The Mythology of the Hebrews
For this post, I’m going way back, to a time in Hebrew history for which we have only only a mere glimpse. This was a time before the earliest parts of the Bible were even written, yet it is the Bible itself that gives us this stained glass window into its own past.
In 1876, Ignaz Goldziher published a book called “Der Mythos bei den Hebräern und seine geschichtliche Entwickelung” (Mythology among the Hebrews and Its Historical Development). The English translation is also available on Amazon as “Hebrews Mythology”. This is a fascinating work that seeks to examine the myth of the Hebrews, as compared to that of Greeks, Arabians, Indians and other cultures.
Goldziher and others find a significant common thread of myths among all cultures: it is largely an explanation of the natural phenomena that are significant to a people. In other words, ancient people had a very close relationship with nature. Hunter-gatherers were sustained by what nature provided. Nomads lived by their herds and the means by which nature provided the herds with sustenance. Agricultural societies depended on their crops and the aspects of nature that contributed to their growth and production of fruit.
He also argues convincingly that these mythological explanations of nature contribute to the language of the culture itself. The names of the natural figures such as the sun, moon, stars, water, rain, clouds, trees, plants, fish, bulls and rocks become the words later generations use to refer to these same things. The words for these natural entities are used in the mythological stories that describe their behavior. For example, Water gives birth to Pasture. Sun defeats Night. Dawn gives birth to Day. Death swallows everything. The planet Venus is the brightest object in the sky other than the Sun and Moon. It ascends toward the height of the sky, yet it always fails to reach the top. In other words, the “Morning Star” tries to reach the heights of the sky, but fails to do so.
The natural progression, however, is that these early mythological stories to explain natural occurrences, gradually become the names of heroes, legends and gods. Helios, for example, represents the Sun itself, as does Ra. These figures have families, such as parents who exhibit the same characteristics. For example, one solar deity gives birth to another. Or perhaps there are two brothers that represent the day and night that are rivals.
From Nomads to Farmers and Civilization
Humanity seems to progress along a predictable path. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans lived as hunter-gatherers, finding and hunting their food, moving from place to place as the seasons changed and living off what nature provided. This is precisely the environment in which Natural Selection resulted in the modern human species. Some have argued that we are still biologically evolved to live this life and much of our strife is due to our attempts to leave it (Harari, 2014).
In some parts of the world, hunter-gatherers became nomadic herders. The domestication of goats, sheep, cattle and other herd animals allowed humans to control these valuable sources of food, clothing and bone. As long as one could find green pastures and water, one had a source of nourishment and even clothing or tent material. Tribes of humans that previously would move from place to place as the seasons changed, would now move with their herds from pasture to pasture, looking for sources of water and a place to set up their tents. In arid regions, nomadic groups would have to “wander the desert”, from wadi to wadi (spring to spring), which would have been locations of enormous importance to their survival.
The next phase of development was agriculture. The first settlements were established as humans learned to tame plant life and cultivate it to meet their needs. No longer were they required to wander about looking for pastures and water sources. They could settle in one place, growing the grains, fruits and vegetables that could sustain them. The settlements also offered them protection from elements and from other rival groups. Tribes of humans who were previously dependent on herding animals could now add plant crops to their diet and strategy for life. Domesticated animals weren’t so much eliminated, but were now a supplement to grains and other crops.
Following on the heels of agriculture are large settlements and cities. Settlements allowed people to gather more members into their tribes, which gave them an advantage over rival tribes. The cities were built around places of abundant natural resources and strategic advantage.
Goldziher argues that the myths necessary for explaining the environment will adapt according to these changes. The old myths don’t go away, but they are supplemented by newer myths that seek to explain this very development.
The Mythological Figures
Think about what it must be like to live as a nomadic herder in an arid region of the world. By day, you hide from the oppressive sun. It is hot, dry and uncomfortable during the day. The sun dries up that precious water needed by you and your flocks. It is almost as if the sun is your enemy.
Then comes the blessed evening and night. You can finally move without being sunburned and scorched. You can take your flocks to find the next oasis or spring, where there will also be pastures to feed the animals. The night is your refuge, your solace, your comfort. This is even better when it rains. The moon and stars are objects of reverence. In your world, these entities are friendly and on your side. Then the next day, the awful sun comes back to oppress you again.
Now consider the life of the farmer. The sun gives the life-giving light needed by the plants to grow and bear fruit. The sun provides light of day, allowing you to see well enough to built tools and plowshares. You know that when the sun does not shine, your crops fail and you have a difficult life. The sun gives life and provides your sustenance. It is an object of reverence. . In addition, the cities in which you live offer protection and allow you to store your grain for the more difficult seasons. They protect you from oppressors and rivals. But of course, every evening the sun must give way to the night sky, the moon and the rain.
In a never-ending cycle, the sun and its day battle the moon and the night. There is never a victor, yet both are powerful.
Along with the night comes even more mysteries for the ancient mind. There are so many of them. They would have been uncountable. Even more strange, some of them seem to be arranged in shapes. Why do some of the stars seem to be special? If you connect the dots, you find animals, objects and even human-like figures such as hunters, bears or dragons. Perhaps there is some significance to this arrangement. That definitely looks like a hunter with a bow over in that part of the sky.
Most of them remain in the same place, night after night. Yet some of them seem to move according to their own path. Some are even very bright, outshining all of the unmoving stars. Yet they always seem to only reach a certain height in the sky before descending to the horizon. These objects must be special, like the sun and the moon.
Life as a nomad or farmer is also dependent upon the time of year. There seems to be a cycle that occurs. A definite pattern. 365 days, that can be divided into 12 months. There is a time of year when the sun is powerful, then it begins to lose its power. Harvests are bountiful for part of the year just before the sun grows very weak. Then several months later, the sun and vegetation are reborn. There must be an explanation for this. But in the meantime, we can tell stories.
When Myth becomes Religion
The stories of how the sun battles the moon, or that the dawn gives birth to the day, or that rains cool the damage caused by the heat of the day, or that the night sky seems to have an uncountable number of stars, eventually become something new. The words that were formally personifications of natural objects or occurrences become something even greater.
They become gods.
The sun becomes none other than Ra himself, an actual, real god who can be appeased and with whom one can find favor. The moon becomes Yarich, death becomes Mot and those funny stars that seem to wander along their own path become Mars, Jupiter, Mercury and Venus, and will have other names in other cultures. They become gods unto themselves.
The stories of how the daylight is in a constant struggle with night become stories of how the Sun god does battle with the Moon or Heaven (night sky) god. The story of how the seasons change become the death of a fertility god followed by his eventual rebirth. The story of how Venus, the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon, climbs upward in the sky, but always descends back to invisibility becomes the story of how a powerful or significant divine being attempts to climb to the heights achieved by the Sun, but falls to the earth after failing to do so.
Natural patterns relating to these entities become part of their stories. In addition to the cycle of the seasons, these cultures also observed that certain numbers seemed to be significant. There are seven heavenly bodies that wander the sky: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. There are 365 days. The year can be fairly neatly divided into 12 cycles of the moon. One cycle of the moon can be divided into four periods of 7 days. There’s that number 7 again. It must be important. These numbers figure prominently in the stories of the gods and heroes of cultures worldwide.
These figures become the originators and orchestrators of natural phenomena. They become heroes of might who accomplish amazing feats. Since they are created by humans, the exhibit the same attributes and behaviors of humans. They experience, happiness, sadness, anger and jealousy. They lust after other gods (especially those with whom they have a natural relationship, such as the dawn and the day), have children, are annoyed by sounds, and enjoy smells. They also require food and for their homes to be cared for. Humans build temples and sacrifice grains and animals to care for the needs of the gods. Perhaps if the god can be appeased, you will have a good crop, good rains, a healthy child or find good pastures.
Eventually the original myth, the stories about the sun, moon, stars, planets, earth, rain, clouds, animals, oceans and seas and other natural entities, are forgotten. The stories of the gods, heroes and legends becomes the new reality as the generations pass and the origin of these stories becomes lost.
In addition to the gods, many of these legends become significant people, placed in the history of the culture. This is a process called “euhemerization”, where the original mythical figure is assumed to have once been an actual person, since there remains nobody who remembers their mythic origin.
The Mythology of the Hebrews
Israel and the Hebrews are no exception to these patterns. However, just like the people who had forgotten the ancient myth underlying the stories of their favorite heroes, legends and gods, readers of the Bible are unlikely to notice some of the mythical patterns in the Old Testament figures, or its language.
In fact, it is language where some of the first hints of Hebrew mythology appear. There are some words in the Hebrew Bible that have older, mythic origins. For example, “Mot” or “moweth/maveth” is a Hebrew word for death used over 150 times. This word is a cognate for an array of near eastern gods of death, such as Mot in Canaanite mythology, who defeats Ba’al. What was once the name of a deity has become a normal word in the Hebrew Bible.
Even “El”, a word similar to our “God” with the capital ‘G’, is the chief god of the Canaanites and at Ugarit. This one is less well hidden, as it becomes obvious that El is fused with YHWH as in Exodus 6:2-3
God also spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am YHWH. 3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai but by my name ‘YHWH’ I did not make myself known to them.
But perhaps more interesting are the mythical characters themselves. There are far more in the Hebrew Bible than it would seem superficially, but supposing these characters have mythic origin explains a great deal about their character, description, actions and even name.
In The Bible Unearthed, a book by archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, it is demonstrated that Israel experienced a number of changes among its peoples. Historically, the nomadic lifestyle would give way to an agricultural lifestyle and civilization, but Israel experienced periods where civilization experienced downturns and the nomadic lifestyle was again more prominent. One would then expect both nomadic and agricultural myths to be present among the Hebrews, and possibly in conflict with each other. This is, indeed, what we see.
An example of this occurs very early in Genesis, with the story of Cain and Abel. Cain and Abel represent the struggle between an agriculturist and a shepherd, which corresponds to the sun and day versus the night and sky. In the well known story, each representative of Hebrew lifestyles presents an offering to YHWH. Abel’s offering is preferred, possibly indicating that the author has a higher regard for the nomadic, shepherd lifestyle.
The story continues with the murder of Abel and the banishment of Cain. Something significant happens next: Cain builds the first city. City and civilization are another attribute of agricultural and solar figures. Later in his lineage is Tubal-Cain, maker of bronze and iron tools, another attribute of the solar figure. Cain’s city is named “Enoch”, as is the name of his first son. Enoch himself is an obvious solar figure as well. He “walks with God” (the sun?) and lives 365 years, one year for each day of a calendar year.
For a consummate night sky deity, we find one easily with none other than Abram himself. “Abh-ram” is essentially a word for “High Father”. He is a herdsman, which is associated with the night sky. What does one see when gazing upon the night sky? Stars too numerous to count. You may even say that the night sky has an uncountable number of descendants.
However, after Abraham comes Isaac, “The Laughing One”, another solar figure who later in life is “blinded”, symbolizing the sun setting near its daily “death”. But perhaps more interesting are Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau. Two more feuding brothers.
Esau is a huntsman, is hairy and red, a typical solar depiction. Isaac, himself a solar figure, prefers Esau, his solar son. Meanwhile, Jacob is quiet, lives in tents and has smooth skin, all attributes of the night figure. Additionally, Jacob is born gripping Esau’s heel, as the night always follows closely behind the day.
Jacob also wrestles with a figure all night, which cannot overcome Jacob. The figure dislocates Jacob’s thigh socket and demands to be released in the morning. This is representative of the night hero struggling with the Dawn. The Dawn cannot overcome, but is eventually released by the night.
As a Night Sky figure, Jacob’s story has another bit of significance. In Jacob’s 12 sons, Goldziher finds the mythological origin with the moon and Eleven Stars. I think perhaps just as possible is an origin in the 12 lunar cycles in one year.
He goes on to show that Joseph is a Rain figure, the child of Rachel who is represented by the Cloud (a “ewe” in the sky). Cloud and Sky give birth to Rain. This leads quite neatly to one of Joseph’s most notable features: his “coat of many colors”. What else could this be but the rainbow?
Goldziher covers much more than I have room for in this article, including the wives of the Patriarchs, David (as a solar figure), Noah (again, solar) and quite a few others. He also spends a significant amount of time making comparisons with the mythology of other cultures, showing the incredible number of similarities and often uses other cultures as support for his own ideas on origins of Biblical characters and stories.
So did the Biblical authors knowingly record ancient nomadic and solar myths? Not likely. By the time these stories were written, the original meanings and mythological purposes were forgotten. In Israel in particular, where the educated and scribal elite were moving toward monotheism with the cult of YHWH, the Biblical authors had a new purpose for these characters.
From Myth to History
There are a number of hypotheses as to how long YHWH has been the favorite deity of Israel, or even the exclusive deity of Israel. Some scholars argue that YHWH was adopted as just another god in the pantheon and that later priests and theologians moved to monotheism while the “masses” in Israel continued the old time pagan religion. Others argue that Yahwism was separate from the Israelite religion, and that the Yahwists had always been monotheists, battling against those stubborn Israelite pagans still worshipping Ba’al, putting up Asherah poles, venerating the stars (heavenly host) and bronze snakes (Nechushtan).
Regardless, Yahwism became a central focus of the authors of the Biblical sources. Henotheism (worshipping one god above all others, yet not denying the existence of others) and monotheism do not allow room for multiple gods. In a sense, they are hostile to myth. Yet these stories, legends, heroes and gods are a part of the cultural awareness. They have been told for generations and are valued and cherished. It’s not really possible to simply dispose of them. So instead, they become something new: they become euhemerized ancestors.
The stories of these lunar, night sky, rain, solar, daylight, dawn, dusk and star figures become the ancestors of the people and simultaneously important individuals in Israel’s relationship with Yahweh. This allows the people to keep the mythological tales, while also relating them to the new religious system. They make covenants with YHWH and build altars to him.
There is yet a third purpose for this fusion. These hallowed figures now become the ancestors of the people themselves. They are placed into history as the very origins of the people, including the 12 tribes of Israel. The authors have forgotten the original meaning of the names, and even go so far as to give them new ones to aid in this explanation, such as Jacob being named Israel. The story of Lot and his daughters, originally a tale about the sexual union of the Night with his daughters Dusk and Dawn, becomes a story meant to denigrate those nasty Moabites and Ammonites.
These stories are also etiological. That is, they tell the story of why things are the way they are. The relationships between many individuals in the Bible are representative of the relationships between nations or peoples. For example, the authors establish Israel and Edom as “brothers”, by writing Esau as the founder of the Edomites. This shows a positive relationship between Israel and Edom. Littered throughout the Biblical stories and genealogies are the names of many surrounding nations. According to the Yahwistic story, all of these people must ultimately descend from the same people, so genealogies and narratives were written to explain these names and relationships.
This article really only scratches the surface. Goldziher’s work is exhaustive and goes on to explain quite a lot more. There are some parts that I think have better explanations and were actually written much later than he suspected, but that can be forgiven as he was writing without the benefit of modern archaeological knowledge and other Biblical scholarship.
Here’s a little homework assignment for anybody interested. Read the stories of Elijah and Elisha. Can you discern which would be a solar figure and which would be a night sky or moon figure? What evidence would you use from the Biblical narrative to support your thoughts? Feel free to reply in the comments.
Hebrews Mythology – Ignaz Goldziher