An ancient clay tablet inscribed with a Mesopotamian flood story was returned to its rightful home in an Iraqi museum in time for Jews to read the section of the Torah describing the flood in the generation of Noah.
Returning the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet
The 3,500-year-old tablet, known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, was stolen from an Iraqi museum 30 years ago. Hobby Lobby purchased the tablet for $1.67 million, in 2014 for display in the Museum of the Bible in Washington. Five years later, Department of Homeland Security agents seized the tablet, placing it in a US Customs and Border Protection facility in Queens, New York.
A formal ceremony was held at the Smithsonian Institution on September 23 signifying that the tablet, along with about 17,000 other antiquities, will be returned to the National Museum in Baghdad. Some were already returned in July.
“By returning these illegally acquired objects, the authorities here in the United States and in Iraq are allowing the Iraqi people to reconnect with a page in their history,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.
The clay tablet measuring 5×6 inches is inscribed with a Sumerian epic poem of ancient Mesopotamia. It is written in cuneiform letters of the Akkadian language detailing a part of the Gilgamesh Epic. It tells the story of King Gilgamesh of Uruk, now in southern Iraq, who ruled sometime between 2,800 and 2,500 BCE. The Dream tablet recounts a part of the epic in which the hero describes his dreams to his mother, who interprets them as announcing the arrival of a new friend, who will become his companion.
Gilgamesh Epic and the flood
It is considered one of the world’s oldest works of epic literature. The Gilgamesh Epic is a 4,000-year-old epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia that predates the Bible and relates a story similar to the Biblical story of the flood in the time of Noah. Only a few tablets of the Gilgamesh Epic have survived. The flood story appears in the Bible and was adopted by both Christians and Muslims.
The connection to the Biblical flood story being read this week by Jews around the world this week is highly significant. In the Mesopotamian version of the story, King Gilgamesh observed that a man named Utnapishtim was immortal and inquires as to how he acquired immortality. Utnapishtim claims his immortality came as a result of his role in a global flood.
Gods from the Mesopotamian pantheon name Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, Ennugi, and Ea decided to flood the earth. They were sworn to secrecy about these plans but the god Ea repeated the plan to Utnapishtim through a reed wall in a reed house. Ea commanded Utnapishtim to demolish his house and build a boat, regardless of the cost, to keep living beings alive. Ea instructed him with precise dimensions, 120 cubits square with six decks, telling him to seal it with pitch and bitumen. He assembled craftsmen and built the ark. The boat had a rudder and punting poles to propel it.
When it was complete, a feast was held after which Utnapishtim’s entire family went aboard along with his craftsmen and “all the animals of the field”. He also loaded the boat with gold and silver.
A violent storm then arose which terrified the gods, causing them to retreat to the heavens. The female goddess, Ishtar, lamented the wholesale destruction of humanity, and the other gods wept beside her.
The storm lasted six days and nights, after which “all the human beings turned to clay”. Utnapishtim wept when he saw the destruction. His boat landed on Mount Nimush after which he released a dove, a swallow, and a raven. The dove and swallow returned but the raven failed to return and Utnapishtim opened the ark and all the passengers exited.
Utnapishtim offered a sacrifice to the gods, who smell the sweet savor and crowded around “like flies.” Ishtar vowed that just as she will never forget the brilliant necklace that hangs around her neck, she will always remember this time. When Enlil arrives, she is angry that there are survivors. Ea stands accused of leaking the plans of a flood but she countered Enlil by saying that the flood was a disproportionate punishment. Enlil repents blesses Utnapishtim and his wife, rewarding them with eternal life.
Comparing Gilgamesh to Noah
Many scholars have compared the Mesopotamian version to the Biblical account and many significant differences exist. One major difference lies in the divine motive for bringing the flood. In the Gilgamesh epic, the flood is initiated because the gods were bothered by human overpopulation, described as “the noise of mankind” that keeps the gods from sleeping. As a result, after the flood, the gods instituted measures to limit the population.
In the account of Noah, the Bible notes the increase of men. But God decided to bring the flood due to Man’s wickedness. Noah was saved due to his righteousness. After the flood, Noah and his family were instructed by God to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 9:1).
In both accounts, the human survivors bring a meat sacrifice. In the Mesopotamian account, this is to assuage the hunger of the gods. In the Biblical account, this established a covenant in which God promised never to destroy the world again through a flood. As their part of the covenant, the descendants of Noah promise to abide by the Seven Noahide Laws.
The Dream Tablet’s journey
The Dream Tablet had a long journey from Iraq to Washington D.C. It was discovered it in 1853, when a 12-tablet version was found in the ruins of the library of an Assyrian king, Assur Banipal, in northern Iraq.
An antiquities dealer purchased the tablet from a dealer in London in 2003. The dealer then sold the tablet to a buyer for $50,000 and allegedly provided a fake letter of provenance claiming its authenticity. The letter falsely claimed the tablet was legally obtained at an auction in 1981. An unnamed international auction house later sold the tablet to Hobby Lobby Stores in 2014 for more than $1.67 million for display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.
Stolen Iraqi artifacts are a serious problem as nine of the country’s 13 regional museums were looted in 1991 during the Gulf War. In April, the Museum of the Bible announced it would return 11,500 other clay seals and fragments of papyrus to the Iraqi and Egyptian governments because they did not have complete documentation and may have been looted. A year ago, the museum agreed to return 13 Egyptian papyrus fragments that were stolen from the University of Oxford. And in 2017, the federal government fined Hobby Lobby and ordered it to return thousands of cuneiform tablets and other objects that were illegally taken from war-torn Iraq and brought into the US by a United Arab Emirates-based dealer who falsely labeled the shipments as ceramic tiles.
In 2017, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3 million fine in a settlement with the Justice Department and agreed to return 11,500 objects to the governments of Iraq and Egypt.
In March, officials at the Museum of the Bible announced that all 16 of the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display that were also donated by Hobby Lobby were forgeries.