Hebrew Myths in Western Religions

For good or bad, the western world has had its spiritual interpretations shaped largely by ancient Hebrew myths.  This is a hard pill to swallow for certain hard-line types who cling to the priestly sales pitch that every word of scripture is revealed truth.  Literalists who insist that the Bible includes no myths whatsoever may be excused on the technicality that most other ancient-culture myths concern gods and goddesses that had a tendency to take sides in human affairs.  The Bible, however, expands upon the premise of a single universal Creator—who, nonetheless, is portrayed as having sided consistently in the distant past with the Hebrews-Israelites-Jews—his alleged chosen people out of all the world’s populace.

Myth is a vital ingredient in the presentation of any organized belief system; mythic material provides the means of presenting concise validation of puzzling laws, rites, traditions and social customs.  The passage of time and social changes have had a way of applying transformation or even suppression of some pre-Biblical works.  Some suppressed texts include: The Book of the Wars of Yahweh; the Book of Yashar; the Story of Adam (which is referred to in Genesis 5:1 and covered the first ten generations from Adam to Noah); The Book of Yahweh (referred to in Isaiah 34:16); Acts of Solomon; Book of Genealogy;  the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah; and Of the Sons of Levi among others.  Even so, brief fragments from some of those texts found their way into various canonized works such as in Numbers 21:14; Joshua 10:13; and Samuel 1:18.

Genesis relates that after ten generations, from Adam to the time of Noah, God apparently grew weary of human imperfections and decided not only to rid the planet of human life, but destroy all life.  Noah was warned of the flood plans, which imitates the c. 3000 BCE Babylonian myth of the god Ea warning Ut-napishtim of an identical heavenly plan.  The later Noah story has much in it that cannot be accepted logically.  The immediate planting of a miraculous grape-vine after touching dry land is peculiar to say the least.  That he became drunk the same evening  from the wine produced from those grapes is miraculous.  In connection with this is the absurd condemnation of Noah’s son to perpetual servitude to his brothers for no other reason than accidentally seeing his drunken father naked.  This myth is identical in tone to the Greek myth in which  Zeus, when a youth, castrated his father Cronus and thus became king of heaven.  In an older Hebrew myth Noah was castrated by his son as he lay in a drunken stupor.  The castration of Noah was excised from the reworked account, but it is alluded to in the line, “Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his little son had done unto him” (Genesis 9:24-27).  Seeing his father naked was not something that was done to Noah. 

The Bible stories that were fashioned for national identity purpose in the 7th century BCE Jerusalem permit only tantalizing hints of the lost material that was reworked into the product we know as the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible).  Any references to the lost material are generally so terse (such as the cursing of Noah’s son) that they are passed over unnoticed.  Those who accept the Bible as the unblemished word of God fail to see the restrained mythic connections.  Indeed, Genesis conceals lingering echoes of ancient Hebrew gods and goddesses that are disguised as men, women, angels, monsters, and even demons.  The technique continues throughout the Old Testament accounts.  For example, in the book of Judges 3:31 it says, “And after him was Shamgar ben Anath who smote of the Philistines six hundred men with an ox-goad, and he also saved Israel.”  Not understood is that Shamgar’s mother is a direct link to the bloodthirsty Ugaritic love-goddess Anath.  The reference to to ox-goad with which Shamgar is alleged to have slain so many Philistines is sly recognition of the love-goddess Anath’s father, Shamgar’s grandfather, the Ugaritic bull-god El.  And the same Ugaritic goddess is alluded to in the name of the priestly town Anathot, the hometown of the prophet Jeremiah.

The book of Isaiah provides a peek at exorcised mythic background material in chapter 34:14-15, where the pre-Bible Hebrew myth of Lilith is indirectly referred to in the references to the wild beasts of the desert dwelling among the desolate ruins in the Edomite Desert.  Lilith was portrayed as Adam’s first wife in an early Hebrew myth that was wholly expunged from Scripture.  Her name was derived from the Babylonian-Assyrian word liltu, which was derived in turn from an earlier 2000 BCE Sumerian tablet from Ur which contained the story of Gilgamesh and the Willow Tree

 Isaiah also gave a nod to another discarded Hebrew myth in a reference to Rahab, the Prince of the Sea (Isaiah 51:9).  An ancient myth had portrayed Rahab as a primeval adversary of Yahweh in a battle prior to Creation.  It was a myth much like the Greek myth of Poseidon, god of the sea, defying his brother Zeus.  According to Isaiah, Yahweh killed Rahab with a sword.  An older version, however, recounted that when Yahweh commanded Rahab, “Open your mouth, Prince of the Sea, and swallow all the world’s waters,” Rahab had demurred, saying, “Lord of the Universe, leave me in peace.”  Yahweh was not pleased and in that version kicked Rahab to death and sank his carcass under the waves.

Among the Hebrews, after the northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians, old tribal myths were reworked and became focused almost exclusively on Jerusalem, with the pantheistical concept of the old myths remodeled into monotheism.  As spiritually inspired as this sounds, the reform in the old religious understanding was politically motivated.  Judah was situated in a buffer zone between Assyria and Egypt, and King Josiah and the priests of Yahweh were determined to remain independent.  Reformation of the kingdom’s veneration practices and traditions depended upon either writing a codicil to the old religious understanding or fashion a new one.  The  lenient Canaanite cults prevalent throughout Judah had to be replaced with stronger religious discipline to accomplish the militaristic fervor to resist Assyrian or Egyptian encroachment.  The hope of national independence was seen to rest in authoritarian monotheism, and thus began the nearly ceaseless disclaiming of any faith practices other than their own.  And hatred for any difference–religious, cultural, or even physical—became installed as a directive of “faith.”

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One Response to “Hebrew Myths in Western Religions”

  1. Reblogged this on JAPANESE MYTHOLOGY & FOLKLORE and commented:
    This article is informative on a number of points for Japanese mythology and royal chronicling traditions, for example, the mytheme of “don’t look” in on someone’s private nakedness taboo and consequences of breaking that taboo …resounds with a number of Japanese myths. Context and motivations surrounding the scribal production of a nation’s (tribal) genealogy may also be helpful in understanding Japanese genealogical tradition behind the Kojiki and Nihin shoki.

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