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Graves’s Mythology

That many traces of ancient Near Eastern mythology have survived in the book of Genesis has long been recognized. The story of the Fallen Angels who formed unions with the sons of men is a clear example of myth, and the story of the Flood has indubitable links with the Gilgamesh epic. More doubtful are the alleged links between the first account of Creation and the Babylonian Creation epic. There Marduk fought with Tiamat and split her body in twain to form the earth and the firmament of heaven. There is one tenuous link with this in the first chapter of Genesis in the word tehom, which suggests Tiamat. But in Genesis there is no suggestion of any combat or ascription of personality to tehom; neither does tehom supply either the earth or the firmament of heaven In the Babylonian Creation epic, we read, Marduk “split Tiamat into halves like a shell-fish. One of these he used as a firmament, to impede the upper waters from flooding the earth; and the other as a rocky foundation for earth and sea” In Genesis tehom stands for the watery deep, and it supplies neither the rocky foundation nor the firmament above. The firmament divides the waters which are above it from those which are below and is therefore distinct from both, and in the story of the Flood we read that the fountains of tehom burst forth, and the windows of heaven were opened. This at once warns us that we must not too readily read Near Eastern mythology into the Biblical account, though it must be agreed that motifs from that mythology have been drawn on in some of the narratives.

In the volume under review the authors take sixty-one stories from the book of Genesis and rabbinical embellishments of them, and then offer comments on them and parallels from ancient Near Eastern or classical sources. The interested reader can find many of the rabbinical stories in Louis Ginzberg’s great collection of Legends of the Jews; and a vast number of parallels from all over the world in Sir James Frazer’s Folk-lore in the Old Testament. In recent years Cyrus Gordon has emphasized the links between the literature of Greece and the mythology of the ancient Near East, particularly in Before the Bible, and advanced the view that the Hittites of Asia Minor provided the vital link with both sides. There is nothing fundamentally new, therefore, in the enterprise of the authors.

It must, however, be observed that the word “myth” in the title is given a very liberal interpretation, and many scholars would question its relevance to a large number of the passages selected for study here. The authors define myths as “dramatic stories that form a sacred charter either authorizing the continuance of ancient institutions, customs, rites and beliefs in the area where they are current, or approving alterations.” Not all the stories of the book of Genesis carry any clearly aetiological meaning. Many of the patriarchal stories may be regarded as legends—though a considerable body of present-day scholarship would have reservations about this; but they can scarcely be called myths. There is nothing mythological in the story of Jacob’s marriages, or in the story of the sale of his birthright to Esau. We have parallels to the latter in surviving documents from Nuzu, and in one case one brother sold his birthright to another for three sheep. Indeed, so many parallels to social customs reflected in the patriarchal stories have come to light in the last forty years, though these customs do not figure in the accounts of later periods of Israel’s history, that there is a far greater disposition to find historical substance in those stories than was formerly the case, even though they cannot be regarded as scientific history. This is true not merely of scholars who may be described as dogmatically conservative, but also of scholars who freely accept critical methods in Old Testament study.

On Genesis xiv—Abraham’s rescue of Lot—the authors adopt a not very clearly defined position. They say: “It was for long doubted that Genesis xiv contained any historical kernel. Nevertheless, some scholars now regard it as an ancient historical tradition.” The story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers is said to be historical fiction, but its treatment as mythological within the terms of the above definition is justified by the statement that it “accounts for certain Hebrew shepherds, settled north-east of the Delta, who had given their townships such un-Egyptian names as Succoth, Baal-Zephon, and Migdol.” This does not seem to be a very convincing reason for the creation of one of the most moving stories in the Bible, and if it were, the Biblical author so skillfully concealed it that not one in ten million of his readers has suspected it.

The authors make frequent use of Ras Shamra material. That the Ras Shamra texts from ancient Ugarit in North Syria found in recent years have shed a great deal of light on the Old Testament is everywhere agreed, and many of the things condemned in the Bible are known to be associated with Ugaritic mythology. There is little reason, however, to suppose that the stories of Genesis are to be regarded as presentations of Ras Shamra mythology in Hebrew dress. But, as has already been indicated, the Ras Shamra texts are not the only modern finds to shed light on the Bible. The finds at Nuzu have illuminated customs reflected in the patriarchal narratives. They have thrown light, for example, on Rachel’s theft of her father’s teraphim. Curiously, there is no reference to this in the chapter dealing with that theft.

It must further be observed that the rabbinical material which the authors present comes from some two thousand or more years later than the period of the patriarchs. It can offer us no evidence on the nature or the original form of the stories of Genesis. Some of it is fanciful embellishment, testifying to the imaginative ingenuity of the Rabbis; some of it utilizes motifs drawn from various foreign sources and brought to the Genesis stories by the Rabbis. Much of it lacks the delicacy of the Biblical narrative. The reviewer prefers not to cite examples of this here. He may, however, note that the authors confess that the rabbinical legends they cite on the subject of Abraham and the idols are entirely without Scriptural authority. The same may be said of many of the other legends. The statement that each of the sons of Jacob, with the exception of Joseph, married a twin sister is without Scriptural authority. Yet though this is of late invention, it is curiously declared to suggest that land inheritance was through the mother under patriarchal government. The authors make more than one reference to jus primae noctis. Sir James Frazer, in the above mentioned work, has much to say on this widespread custom. But it is hard to suppose that it figures anywhere in the book of Genesis.

One of the major criticisms to be made of the book under review, therefore, is its misleading title. It gives the impression that the work deals with Hebrew myths to be found in the book of Genesis. Yet even if it be allowed that all the stories presented here are true myths, many of them are not found in the book of Genesis and cannot be thought to lie behind the book of Genesis, but are later creations and without Scriptural authority. Many of them have no aetiological content and do not fall within the authors’ definition of myth. Ginzberg’s characterization of them as legends is less misleading than the title of this volume.

It must be added that the reader is given no indication of the spiritual penetration of the book of Genesis, which stands on an immeasurably higher plane than the non-Biblical material here brought together. The reader is told that the patriarchs often fell below the ethical level of later ages. This is, of course, true. Later ages disapproved, for example, of such a marriage as that of Abraham with his half-sister. They disapproved still more of marriage with a twin sister, such as the later Rabbis invented for the sons of Jacob. But the reader’s attention is not drawn to the fact that Abraham shows a singular loftiness of character, especially in the setting of his age, or that Joseph rises to a very high ethical plane. That this is not the mere idealization of past characters is clear from the fact that Jacob, who is represented as the immediate ancestor of the founders of the twelve tribes, does not rise to anything like the same level. It should also be noted that though God is represented as appearing to the patriarchs, He is never represented as behaving in the way Ras Shamra deities or the gods of Greece are represented as behaving. Nowhere does God figure in any sexual mythology. Even the story of the Garden of Eden, for all the naïveté that marks it, shows a very remarkable spiritual penetration—especially when it is remembered that it belongs to the earliest of the documents which were drawn on for the compilation of the Pentateuch. When Adam sinned he was excluded from the Garden. But before that he hid himself from God. He was conscious that his sin shut him out from fellowship with God, and that it was his act and not God’s that did this. Here is something more profoundly perceptive than anything in the mythology which the authors present.

At some points carelessness of detail has been noted. A few examples may be mentioned. Ahaziah is said to have insulted Baal-zebub, when what he did was to consult him. The same person is called Abdu-Heba on one page and Abdu-Khipa on another. The form ‘abhar is erroneous, as also is Tekoah, while el-Tell should be et-Tell. The transliterations of Hebrew words are not conformed to any system For example, a single Hebrew letter is transliterated variously as ts, s, s, and tz, while another appears variously as h and h. Further, the reader should be warned that the etymological connection of tohu and tehom and of bohu and Behemoth is, to say the least, extremely hazardous. Similarly, the equation of Eve with Hebe on the ground of the distant similarity of the names is quite unconvincing, since there is no point of connection between the roles the two figures play The old observation that etymology by sound is not sound etymology should always be borne in mind.


Graves’s Myths July 9, 1964

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