Eccleasiastes and The Epic of Gilgamesh (Ecclesiastes 9)

Image result for the Epic of Gilgamesh

Illustration: The Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet ten

The longest literary composition known from Mesopotamia is The Epic of Gilgamesh, the tale of an ancient king’s failed quest for immortality. It is a very ancient work, dating to at least 2000 B.C., that follows the trials and adventures of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. The Gilgamesh Epic has come to us in more than one version (there is an Old Babylonian and a standard Assyrian version), but the message is essentially the same. A tavern-keeper’s advice to the hero, Gilgamesh, summarizes its message: In view of the impending death of all humankind, the task of mortals is to make the most of life – to eat, drink, be merry, be clean, dress radiantly, delight in one’s children and provide joy for one’s spouse (Old Babylonian version, 10.3).

Scholars have long noted the similarity of this admonition to that of “the teacher” in Ecclesiastes, whose personal wrestling with life’s meaning, transience and enigmas led him to conclude that people do well to seize the day, finding satisfaction in all that God gives (see Ecclesiastes 9:3, 7-10, 11:7-12:1). The teacher also concluded that the accumulated works that have been accomplished under the sun are essentially “meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (1:14, 2:11, 17, 26, 5:10, 16, 6:9). This outlook corresponds closely to one of Gilgamesh’s statements: “Only the gods (live) forever under the sun. As for mankind, their days are numbered; whatever they achieve is but wind!” Other parallels to Ecclesiastes found in Gilgamesh include the mention of a three-stranded cord when commenting on friendship (cf. 4:9-12) and the point that no aspect of life is permanent (1:4, 11, 2:16, 3:18-19, 9:5-6).

In view of these similarities, it appears that the author of Ecclesiastes, writing from Israel during the first millennium B.C., knew and appreciated the Gilgamesh Epic, a Mesopotamian work completed early in the second millennium B.C. Because a copied fragment of the Epic, dating to the fourteenth century B.C., was discovered in northern Israel, we know that the story of Gilgamesh was at least known in the region at an early time. It is important, however, to keep the following in mind:

  • “The teacher’s” apparent use of Gilgamesh does not diminish his canonical status. It is not uncommon for Biblical texts to follw the pattern of non-biblical counterparts, even to the point of citing them directly. For example, Deuteronomy follows the pattern of an ancient Near Eastern treaty, Paul cited a poet’s description of Crete (Titus 1:12).
  • There is no suggestion that Ecclesiastes as a whole was modelled after Gilgamesh. There are enormous differences between the two. Ecclesiastes, for example, is not an epic poem and does not tell a story.
  • Although the call to joy in Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 finds its closest ancient parallel in the Gilgamesh Epic, the wording is not exact. No scholars suggest that Ecclesiastes simply lifted lines from Gilgamesh.

The probability that the author of Ecclesiastes was familiar with the Gilgamesh Epic actually supports the traditional view of the book’s Solomonic authorship. It is doubtful that an anonymous, post-exilic Jew, living in an impoverished cultural environment (the Jerusalem of this time) would have demonstrated intimate familiarity with this very ancient Akkadian text. On the other hand, the age of Solomon constituted the high-water mark of Israel’s history, as well as its literary golden age. Akkadian was still widely spoken, and cuneiform was still in use in Solomon’s day.

Some of the concepts found in Ecclesiastes also have strong parallels in Egyptian literature. This suggests that Ecclesiastes was not simply borrowing from Gilgamesh but making use of wisdom literature from the great centres of learning in the ancient world.

Ecclesiastes and The Gilgamesh Epic wrestle with the same human question: How is one to live when life appears to make no sense? Despite the literary link between the two, they are worlds apart theologically. The Epic challenges people to enjoy life but holds out no lasting source of hope. Within Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, life’s enigmas and sorrows are tempered by the hope that endures when an individual remembers and fears God (see 5:7, 8:12, 12:1, 13-14).


 

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