It’s All About Sex

A Brief Study of Scholarly Comparisons

Between the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis 2:4b-3

Is one of the most famous biblical myths really a story about sex?

In this paper, I will discuss the use of sex as a key part of two significant creation myths – Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Fall of Man in Genesis 2-3. The stories share some striking similarities, but they also contain significant differences. In both cases, scholars see sex as something that strips away innocence, provides a measure of maturity and wisdom, and makes a person godlike.

Creation parallels

Enkidu is a secondary character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but he plays an important role; his creation occurs in the second column of the first tablet. Gilgamesh, two-thirds god and one-third man, terrorizes Uruk, and the gods urge          Aruru, his creator, to form an equally powerful figure to hold him in check. [1]

In the process, we see two parallels to the biblical creation story. Aruru “conceived in her heart an image” of the god Anu and created Enkidu from clay. [2] This compares to Genesis, in which God creates humanity “in our image” (1:26)[3] from “the dust of the ground” (2:7).

A significant difference, of course, is that humans in the biblical story are fully formed[4] and distinct from the animals. Enkidu, however, appears to be more animal than man. “His whole body is covered with hair,” and he “knows nothing about people or land.” Instead, he eats, drinks and plays with the animals.[5]

“Fall” parallels

The more interesting parallels, however, occur shortly after Enkidu’s creation. A hunter, frustrated as Enkidu helps the animals evade his traps, uses a woman to seduce him. The translations differ on what to call her. Many, including Heidel, call her a prostitute, [6] while Matthews uses “wise woman.”[7] By sleeping with Enkidu, she is to make him abhorrent to the animals.

She is spectacularly successful, as she and Enkidu have sex for six days and seven nights, and, indeed, after they are finished, the animals reject him. Enkidu has irrevocably changed; “he had intelligence, wide was his understanding.”[8]

He returns to the woman, and she tells him, “Wise art thou, O Enkidu. Like a god art thou.”[9] She teaches him how to eat and drink like a human and, most importantly, clothes him.[10]

This is strongly reminiscent of the familiar biblical text, in which the serpent tells Eve eating from the forbidden tree will make her like God (Gen. 3:5), and after she does so, she and Adam are ashamed of their nakedness and clothed by God.[11]

There are many differences; the biblical story does not involve a week of constant sex, of course, instead featuring a strong moral component in which God directly intervenes with curses for their actions (3:14-19).

Maturation process

Blenkinsopp notes the stories have a number of similarities beyond simply the surface parallels: Adam and Enkidu not only both move from unashamed nakedness to a godlike understanding that leads them naturally to require clothing, but each does so through the initiative of a woman.[12]

The biblical story obviously involves more than simply a man and a woman; it also includes the snake. Blenkinsopp sees an element of sexuality here, as well, arguing Eve claims the snake “seduced me” in 3:13 and citing Proverbs 9:17 for support of “forbidden fruit” being an innuendo for sexual activity.[13]

The use of nakedness and shame as the primary example of Adam and Eve’s shift in self-perception introduces a sexual element noticed by numerous scholars.

Gunkel sees a move from childlike innocence to adult understanding:

The knowledge and ignorance treated here concern, then, the difference between the sexes. The model for these elements is clearly the state of children who are not yet ashamed … . He understands “knowledge” as that which adults possess to a greater degree than children — insight, reason, including the knowledge of difference between the sexes.[14]

Bechtel agrees with this description of the intellectual transformation but takes it further, arguing the text “is symbolic of a critical stage of maturation” that “is critical to the socialization process” and “would be viewed positively” by the culture in which it was written.[15]

On a similar, more negative note, Gardner sees the snake as a symbol for the ancient Near Eastern goddess cults of Asherah and others, portraying the Enkidu fable and Genesis 3 as parallel stories of sexual maturation:

The goddess then was linked strongly with sexuality, and the Gilgamesh epic suggests that sexual knowledge conferred wisdom. … The result of succumbing to the snake’s entreaty was that Adam and Eve recognized that they were naked, obviously suggestive of awareness of sexuality.[16]

Gardner also casts the forbidden tree as a symbol for the goddess cult itself,[17] calling the “real crime then of Eve … turn[ing] to a deity other than Yahweh.”[18]

Van Wolde, meanwhile, agrees in part with Bechtel that sexuality’s presence in Genesis 3 has positive connotations, noting awareness of it leads to procreation.[19]

For these scholars, especially Gardner, Gilgamesh and Genesis are telling the same story, in which humanity matures from naked innocence to mature, godlike wisdom through its discovery of sexuality.

Conclusion

Scholars today are rethinking the view of Genesis’ first three chapters as a story of humanity’s “fall” from relationship with God, opting for more nuanced interpretations grounded in the symbolism and cosmology of the ancient Near East. Such symbols are found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where Enkidu’s transition from animal to man parallels Adam’s movement from innocence to shame.

Both stories seem to present a sexual element, though much more overt in Gilgamesh, with each featuring a transition from naked to clothed, from innocent to wise, from dust or clay to “like a god”/”like God.”

In recent decades, scholars have taken those similarities to another level, arguing the myths tell a similar story of sex itself bringing the protagonists a level of wisdom and understanding they did not have in the past, though they disagree on whether the myths portray these changes positively or negatively.


[1] Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Phoenix Books), 2nd ed. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1963), 18.

[2] Ibid., 18-19.

[3] All biblical quotations are from the New International Version, 1984.

[4] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Treasures Old and New: Essays in the Theology of the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 94.

[5] Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic, 19.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East, Fully rev. and expanded 3rd ed. (New York: Paulist Pr, 2007), 22-23.

[8] Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic, 21-22.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 28.

[11] Matthews and Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels, 23.

[12] Blenkinsopp, Treasures Old and New, 95.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hermann Gunkel and Mark E. Biddle, eds., Genesis (Macon, Ga.: Mercer Univ Pr, 1997), 14.

[15] Lyn M. Bechtel, “Rethinking the Interpretation of Genesis 2.4b-3.24,” in A Feminist Companion to Genesis, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield, England.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 84.

[16] Anne Gardner, “Genesis 2: 4b-3: A Mythological Paradigm of Sexual Equality or of the Religious History of Pre-exilic Israel?” Scottish Journal of Theology 43 (1990): 12-13.

[17] Ibid., 14.

[18] Ibid., 15.

[19] Ellen van Wolde, Words Become Worlds: Semantic Studies of Genesis 1-11 (Leiden: Brill Academic Pub, 1994), 8.

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2 comments on “It’s All About Sex

  1. treegestalt says:

    Two things… Have I already bothered you about joining a (hoped-for) group Bible discussion? —

    I’m in the process of transferring an old, inherited Bible study blog to wordpress.

    That’s Reading The Light Through the Pages. It was started by a Quaker but has always been open to a range of comments and contributors.

    As the last active participant from the old site, I’m going to aggressively recruit new people, likewise from a wide range, but with the understanding that

    (As in the Jewish Renewal synagogue Anne & I attended when studying at Pendle Hill) this should be open to a wide range of interpretations, and of arguments

    but biting and gouging (should this get too rowdy) will be Discouraged.

    As the title suggests, accurate criticisms are fine; but the object is to derive whatever we can of value from each passage, and each other. (Link?: http://lightthruthepages.wordpress.com/ )
    ————————–

    2nd: Fun as a sex-based interpretation can be, I don’t think that’s it.

    While “naked” is often an euphemism for “sexual” in the Bible, a more ‘spiritual’ take is possible. Something I wrote abt this story a few years ago:
    http://www.sneezingflower.blogspot.com/2006/09/quaker-renewal-part-iii-truth-of-fall.html

    • Paul says:

      Hi Tree,

      Thanks very much for the offer and for engaging with my posts on the site, but life is way too busy right now to add something else to my plate (as evidenced by my egregious failure to approve this comment or reply to any of your others). If things lighten up at some point, I’ll let you know!

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