he came the first time.

A stream will never rise above its source

The gods of ancient Babylon were amoral. That is, they had no sense of morality. They were capricious and sinful, selfish and unpredictable. They – like the natural men who gave birth to them – are driven chiefly by their own desires. We see this absence of morality again in the pantheons of Greece and Rome. It makes for an interesting mythology, but it provides little direction as to how to lead a righteous or happy life.

It is no surprise then, that Gilgamesh is amoral. How could he have a sense of morality when the gods he worshiped did not? This distinguishes the true God from the false gods of ancient Babylon and other polytheistic cultures: He is absolutely holy, good, just, powerful and yet righteous. He is not capricious, but is unchanging.

Now, this has far-reaching application, especially for any who wish to lead, to be the source of a stream. But for now, it’ll suffice to merely echo the sentiment: Thank God that God is not like Gilgamesh.