Jewish mythology is a major literary element of the body of folklore found in the sacred texts and in traditional narratives that help explain and symbolize Jewish culture and Judaism. Elements of Jewish mythology have had a profound influence on Christian mythology and on Islamic mythology, as well as on world culture in general. Christian mythology directly inherited many of the narratives from the Jewish people, sharing in common the narratives from the Old Testament. Islamic mythology also shares many of the same stories; for instance, a creation-account spaced out over six periods, the legend of Abraham, the stories of Moses and the Israelites, and many more.
See also: Origin myth, national myth, and noble lie § Religious context
Jewish mythology contains similarities to the myths of other Middle Eastern cultures. The ancient Hebrews often participated in the religious practices of their neighbors, worshiping other gods alongside Yahweh. These pagan religions were forms of nature worship: their deities personified natural phenomena like storms and fertility. Because of its nature worship, Mircea Eliade argues, Near Eastern paganism expressed itself in “rich and dramatic mythologies” featuring “strong and dynamic gods” and “orgiastic divinities”.
The writings of the Biblical prophets, including Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, express a concept of the divine that is distinct from the mythologies of its neighbors. Instead of seeing the God of Israel as just one national god, these writings describe Yahweh as the one God of the entire universe.
The prophetic writings condemned Hebrew participation in nature worship, and did not completely identify the divine with natural forces. In so doing, they set the stage for a new kind of mythology — a mythology featuring a single God who exists beyond the natural world. Unlike Tammuz, who dies and revives along with the vegetation, the God of the Hebrew prophets exists beyond nature and, therefore, isn’t bound by the natural rhythms, as Armstrong noted: “Where the Babylonian gods were engaged in an ongoing battle against the forces of chaos, and needed the rituals of the New Year festival to restore their energies, Yahweh can simply rest on the seventh day, his work complete.”
Through the prophets’ influence, Jewish mythology increasingly portrayed God as aloof from nature and acting independently of natural forces. On one hand, this produced a mythology that was, in a sense, more complex. Instead of eternally repeating a seasonal cycle of acts, Yahweh stood outside nature and intervened in it, producing new, historically unprecedented events; Eliade wrote: “That was theophany of a new type, hitherto unknown—the intervention of Jahveh in history. It was therefore something irreversible and unrepeatable. The fall of Jerusalem does not repeat the fall of Samaria: the ruin of Jerusalem presents a new historic theophany, another ‘wrath’ of Jahveh. […] Jahveh stands out from the world of abstractions, of symbols and generalities; he acts in history and enters into relations with actual historical beings.”
On the other hand, this transcendent God was absolutely unique and hard for humans to relate to. Thus, the myths surrounding Yahweh were, in a sense, less complex: they did not involve the acts of multiple, anthropomorphic gods. In this sense, “Jahveh is surrounded by no multiple and varied myths”, and did not share in the “rich and dramatic mythologies” of his pagan counterparts.
The Hebrew prophets had to struggle against the nature gods’ popularity, and Jewish mythology reflects this struggle. Karen Armstrong sees the creation myth of Genesis 1 as being something composed to do just this — “as a poised, calm polemic against the old belligerent cosmogonies”, particularly the Babylonian cosmogonic myth. The Babylonian Enûma Eliš describes the god Marduk earning kingship over the other gods, battling the monster Tiamat, and creating the world from her corpse. In contrast, Armstrong argues, in the Genesis account (and in the book of Isaiah that describe Yahweh’s victory over the sea-monster Leviathan); she writes: “the sun, moon, stars, sky and earth are not gods in their own right, hostile to Yahweh. They are subservient to him, and created for a purely practical end. The sea-monster is no Tiamat, but is God’s creature and does his bidding.” Armstrong also notes that in Psalm 82, Yahweh stands up in the Divine Council and condemns the pagan deities, saying that although they are gods, they will die like mortals.
Themes and narratives
See also: Genesis creation narrative
Two creation stories are found in the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. In the first Elohim, the Hebrew generic word for God, creates the heavens and the earth in six days, then rests on, blesses and sanctifies the seventh. In the second story, God, now referred to by the personal name Yahweh, creates Adam, the first man, from dust and places him in the Garden of Eden, where he is given dominion over the animals. Eve, the first woman, is created from Adam and as his companion. God creates by spoken command and names the elements of the world as he creates them.
Genesis 1:1–2:3 creation order:
- Day 1 – Creation of light (and, by implication, time).
- Day 2 – The firmament. In Genesis 1:17 the stars are set in the firmament.
- Day 3 – Creating a ring of ocean surrounding a single circular continent. God does not create or make trees and plants, but instead commands the earth to produce them.
- Day 4 – God puts “lights” in the firmament to “rule over” the day and the night, referring to the “sun” and “moon”.
- Day 5 – Creation of the living creatures.
- Day 6 – Creation of first man and woman.
- Day 7 – Creation is followed by rest.
In the second story (Genesis 2:4–2:25) the order is different; God created man, the Garden of Eden and planted trees, the living creatures and then the first woman.
The “combat myth”
Main article: Satan
Even the Exodus story shows combat-myth influence. McGinn believes the “Song of the sea”, which the Hebrews sang after seeing God drown the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, includes “motifs and language from the combat myth used to emphasize the importance of the foundational event in Israel’s religious identity: the crossing of the Red Sea and deliverance from the Pharaoh”. Likewise, Armstrong notes the similarity between pagan myths in which gods “split the sea in half when they created the world” and the story of the Exodus from Egypt, in which Moses splits the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea) — “though what is being brought into being in the Exodus, is not a cosmos but a people”. In any case, the motif of God as the “divine warrior” fighting on Israel’s behalf is clearly evident in the Song of the Sea (Ex. 15). This motif recur in poetry throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (I Samuel 2; Zechariah 9:11-16;14:3-8).
Some comparative mythologists think Jewish mythology absorbed elements from pagan mythology. According to these scholars, even while resisting pagan worship, the Jews willingly absorbed elements of pagan mythology.
Adam and Eve
Main article: Adam and Eve
According to the creation narratives in Genesis, Adam and Eve were the first man and woman. In the Book of Genesis of the Hebrew Bible, chapters one through five, there are two creation narratives with two distinct perspectives. In the first, Adam and Eve (though not referenced by name) were created together in God’s image and jointly given instructions to multiply and to be stewards over everything else that God had made. In the second narrative, God fashions Adam from dust and places him in the Garden of Eden where he is to have dominion over the plants and animals. God places a tree in the garden which he prohibits Adam from eating the fruit of. Eve is later created from one of Adam’s ribs to be Adam’s companion.
Garden of Eden
The story of the Garden of Eden makes theological use of mythological themes to explain human progression from a state of innocence and bliss to the present human condition of knowledge of sin, misery, and death.
Joseph Campbell notes that the Garden of Eden narrative’s forbidden tree is an example of a motif “very popular in fairy tales, known to folklore students as the One Forbidden Thing”. For another example of the One Forbidden Thing, see the Serbian fairy tale Bash Chelik, in which the hero is forbidden to open a certain door but he does anyway, thereby releasing the villain. Also see the classic story of Pandora’s box in ancient Greek mythology.
Sodom and Gomorrah
Main article: Sodom and Gomorrah
The story of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah is told in Genesis 18–19. Three men came to Abraham in the plains of Mamre. After the angels received the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, “the Lord” revealed to Abraham that he would confirm what he had heard against Sodom and Gomorrah, “and because their sin is very grievous”. At this time, “the men of Sodom [were] wicked and sinners before the LORD exceedingly”. Sodom was ruled by King Bera while Gomorrah was ruled by King Birsha.
In response, Abraham inquired of the Lord if he would spare the city if 50 righteous people were found in it, to which the Lord agreed he would not destroy it for the sake of the righteous yet dwelling therein. Abraham then inquired of God for mercy at lower numbers (first 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, and finally at 10), with the Lord agreeing each time. Two angels were sent to Sodom to investigate and were met by Abraham’s nephew Lot, who convinced the angels to lodge with him, and they ate with Lot. Before they lay down, the men of the city demanded lot to bring the guests out onto them so that they may “know them”.Genesis 19:4–5 Lot refused to give his guests to the inhabitants of Sodom and, instead, offered them his two virgin daughters “which have not known man” and to “do ye to them as [is] good in your eyes”. However, they refused this offer, complained about this alien, namely Lot, giving orders, and then came near to break down the door. Lot’s angelic guests rescued him and struck the men with blindness and they informed Lot of their mission to destroy the city. Then (not having found even 10 righteous people in the city), they commanded Lot to gather his family and leave. As they made their escape, one angel commanded Lot to “look not behind thee” (singular “thee”). However, as Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed with brimstone and fire from the Lord, Lot’s wife looked back at the city, and she became a pillar of salt.
In Abrahamic religions, Sodom and Gomorrah have become synonymous with impenitent sin, and their fall with a proverbial manifestation of divine retribution.
Main articles: Flood myth and Genesis flood narrative
Another ancient flood myth is the Hindu story of Matsya the fish. According to this story, the god Vishnu takes the form of a fish and warns the ancestor Manu about a coming flood. He tells Manu to put all the creatures of the earth into a boat. Unlike the Biblical and Mesopotamian floods, however, this flood is not a unique event brought on by a divine choice; instead, it’s one of the destructions and recreations of the universe that happen at regular intervals in Hindu mythology.
Main article: Qur’anic and Biblical Narrations of The Exodus
The story of the exodus is told in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Israelites had settled in the Land of Goshen in the time of Joseph and Jacob, but a new pharaoh arose who enslaved and oppressed the children of Israel. At this time Moses was born; the Pharaoh had commanded that all male Hebrew children born would be drowned in the river Nile, but Moses’ mother placed him in an ark and concealed the ark in the bulrushes by the riverbank, where the baby was discovered and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, and raised as an Egyptian. One day after Moses had reached adulthood he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. Moses, in order to escape the Pharaoh’s death penalty, fled to Midian.
There, on Mount Horeb, God appeared to Moses as a burning bush revealed to Moses his name YHWH and commanded him to return to Egypt and bring his chosen people (Israel) out of bondage and into the Promised Land. During the journey, God tried to kill Moses, but Zipporah saved his life. Moses returned to carry out God’s command, but God caused the Pharaoh to refuse, and only after God had subjected Egypt to ten plagues did the Pharaoh relent. Moses led the Israelites to the border of Egypt, but there God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart once more, so that he could destroy the Pharaoh and his army at the Red Sea Crossing as a sign of his power to Israel and the nations.
From Egypt, Moses led the Israelites to biblical Mount Sinai, where he was given the Ten Commandments from God, written on stone tablets. Later at Mount Sinai, Moses and the elders entered into a covenant, by which Israel would become the people of YHWH, obeying his laws, and YHWH would be their god. Moses delivered the laws of God to Israel, instituted the priesthood under the sons of Moses’ brother Aaron, and destroyed those Israelites who fell away from his worship. After the forty years had passed, Moses eventually led the Israelites into the Land of Canaan.
During the night, God instructed Gideon to approach the Midianite camp. There, Gideon overheard a Midianite man tell a friend of a dream in which “a loaf of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian” (Judges 7:13), causing their tent or camp to collapse. This was interpreted as meaning that God had given the Midianites over to Gideon. Gideon returned to the Israelite camp and gave each of his men a trumpet (shofar) and a clay jar with a torch hidden inside. Divided into three companies, Gideon and his 300 men marched on the enemy camp. He instructed them to blow the trumpet, give a battle cry and light torches, simulating an attack by a large force. As they did so, the Midianite army fled (Judges 7:17–22). Later, their leaders were caught and killed.
Samson falls in love with Delilah in the valley of Sorek. The Philistines approach Delilah and induce her with 1,100 silver coins to find the secret of Samson’s strength so that they can capture their enemy. While Samson refuses to reveal the secret and teases her with false answers, he finally wears down and tells Delilah that God supplies his power because of his consecration to God as a Nazirite and that if his hair is cut off he will lose his strength. Delilah then woos him to sleep “in her lap” and calls for a servant to shave his hair. Samson loses his strength and he is captured by the Philistines who blind him by gouging out his eyes. They then take him to Gaza, imprison him, and put him to work turning a large millstone and grinding corn.
One day, the Philistine leaders assemble in a temple for a religious sacrifice to Dagon, for having delivered Samson into their hands. They summon Samson so that people can watch him perform for them. The temple is so crowded and all the rulers of the entire government of Philistia have gathered there too, some 3,000 people in all. Samson is led into the temple, and he asks his captors to let him lean against the supporting pillars to rest. He prays for strength and God gives him strength to break the pillars, causing the temple to collapse, killing him and the people inside.
Academics have interpreted Samson as a demigod (such as Heracles or Enkidu) enfolded into Jewish religious lore, or as an archetypical folk hero.
David and Goliath
Main article: Story of Samuel
According to the Book of Samuel, Saul and the Israelites are facing the Philistines in the Valley of Elah. Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, comes out between the lines and challenges the Israelites to send out a champion of their own to decide the outcome in single combat, but Saul is afraid. David, bringing food for his elder brothers, hears that Goliath has defied the armies of God and of the reward from Saul to the one that defeats him, and accepts the challenge. Saul reluctantly agrees and offers his armor, which David declines, taking only his staff, sling (קָלַע qāla‘) and five stones from a brook.
David and Goliath confront each other, Goliath with his armor and javelin, David with his staff and sling. David hurls a stone from his sling and hits Goliath in the center of his forehead, Goliath falls on his face to the ground, and David cuts off his head. The Philistines flee and are pursued by the Israelites “as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron”. David puts the armor of Goliath in his own tent and takes the head to Jerusalem, and Saul sends Abner to bring the boy to him. The king asks whose son he is, and David answers, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.”
Not all stories surrounding an architectural work incorporate a level of myth. These stories can also be well hidden to the casual viewer and are often built into the conceptual design of the architectural statement.
Tower of Babel
Main articles: Watcher (angel) and Nephilim
Also possibly derived from pagan mythology is the story of the “Watchers” (Genesis 6:1-4). According to this story, heavenly beings once descended to earth, intermarried with humans, and produced the nephilim, “the heroes of old, men of renown”. Jewish tradition regards those heavenly beings as wicked angels, but the myth may represent a fragment of pagan mythology about gods interbreeding with humans to produce heroes.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell believes the Judeo-Christian idea of linear history originated with the Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism. In the mythologies of India and the Far East, “the world was not to be reformed, but only known, revered, and its laws obeyed”. In contrast, in Zoroastrianism, the current world is “corrupt […] and to be reformed by human action”. According to Campbell, this “progressive view of cosmic history” “can be heard echoed and re-echoed, in Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaean, Arabic, and every tongue of the West”.
Other traditional cultures limited mythical events to the beginning of time, and saw important historical events as repetitions of those mythical events. According to Mircea Eliade, the Hebrew prophets “valorized” history, seeing historical events as episodes in a continual divine revelation. This doesn’t mean that all historical events have significance in Judaism; however, in Jewish mythology, significant events happen throughout history, and they are not merely repetitions of each other; each significant event is a new act of God:
“The fall of Samaria actually did occur in history […] It was therefore something irreversible and unrepeatable. The fall of Jerusalem does not repeat the fall of Samaria: the ruin of Jerusalem presents a new historic theophany.”
By portraying time as a linear progression of events, rather than an eternal repetition, Jewish mythology suggested the possibility for progress. Inherited by Christianity, this view of history has deeply influenced Western philosophy and culture. Even supposedly secular or political Western movements have worked within the world-view of progress and linear history inherited from Judaism. Because of this legacy, the religious historian Mircea Eliade argues that “Judaeo-Christianity makes an innovation of the first importance” in mythology.
Eliade believes that the Hebrews had a sense of linear time before their contact with Zoroastrianism, but agrees with Zaehner that Judaism elaborated its mythology of linear time with eschatological elements that originated in Zoroastrianism. According to Eliade, these elements include ethical dualism, the myth of a savior, and “an optimistic eschatology, proclaiming the final triumph of Good”.
The Jewish people’s tendency to adopt the neighboring pagan practices, denounced as it had been by the Jewish prophets, returned with force during the Talmudic period. However, almost no mythology was borrowed until the Midrashic and Talmudic periods, when what can be described as mysticism emerged in the kabbalistic schools.
One such aspect was the appearance of the “Shedim”, or demons; these became ubiquitous to the ordinary Jews with the increased access to the study of the Talmud after the invention of the printing press.
The classical rabbis themselves were at times not free from sharing in the popular beliefs. Thus, while there is a whole catalog of prognostications by means of Dreams in Ber. 55 et seq., and Rabbi Johanan claimed that those dreams are true which come in the morning or are dreamed about us by others, or are repeated, Rabbi Meïr declares that dreams help not and injure not. Dream interpretation is not however a factor in considering mythologyfication of Talmud knowledge since it was at the time a part of the wider nascent development of what later became the discipline of Psychology, and also incorporated Astrology, and effect of digestion on behaviour.
The Keresh and the Tigris of the Bei Ilai
An example of typical mythology in the Talmud exists as a discussion about a giant deer and a giant lion which are both originated in a mythical forest called “Bei Ilai”. (‘Bei’ means house in Aramaic) The deer is called “keresh”, it has one horn, and its skin measures 15 cubits in length. The lion, called “tigris”, is said to be so big that there is a space of 9 cubits between its ears. The Roman Caesar Hadrian once asked Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah to show him this lion, since every lion can be killed, but the Rabbi refused and pointed out that this is not a normal lion. The Roman Caesar insisted, so the Rabbi reluctantly called for the lion of “Bei Ilai”. He roared once from a distance of 400 parasangs, and all pregnant women miscarried and all the city walls of Rome tumbled down. Then he came to 300 parasangs and roared again, and the front teeth and molars of Roman men fell out, and even the emperor himself fell from his throne. He begged the Rabbi to send it back. The Rabbi prayed and it returned to its place.
Traditional folk beliefs
The authorities of the Talmud seem to be particularly influenced by popular conception in the direction of folk medicine. A belief in the Evil eye was also prevalent in Talmudic times, and occasionally omens were taken seriously, though in some cases recognized as being merely popular beliefs. Thus, while it is declared to be unlucky to do things twice, as eating, drinking, or washing, Rabbi Dunai recognized that this was an old tradition.
Planting huppah trees
A remarkable custom mentioned in the Talmud is that of planting trees when children are born and intertwining them to form the huppah when they marry. Yet this idea may be originally Iranian and is also found in India.
Mythological components of Haggadic exegesis
It may be possible to distinguish in the haggadic legends of Biblical character those portions that probably formed part of the original accounts from those that have been developed by the exegetic principles of the haggadists.
The uniqueness of the Talmudic style of both recording meaning and deriving it using exegesis places the many seemingly mythological components of the much larger halachic content into a content very unlike the purely story-telling corpus of other cultures.
In the past century to modern day, there have been many retellings of Jewish myths (mostly from the Torah), and adaptations for the modern public. They have mostly been in the regions of science fiction, as Isaac Asimov noted in his introduction to More Wandering Stars:
“…Can science fiction be part of Jewish culture? From fantasy stories we know?/ And as I think of it, it begins to seem to me that it is and we do know. And the source? From where else? From the Hebrew source for everything– From the Bible. We have but to look through the Bible to see for ourselves.”— Isaac Asimov
He goes on to show parallels between biblical stories and modern science fiction tropes:
- Let there be light was an example of advanced scientific mechanisms
- God is an extraterrestrial
- Adam and Eve as colonists on a new planet
- The serpent was an alien, as Earth snakes don’t speak or show any intelligence
- The flood was a story of a world catastrophe, and the survivors
- The Tower of Babel (like Metropolis, which it inspired in part)
- Moses vs. the Egyptian magicians is advanced technological warfare
- Samson as sword and sorcery
- The first chapter of Ezekiel is a UFO account.
The Hugo Awards, one of the highest distinctions for science fiction writers, have been awarded to biblically derived stories. For instance Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, Larry Niven’s “Inconstant Moon” and Harlan Ellison’s “The Deathbird”.
Another example is Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion anime series, which uses kabbalah elements while narrating a reinterpretation of events surrounding Adam, Eve and Lilith in a futuristic and apocalyptic way.
Edward M. Erdelac’s weird western series Merkabah Rider features a Hasidic mystic gunslinger and draws heavily from Jewish myth and folklore.
It is often suggested that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two Jewish creators of Superman, essentially the beginning of superhero comics and comic books, were partly inspired by the story of the Golem of Prague.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia