It is not surprising that adherents of old-time religion have often been extremely suspicious of the study of biblical literature and history by secular scholars. Most notably, by subjecting the text to literary and historical analysis, those scholars argued that the “law of Moses” is in reality a patchwork of several separate documents that were composed over centuries and embody diverse attitudes and world-views.
And even Jews who might otherwise have been receptive to aspects of the “documentary hypothesis” had good reason to be disturbed by the persuasively argued thesis of the nineteenth-century German philologist Julius Wellhausen who used the theory to support his claim that the noble moral vision of the Israelite prophets degenerated during and after the Babylonian exile into a spiritless cult dominated by a priestly caste and obsessed with the mechanical observance of rituals.
In the wake of this problematic relationship between faith and secular scholarship, it was natural to expect Jews to feel hostility, or at least indifference, to the exciting discoveries in Near Eastern archeology that were taking place in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as freshly unearthed artifacts began to shed their light on the cultures of the nations that bordered on biblical Israel. Similar suspicions typified the attitudes of Christians as they found that their literal belief in the factual accuracy of their scriptures was being compromised by the evidence of the ancient stones, and especially by the texts preserved in newly deciphered cuneiform scripts.
An extraordinary case occurred in 1853 with the discovery of a set of clay tablets from the seventh century B.C.E.from the library of the Assyrian capital Nineveh, containing a saga known as the "Epic of Gilgamesh." This text recounted the adventures of the wise king Gilgamesh, of godly lineage. The popular Mesopotamian epic drew upon Sumerian prototypes, and translations and adaptations have been found in many ancient lands. Among the numerous details that invited comparisons with the Hebrew book of Genesis, the most conspicuous was its tale, recounted in the eleventh tablet, of a flood that the gods unleashed in order to destroy all humanity—with the sole exception of Gilgamesh's ancestor Utnapishtim who was instructed to build a boat to rescue himself, his household, selected companions and some animals. In the end, Mr. and Mrs. Utnapishtim were rewarded with the gift of immortality. It was the quest for that cherished secret that impelled Gilgamesh to seek him out and listen to his tale.
The first public announcement about the Epic of Gilgamesh was presented before the Society of Biblical Archaeology in 1872 in London by a scholar named George Smith, and it instantly caught the imaginations of readers throughout Europe.
The discovery was also found worthy of mention in the pioneering Hebrew weekly “Ha-Maggid” that appeared in Lyck, Prussia and was dedicated to keeping its readership informed about the most important and relevant developments in international news. The journal’s editors generally steered a moderate course between modern enlightenment and traditional Judaism. They ignored any scholarly developments that called into question the divine origin of the Torah; however they did take a lively interest in assorted archaeological finds in Israel, Egypt and Mesopotamia; and in almost every volume they included reports about them for the edification of their eastern European Jewish audience.
The report in Ha-Maggid proclaimed enthusiastically, “It is understandable that this announcement has made a very powerful impression, because it provides us with a very ancient attestation for what is written in the holy Torah—and it will stifle the mouths of those who deny its truth.” Instances such as this, it was thought, could help vindicate the demand for scientific education and worldly knowledge among Jews who were wary of secular culture.
However, it was not obvious to everybody that the Epic of Gilgamesh and the kindred literary texts that continued to appear over the coming decades necessarily provided support for traditional Judaism. Whereas pious believers might feel reassured by the fact that pagan writers were adding their testimony to the Torah’s tale of a global flood, more skeptical minds were interpreting the evidence in precisely the opposite direction: All we can say is that myths about a flood were in wide circulation among the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians, and the Hebrews were merely copying those legends from the dominant civilizations—the geographical details of the biblical story indicate its Mesopotamian provenance—adapting them slightly and incorporating them into their sacred scriptures. Viewed from the perspective of what came to be known in German as the “Bibel und Babel” school, is Israelite literature really any different from any of the other myth-loving civilizations of the age?
More recent scholarship has tended to take a more balanced approach to assessing the flood stories as they appear on Hebrew parchment and on cuneiform tablets. Although we may appreciate how the first modern readers of the Gilgamesh epic were excited primarily by its uncanny similarities to the stories in the Bible, deeper reflexion eventually resulted in an increased awareness of glaring differences between their respective world-views. Clearly, the biblical author has extensively reworked the Mesopotamian materials to express Israelite values that stand in powerful opposition to the pagan ethos.
In the pagan versions, our world is perceived as the outcome of conflicts between squabbling deities who represent diverse powers of nature and often cause collateral damage in the earthly realm. This is reflected in the background to the flood: most of the gods, led by the hostile Enlil, are determined to unleash it without giving advanced warning to any of the humans. The god Ea, however, breaks rank and alerts Utnapishtim in a dream that he should get to work constructing a boat. Afterwards, the gods themselves are alarmed by the destructive power that they have unleashed and they begin to argue about the assigning of blame for the debacle.
The Hebrew God, by contrast, is in complete control of the events, and there is no dissident supernatural power for him to contend with. Indeed, the Genesis narratives are marked by the unprecedented absence of mythical themes, a unique phenomenon among the cultures of that age.
Most significantly—unlike the biblical story in which humanity brought the disaster on themselves because of their moral perversity, the flood legend in the old Babylonian and Assyrian fragments seems to imply a motive that sounds utterly trivial: “In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamor. Enlil heard the clamor and he said to the gods in council, 'The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible on account of the din.’” What it seems to be saying is that the human race must be eliminated because their racket is interfering with the gods’ sleep!
In Genesis Noah was chosen to be saved because he was deemed righteous, whereas no real explanation is given for Ea’s decision to rescue Utnapishtim and his companions, and this detail was of no evident concern to the authors of the Mesopotamian legend. And yet precisely that question is the crucial one in the Hebrew tradition for which righteousness and wickedness are the main criteria for judging mortals.
For modern readers, these kinds of observations are far more meaningful than simplistic questions about the factual accuracy of the creation or flood narratives. They speak to core moral qualities that lie at the heart of any proper appreciation of the Torah's struggle against paganism, and Judaism's lasting impact on civilization.