The debate over the presence, definition, and role of myth in the Hebrew Bible has been a long and not occasionally acrimonious one, which has involved, inter alia, important issues of comparative study. With this larger debate in mind, discuss how you see the question of myth in one of the following: Genesis 1–11, Job, Second Isaiah, Ezekiel, enthronement psalms, and Daniel.
Between 1700 and 1800, biblical scholars like J. G. Eichhorn and Heinrich Ewald identified numerous myths in the Bible, but disagreed on the value of myth. Some saw it as a primitive, fumbling attempt to explain natural phenomenon and therefore worthless, others saw it as a legitimate expression of truth.
Building on the Grimm Brother’s axiom that “divinities form the core of all mythology,” many 19th and early 20th century biblical scholars concluded that the Hebrew Bible doesn’t contain any myths because it deals with one god and not several gods.
Following the French sociologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, many of these scholars also suggested that myth was the product of the “mythopoeic mind,” a non-rational mode of thinking that not only tolerated, but reveled in, the contradiction. Lévy-Bruhl characterized this way of thinking as “primitive” and juxtaposed it with “Western,” logical thought. Because of this, many biblical scholars saw Israel as one of the original loci of “Western” thought as opposed of the “primitive” thought of surrounding cultures.
George E. Wright and Gerhard von Rad both denied the place of myth in the Hebrew Bible and contrasted the historical attitude of the Bible with the supposedly cyclical, naturalistic, and mythical thinking of the surrounding cultures. According to them, the Israelite’s religious outlook was utterly unique.
Hermann Gunkel also saw myth as foreign to the Hebrew Bible and instead called the primeval history a saga.
In contrast to earlier scholars, Brevard Childs and F. M. Cross argued that there were clear cultural and religious continuities between Israel and its neighbors including shared mythic motifs. They continued to devalue myth, however, albeit in subtle ways.
In Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, for example, Cross juxtaposed Canaanite Myth as reflected in the Ba ‘al Cycle with Hebrew Epic. For Cross, myth deals with gods alone; while epic deals with both humans and gods, and is therefore closer to history. He also continued using “mythopoeic thought” as a category of analysis and suggested that the Israelites historicized earlier Canaanite myths.
This line of thinking led some scholars, such as Jon Day, to conclude that the mythic passages of the Bible are Canaanite or Canaanizing.
Childs saw a tension between myth and history in the Hebrew Bible and suggested that the Israelites had an “anti-mythical” attitude.
Myth in Genesis 1-11Edit
The primeval history in Genesis 1-11 draws on a cultural storehouse of Ancient Near Eastern Myths, but adapts them to Israelite culture.
The primeval history in the J source contains many etiological myths; these myths explains the origin of death (Gen 3:22-23), the existence of multiple languages (Gen 11:9), the pain of childbirth (Gen :16), and the origins of various cultural institutions (Gen 4:20-22), etc.
They also provide a charter for specific cultural institutions, like sacrifice (e.g., Noah’s paradigmatic sacrifice in Gen 8:20-21 from the J source).
These myths serve to reinforce and reify existing cultural attitudes and customs through appeal to a mythic past (e.g., preference is given to pastoral-nomadism compared to sedentary farming in Gen 4).
The P creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:4a purposefully subverts other Ancient Near Eastern myths of creation through combat, in which a warrior god must subdue the unruly Sea and her minions before creation can begin. In the Enuma Elish, Marduk defeats Tiˀāmat and creates the world as we know it out of her corpse. In the Ba‘al Cycle, Ba‘al bests Yamm, Lotan, and the Tunannu dragon. The priestly cosmogony, by contrast, omits divine combat altogether. Těhôm, the Hebrew cognate of Tiˀāmat, is reduced to preexistent matter that must be shaped by an all-powerful deity. God further demonstrates his mastery over the cosmos by creating (not defeating) the great sea dragons (Tann, the cognate of Tunannu) in Genesis 1:21.
The J Creation account shares motifs with several Mesopotamian myths. In Atraḫasis, the birth goddess Mami creates humans using clay and the blood of a slain god to do the work of the gods. A similar myth occurs in Enuma Elish. In Genesis 2, Yahweh creates Man from clay and divine breathe in order for him to work in his divine pleasure garden (2:7; 15). The J creation myth, like these Mesopotamian myths, explains the relationship between humans and the gods: humans exist to serve the gods.
The myth of the Nephilim in Genesis 6:1-4 reinforces the boundary between the human and divine worlds and provides an origin story for earlier heroes. In the J Source, Yahweh appears to bring the flood to destroy the Nephilim.
The flood myths in J and P resemble the Mesopotamian flood myths found in Atraḫasis and Gilgamesh. But while the Mesopotamian versions focus on the wisdom of the protagonist—the name of the protagonist means ‘exceedingly wise’—the Israelite examples emphasize righteousness over wisdom. Noah was “a righteous man, perfect in his generations” (Gen 6:9; P), who “found favor in the eyes of Yahweh” (Gen 6:8; J). Several versions of the flood myth explain the dependence of the gods on humans. In the Mesopotamian versions, the gods begin to starve without humans to bring them food in the form of sacrifice. After the flood, they smell the odor of Atraḫasis’ sacrifice and vow never again to destroy humanity. Mami sets her necklace in the sky as a sign of this vow, which explains the origins of the rainbow. In the J source, Yahweh smells the pleasing odor of Noah’s sacrifice and vows never to bring another flood. He sets his bow in the sky as a sign of his covenant with humanity.
Batto, Bernard F. Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Traditions. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.
Childs, Brevard. Myth and Reality in the Old Testament. Naperville, IL: Allenson, 1960.
Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.
Fuller, R. C. “Mythology and Biblical Studies (to 1800).” In Dictionary of Biblical Interpreters Vol. II., edited by John H. Hayes, 188-91. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.
Oden, Robert A. “Interpreting Biblical Myths.” In The Bible without Theology: The Theological Tradition and Alternatives to it, 40-91. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.
Soggins Ballentine, Debora. “You Divided the Sea by your Might”: The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition. PhD Dissertation, Brown University, 2012.
Richardson, Jr., R. D. “Mythology and Biblical Studies (1800-1980).” In Dictionary of Biblical Interpreters Vol. II., edited by John H. Hayes, 191-95. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.