Modern difficulties to reconcile the majestic stories in the Torah have compelled many skeptics to attempt a varied route from absolute belief. Instead of deluding themselves into a belief they struggle with, they have proposed alternative possibilities. Rabbi Norman Solomon, for example, proposed the concept of ‘foundational myths’. In reconciliation with ahistorical aspects of the Biblical narrative, he believes that there is a binding impact on the Jewish fate as a spiritual truth. Defining myth in the anthropological sense unifies the collective identity in a history of cultural affinity. Other thinkers have followed this claim, and it is intriguing to note if this mythic note is not only substantiated but sustainable.
Myth is generally defined as a fable, an untrue story. We designate the celestial sphere of the Greeks to mythological lore, a tale with no evidence. I am curious if, as a society, we assign mythology to ancient Greece in the promotion of monotheistic superiority or secular scientific deductions. Nevertheless, much of the ancient religiosity is considered lore. Yet, this is the classic definition but not the only one. Myth has an additional explanation in anthropology. This designation cares less for historical truth and more for functional truth. Meaning, Greek mythology is irrelevant on a validity scale but critical on a systemic one. Whether the events occurred has little bearing on the ultimate study of lifestyle. Lore indeed influences lifestyle. The Greeks built the systems based on mythology, but objecting to their beliefs does not change their communal expression. What rises out of the mythology need not be objectively correct but rather subjectively inferred.
Judaism works somewhat differently as there is more emphasis on dogma and positivism than its ancient counterpart. The late rise of dogmatic affiliation in Jewish history whether coerced by Christian and Islamic doctrinal constructions or not is of little relevance. The dogmatic insistence by Maimonides and other medieval sages conflicts with the larger practice-centered history but we need not engage in a philological legitimacy test. Even without Maimonides’ theological model, it would be hard-pressed to find someone who would concede mythical revelation as a traditionally accepted opinion. Whether orthodox or not, such an approach does not seem to jive in the historical canon. Yet, we do not need to write it off. With growing metaphorical concessions of the early Genesis stories more may be included. The Patriarchs, Exodus or wandering in the desert are not necessarily fictional, but the supernatural aspects are difficult to accept. The Bible is not a history book and does not attempt to educate literally. Still, historical narratives seemingly conveyed to us on the journey from the roots to entering Israel.
The Bible courageously maintained its own mythology unprovoked by pagan myths despite their rampant influence. There were small sects who caved to pagan ideology and engaged in their practice, but that was an aversion to tradition. Those who fell victim to pagan worship were not adhering to the Bible. The Bible itself is devoid of pagan ideology. Some laws convey a sense of redirection or polishing pagan norms, whether animal sacrifice or building a temple (Guide 3:32). The essence of Judaism denies all forms of paganism. God is supreme over their gods. He is above them, and they are crumbs to his power. Other worshipping ideologies persisted and captured the hearts of the Israelites (Judges 2:11), but it did not corrupt the Bible, just the people. These practices replaced the Bible.
Jewish mythology has its celestial framework but operates differently. The prophets focused more on theology than mythology. It was not narratives about God’s beginning but his relationship with a man. The Talmud discusses demons and such, but Maimonides rejects these as foreign influences (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 11:16). Other examples are the leviathan (Bava Batra 75a) and the one-horned deer (‘keresh’) (Shabbat 28a) mentioned in allegories that need not be understood literally. Angels appear in the biblical narrative but as messengers not necessarily as lofty beings (Genesis 18:21-22). The concern should be focused less on the accurate depiction and more on the values emerging.
Solomon’s approach is inconsistent with traditional Jewish thought. Still, his position amongst the mythic perspectives can provide a remedy to skeptics who wish to connect but struggle accepting the literalism. God need not be erased either. Biblical mythology is the core of the Jewish framework. There is immense value in this approach even if untraditional. Metaphorically interpreting verses firstly does not reject the possibility and does provide an alternative that bolsters the agnostic tone. Even if it did not occur, it is still meaningful and empowering to the Jewish memory. Tradition is integral not for accurate history but what it means to Judaism.
James Barr, “The Meaning of “Mythology” in Relation to the Old Testament” Vetus Testamentum 9:1 pp. 2-4.
Joshua A. Berman, Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid Books, 2020), pp. 8 n. 65, 10, 192-195
Neil Gillman, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew (JPS: Philadelphia, 1990), pp. 25-30).
Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile trans. and abrid. Moshe Greenberg (Schocken Books, 1972), pp. 21, 32.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets. New York: Harper & Row, 1962 pp. 5-6.
Tamar Ross, “Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Biblical Criticism:Some Reflections on the Importance of Asking the Right Question.” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies Vol 14, No. 1 pp. 11-14.
Solomon Schechter, “The Dogmas of Judaism” The Jewish Quarterly Review 1:1 pp. 48-61.
Norman Solomon, Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith (Oxford/Portland, Oregon: Littman, 2012), pp. 320-321.
Shubert Spero, “The Biblical Stories of Creation, Garden of Eden and the Flood: History or Metaphor?” Tradition 33:2 pp. 5-18.