A New English Version
by Stephen Mitchell
Free Press, 2004, 304 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - January 20, 2010
Stephen Mitchell presents a new translation of the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, written around 2000 B.C.E. It is one of the oldest human documents, one with remarkable similarities to the biblical flood story, which it predates.
Gilgamesh is a king in Babylon. He is part god from his mother's side and part human from his father. He is the greatest king on earth, but he is a vicious. He insists on having sexual intercourse with all brides on their wedding nights.
The pagan gods are concerned that Gilgamesh is so powerful that they need to control his behavior, so they send him a friend Enkidu to moderate his desires and control his actions.
Enkidu is like a wild brutish animal when he is created, but he soon loses his strength and wild behavior when he has sexual intercourse with a woman. The newly moral Enkidu hears how Gilgamesh is having sexual intercourse with all brides, thinks it is disgusting and challenges Gilgamesh to a fight. Gilgamesh wins the battle, but the two, as in many modern adventure stories, become close friends.
The goddess Ishtar sees Gilgamesh and offers to become his lover. Gilgamesh, who generally sleeps with virgins, rebuffs her because she had many human lovers before him. Ishtar is outraged and decides to punish Gilgamesh by killing Enkidu.
Enkidu suffers for twelve days and dies. Gilgamesh falls apart. He stops bathing and caring for himself. He becomes obsessed with the fear of his own death. He decides that his best solution is to seek help from his ancestor Utnapishtim, who had also been a king, who was the survivor of the world-wide flood and who was granted eternal life by the gods.
What follows is Utnapishtim's version of the world-wide flood. Readers will find it interesting to compare the pagan and biblical versions.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.gefenpublishing.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes daily samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org.