Jewish mythology

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[1]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.


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.[2] These pagan religions were forms of nature worship: their deities personified natural phenomena like storms and fertility.[3] 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".[3]

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.[4]

The prophetic writings condemned Hebrew participation in nature worship, and did not completely identify the divine with natural forces.[5] 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.[6] Unlike Tammuz, who dies and revives along with the vegetation,[7] the God of the Hebrew prophets exists beyond nature[8] 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."[9]

Through the prophets' influence, Jewish mythology increasingly portrayed God as aloof from nature and acting independently of natural forces.[10] 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."[11]

On the other hand, this transcendent God was absolutely unique and hard for humans to relate to.[12] Thus, the myths surrounding Yahweh were, in a sense, less complex: they did not involve the acts of multiple, anthropomorphic gods.[5] 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.[3]

The Hebrew prophets had to struggle against the nature gods' popularity, and Jewish mythology reflects this struggle.[13] 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.[14] 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."[15] 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.[16]

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