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 were personifications of 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 Biblical prophets, including Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, had a concept of the divine that differed significantly from that of the nature religions. According to Jewish mythology, their lives were full of miracles, signs, and visions from God that kept Jewish mythology alive, growing, and distinct from the pagan mythologies of its neighbors. Instead of seeing the God of Israel as just one national god, these prophets saw him as the one God of the entire universe.[4]

The prophets condemned Hebrew participation in nature worship, and they refused to completely identify the divine with natural forces.[4] 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.[5] Unlike Tammuz, who dies and revives along with the vegetation,[6] the God of the Hebrew prophets is beyond nature[7] and, therefore, isn't bound by the natural rhythms:

"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."[8]

Through the prophets' influence, Jewish mythology increasingly portrayed God as aloof from nature and acting independently of natural forces.[9] 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:

"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."[10]

On the other hand, this transcendent God was absolutely unique and hard for humans to relate to.[11] Thus, the myths surrounding him were, in a sense, less complex: they did not involve the acts of multiple, anthropomorphic gods.[4] 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.[12] In fact, some Jewish myths may have been consciously designed to reflect the conflict between paganism and a new uncompromising monotheism. In Psalm 82, God stands up in the Divine Council and condemns the pagan deities:[13] although they are gods, he says, they will die like mortal men.[14] Karen Armstrong interprets the creation myth of Genesis 1 "as a poised, calm polemic against the old belligerent cosmogonies", particularly the Babylonian cosmogonic myth.[15] 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),

"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."[16]

Genesis creation narrative

The "combat myth"

Destruction of Leviathan, 1865 by Gustave Doré. This sea monster was mentioned 6 times in the Hebrew Bible.

Many of the Hebrews' neighbors had a "combat myth" about the good god battling the demon of chaos; one example of this mytheme is the Babylonian Enûma Eliš.[17] A lesser known example is the very fragmentary myth of Labbu.[18] According to historian Bernard McGinn, the combat myth's imagery influenced Jewish mythology. The myth of God's triumph over Leviathan, a symbol of chaos, has the form of a combat myth.[19] In addition, McGinn thinks the Hebrews applied the combat myth motif to the relationship between God and Satan. Originally a deputy in God's court, assigned to act as mankind's "accuser" (satan means "to oppose"), Satan evolved into a being with "an apparently independent realm of operation as a source of evil" — no longer God's deputy but his opponent in a cosmic struggle.[20]

Even the Exodus story shows influence. McGinn believes the "Song of the sea", which the Hebrews sang after seeing God drown the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, includes "motifs and language from the combat myth used to emphasize the importance of the foundational event in Israel's religious identity: the crossing of the Red Sea and deliverance from the Pharaoh."[19] Likewise, Armstrong notes the similarity between pagan myths in which gods "split the sea in half when they created the world" and the story of the Exodus from Egypt, in which Moses splits the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea) — "though what is being brought into being in the Exodus, is not a cosmos but a people".[16] In any case, the motif of God as the "divine warrior" fighting on Israel's behalf is clearly evident in the Song of the Sea (Ex. 15). This motif is recurrent in poetry throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (I Samuel 2; Zechariah 9:11-16;14:3-8).

Some comparative mythologists think Jewish mythology absorbed elements from pagan mythology. According to these scholars, even while resisting pagan worship, the Jews willingly absorbed elements of pagan mythology.[21]

Adam and Eve

Main article: Adam and Eve

According to the creation story in Genesis, Adam and Eve were the first man and woman. In the Book of Genesis of the Hebrew Bible, chapters one through five, there are two creation narratives with two distinct perspectives. In the first, Adam and Eve (though not referenced by name) were created together in God's image and jointly given instructions to multiply and to be stewards over everything else that God had made. In the second narrative, God fashions Adam from dust and places him in the Garden of Eden where he is to have dominion over the plants and animals. God places a tree in the garden which he prohibits Adam from eating the fruit of. Eve is later created from one of Adam's ribs to be Adam's companion.

Garden of Eden

Main article: Garden of Eden

The biblical story of Garden of Eden is described most notably in the Book of Genesis chapters 2 and 3, and also in the Book of Ezekiel.[22] In the stroy, Adam and Eve are depicted as walking around the Garden of Eden naked due to their innocence.[23] The man was free to eat off of any tree in the garden, but forbidden to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Last of all, the LORD God made a woman (Eve) from a rib of the man to be a companion to the man. However, the serpent tricks Eve into eating fruit from the forbidden tree. Following Eve, Adam broke the commandment and ate of the forbidden fruit. God curses only the serpent and the ground. He prophetically tells the woman and the man what will be the consequences of their sin of disobeying God. Then he banishes 'the man' from the Garden of Eden to prevent him from eating also of the tree of life, and thus live for ever. East of the garden there were placed Cherubims, "and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life". (Gen.3:24)

The story of the Garden of Eden is a theological use of mythological themes to explain human progression from a state of innocence and bliss to the present human condition of knowledge of sin, misery, and death.[24]

Joseph Campbell notes that the Garden of Eden narrative's forbidden tree is an example of a motif "very popular in fairy tales, known to folklore students as the One Forbidden Thing".[25] For another example of the One Forbidden Thing, see the Serbian fairy tale Bash Chelik, in which the hero is forbidden to open a certain door but he does anyway, thereby releasing the villain. Also see the classic story of Pandora's box, which existed in ancient Greek mythology.

The Flood

Noah's Ark, oil on canvas painting by Edward Hicks, 1846 Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Genesis flood narrative has similarities to ancient flood stories told worldwide. One of the closest parallels is the Mesopotamian myth of a world flood, recorded in The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the Hebrew Bible flood story (Genesis 6:5-22), God decides to flood the world and start over, due to mankind's sinfulness. However, God sees that a man named Noah was righteous (because he walked with God) and blameless among the people. God instructs Noah to build an ark, and directs him to bring at least two of every animal inside the boat, along with his family. The flood comes and covers the world. After 40 days, Noah sends a raven to check whether the waters have subsided, then a dove; after exiting the boat, Noah offers a sacrifice to God, who smells "the sweet savour" and promises never to destroy the earth by water again -and making the rainbow a symbol of this promise. Similarly, in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh,[26] the bustle of humanity disturbs the gods, who decide to send a flood. Warned by one of the gods, a man named Utnapishtim builds a boat and takes his family and animals inside. After the flood, Utnapishtim sends a dove, then a swallow, then a raven to check whether the waters have subsided. After exiting the boat, Utnapishtim offers a sacrifice to the gods, who smell "the sweet savour" and repent their choice to send the flood.

Another ancient flood myth is the Hindu story of Matsya the fish. According to this story,[27] the god Vishnu takes the form of a fish and warns the ancestor Manu about a coming flood. He tells Manu to put all the creatures of the earth into a boat. Unlike the Biblical and Mesopotamian floods, however, this flood is not a unique event brought on by a divine choice; instead, it's one of the destructions and recreations of the universe that happen at regular intervals in Hindu mythology.

Tower of Babel

Main article: Tower of Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel is meant to explain the origin of different languages. According to the story, which is recorded in Genesis 11:1–9, everyone on earth spoke the same language. As people migrated from the east, they settled in the land of Shinar. People there sought to make bricks and build a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for themselves, so that they not be scattered over the world. God came down to look at the city and tower, and remarked that as one people with one language, nothing that they sought would be out of their reach. God went down and confounded their speech, so that they could not understand each other, and scattered them over the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city. Thus the city was called Babel.


Main articles: Watcher (angel) and Nephilim

Also possibly derived from pagan mythology is the story of the "Watchers" (Genesis 6:1-4). According to this story, heavenly beings once descended to earth, intermarried with humans, and produced the nephilim, "the heroes of old, men of renown". Jewish tradition regards those heavenly beings as wicked angels,[28] but the myth may be a fragment of pagan mythology about gods interbreeding with humans to produce heroes.[29]

Jewish apocrypha

Main article: Jewish apocrypha

Merkabah mysticism

Main article: Merkabah mysticism

Zoroastrian influence

Names of territories during the Caliphate in 750 CE. Khorasan was a province of Persia in yellow.

R. C. Zaehner, a professor of Eastern religions, argues for Zoroastrianism's direct influence on Jewish eschatological myths, especially the resurrection of the dead with rewards and punishments.[30]

Linear history

The mythologist Joseph Campbell believes the Judeo-Christian idea of linear history originated with the Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism. In the mythologies of India and the Far East, "the world was not to be reformed, but only known, revered, and its laws obeyed".[31] In contrast, in Zoroastrianism, the current world is "corrupt [...] and to be reformed by human action".[31] According to Campbell, this "progressive view of cosmic history"[32] "can be heard echoed and re-echoed, in Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaean, Arabic, and every tongue of the West".[33]

Other traditional cultures limited mythical events to the beginning of time, and saw important historical events as repetitions of those mythical events.[34] According to Mircea Eliade, the Hebrew prophets "valorized" history, seeing historical events as episodes in a continual divine revelation.[35] This doesn't mean that all historical events have significance in Judaism;[36] however, in Jewish mythology, significant events happen throughout history, and they are not merely repetitions of each other; each significant event is a new act of God:

"The fall of Samaria actually did occur 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."[37]

By portraying time as a linear progression of events, rather than an eternal repetition, Jewish mythology suggested the possibility for progress.[38] Inherited by Christianity, this view of history has deeply influenced Western philosophy and culture. Even supposedly secular or political Western movements have worked within the world-view of progress and linear history inherited from Judaism.[39] Because of this legacy, the religious historian Mircea Eliade argues that "Judaeo-Christianity makes an innovation of the first importance" in mythology.[40]

Eliade believes that the Hebrews had a sense of linear time before their contact with Zoroastrianism,[41] but agrees with Zaehner that Judaism elaborated its mythology of linear time with eschatological elements that originated in Zoroastrianism. According to Eliade, these elements include ethical dualism, the myth of a savior, and "an optimistic eschatology, proclaiming the final triumph of Good".[41]


The Jewish people's tendency to adopt the neighboring pagan practices, denounced as it had been by the Jewish prophets, returned with force during the Talmudic period. However, almost no mythology was borrowed until the Midrashic and Talmudic periods, when what can be described as mysticism emerged in the kabbalistic schools.


One such aspect was the appearance of the "Shedim", or demons; these became ubiquitous to the ordinary Jews[42] with the increased access to the study of the Talmud after the invention of the printing press.


The classical rabbis themselves were at times not free from sharing in the popular beliefs. Thus, while there is a whole catalog of prognostications by means of Dreams in Ber. 55 et seq., and Rabbi Johanan claimed that those dreams are true which come in the morning or are dreamed about us by others, or are repeated,[43] Rabbi Meïr declares that dreams help not and injure not.[44] Dream interpretation is not however a factor in considering mythologyfication of Talmud knowledge since it was at the time a part of the wider nascent development of what later became the discipline of Psychology, and also incorporated Astrology, and effect of digestion on behaviour.

The Keresh and the Tigris of the Bei Ilai

An example of typical mythology in the Talmud exists as a discussion about a giant deer and a giant lion which are both originated in a mythical forest called "Bei Ilai". ( bei means house in Aramaic)[45] The deer is called "keresh", it has one horn,[46][47][48] and its skin measures 15 cubits in length.[49] The lion, called "tigris", is said to be so big that there is a space of 9 cubits between its ears.[50] The Roman Caesar Hadrian once asked Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah to show him this lion, since every lion can be killed, but the Rabbi refused and pointed out that this is not a normal lion. The Roman Caesar insisted, so the Rabbi reluctantly called for the lion of "Bei Ilai". He roared once from a distance of 400 parasangs, and all pregnant women miscarried and all the city walls of Rome tumbled down. Then he came to 300 parasangs and roared again, and the front teeth and molars of Roman men fell out, and even the emperor himself fell from his throne. He begged the Rabbi to send it back. The Rabbi prayed and it returned to its place.

Traditional folk beliefs

The authorities of the Talmud seem to be particularly influenced by popular conception in the direction of folk medicine. A belief in the Evil eye was also prevalent in Talmudic times, and occasionally omens were taken seriously, though in some cases recognized as being merely popular beliefs. Thus, while it is declared to be unlucky to do things twice, as eating, drinking, or washing,[51] Rabbi Dunai recognized that this was an old tradition.[52]

Planting huppah trees

A remarkable custom mentioned in the Talmud is that of planting trees when children are born and intertwining them to form the huppah when they marry.[53] Yet this idea may be originally Iranian and is also found in India.[54]

Mythological components of Haggadic exegesis

It may be possible to distinguish in the haggadic legends of Biblical character those portions that probably formed part of the original accounts from those that have been developed by the exegetic principles of the haggadists.

The uniqueness of the Talmudic style of both recording meaning and deriving it using exegesis places the many seemingly mythological components of the much larger halachic content into a content very unlike the purely story-telling corpus of other cultures.

In the past century to modern day, there have been many retellings of Jewish myths (mostly from the Torah), and adaptations for the modern public. They have mostly been in the regions of science fiction, as Isaac Asimov noted in his introduction to More Wandering Stars:

"...Can science fiction be part of Jewish culture? From fantasy stories we know?/ And as I think of it, it begins to seem to me that it is and we do know. And the source? From where else? From the Hebrew source for everything-- From the Bible. We have but to look through the Bible to see for ourselves."
Isaac Asimov

He goes on to show parallels between biblical stories and modern science fiction tropes:

The Hugo Awards, one of the highest distinctions for science fiction writers, have been awarded to biblically derived stories. For instance Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", Larry Niven's "Inconstant Moon" and Harlan Ellison's "The Deathbird".

Another example is Hideaki Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion anime series, which uses kabbalah elements while narrating a reinterpretation of events surrounding Adam, Eve and Lilith in a futuristic and apocalyptic way.

It is often suggested that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two Jewish creators of Superman, essentially the beginning of superhero comics and comic books, were partly inspired by the story of the Golem of Prague.[55]

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Jewish mythology.

Citations and notes

  1. Compare: Wertheim, David (2011). Salvation Through Spinoza: A Study of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany. Jewish and Christian Perspectives Series. 21. Brill. p. 104. ISBN 9789004207219. Retrieved 2016-0-02. These Hassidic stories became very popular, and did much for the discovery and reevaluation of Eastern Jewish culture. They became a kind of völkisch Jewish mythology, opposed to the nineteenth century rationalist interpretation of Judaism. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  2. Armstrong, p. 93; Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, p. 136
  3. 1 2 3 Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, p. 141
  4. 1 2 3 Armstrong, p. 93
  5. Armstrong, pp. 95-96; Irwin, pp. 323-34
  6. Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, p. 140
  7. Irwin, p. 233
  8. Armstrong, p. 96; see also Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, p. 143
  9. Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, pp. 141-42; Irwin, p. 230, 233
  10. Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, p. 152-53
  11. Irwin, p. 233; Armstrong, p. 82-83, 93-94
  12. Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, p. 142; Armstrong, p. 94
  13. Armstrong, p. 93-93
  14. Psalms 82:6-7
  15. Armstrong, p. 95
  16. 1 2 Armstrong, p. 96
  17. McGinn, p. 23
  18. Labbu is discussed in terms of the developing "adversary" mythology of the Ancient Near East and the Judeo-Christian tradition, in Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan & the Combat Myth (Princeton University press) 1987:44f.
  19. 1 2 McGinn, p. 24
  20. McGinn, p. 23-25
  21. Armstrong, p. 96; McGinn, p. 23-24
  22. Cohen 2011, pp. 228–229
  23. Donald Miller (2007) Miller 3-in-1: Blue Like Jazz, Through Painted Deserts, Searching for God, Thomas Nelson Inc, ISBN 978-1418551179, p. PT207
  24. Garden of Eden, Encyclopedia Britannica
  25. Campbell, p. 109
  26. The Epic of Gilgamesh, p. 108-13
  27. Translation of the Hindu scripture Matsya 1:11-35 in Classical Hindu Mythology, p. 71-74
  28. McGinn, p. 25
  29. footnote on Genesis 6:1-4 in The New American Bible, St Joseph Edition
  30. Zaehner, p. 58
  31. 1 2 Campbell, p. 191
  32. Campbell, p. 192
  33. Campbell, p. 190
  34. Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, p. 190; Eliade, Myth and Reality, pp. 11-12
  35. Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, vol. 1, p. 356
  36. Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, p. 153
  37. Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, p. 152
  38. Irwin, p. 323
  39. Eliade, Myth and Reality, p. 69; Campbell, p. 201
  40. Eliade, Myth and Reality, p. 64
  41. 1 2 Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, vol. 1, p. 302
  42. G. Dennis, "Demons and Demonology," The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism
  43. Ber. 56b
  44. Gittin 52a, and parallels
  45. חולין נט ע"ב - ע"ב, Chullin 59b
  46. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 28ab.
  47. Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 2:3. The Talmud of the Land of Israel, Volume 11: Shabbat, ed. by Jacob Neusner, page 98.
  48. Midrash Tanchuma 6: Midrash Tanchuma–Yelammedenu: An English Translation of Genesis and Exodus by Samuel A. Berman, page 524.
  49. 15 cubits. English measure Cubit = 18 inches × 15 = 270 inches ÷ 12 = 22.5 feet in length. Compare Elasmotherium, about 15–18 feet in length, with a massive horn on its forehead. (see Relict.)
  50. 9 cubits. English measure Cubit = 18 inches × 9 = 162 inches ÷ 12 = 13.5 feet between its ears.
  51. Pesachim 109b
  52. ib. 110b
  53. Gittin 57a
  54. W. Crookes, in "Folk-Lore," vii.
  55. For a sample discussion of this subject see "Superman and the Golem".


Further reading

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