When comparing the Sumerian tablets vs Bible tales, you will find countless similarities, but it is difficult to find every parallel because there is a wealth of source material.

Where do we start with the many Sumerian tablets and fragments that only tell us pieces of these stories?

This article will compare and contrast some Sumerian mythologies with their Biblical counterparts.

Background: How Does the Ancient Sumerians Religion Differ From the Bible?

You need to know a couple of critical points about ancient Sumer and the Sumerians’ religion before we compare their writings to the Bible:

  1. Sumerian civilization was founded around 4500 BCE. They wrote down their mythology for the first time around 2300 BCE, but the stories themselves were likely much older and orally passed down from generation to generation.
  2. Sumerian mythology is around 3,500 years older than the Bible. The first written form of the Torah or The Old Testament of the Bible was not written until somewhere between 1000 and 900 BCE.
  3. The Sumerians were polytheists. Polytheism is a belief system that worships many gods as opposed to monotheism, which is a belief system that worships only one god.

Keeping these points in mind will help us understand the context in which these stories were written. Next, we will talk about a couple of important myths about Sumerian in the Bible. For the sake of length, this article will focus specifically on the book of Genesis only, rather than the entire Bible.

Creation Myths: Gilgamesh, Ziusudra, and the Sumerian Gods

There is not a single Sumerian book of creation. What we know about the Sumerians’ ideas about the creation of the universe comes from multiple stories. Unfortunately, most surviving Sumerian literature exists today in incomplete fragments, and when we analyze them alone, many texts provoke more questions than answers.

Two significant sources give us a complete understanding of the creation story. The first of those sources is Gilgamesh and the Netherworld, also known as The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the earliest Sumerian tale, Gilgamesh is known as Bilgames, but the story is very similar to its successor.

Another source is a tablet known as The Eridu Genesis. The Eridu Genesis dates back to 2300 BCE and tells the story of the great flood. This is the same flood that is referenced in the Epic of Gilgamesh when Gilgamesh visits Utnapishtim, but the account exists in fragments, so we are still missing many details today.

Finally, many tablets talk about debate topics in Sumerian literature.

The Introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh

The first version of the Epic of Gilgamesh dates back to the third dynasty of Ur, which was around 2100 BCE, but the version we read today was translated from the Old Babylonian version, which came later.

The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of the hero Gilgamesh on his quest for eternal life. What we know about the Sumerian idea of creation comes from the introduction to this tale.

The first tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh contains the introduction. Like many surviving texts, not all of it is decipherable, but what is legible tells us about how the gods created the heavens and the earth.

First, the heavens and earth were separated. An, the sky god, carried away heaven, while Enlil, the god of the atmosphere, carried away the earth. This introduction only provides some answers.

Gilgamesh vs. Genesis

Now let’s compare this Sumerian text and the Bible. The main difference between Gilgamesh and the Bible is that Genesis is quite clear about how exactly God created Earth. Genesis explains that God created the heavens and earth in seven days. God created man on the sixth day and then rested on the seventh day.

The introduction to Gilgamesh does not tell us who created the heavens, the earth, or the universe. It similarly excludes whether or not the earth, the heavens, and the universe were completed and created all at once. Finally, the tablet does not explain who separated the heavens from the earth.

Nonetheless, here are some notable similarities between Genesis and the introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh:

  1. Before the creation of heaven and earth, there was a void. Genesis states that “the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God over the water—” (Genesis 1:2). Though not exactly the same, it implies a similar meaning to the introduction’s idea of united heaven and earth.
  2. In Genesis, God existed before the heavens and the earth. The Epic of Gilgamesh’s introduction isn’t entirely clear about the gods who existed before the separation of heaven and earth, but we know that some did exist.

The Eridu Genesis

Another one of the Sumerian scriptures that bears a resemblance to the Bible is the Eridu Genesis. The University of Pennsylvania, on an archeological expedition in Nippur, discovered the tablet in 1893.

It was named the Eridu Genesis by historian Thorkild Jacobsen. Though only some of the text on the tablet survives, it is one of the most significant discoveries from southern Mesopotamia.

The Eridu Genesis describes the first written version of the story of the Great Flood. The Great Flood described here is also described in the Epic of Gilgamesh and possibly in many other stories across cultures. The Eridu Genesis is also a precursor to the Babylonian tale of Atrahasis.

Eridu Genesis and the Great Flood

In the Sumerian version of the flood story, the gods decide to destroy human civilization. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods decide to destroy humankind because they are being too noisy while the gods are trying to sleep, but in the Eridu Genesis, they lack a clear explanation for doing so. Enlil, betraying the other gods, tells the protagonist Ziusudra of this plan and how to avoid dying in the flood.

The next part of the story is missing, but scholars believe the missing fragment includes Enlil instructing Ziusudra on building an ark. When the text continues, it describes the flood itself, which swept over the land for seven days and seven nights.

Ziusudra offers sacrifices to Utu, the sun god, before there is another gap in the text. Finally, as an apology to Ziusudra and his family, the gods grant them eternal life and a home in Dilmun, where the sun god rises.

Ziusudra vs. Noah

The story of Ziusudra and the great flood is one of the most recognizable tales of the Sumerians in the Bible. Anyone familiar with the book of Genesis knows the story of Noah’s ark, where God tells Noah that He must destroy civilization because of humankind’s wickedness. Noah builds an ark on which his wife, sons, daughters-in-law, and two of each animal on earth escape the deadly flood.

Both the Sumerians and Genesis tell a story of destruction by a flood and a hero escaping with his family, but there are a few fundamental, philosophical differences between Ziusudra and Noah:

  1. Genesis is monotheistic. Both Ziusudra and Noah are instructed by one god to build an ark and escape the flood, but the decision to destroy humanity is made by one and only one God in Genesis because Abrahamic religions believe only one God exists. Multiple gods decide to destroy the earth in the polytheistic Eridu Genesis, but only one warns Ziusudra.
  2. Noah and his family remain human. After the flood, both Ziusudra and Noah are blessed by their gods, but in very different ways. Ziusudra becomes immortal, raising his status to semi-divine. Noah and his family remain mortal.
  3. In the book of Genesis, God establishes a covenant with humankind, promising never to destroy them again. The promise that God makes to Noah sets Abrahamic religion far apart from Mesopotamian polytheism. The Mesopotamians believed that they had to constantly keep the gods happy or else they would wreak havoc upon the earth. Even with all their efforts, the gods were highly unpredictable.

The Disputations

One category of Sumerian mythology consists of numerous debates. A typical formula for a disputation story is that two gods argue over who has a more important role before a higher god, such as Ea or Enlil, decides who is correct. These debate tales often fill in small details about how the Sumerians viewed the creation of the universe, and a couple of these significant stories are similar to stories in Genesis.

The Debate Between Sheep and Grain describes the primordial hill where the gods live. An, the sky god, creates two sisters, Ashnan, the goddess of sheep, and Lahar, the goddess of grain. An creates these goddesses to clothe and feed all gods and goddesses on the primordial hill, but they realize that they do not understand how to use the sisters’ gifts, so they created man to feed and clothe the gods instead.

Later, Ashnan and Lahar fight over which sister has a more meaningful gift. The story ends with the gods Enki and Enlil intervening in the debate and declaring Ashnan the winner.

A similar story is the Debate Between Summer and Winter. The gods create Emesh, summer, for vegetation and abundance of the earth. Enten, Emesh’s brother and identified with winter, was responsible for the fertility of livestock. When the brothers fight, Enlil declares Emesh the more important of the two, and they reconcile after Enlil’s ruling.

The Debates vs. Cain and Abel

The two debates discussed above bear the most striking resemblances to the Genesis story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1 to 4:16). Like the debates, the story of Cain and Abel involves quarreling siblings, but while the debate tablets discuss relatively insignificant events, the story of Cain and Abel is among the most tragic tales in the Bible.

When God appreciates Abel’s offerings but not Cain’s, Cain becomes jealous and angry. God warns Cain not to give in to his anger, but Cain does not listen and kills his brother Abel in an envious rage. God punishes Cain by cursing him to wander ceaselessly.

Unlike the Debate Between Summer and Winter, Cain and Abel do not reconcile. It is a story that teaches us about the consequences of our actions, human fallibility, and the responsibility to care for our fellow man.

Bible vs. Sumerian Tablets in Review

As you can see, there are many parallels between the mythology of the Sumerians and the Bible.

Consult the chart below to review key comparison points between the Sumerian tablets and the Bible:

Sumerian Tablets

Book of Genesis

  1. The oldest tablet recorded dates back to around 2300 BCE, but the story is likely older.
  2. Polytheistic.
  3. Has many recorded creation stories that are often incomplete. The introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh provides some explanation of creation.
  4. The Sumerian tradition includes a Great Flood story (Eridu Genesis). Ziusudra is rewarded with eternal life.
  5. The Sumerians wrote many debate stories called “disputations.” They often involved two gods or goddesses fighting over their importance.
  1. Oldest written version dates to between 1000 and 900 BCE.
  2. Monotheistic.
  3. One creation story.
  4. Genesis includes a Great Flood story. Noah is rewarded with a promise from God never to destroy humankind again.
  5. Genesis has the story of Cain and Abel, which bears some resemblance to the Sumerian debate tablets.

It is clear that there are many similarities between the Sumerian tablets and the book of Genesis. From these similarities, we know that Sumerian mythology profoundly impacted the cultures of the ancient near-East.

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