Ecclesiastes 9 – A Common Destiny for All & Ecclesiastes and The Epic of Gilgamesh

Solomon believes in enjoying life as God’s gift. The world is finite, and sin has twisted life, making it something other than what God intended. Society honors many things above wisdom such as attractiveness, wealth, popularity, and success. Solomon believed that wisdom is the greatest asset even though it often goes unrecognized.

Cuneiform text that lasted as the dominate written language for several thousand years. How was Sumerian cuneiform language deciphered? The key was the Akkadians as the following script (Sacred Text) testifies;
First, the linguistic difficulties. Sumerian is neither a Semitic nor an Indo-European language.

It belongs to the so-called agglutinative type of languages exemplified by Turkish, Hungarian, and Finnish.

None of these languages, however, seems to have any closer affiliation to Sumerian, and the latter, therefore, as yet stands alone and unrelated to any known language living or dead.

Its decipherment, therefore, would have been an impossible task, were it not for the fortunate fact already mentioned that the Semitic conquerors of Sumer not only adapted its script to their own Semitic tongue, but also retained it as their literary and religious language.

As a consequence, the scribal schools in Babylonia and Assyria made the study of Sumerian their basic discipline.

They therefore compiled what may be described as bilingual syllabaries or dictionaries in which the Sumerian words or phrases were translated into their own language, Accadian.

In addition they also drew up interlinears of the Sumerian literary compositions in which each Sumerian line is followed by its Accadian translation.

Accadian, being a Semitic tongue related to numerous known languages, was deciphered relatively early.

And so these bilinguals became the basic material for the decipherment of Sumerian, for by comparing the known Accadian word or phrase with the corresponding Sumerian, the meaning of the latter could be deduced.

1 For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this, that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: no man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them. 

2 All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.

3 This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

4 For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.

5 For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

6 Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion forever in anything that is done under the sun.

7 Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.

8 Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.

9 Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labor which thou takest under the sun.

10 Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

11 I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

12 For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them. 

The AkkadianLanguage
Further to the North, along the Euphrates were the Akkadians, who were of the first ethnic group called Semitics.

They had their own language, but not their own written language, so they just used, or borrowed the Sumerian written language.

In many ways the Sumerian cuneiform text was unsuited for the Akkadian language, but served the region for several thousand years.

The Akkadian language was the very first in a long line of language development that would much latter be called Hebrew.

After both of these ethic peoples disappeared the Babylonians and Assyrians took center stage in the Fertile Crescent.

This was the fertile land marked in green on the map which formed a natural crescent shape.

Both Babylon and Assyria spoke the same language, one step removed from the ancient Akkadian’s Hebrew.

The Babylonians and the Assyrians were also basically a Semitic people.

The capital of Assyria was Nineveh on the upper Tigris, while Babylon was on the Euphrates.

The Assyrians and Babylonians did something quite unique in history.

After defeating their opponents in war, they would often force that entire nation with all it’s people to migrate to a new distant land.

Basically vacating the entire region.

Their reason for doing this was very effective.

It stopped rebellions.

Once a people are moved to a new land they are forced to raise crops and build shelters, not raise rebellions.

The Assyrians were the first to have a professional army, using road systems and base camps to control their empire.

Their most daunting weapon was their war chariot, and it was’t until the Greeks, that infantry was able to successfully stop the chariot.

The last of the Semitic people were those that lived in the land of Canaan.

Their language was another step closer to today’s Hebrew, and with a lot of help someone today who understands Hebrew, would with some degree of difficulty, make out what a man from ancient Canaan would be saying.

13 This wisdom have I seen also under the sun, and it seemed great unto me:

14 There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it:

15 Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man.

16 Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard.

17 The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools.

18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.

Ecclesiastes and The Epic of Gilgamesh

The longest literary composition known from Mesopotamia is the Epic of Gilgamesh, the tale of an ancient king’s failed quest for immortality.  It is a very ancient work, dating to at least 2000 B.C., that follows the trials and adventures of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk.

The Gilgamesh Epic has come to us in a more than one version (there is an Old Babylonian and a standard Assyrian version), but the message is essentially the same.

A tavern-keeper’s advice to the hero, Gilgamesh, summarizes its message: In view of the impending death of all humankind, the task of mortals is to make the most of life:

The Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem from Mesopotamia, is considered the world’s first truly great work of literature.

The literary history of Gilgamesh begins with five Sumerian poems about ‘Bilgamesh’ (Sumerian for ‘Gilgamesh’), king of Uruk.

These independent stories were used as source material for a combined epic.

The first surviving version of this combined epic, known as the “Old Babylonian” version, dates to the 18th century B.C. and is titled after its incipit,

Shūtur eli sharrī (“Surpassing All Other Kings”).

Only a few tablets of it have survived. The later “Standard” version dates from the 13th to the 10th centuries B.

C. and bears the incipit Sha naqba īmuru (“He who Saw the Deep”, in modern terms: ‘He who Sees the Unknown).

Approximately two thirds of this longer, twelve-tablet version have been recovered.

Some of the best copies were discovered in the library ruins of the 7th-century B.C. Assyrian king Ashurbanipal.

The first half of the story discusses Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to stop him oppressing the people of Uruk.

After an initial fight, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become close friends.

Together, they journey to the Cedar Mountain and defeat Humbaba, its monstrous guardian. Later they kill the Bull of Heaven, which the goddess Ishtar sends to punish Gilgamesh for spurning her advances.

As a punishment for these actions, the gods sentence Enkidu to death.

In the second half of the epic, Gilgamesh’s distress at Enkidu’s death causes him to undertake a long and perilous journey to discover the secret of eternal life.

He eventually learns that “Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands”.

However, because of his great building projects, his account of Siduri’s advice, and what the immortal man Utnapishtim told him about the Great Flood,

Gilgamesh’s fame survived his death. His story has been translated into many languages, and in recent years has featured in works of popular fiction.

To eat, drink, be merry, be clean, dress radiantly, delight in one’s children and provide joy for one’s spouse (Old Babylonian).

Scholars have long noted the similarity of this admonition to that of the “Teacher” in Ecclesiastes, whose personal wrestling with life’s meaning, transience and enigmas led him to conclude that people do well to seize the day, finding satisfaction in all that God gives (Ecc 9:3, 7-10, 11:7-12:1).

The Teacher also concluded that the accumulated works that have been accomplished under the sun of essentially “meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecc 1:14, 2:11, 17, 26; 5:10, 16; 6:9).

The outlook corresponds closely to one of Gilgamesh’s statements: Only the gods live forever under the sun.  as for mankind, their days are numbered; whatever they achieve is but wind!”

Other parallels to Ecclesiastes found in Gilgamesh include the mention of a three-stranded cord when commenting on friendship (cf Ecc 4:9-12) and the point that no aspect of life is permanent (Ecc 1:4, 11: 2:16; 3:18-19; 9:5-6).

In view of these similarities, it appears that the author of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, writing from Israel during the first millennium B.C., knew and appreciated the Gilgamesh Epic, a Mesopotamian work completed early in the second millennium B.C.  Because a copied fragment on the Epic, dating to the 14th century B.C., was discovered in northern Israel, we know that the story of Gilgamesh was at least known in the region at an early time.  It is important to keep the following in mind:

The “Teacher’s” apparent use of Gilgamesh does not diminish his book’s canonical status.  It’s not uncommon for Biblical texts to follow the pattern of non-biblical counterparts, even to the point of citing them directly.  For example, Deuteronomy follows the pattern of an ancient Near Eastern treaty and the Apostle Paul cited a poets description of Crete (Tit 1:12).

There is no suggestion that Ecclesiastes as a whole was modeled after Gilgamesh.  There are enormous differences between the two.  Ecclesiastes, for example, is not an epic poem and doesn’t tell a story. 

Although the call to joy in Ecc 9:7-10 finds its closest and ancient parallel in the Gilgamesh Epic, the wording isn’t exact.  No scholars suggest that Ecclesiastes simply lifted times from Gilgamesh.

Who is Gilgamesh?
Gilgamesh is a mesopotamian hero who was obsessed with the concept of mortality and his own death.

Gilgamesh was the king of the Mesopotamian city-state Uruk (also called Erech in the bible) which some people believe the modern name Iraq came from, which is where the ancient city-state existed.

Gilgamesh was also most likely the king who constructed the 6 mile long wall that surrounded Uruk.

Unlike the Iliad and Odyssey, which focused on the mythical heroes Achilles and Odysseus respectively, the Epic of Gilgamesh seems to be based on an actual historical figure who existed some time around the middle of the 26th century bce. Although no historical evidence for the events recorded in the epic exist, records of the king Gilgamesh are recorded by multiple sources including a Sumerian list of kings that reigned when we believe Gilgamesh lived.

So, now we know that the Epic of Gilgamesh is a long narrative poem about an ancient Mesopotamian King, Gilgamesh, who actually ruled some time around the 25th century B.C. and we can talk a bit about why the Epic of Gilgamesh is important to read.

The probability that the author of Ecclesiastes was familiar with Gilgamesh actually supports the traditional view of the book’s Solomonic authorship.  It’s doubtful that an anonymous, postexilic Jew, living in an impoverished cultural environment (the Jerusalem of this time) would have demonstrated intimate familiarity with this very ancient Akkadian text.

On the other hand, the age of Solomon constituted the high-water mark of Israel’s history, as well as its literary golden age.  Akkadian was still widely spoken, and cuneiform was still in use in Solomon’s day.

Some of the concepts found in Ecclesiastes also have strong parallels in Egyptian literature.  This suggests that Ecclesiastes wasn’t simply borrowing from Gilgamesh but making use of wisdom literature from the great centers of learning in the ancient world.

Ecclesiastes and the Gilgamesh Epic wrestle with the same human question: How is one to live when life appears to make no sense?  Despite the literary link between the two, they are worlds apart theologically.  The Epic challenges people to enjoy life but holds out no lasting source of hope.  Within Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, life’s enigmas and sorrows are tempered by the hope that endures when an individual remembers and fears God (Ecc 5:7; 8:12; 12:1, 13-14).