Myth as Story and Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible

Myth constitutes a vital part of the Hebrew Bible; it powerfully shapes the contours of biblical language, its various narratives, and theologies. That is, myth deeply defines what we might call the biblical world – populates the landscape with mythic monsters and deities and animates that world in which the God of Israel rises against forces of evil and, through victorious battle, creates order, erects his temple, and establishes his kingship.

See Also: Myth, History, and Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

By Paul K.-K. Cho
Wesley Theological Seminary
June 2019

I. Introduction

 

Allow me to begin with a bold claim that I can only begin to defend in this blog: Myth constitutes a vital part of the Hebrew Bible; it powerfully shapes the contours of biblical language, its various narratives, and theologies. That is, myth deeply defines what we might call the biblical world – populates the landscape with mythic monsters and deities and animates that world in which the God of Israel rises against forces of evil and, through victorious battle, creates order, erects his temple, and establishes his kingship.

Some readers will find the above claim objectionable. For example, some may argue that the Hebrew Bible is itself polemical against myth and instead espouses monotheism and a historical conception of reality. Yhwh, the God of Israel, the argument might go, says, “I am the First, and I am the Last; there is no god but me” (Isa 44:6). If there is but one God according to the Hebrew Bible, how can it contain myths with their many gods? And Yhwh delivers Israel in historical time, out of slavery, out of Egypt. If God acts in history, what need is there for myth?

            Yet, we find fragments of myth throughout the pages of the Hebrew Bible, interwoven into genuine memories of the past, faithful representations of the present, and sincere hopes for the future. What more? Careful study reveals that myth shapes the biblical view of history in toto and thus the very reality in and through and toward which biblical writers lived. That is, we find that myth in the Hebrew Bible has not only to do with expression but also with being. Myth, it can be argued, constitutes a vital, even a foundational, part of the Hebrew Bible and the biblical world.

 

II. Myth Fragments

 

We find a clear instance of a myth fragment in Isaiah 27:1:

 

            On that day Yhwh will punish

            with his cruel and great and mighty sword

            Leviathan the fleeing serpent

            and Leviathan the twisting serpent

            and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.

 

The imagery is without doubt mythological. It depicts Yhwh as a warrior deity and features the cosmic monster Leviathan. What more, the verse is almost a verbatim citation from the Baal Cycle, a myth recovered in 1929 from the literary troves of Ugarit, a Canaanite port city destroyed in the 13th century BCE. Mot, the deity of death, speaks the parallel passage before he engages in battle with the protagonist deity of the myth, Baal. Mot says to Baal:

 

            When you struck down Litan, the Fleeing Serpent,

            Annihilated the Twisty Serpent,

            The Potentate with Seven Heads,

            The heavens grew hot, they withered. (KTU 1.5 I 1–3)

 

Litan is the Ugaritic equivalent of the Hebrew Leviathan, and Baal, according to this passage, had previously struck down Litan in battle – not unlike Isaiah proclaims that Yhwh will strike down Leviathan. The parallel between the passages from the Baal Cycle and Isaiah in language, characters, theme, and general plot makes clear that Isaiah 27:1 references myth.

We find myth fragments like this throughout the Hebrew Bible, from the first pages of the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 1 to its latest compositions in Daniel 7. For example, many scholars agree that the Genesis 1 account of creation alludes to and transforms the Babylonian myth of creation Enuma Elish. There are the sea dragons (tanninim) in verse 21 but also tehom (usually translated as “the deep”), which is likely an allusion to the sea deity Tiamat of Babylonian myth, in verse 2, as well as other myth fragments. And the apocalypse of Daniel 7, written after the onset of the persecution of Jews under Antiochus IV in 169 BCE, features monstrous beasts from the sea (verse 3) and tells of the triumph of the Ancient of Days and the One like a Son of Man over them (verses 13–14), comparable to how El and Baal triumph over aquatic forces of evil in Canaanite myth. Elsewhere, we read of God who “crushed the heads of Leviathan” (Ps 74:14), of mighty waters that “lift up their roaring” against God the king (Ps 93:3), and of “the Arm of Yhwh … the Hewer of Rahab, the Piercer of Dragon” (Isa 51:9), among many other references to myth.

            Some may wonder whether these myth fragments render the Hebrew Bible itself myth. On the one hand, the Hebrew Bible well fits the broadest definition of myth I use: Myth is “a story about weighty matters involving deities, human beings, and other personalities that, in the understanding of its adherents, reveals something true about the real order of the world.”[1] On the other, the Hebrew Bible is not myth at the same register as the Baal Cycle or Enuma Elish mentioned above. In relation to myths such as these, we must insist that the Hebrew Bible contains myth fragments only because it does not contain a full-blown myth, a complete and continuous story about Yhwh’s conflict and triumph over sea monsters and deities that takes place within a mythological world. Rather, the myth fragments in the Hebrew Bible appear as part of a mosaic of varying genres, including historical memory, epic historiography, prophetic oracles, and apocalyptic visions.

            In sum, the Hebrew Bible contains myth fragments, but they do not on their own constitute a continuous whole. They punctuate biblical literature here and there as a part, if a significant part, of a whole with other types of literature. That whole may be understood as a type of myth, but it is not myth in the same order as the Baal Cycle or Enuma Elish – a topic for another time.

            So what work does myth perform in the Hebrew Bible?

 

III. Myth as Story

 

Myth, at the most basic level, is a story. And like all stories, myth may be divided into several component parts: verbal expression, character, theme, and plot.[2] The existence of mythic expressions, characters, and themes in the Hebrew Bible are not difficult to detect. Thus, despite the fragmentary nature of mythic presence in the Hebrew Bible, students of the Bible have long noted and analyzed the impact of mythic motifs on biblical literature and thought since before Herman Gunkel’s seminal work in 1895.[3] The impact of the plot of myths, however, has largely escaped notice and thus study for a variety of reasons.

            One important reason is methodological. We have failed to take seriously that, as a type of story, myth necessarily has a plot and that plot, as Aristotle has argued and P. Ricoeur has clarified, is the most important part of myth.[4] Furthermore, because the plot is a non-verbal part of a story – is not exteriorized at the level of linguistic expression – it easily escapes detection.

The methodological challenge aside, it is not difficult to imagine that, if a certain biblical composition contains mythic expressions, features mythic characters, and deals with mythic themes, then that composition may also follow a mythic plot, especially should the expressions, characters, themes, and plot belong to the same myth. And that is precisely the situation we find in shorter and larger compositions in the Hebrew Bible concerning the creation, the exodus, the exile, and the eschaton, covering virtually the entirety of biblical time. Myth, in other words, does not only punctuate biblical literature and thought but, in sum, profoundly shapes the plot of the Hebrew Bible.

 

IV. Myth (as Story) and Exile

 

The Isaianic composition concerning exile and return found in Isaiah 40–55 (commonly called Deutero-Isaiah) can serve as an example of the profound ways in which myth shapes biblical literature and thought. We find in Deutero-Isaiah, written toward the end of Israel’s Babylonian exile to encourage faithful hope among the exiles, a brilliant use of the resources of myth to articulate a fresh vision for redemption yet to come: As Yhwh did at the creation and the exodus, the prophet proclaims, Yhwh is about to defeat the forces of evil to redeem Israel out of Babylon, the result of which will be the recreation not only of a people but also of the cosmos, the restoration of God’s temple destroyed in 587 BCE, and the reassertion of God’s cosmic kingship.

            A group of myths we can call sea myths follows a similar plot, deals with a set of common themes, and features a comparable cast of characters. For example, the Ugaritic Baal Cycle pits Baal, a storm deity responsible for rain and thus the fertility of creation, against Yamm, who is the deity of sea and represents disorder. They fight for kingship, and Baal ultimately triumphs over Yamm. The result is the return of creation to orderly vitality, the erection of Baal’s temple, and the establishment of his kingship. Similarly, the Babylonian Enuma Elish pits Marduk against Tiamat, the deity of the sea. The triumph of Marduk results in the creation of humanity and the cosmos, the erection of Marduk’s temple, and the establishment of his eternal kingship. We find fragments of these and likely other sea myths, adopted and transformed, in Isaiah 40–55 as well as in other biblical compositions.

            Easiest to detect is the presence of myth at the level of verbal expression and character. Consider, for example, the depiction of Yhwh as a warrior headed out to battle:

 

Yhwh, like a warrior, goes forth,

Like a man of war, stokes his fury.

He shouts; yea, he screams.

Against his enemies, he prevails. (42:13)

 

Whom does Yhwh battle? As might be expected, Yhwh battles a watery foe, none other than the sea deity and its acolytes:

 

Awake, awake, put on strength, Arm of Yhwh.

Awake as in days of old, generations long ago.

Is it not you, the Hewer of Rahab, the Piercer of Dragon?

Is it not you, the Drier of the Sea, the waters of the Great Deep,

The One who makes a path in the depths of the sea for the redeemed to cross over? (51:9–10)

 

The prophet calls on Yhwh again to take up arms against the sea of troubles and, here and elsewhere, declares that Yhwh shall prove victorious. Furthermore, the prophet proclaims that the result of that victory, in faithful repetition of the plot of the sea myth, will be the three expected themes of (1) creation, (2) the temple, and (3) kingship.

(1) Creation. Deutero-Isaiah consistently depicts Yhwh as Israel’s kinsman-redeemer (גואל). At the same time, the form God’s redemption takes is akin to creation. For example, Isa 43:21, apparently rewriting Exod 15:16, describes Israel as “the people whom I [Yhwh] created (יצרתי).” Redeeming Israel, the prophet seems to say, has something to do with Israel’s creation – is an act of recreation. But more than Israel will be recreated. Redemption as creation affects not only Israel but in fact the entire cosmos. The cosmic consequence of Israel’s redemption comes into view in Isaiah 65:

 

For, behold, I am creating new heavens and a new earth;

And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.

Rather, be glad and rejoice for ever and ever in what I am creating,

For, behold, I am creating Jerusalem as a joy and her people as a gladness. (65:17–18)

 

The redemption of Israel involves not only the recreation of the people of Israel but also the recreation of the heavens and the earth. Creation, in a certain sense, begins anew with the redemption of Israel out of exile.

(2) Temple. Creative redemption, to use Carroll Stuhlmueller’s apt phrase, as we see in the above passage, involves Jerusalem and, more precisely, the Jerusalem Temple.[5] In fact, the restoration of Jerusalem and its temple, which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, is a clearly stated goal of Israel’s redemption out of exile:

 

The one who says of Jerusalem, “She shall be inhabited,”

And the cities of Judah, “They shall be rebuilt,”

And of her deserted places, “I will raise them”;

Saying of Jerusalem, “She shall be rebuilt,”

And of the temple, “You shall be founded.” (44:26b, 28b)

 

Jerusalem and its temple are earthly manifestations of divine power. It is the center of creation – the very symbol and enactment of God’s creative power. It is also the earthly seat of the divine king, the earthly reflection of heavenly reality. It is as such that the restoration of the Temple is the goal of Israel’s redemption. To redeem Israel is to restore Jerusalem; and to restore Jerusalem is to restore creation and God’s kingship. This brings us to the final theme.

(3) Kingship. Deutero-Isaiah assumes the continued viability of Yhwh’s kingship throughout the exilic period. However, the prophet evinces a certain coyness in proclaiming God’s kingship, no doubt because of the embarrassment of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. However, in an oracle that looks forward to a restored Jerusalem, the prophet sheds the sackcloth of lament and shouts, “Your God is king!” (52:7). The restoration of Jerusalem, often referred to by its poetic name Zion, means the redemption of Israel, the recreation of the cosmos, and the reestablishment of Yhwh’s kingship.

To summarize, Deutero-Isaiah uses the verbal expressions, the characters, and the themes of sea myths to articulate a vision of redemption to come to the disheartened and doubting exilic community. What more, the redemption the prophet proclaims faithfully follows the plot of sea myths: Today, sea dragons rage in defiance against the God of order and life; come tomorrow, God will slay the dragon and reign again, as he did in days long ago, over his creation from his restored temple.

 

V. Myth as Metaphor

 

What does it matter that Deutero-Isaiah and other biblical writers punctuated their compositions with mythic motifs and structured their story according to a mythic plot? In order to answer that question, we need to consider the ways in which myth functions as metaphor.

            The basic syntactical structure of metaphor is “A is B.” And a vital observation to make is that to say that “A is B” is to equate the unequal, since “A” is literally not “B.”[6] However, in so far as a metaphor is not a lie, a metaphor can be understood to create new meaning so that “A is B” is not a lie. This is true for metaphors involving all parts of a story: verbal expression, character, themes, and plot.

            Now, the creation of new meaning cannot change all metaphors from literal lies to figural truths since metaphor mediates not only purely linguistic relations but also relationships between language and world. That is to say, when a metaphor involves the relationship between language and world, the work of metaphor must include the creation of more than new meaning. It must include the creation of new being. For example, should the metaphor be that between the plot of a myth and historical events, the work of metaphor must go beyond the creation of new meaning and create a new world in order for the metaphor to change from being a literal lie to a figural truth.

 

VI. Myth (as Metaphor) and Exile

 

Deutero-Isaiah, in strategically using the sea myth, does not compose yet another sea myth. Rather, elements of the sea myth function as metaphors in the prophetic composition that, in addition to adding color and sparkle at the level of language, populate its landscape with mythic beings and gives narrative shape to the world in and toward which the prophet believed and hoped to live. To put it in stronger terms, in using mythic language, the prophet creates a myth-infused world in which Yhwh battles, not only historical forces of evil, but also mythic monsters that oppose him and his people, in order to recreate the world, to restore his temple, and to reassert his kingship. “Here expression creates being.”[7] Myth used as a metaphor creates new meaning as well as a new world – which is the world Deutero-Isaiah believed he lived in and the world into which the prophet called others to enter.

            For a variety of reasons, it appears that few believed the prophet and that fewer chose to live into the myth-infused world of prophetic hope and imagination. In fact, some appear to have been hostile toward the prophet and the prophet’s message and hurled words and stones the prophet’s way. The so-called servant songs, the most famous of which is Isaiah 53, bear witness to this opposition. For Deutero-Isaiah, the prophetic message – which culled from traditional materials, including myth, to describe present reality and articulate future hope – demanded an act of faith and so required an existential choice, a choice to see the world as the myth displays and to live in it. Furthermore, as the prophet and the disciples experienced, that choice carried life-and-death consequences. They had to be willing to suffer a great deal, even willing to die, to see and to live in the theologically constituted reality in which Yhwh battles sea monsters and, by defeating them, reestablishes order in the cosmos in which he reigns as king from his temple. The work of metaphor has to do with more than expression. It may also touch on aspects of being.

 

VII. Conclusion

 

That fragments of myth can be found in the Hebrew Bible is clear to anyone who has read it. That these fragments in fact give shape to the narrative plot of pivotal moments in the Hebrew Bible may come as a surprise to some. What more, we have only begun to understand the ways in which myth animates the biblical vision of the world – the foundational events of creation and exodus and the ongoing hope for redemption out of the conditions of exile and the cataclysm of the eschaton.

 

 

[1] Paul K.-K. Cho, Myth, History, and Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 11–12.

[2] I derive these categories of story from Aristotle, Poetics. Translated by Gerald F. Else (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1970).

[3] Herman Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit: Eine religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung über Gen 1 und Ap Joh 12. mit Beiträgen von Heinrich Zimmer (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1895).

[4] See ibid. and Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. Translated by Robert Czerny (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977).

[5] Carroll Stuhlmueller, Creative Redemption in Deutero-Isaiah (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1970).

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche (“On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense,” in Literary Theory: An Anthology [ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan; Frome, UK: Blackwell, 1998], 358–61, here 359) wrote, “Every idea originates through equating the unequal.”

[7] Gaston Bachelard cited in Ricoeur, Rule of Metaphor, 214.

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