Parallels between the Garden of Eden and the Sacred Cedar Forest
What do the Book of Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh have in common? Surprisingly, a lot.
Chapters 1–11 of Genesis reached their final form during the eighth–fifth centuries BC when the peoples of Judah were in sustained contact with Mesopotamian polities. And for this reason, Genesis 1–11 shares with the Epic of Gilgamesh stories of wily serpents, demigods, a catastrophic flood, supernatural plants, and herculean feats of engineering. Moreover, an unprovenanced cuneiform tablet from Kurdish Iraq published in 2014 adds one more commonality: an edenic divine abode desecrated by humans.[i]
Parallels Between the Garden of Eden and the Sacred Cedar Forest
In the first half of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero Gilgamesh is introduced as being full of potential but reckless in his rule over the city of Uruk. As a result, the gods create a rival for him, Enkidu, to distract the king and curtail his abuses of power. After Enkidu is awakened to the human experience by a week-long sexual encounter with a divine female seductress, he is introduced to Gilgamesh, and the two embark upon a quest to a sacred Cedar Forest. The first half of the epic, then, culminates in the story of the Cedar Forest, where Gilgamesh and Enkidu arrive in awe of its sanctity and abundance—only to transgress by killing its monstrous guardian, Humbaba, and his “sons.”
Our understanding of the Cedar Forest was significantly enhanced in 2014 by the publication of an unprovenanced cuneiform tablet (acquired by the Sulaymaniya Museum in Kurdish Iraq) that filled in previously lost portions of the epic. In this tablet, dozens of unknown lines recount vivid descriptions of the Cedar Forest and the dramatic events that transpired therein. Moreover, these lines share similarities with Genesis 2–3.
In Genesis 2–3, the man and woman are placed in a divine garden only to desecrate it and invite the curse of God on the ground, serpent, and all wild beasts (Genesis 3:14, 17). Also, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh and Enkidu enter the Cedar Forest, only to transgress against this divine abode and thereby desecrate it and the creatures within.
When Gilgamesh and Enkidu arrive at the Cedar Forest, it is described as “the gods’ dwelling place, the goddesses’ exalted abode” (Tablet V:7). It is described as idyllic, lavishly appointed, luxuriant, even edenic. The forest’s undisturbed splendor is conveyed by the array of animal sounds, at times described using alliterations and assonance (V:17, iṣṣūru iṣṣanbur, “ceaselessly atwitter;” V:18, iḫabbubu rigmu, “reverberating chitter(s);” V:22, riq raqraqqu “with the clatter of the stork”) that make the Akkadian poetry sound as though it sings:
They stood in awe at the Forest,
Staring at the heights of the cedars,
Staring at the entrance to the Forest.
A path was worn where Humbaba came and went,
The way was made ready, and the road was accommodating.
They were looking at the Cedar Mountain,
the gods’ dwelling place, the goddesses’ exalted abode,
The cedar raises its luxuriant (boughs) over the face of the land(scape),
Its shade was inviting, altogether pleasing.
(With) entangled thorns, an entwined canopy,
There was no way (amidst) the [densely packed] cedars (and) ballukku-trees.
There were cedar saplings as far as the eye could see,
Cypresses [seedlings?] almost as far.
For one hundred (feet) high, the cedar was covered with knots,
Resin [dripped down] like drops of rain,
Streaming away in channels.
Bird(s) were ceaselessly atwitter throughout the Forest:
[x x x] were echoing back and forth, reverberating chitter(s).
[x x x] the zizānu-cicada(s) modulating a cry,
[x x x] were always singing, belting out [x x x]
The wood pigeon was [co]oing, the turtle dove replying.
With the [clatter?] of the stork, the forest revels,
The forest brims with joy [at the cackle of] the chukar.
Female monkeys shout, young monkeys whoop:
like an ensemble of singers and percussionists,
All day long, they rumbled in the presence of Humbaba.
At the same time, the revelry of birds such as the stork (raqraqqu) and chukar (tarlugallu), while fitting for an idyllic place known as the gods’ dwelling place, also serves as omens. In Mesopotamian literature, birds are often presented as carriers of divine messages. Birds not only travel between heaven and earth as they fly, but certain birds had calls that could be understood in human (i.e., Akkadian) words. And in Mesopotamian texts, the call of the stork and the chukar, in particular, were known to be cautionary. For example, the clattering beaks of the stork exclaimed, “Go away, go away” (rīqa, rīqa), and the chukar warned, “You have sinned” (taḫtaṭa). The menacing soundscape of stork and chukar anticipates Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s desecration of the Cedar Forest by violently killing its guardian and his bird-like younglings and hacking down “a lofty cedar, whose top reached to heaven.”
The ominous literary motif of birds is already hinted at in an Old Babylonian version of the epic, where Gilgamesh and Enkidu enter the Cedar Forest only to kill Humbaba’s seven “sons,” or “radiances,” as if they were baby birds:
(Gilgamesh said to him, to Enkidu:)
“It is now, my friend, that we must secure victory …!”
Enkidu responded to him, to Gilgamesh:
“My friend, trap the bird, then where will its hatchlings go?
We should look for (his) radiances later,
When the chicks wander about in the Forest.”
(Old Babyolonian Ishchali 10, 14–17)
The new tablet makes clear that the inauspicious signs of the stork and chukar were realized in the killing of Humbaba’s seven “sons.” It delineates the names of Humbaba’s “sons,” which evoke the sounds of the winged creatures that first appeared at the entrance to the Cedar Forest: Cicada, Screecher, Rumbler, Screamer, Whining, etc. (V:308). The discordant noises used to designate Humbaba’s “sons” serve as the narrative’s judgment against Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s violent desecration of the Cedar Forest and its creatures. In fact, after killing Humbaba and his “sons,” Enkidu worries out loud to Gilgamesh about what they have done, saying, “My friend, we have made the Forest a wasteland!” (V:303). [ii]
Both the Book of Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh describe a paradise that is beautiful and bountiful—but then lost. And, in both texts, humans’ short stay in a divine abode carries serious consequences. By eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, humans come to experience death. By cutting down the lofty cedar and killing Humbaba and his younglings, Gilgamesh and Enkidu destroy paradise, and eventually, Enkidu pays for this transgression with his life. The texts then grapple with how to live in the resultant world of death, pain, and discord.
Adam E. Miglio is Associate Professor of Archaeology and Director of the Graduate Studies Program for Archaeology at Wheaton College in Illinois. He is an expert on Akkadian texts from Mari, and he has excavated in Kurdish Iraq, Turkey, and Israel-Palestine. He is also the author of The Gilgamesh Epic in Genesis 1–11: Peering into the Deep (2023).
[i] F.N.H. Al-Rawi and Andrew R. George, “Back to the Cedar Forest: The Beginning and End of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 66 (2014), pp. 69–90.
[ii] Adam E. Miglio, The Gilgamesh Epic in Genesis 1–11: Peering into the Deep (New York: Routledge, 2023).
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