Reading the Bible with the Icelandic Sagas

In 1 Samuel 15, when the prophet Samuel tells Saul that God has rejected him, Saul grasps at the edge of his robe, tearing it. Samuel responds: ‘The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you’. In chapter 108 of the saga of Olaf Tryggvason, when King Olaf is fighting a losing battle, the bow of the archer standing next to him snaps in two. Hearing the noise, he asks, ‘What snapped?’, to which the reply is: ‘Norway from your hand, O King.

See also The Old Testament in Medieval Icelandic Texts: Translation, Exegesis and Storytelling (D.S.Brewer, 2024). 

By Siân Grønlie 
Associate Professor in Medieval Literature 
St Anne's College, Oxford
May 2024


I have always loved the stories at the beginning of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, with their keen interest in family dynamics, national history, and political power. It’s exactly the same qualities that first drew me to the sagas of Icelanders. I have worked with sagas for much of my academic life, and in my field it’s extremely rare to find scholars who compare them with biblical literature. Some scholars may be prepared to admit to interaction between the saga and the saint’s life, but others prefer to see the sagas as written accounts of stories that probably circulated orally in a variety of different forms. While it’s difficult to define a saga (the word itself simply means ‘narrative’), most would agree that the sagas of Icelanders are a secular genre unique to Iceland which is primarily characterised by where and when these stories are set: while they were written down in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they typically take place in Iceland over a period of time between its settlement (c. 870) and its conversion to Christianity (c. 1000). The literary form or shape of the sagas, however, may differ: some are biographical (e.g. the saga of Grettir Ásmundarson), some cover the interactions between families in a particular area (e.g. Laxdœla saga is the saga of the inhabitants of Laxárdale), while still others are more like medieval travel narratives (e.g. the saga of Eiríkr the Red).

It was only when I started work on Old Norse translations of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament that I realised how very striking the likeness to saga narrative was. A brief foray into biblical scholarship showed me that scholars of the Hebrew Bible have long been aware of this. I found references to Icelandic sagas scattered throughout critical writings on the Hebrew Bible, including commentaries on Genesis, scholarship on the David story, and work on the poetics of biblical narrative (see further Grønlie 2024, 15-26). Most recently, John Barton (2019, 39-40) has described the oldest narrative style in the Hebrew Bible as ‘saga style’ on the basis of its similarity to what he calls ‘the clipped style of the Icelandic sagas’. It was, in fact, a graduate seminar on medieval narrative at which John Barton spoke that first brought this likeness to my attention. But, of course, none of these biblical scholars (as far as I’m aware) were working with the sagas in the original language, and most of them were working with a narrow range of Icelandic texts. In what follows, I offer a re-examination of this relationship from the point of view of a scholar of the Icelandic sagas. 


Sagas are first mentioned, so far as I can tell, in early twentieth-century German scholarship on Genesis. This is not surprising, because it is around this time that the first sagas of Icelanders were translated into German. However, ‘Sage’ in German does not straightforwardly mean ‘saga’, but can also be translated as ‘legend’ or ‘tale’. This seems to be how it is used in Hermann Gunkel’s commentary and book on Genesis, as well as in the work of Gerhard von Rad, for both of whom ‘saga’ is distinct from and precedes ‘history’ (see Gunkel 1964, 1-12; von Rad 1972, 32-34). Of the six criteria that Gunkel uses for identifying sagas, only the third (a dependence on tradition and the imagination) is applicable to the sagas of Icelanders. Likewise, von Rad (1966, 192) explicitly avoids using the term saga for stories that have reached a high degree of artistry.

            George Coats, on the other hand, compares the stories in Genesis and Exodus specifically with ‘the Icelandic sagas’ (1983, 5-7). Although it is not clear which sagas of Icelanders he has read, he defines the saga plausibly enough as ‘a long prose narrative with an episodic structure, developed around stereotyped themes or topics’. He then goes on to speak about how the stories in Genesis, like sagas, centre on family concerns (birth, marriage and death; travel, strife and separation) and serve a wider purpose of legitimation for the group ‘by showing the genealogical, geographical, or historical origin’ of peoples. They are—he argues—family history which, at the same time, is national history. This does securely identify some of the things that stories in Genesis and the sagas have in common, as narratives of settlement in which family history and national identity are interwoven. However, in his book on Exodus, it is clear that Coats still thinks of the sagas as belonging to ‘the repertoire of the oral storyteller’ (1988, 42). He is ultimately more interested in heroic song and legend than in the narrative art of the saga.

            Coats calls the stories about Abraham and his descendants ‘family sagas’, and this has been echoed more recently by David Peterson and Naomi Steinberg. Peterson calls Genesis ‘family literature’, while Steinberg describes it as ‘a book whose plot is genealogy’ (Peterson 2005, 12-13; Steinberg 2012, 282). Both emphasise the prominence of family concerns, including inheritance, property, and sibling rivalry. In fact, Peterson argues that a central family value in this book is the peaceful resolution of conflict between siblings. Again, these are all prominent concerns in the sagas of Icelanders, which typically begin and end with genealogy, feature frequent disputes over property, and in which conflict between siblings, foster-brothers and in-laws is a devastatingly common theme. The peaceful resolution of conflict is arguably the central value of the Icelandic sagas, with arbitrated settlement set against the problematic persistence of feud and blood-vengeance, and the heroic ideal displaced by something more like a social ethic. So the account of Dinah’s rape in Genesis 34—in which Dinah’s brothers forcefully reject the peaceful agreement between Shechem and their father to avenge their sister’s disgrace—reads just like an episode from a saga. When it was translated into Old Norse, the translator used the vernacular legal vocabulary of prosecution and settlement, setting it against the language of honour, shame, and revenge (see further the discussion in Grønlie 2024, 191-96).            So far, these parallels have been thematic and general, but I would now like to focus on a specific episode mentioned in the third edition of Gunkel’s commentary on Genesis (from 1910): the relationship between Jacob’s struggle with an angel and Grettir’s fight against Glámr: ‘The motif of nocturnal battles with demons, monsters, phantoms, or the devil is attested quite frequently. Beowulf fights with Grendel by night. The same motif occurs in the Icelandic legends of Grettir and of Ormr Storolfsson’ (Gunkel 1997, 352). Gunkel may have read Grettis saga, which had been edited in German by R. C. Boer in 1900, but he doesn’t appear to have known Orms þáttr Stórólfsson, which he had perhaps read about in German scholarship on Beowulf (Boer mentions it in an article on ‘die Béowulfsage’ from 1903). Ormr’s fight with a man-eating giant and his monstrous cat-shaped mother is not nocturnal and has little in common with Jacob’s wrestling with an angel.

            On the other hand, there are a number of stories in the sagas that illuminate aspects of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel (Genesis 34). Let’s start with Gunkel’s example of Grettir’s fight with the revenant Glámr in chapter 35 of the saga of Grettir the Strong. Although Glámr’s identity is known before the wrestling match, the description of his night-time arrival is purposefully ambiguous in the same way as the biblical narrative. Just as we see the mysterious ‘man’ who wrestles with Jacob only from his perspective, so the saga author uses the passive voice to describe what is happening through Grettir’s eyes: ‘Something climbed up onto the houses and sat astride the roof of the hall, kicking against it with its heels so that every piece of timber in the house creaked. This went on for a long time. Then it climbed down from the roof and went to the door’ (p. 106). It is not until Glámr comes into Grettir’s sight that he is given a name. As for Jacob, the outcome of the wrestling is ambiguous: at the crucial moment, Grettir is overcome by ‘exhaustion’ and unable to draw his sword, just as Jacob is overcome by the disabling touch of his opponent. In both cases, this allows the opponent to deliver a verdict which is as much narratorial as it is supernatural: in Jacob’s case, a blessing and promise for the future; in Grettir’s case, a curse, a curtailing of the future that would have been his. For both Grettir and Jacob, the wrestling match and the pronouncement mark the turning point in their lives. This sense of crossing a boundary is heightened in both stories by the unusual details of the natural setting: for Jacob, the rising sun, and for Grettir, the full light of the moon, as it breaks through the ‘thick patches of clouds’. Both heroes are left permanently changed by their encounter: Jacob limps away, while Grettir is left with a crippling fear of the dark.

            Both these stories powerfully convey the life-changing consequences of encountering the unknown other. But other stories from the sagas throw light on different aspects of this biblical episode. Take, for example, this account in the first chapter of the saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi (pp. 262-63):      

In the spring Hallfred moved his farm north across the heath […] Then one night he dreamt that a man came to him and said, ‘There you lie, Hallfred, and rather carelessly too. Move your farm away, west across Lagarfljot. That is where your luck is’. After that he woke up and moved his farm across the Ranga river in Tunga to a place that has since been called Hallfredsstadir (Hallfred’s Place), where he lived until his old age. But he left a boar and a he-goat behind him and, on the same day Hallfred left, a landslide came down on the buildings. The animals were lost, and that is why the place has since been called Geitdal (Goat Valley). 

As in the story about Jacob, the saga author keeps the identity of this supernatural visitor hidden: although it has been suggested that it is the god Frey that appears to Hallfred, the saga author simply calls him ‘a man’. With characteristic economy, we are not told why this being chooses to redirect Hallfred elsewhere, nor whether he actually causes the landslide to happen or merely foreknows that it will occur. Only the cryptic reference to ‘luck’ (Old Norse ‘heill’) suggests that he is benevolently inclined. But the result of his intervention is that Hallfred crosses a body of water (the Ranga river), just as Jacob crosses the Jabbok, and is guided to a more auspicious place to settle. As in the story of Jacob, this supernatural encounter is linked to a placename: Geitdal or Goat Valley, after the goat which Hallfred abandoned there in his haste to move away. In both cases, then, an encounter with the supernatural is used to legitimate a personal relationship to the land.

            Even the way in which the Jacob story uses folktale motifs only to subvert them can be paralleled in the Icelandic sagas. Barthes has argued that the power and mystery of Jacob’s wrestling is created by the overturning of our expectations: in a folktale quest, we expect the sender and the opponent to be different people, whereas in the biblical story, both sender and opponent turn out to be God. We find a similar play with expectations in chapter 8 of Bard’s saga (pp. 246-47): the saga of an áss or local spirit who inhabits the glacier of Snæfell. When local inhabitant Ingjald sets out on a fishing trip, mist and fog soon drift over, limiting visibility and effectively setting the scene at night. He glimpses ‘a man on a boat’ who later names himself Grim and is red-bearded, which might indicate that he is the god Thor (although we are not told this directly). Ingjald suggests that they row back to land, but Grim insists that he wait until he has loaded the boat with fish. How he can compel Ingjald to stay is not stated, but it has been suggested that Ingjald, following the conventions of folktale, hopes to gain a mysterious boon from the stranger, just as Jacob gains a blessing. However, he turns out to be not in a folktale, but in a miracle story, and it is only when, on the point of death, he calls upon Bard for help, that Grim disappears and Bard rows him back to safety. The saga author is not just familiar with the conventions of folklore, but skilled enough to subvert them in a literary way. As when Jacob’s opponent turns out to be God, the effect is to disorientate the reader, creating a powerful sense of the uncanny.

The David Story

It is not just the thematic parallels that are striking here, but also the similarities in style and narrative art. Both biblical and saga narrative combine narrative economy with literary sophistication in a way that encourages us to read between the lines. This is even more true, if possible, of the David story, about which Munro and Chadwick (1936, II, 636) said:            

[The] narrative bears a rather close resemblance to the sagas of Icelanders and to some stories in the Icelandic Sagas of Kings. These sagas show the same verisimilitude and liveliness together with fullness of detail, and in general, though they contain a large imaginative element, they may be regarded as historical authorities.

More recently, John Van Seters (2009, 42) proposed that the sagas were the most appropriate comparative literature for the David story ‘in the specific meaning of the Icelandic and Norse sagas’. Among the areas of overlap, he noted that both deal with the families of a founding age and are intergenerational; both use (written) historical sources but have novelistic (fictional) features; both are anonymous as a matter of style and convention; both are episodic and use feud and rivalry as a uniting theme; both glorify the past but can also parody or subvert literary conventions. In other words, the likeness goes beyond the content of these stories to the way in which they are told.

            I have space here for two examples. The first is a parallel (or lack of parallel) mentioned by Meir Sternberg (1986, 53). In his discussion of biblical ‘prospects’, Sternberg contrasts the portrait of Gunnar in Njáls saga (p. 24) with that of Absalom in 2 Samuel. He argues that we are told that Gunnar has a straight nose that turns up at the end only in order to produce ‘solidity of specification’ (i.e. to make him seem realistic), while in the Bible, the description of Absalom’s abundant hair is a ‘prolepsis’, a kind of ‘realistic indirection’ that takes on meaning only at his death, when it snags in the branches of a tree, leaving him hanging in the air, where he is killed. Sternberg calls this ‘proleptic portraiture’. Perhaps this is true, as far as the upturning of Gunnar’s nose is concerned, but there is a much closer parallel to what the biblical author is doing in the very same saga. When the character Hallgerd is first described, we are told that she had ‘lovely hair, so long that she could wrap herself in it’ (p. 13). When Gunnar first sees her, we are told that ´her hair came down to her breasts and was both thick and fair’ (p. 37). This could be read as an explanation for Gunnar’s ill-omened attraction to her, but the full meaning of it only becomes evident in retrospect. Ambushed in his house and outnumbered by far, Gunnar asks Hallgerd, now his wife, for one strand of her hair to mend his broken bow. She refuses (p. 89). As a result, Gunnar is killed by his enemies, just as Absalom is.

            In this case, both storytellers are using the same technique (prolepsis) which just happens to involve the hair. One might push it a bit further by suggesting that, in both cases, hair is more than hair: Absalom’s abundant locks signal his vanity and self-indulgence, while Hallgerd’s hair reveals in Gunnar a dangerous susceptibility to female charms. But, in my next example, both storytellers seem to stage essentially the same scene, while using different props. In 1 Samuel 15, when the prophet Samuel tells Saul that God has rejected him, Saul grasps at the edge of his robe, tearing it. Samuel responds: ‘The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you’. In chapter 108 of the saga of Olaf Tryggvason, when King Olaf is fighting a losing battle, the bow of the archer standing next to him snaps in two. Hearing the noise, he asks, ‘What snapped?’, to which the reply is: ‘Norway from your hand, O King’ (2011, 227). Once one moves past the superficial difference between cloak and bow, the likeness is striking: both scenes use a visual signifier (the torn cloak, the broken bow), both involve a pun (‘tore’, ‘snapped’), both use direct speech to offer an interpretation (‘Israel from you’, ‘Norway from your hand’) and both share the same context: the transition of political power from one leader to another. One might add that both illustrate the same theme: the fragility of political power and the inscrutability of the divine will.

            Here, however, we come up against a further difficulty: can we be sure that the saga author did not know the narrative of 1 Samuel 15? Indeed, we cannot: the first saga in which this story appears, Odd Snorrason’s saga of Olaf Tryggvason, was written in c. 1190 by a Benedictine monk at the abbey of Thingeyrar in Northern Iceland. When biblical scholars class the sagas as a comparative literature for the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, they are assuming that the sagas have not been influenced directly by biblical stories, whereas in fact the sagas were certainly copied and probably for the most part written down in monastic scriptoria. If Odd Snorrason invented the above story himself, then it’s entirely plausible and even likely that he modelled it on 1 Samuel 15. But if the story was current in oral tradition before Odd wrote it down, then the picture is not quite so clear. There is some evidence that it was current in oral tradition: it exists in at least two other versions, where it is used of a different character and in a different situation. In fact, when an Icelander came to translate 1 Samuel 15 into Old Norse, they may have been thinking of precisely this popular story, for they translate not ‘the Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you’ (as in the Vulgate), but ‘the Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from your hand’ (as in the sagas). 


In my view, there is a genuine likeness between biblical narrative and saga narrative, that extends beyond commonalities in theme and outlook to the art of storytelling itself. But it’s difficult to give a single reason for this: the conditions of settlement and identity formation, the interplay between orality and literacy, and between poetry and prose, even the centralising role of the law might all be cited as reasons why biblical narrative and saga narrative converge. However, the possibility of direct influence cannot be ruled out and a pre-existing likeness might actually have encouraged saga authors to borrow motifs from the Bible as from a storytelling tradition kindred to their own. Either way, reading the Bible through the lens of the sagas, and the sagas through the lens of the Bible, has much to tell us about both these extraordinary traditions of historical prose.



Bard‘s Saga, trans. Sarah M. Anderson, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, ed. Viðar Hreinsson et al. Vol. 2 (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), pp. 237-66.

Barthes, Roland, ‘The Struggle with the Angel: Textual Analysis of Genesis 32:23-33’, in Structural Analysis and Biblical Exegesis: Interpretational Essays, trans. Alfred M. Johnson (Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1974), 21-33.

Barton, John, A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths (London: Penguin, 2019).

Boer, R. C. ‘Die Béowulfsage’, Arkiv for nordisk filologi 19 (1903), 19-88.

Coats, George W., Genesis with an Introduction to Narrative Literature (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1983).

Coats, George W., Moses: Heroic Man, Man of God (Sheffield: JSOT, 1988).

Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. R. C. Boer (Halle: Niemeyer, 1900).

Grønlie, Siân, The Old Testament in Medieval Icelandic Texts: Translation, Exegesis and Storytelling (Cambridge: Brewer, 2024).

Gunkel, Hermann, Genesis, trans. Mark E. Biddle (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997).

Gunkel, Hermann, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga and History, trans. William Foxwell Albright (New York: Schoken, 1964).

Munro, Hector H. and Chadwick, Nora K., The Growth of Literature, 3 vols (London: Cambridge University Press, 1932-40).

Njal’s Saga, trans. Robert Cook, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, ed. Viðar Hreinsson et al. Vol. 2 (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), pp. 1-220.

Oddr Snorrason, The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, trans. Theodore Anderson (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).

Peterson, David L., ‘Genesis and Family Values’, Journal of Biblical Literature 124.1 (2005), 5-23.

The Saga of Grettir the Strong, trans. Bernard Scudder, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, ed. Viðar Hreinsson et al. Vol. 2 (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 42-191.

The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey‘s Godi, trans. Terry Gunnel, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, ed. Viðar Hreinsson et al., vol. 3 (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 261-81.

Snorri Sturluson, Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, in Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Volume I: The Beginnings to Óláfr Tryggvason, trans. Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011), 137-233.

Steinberg, Naomi A., ‘The World of the Family in Genesis’, in The Book of Genesis: Composition, Reception and Interpretation, ed. Craig A. Evans et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 279-300.

Sternberg, Meir, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

Van Seters, John, The Biblical Saga of King David (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009).

Von Rad, Gerhard, ‘The Beginnings of Historical Writing in Ancient Israel’, in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (Edinburgh and London: Oliver & Boyd, 1966), 166-204.

Von Rad, Gerhard, Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972).

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