By: Luis Dizon
Questions concerning life and death are prominent themes that is portrayed in much of ancient Near-Eastern literature, and many famous epics concern themselves with the attempt to pursue immortality. One of the most famous examples of this type of literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was first written down during the early second millennium B.C., and has been preserved in its most complete form in tablets dating from the seventh century B.C. that were found in the library of Ashurbanipal, the last great king of the Assyrian Empire.
The Epic of Gilgamesh centers around the loosely-connected adventures of the demigod Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu, whom he befriends after an initial fight. Together, they slay the forest guardian, Humbaba, and in another adventure also slay the bull of heaven, which was summoned by Ishtar to destroy Gilgamesh. Unfortunately for them, these actions lead to the gods decreeing that Enkidu must die. Thus he lay in sickness, regretting the turn of events and suffering increasingly until he finally died.
After mourning at length over the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh then realized that death would eventually overcome him as well, which leads him to his pursuit of immortality. Unfortunately for him, immortality twice eludes him. The first time is when Utnapishtim, the sole survivor of a great deluge and the only person that the gods ever granted immortality, challenges him to stay awake for seven nights. He is unable to accomplish this, and is thus unable to attain immortality. The second time is when Utnapishtim informs him that there is a plant growing in the bottom of the ocean, which allegedly “restores his lost youth to a man.” By a harebrained scheme he manages to retrieve the plant, only to lose it again after a serpent emerges from a pool of water and devours it. Thus Gilgamesh returns home empty-handed, having been unable to attain what he searched for, and dies like an ordinary mortal.
It is against the backdrop of these adventures that questions of life and death are explored by the Epic of Gilgamesh. As shown in the latter half of the Epic, one of the main themes that is presented is the inevitability of death and how futile it is for mortals such a Gilgamesh and Enkidu to pursue immortality. The fact that even somebody such as Gilgamesh who is two-thirds god and one-third human is incapable of attaining everlasting life by sheer effort and willpower. How much for the ordinary mortal person.
This is reflected in the Proverbs of Agur son of Jakeh, where it shows how futile human effort is, especially when compared to the power of the God, who alone possesses immortality (cf. 1 Tim 6:15-16). He states that Sheol is never satisfied (Prov 30:15-16), which indicates how death will continue to overtake humanity until the end of the age, when everything will be brought into consummation. Also, as the Proverbs state:
I have not learned wisdom, / nor have I knowledge of the Holy One. / Who has ascended to heaven and come down? / Who has gathered the wind in his fists? / Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? / Who has established all the ends of the earth? / What is his name, and what is his son’s name? / Surely you know! (Prov 30:3-4)
These verses show the inability of man to accomplish what only God can do, or claim attributes that He alone possesses. For anybody to think otherwise is to merely fall once more into the old lie of the serpent that “you will be like God” (Gen 3:5).
Thus, because of the temporary nature of life, all of the achievements, wealth and exploits of Gilgamesh will ultimately come to nothing. The prologue to the Epic of Gilgamesh points out all of the great attributes that were bestowed upon him by the gods: “He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things … When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body.” He also had wealth and prestige in the city of Uruk. However, none of this amounted to anything in the end when he faced death like every other mortal man. For this reason Agur saw past the transitory nature of wealth, and saw that obedience to Yahweh was more important than this. As he states in his proverbs:
Two things I ask of you; / deny them not to me before I die: / Remove far from me falsehood and lying; / give me neither poverty nor riches; / feed me with the food that is needful for me, / lest I be full and deny you / and say, “Who is the Lord?” / or lest I be poor and steal / and profane the name of my God (Prov 30:7-9)
Also related to this is how the gods decided to punish Gilgamesh and Enkidu for their slaying of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven by bringing death upon Enkidu. This shows the retributive nature of the justice of the gods, and how this justice sometimes came in the form of death, especially if the crime was found to be especially heinous.
Once again, this parallels how the true God Yahweh would punish the people of Israel with death and destruction if they disobeyed His voice and broke the terms of the covenant that they made through Moses. By contrast, they would have life and prosperity if they obeyed Him, although this did not stop the Israelites from becoming stubborn and rebellious towards Yahweh over the generations. The blessings and curses that come with obedience or disobedience to Yahweh are set forth in Deuteronomy. It is summarized in chapter 30 in this way:
See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them (Deu 30:15-20).
As seen in these and other similar passages, both the Old Testament (particularly Deuteronomy and Proverbs) and the Epic of Gilgamesh concern themselves with questions of life and death. Although there are similarities in some of the answers that they provide, there are significant differences as well. One of the most important differences between the two is that the Epic presents question of life and death from the worldview of polytheistic paganism, and is highly mythological in character whereas the Old Testament presents the same questions from the worldview of monotheistic Judaism, and is firmly planted in historical events. Even though there is an overlap in the material that is covered in the two literary works, it is important to keep this difference in mind when comparing and contrasting them.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated by N. K. Sandars. Rev. ed. London: Penguin Books, 1972.
 The Epic of Gilgamesh (Sandars, London: Penguin Books,1972), 8.
 Ibid., 116.
 Ibid., 61.
 Ibid., 89 ff.