Wednesday, January 20, 2010

How to Read Mythology, 101

All of us understand that fables are not to be taken literally, and it’s an absurdity to expect them to conform to criteria imposed by reality. When a friend starts a funny story with, “A turtle walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a beer…” You don’t stop him, incredulous, and ask him to explain how in the world a talking turtle could exist. You understand it’s just a story, and you immediately suspend your expectation that this story should conform to the rules of reality as you understand them.

The Problem
What we often see with religion is a confusion where the believer suspends his expectation that the story conform to reality, but also asserts the fable is literally true and does, or rather must, literally, conform to reality.

While AETV viewers are well acquainted with the humor value of watching this on an individual level, it’s a bit unbelievable when you realize how many individuals seem to adopt this mode of misreading mythology, regularly, with regard to their respective religions.

Some things have come to the TV-list that drove home for me, with clarity, something most of us have long recognized: These people read fables as though they’re reality. We all know what it means to read “literally.” And as the joke example shows, we also know how to read non-literal tales. But our conversations with theists become confused with regard to currently regarded religious mythologies, because it’s read as literal by some, or even by many. So, while there is little debate when we talk to another modern human about how to read a story about Apollo’s firey chariot, we encounter substantial and very real communication interference when we expect everyone to also understand that modern religious mythology requires the same type of reading.

Consider this a “How to Read Mythology 101.”

What Prompted this Post
I replied to someone on the list who asked where we got the idea that the character of Jephthah was revered in the Bible.

The main character in the tale, Jephthah, is a Judge, a title briefly given to Hebrew leaders in the days before the tribes were ruled by kings. He was also a warrior. And one day during battle the Bible says the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah and he made a deal with Yahweh that if he won the skirmish, he would sacrifice to Yahweh the first thing that came out of his house to greet him upon his return.

Jephthah is victorious. And upon his return, the first thing out of his house to greet him is his beloved, only child—a daughter. Jephthah keeps his promise and sacrifices her as payment to fulfill his obligation to Yahweh.

Many, many, many centuries later, in the New Testament book of Hebrews, chapter 11, Jephthah is heaped with praise as a man of surpassing faith, of whom the world is not worthy.

Many Christians are vaguely familiar with the Old Testament story of the sacrifice, but not the brief mention in Hebrews where Jephthah is held up among the mythic heroes of Hebrew antiquity, revered as icons of faith to Yahweh. If you ask Christians about their view on Jephthah, you’re likely to get back a response like, “Who?” When you tell them, “the guy who sacrificed his daughter to god in the Old Testament,” if the person knows the standard Christian Bible stories, they’ll then know who you mean and, in general, reply that Jephthah was a rash man whose story serves as a cautionary tale about not making rash promises. In other words, they perceive Jephthah’s story as a symbol of a negative social value about how not to behave. And if you ask them what else Jephthah was known for, most of them won’t have a clue.

But if Jephthah’s role in the Bible is to serve as a symbol to others representing how not to behave, that leaves the New Testament reference in Hebrews as a very baffling statement. He’s clearly highly praised, not just as a good person, but a great one, and as someone who demonstrates what the rest of us can only hope to achieve in regard to a relationship with Yahweh.

The author of Hebrews assumes at least two things about his readers: (1) that centuries after the story was written, his audience will still recognize the name of “Jephthah.” And (2) they will recognize him as a positive literary symbol of surpassing devotion to Yahweh, who should be praised and revered for the faith demonstrated by his actions. The character of Jephthah then, unlike today, was apparently not perceived as a fool, but as heroic. His was not, according to the author of Hebrews, a cautionary tale, but an inspirational one.

Reading the Fable of Jephthah
The character of Jephthah illustrates particular positive values held by ancient Hebrews and early Christians, many of whom were also practicing Jews. And for a person to read the story with a positive central character is not hard if we read it using a different value set:

Jephthah, moved by the god, Yahweh, during battle, promises Him He can have anything from his house—bar nothing. And by not naming the payment price, rather than being rash, he’s being as magnanimous as any adherent could possibly be. Jephthah is declaring that Yahweh may name His price for his victory on the field. Rather than leaving it to random chance, which the “cautionary tale” reading asserts, Jephthah is leaving it to divine providence, blindly trusting and submitting to Yahweh’s choice, a reading that aligns perfectly well with what the author of Hebrews asserts. The character in the tale isn’t expecting to sacrifice some insect to Yahweh, some bit of vermin that crawls across his tent’s threshold; he’s expecting Yahweh to choose something of value from his household and usher that thing out the front door the moment he returns home—thus revealing to Jephthah Yahweh’s required price for his Yahweh-assisted victory.

The fact it is his daughter, if we use this reading, is no chance, and no surprise, it’s the price god was told he could dictate when the bargain was struck: Whatever comes out my door, I will sacrifice to you. You ensure my success in life, and I will withhold nothing. And Yahweh, when it comes to sacrifice, always demands the best.

Yahweh is never satisfied with weak, sick, thin nor flawed “sacrifices.” Killing off the things you don’t care about isn’t “sacrifice.” Sacrifice meant then what it means today, times a thousand—giving up something you’ll really miss. And while our own tales of self-sacrifice demonstrate similar commitment, there is a marked difference in degree between “Gift of the Magi” and “Abraham and Isaac.” There is a difference between self-sacrifice for love, and demanding sacrifice from someone else as a demonstration of their love. We all want to give the best we can to those we love; however, Bible stories carry this value to emotionally manipulative and brutal extremes, when compared to our current values.

Cultural Myths Reflect Cultural Values
Faith in the Old Testament did not mean what it means today. Today we have an idea of “faith” in the existence of god; but in the Old Testament, people like Abraham actually spoke to and even interacted with Yahweh directly, so there was no “faith,” in the modern sense, required. Faith to the Hebrew heroes meant belief that Yahweh was trustworthy. This belief was demonstrated by blind devotion, obedience, and sacrifice to an authority who would, in return, allow them to prosper materially.

Operating using our modern Western values, it would be considered “bad” to be in a relationship with someone who demands sacrifices from you as a demonstration of your love for them. Surely, one would have to wonder if the person doing the asking really loved in return? Our culture, despite our adoption of Hebrew myths into our religious sphere, does not consider that value honorable outside of religion. And even within religion, we reject that the character of Jephthah was praiseworthy, in defiance of the declaration of the author of Hebrews, whom we tend to simply overlook—as did the theist who wrote to us asking how we could possibly believe Jephthah was praised in the Bible.

Themes Throughout
Many Old Testament mythological themes are repeated throughout the Bible. And the story of Jephthah is one of those. The theme of sacrificing the “only child” is not isolated to Jephthah. Who hasn’t heard the fable of Abraham and Isaac?

I relayed this fable as well in my reply to the theist who contacted us. In this fable, one day god decides to “test” Abraham and tells him to offer up his beloved, only child, Isaac as a human sacrifice. Abraham offers no protest to Yahweh, who makes preparations to carry out Yahweh’s instructions.

I want to stop here and note another value difference between modern society and ancient Hebrew values. Many modern Christians will assert that if god asked them to do such a thing, they would not believe it was Yahweh, since He would never ask a person to execute such a horrific act. However, note that the author of the “Abraham and Isaac” tale does not seem to have anticipated that objection, and certainly did not feel a need to write that into his plot. Just as the author of Jephthah has him issue no protest when his daughter comes out to greet him, neither does the author of Abraham and Isaac feel any need to make Abraham protest that “the real” Yahweh would never command or allow such an atrocity. Both men accept that this is within the character of Yahweh to ask, and they both submit without question, and are later both praised in Hebrews as men of great faith—examples to us all.

The author of Hebrews says, in chapter 11:17-19, “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son…Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

In other words, the interpretation at the time Hebrews was written was that Abraham believed Yahweh intended to have him execute Isaac as an offering. And Abraham was intent on doing it. But even with the caveat that the early Christians had reasoned Abraham must have thought Isaac would be magically resurrected (this assumption is not included in the Old Testament tale), if this act were portrayed in a modern story, it would still violate our modern values. Even if the modern character believed the dead could be brought back to life—would we then really consider that murdering his own children to appease someone else’s insecurity about his level of devotion would be praiseworthy, rather than sick and twisted? The action in a modern tale could be arguably interpreted as ever so slightly mitigated—perhaps? But praiseworthy? It is something we might expect from a story about a powerful dark sorceress given over to bloodlust and cruelty.

But again, the myths simply reflect the values of the culture. And cultural values change over time. In our case, we have become more independent and compassionate, and less brutal. Even Disney changed the endings of Andersen’s stories to give them happier resolutions. And movies like V, where heroes commit morally ambiguous acts in order to struggle against symbols of evil, raise discussion. In our myths, we like our heroes, generally, to wear the white hat and be always in the right. They kill symbols of evil, the “bad guys”—not children.

Ultimately, however, an angel stops Abraham and god declares that because He sees Abraham won’t withhold the thing most dear, god is satisfied and he doesn’t have to continue with the commanded infanticide.

You Know You’re Reading a Myth When…
But here is an interesting point. When I included “Abraham and Isaac” in my response to the theist who contacted us, I asserted Isaac was Abraham’s “only child”—that he was simply one of the “sacrifice your only child”-themed myths demonstrated in the Bible. Why is that interesting? Because Isaac was not Abraham’s only child. Abraham had a first born son named Ishmael.

My first instinct was to cringe. How could I have made such an obvious error? I knew about Ishmael. And if I were a fundamentalist, I’d jump all over this mistake: Isaac’s story is not an example of the “only child,” because he was not an only child—how much more of a problem could I be confronted with? But more importantly, in considering the myth—why did my brain assign Isaac to “only child” status in this story?

Frankly, it is because Ishmael does not count, if we are reading the myth and not the literal content. Myths are symbolic, just like certain dreams. And as anyone with PTSD can tell you—if you have stress in your real life, it often leaks into your dreams. If we are experiencing something in life that leaves us stressed and feeling like we’re not sure what to do, we might have something called the “maze” dream that will recur. Let’s say we have the following three dreams during a week:

First Dream: I’m on my way to a doctor’s appointment and I get to the building. I get on the elevator and realize I don’t know which floor I’m supposed to go to. In the dream I am going floor to floor trying to find some sign to tell me where this doctor’s office is. I’m getting increasingly frustrated and concerned that I’m missing my appointment. But no matter where I go or what floor I try, I can’t find the office.

Second Dream: I’m driving down the highway, and I take a wrong exit. I try to get back on the highway, but I end up back on heading the wrong way. Meanwhile, I keep seeing signs I don’t recognize, with place names that don’t match anything on my map. The roads are getting more convoluted with twists and turns, and I’m getting upset.

Third Dream: I’m thirteen, and hiking in the woods. It is getting dark and I need to get home. But when I turn to go back down the path, it looks unfamiliar. The trees are not the same species, there is more underbrush, and a creek that wasn’t there before. I desperately try to find the way back. And suddenly I’m aware of something ominous in the woods with me—a wolf or some such thing. I’m beginning to panic.

My counselor asks me if I’ve had any troubled recurring dreams, and I respond that while I’ve had a number of dreams this week that troubled me, they were all quite different—one was about hiking, one was about driving and one was about a doctor’s appointment. And yet, from a “theme” perspective, the dreams were identical events. And a person who reads a fable as literal reality will not understand the message, the meaning, or the actual significance of the tale. In a word, he will entirely miss the point.

In the fable of Abraham, Ishmael is the son of a slave, not of Abraham’s union with his wife. And Ishmael is sent from Abraham’s house as a youth, and never mentioned in conjunction with Abraham again until he attends Abraham’s funeral. As a “son” to Abraham, Ishmael has no meaning. Isaac is the “only son” in the only sense that matters in a myth. If I had the “dream” of Abraham and Isaac, and also the “dream” of Jephthah, those would constitute “the same dream”—embodying the same theme.

Now, while I see this as reasonable, I could not help but think that any fundamentalist would never accept this. They would assert I’m working up an elaborate excuse for my error. To those fundamentalists, I offer the Hebrews passage above from your own New Testament, where the author calls Isaac, as well, Abraham's "only son." But more importanly, the author of the original tale, as it comes to us today in Genesis 22:15-17, agrees with my interpretation as well. This is god’s reply to Abraham, spoken through the angel that stayed Abraham’s infanticidal stroke: “The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, ‘I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you…’”

The character of Yahweh, in his omniscience, also seems to have forgotten Ishmael. If I am accused of error for distorting the meaning of the story—so must be the author of Genesis, so must be the author of Hebrews. The fact is that from a mythic standpoint, Ishmael is simply has no meaning as a “son” to Abraham.

He was only an element in the stories meant to account for some of the other neighboring Hebrew tribes. Where did these similar tribes come from? From Abraham as well—but from an inferior mother—Ishmael, the surrogate slave son. So, with some neighboring tribes, it appears the Hebrews admitted or believed some ancient kinship—but still asserted their heritage as the superior bloodline. And Ishmael is the fable accounting for that in the same way Romulus and Remus, twins raised by a she-wolf, account for Roman roots.

The story is legend, which is how it needs to be read. And the authors themselves support this reading. Is it based on some ancient personages? Maybe. But in our time, the idea that the tales are literal histories—undistorted facts—is simply not demonstrated as intended by the authors. We observe the theme of the “sacrifice of the only child”—in a story where the “only child” simply cannot be literally read.

Repeating Themes Flag Symbolic Language
And we see it as well in the New Testament, where Yahweh, the god who, we are told by modern Christians, reviles human sacrifice, executes his grand plan to bathe the word in the blood of the greatest human sacrifice ever made: The sacrifice of Yahweh’s obedient, beloved “only child.”

Once again, primed with stories from the Hebrew past, which show us that killing your only child is the best way to show you care, Yahweh demonstrates his merciful love of humanity (who, not to be forgotten, in no way deserves it), by offering up Jesus as a human blood sacrifice. That’s his master plan of salvation: offering Himself a brutal and bloody human sacrifice, born out of historic themes of infanticide, somehow intended as a demonstration of tenderness. I don’t know whether it’s more amazing people believe this or that they even are capable of understanding it as coherent or reasonable in the modern age? This type of dysfunction would be patently condemned anywhere else in our society outside of religion.

While some may protest Jesus was a god—it’s clear from abundant Biblical references that Yahweh was the father, Jesus was the son, and that Jesus was still described repeatedly as being human. From 1 Timothy’s description that he “appeared in the flesh,” to Galatians’ assertion he was “born of a woman,” there’s no reasonable denying the humanity of Jesus described in scripture—even if, as a modern literalist, you assert he was also in some way god.

This is only one of many repeating themes in the Bible that should signal we’re reading a myth. There are many others to choose from. In fact, Isaac demonstrates another—the usurpation of the first born son. But I’ll save that for another post, since I’m overlong again already.


  1. Ishmael I believe was an illegitimate son so he didn't count (he was sired by a brood mother rather than Abraham's wife I believe). God refers to Issac as the ONLY son because he's the only one that counts. Ishmael isn't his son in the tribal inheritance sense, he was a failed attempt to make a faux proxy son that was rendered obsolete and useless when Issac was born. As you said God is demanding Issac specifically because Issac has value, if he said "your son" Abraham would have room to weasel out by sacrificing the useless bastard son.

    Interesting the idea of the illegitimate or adopted son being disregarded and cast aside once the father has a real son is itself a popular mythic motif. Edgar from King Leer is a good example where the same story was invoked to create a villain that can be both sympathetic due to back story and a complete magnificent bastard. Less classic works like Eragon and yugioh have used the element with Eragon playing it straight (bastard son vs legitimate) and if i remember what my cousin said yugioh subverting it.

    /myth geek fillibuster.

  2. Interesting post Tracie. Thanks. One quick comment. I don't think "fable" is the right word for these stories. I'm no expert in literature but I think fables have to include talking animals or plants. Perhaps parable is better? Or myth, legend?

  3. tracieh said:
    The author of Hebrews says, in chapter 11:17-19, “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son…Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

    I really liked the article, but I had a quick question on the passage above (not at all a bible expert). Could the assertion that 'god can raise the dead' be referring to the after-life? That he knew that he was sending his son to a better place (in the story at least) where he'd be reborn?

  4. Hi Ing:

    Actually, Ishmael was the son of Sarah’s handmaid and a legitimate heir to Abraham according to custom. If you read the story of Rachael and Leah, you see they give up their handmaids as well to bear children to their husband on their behalves. And the father, Jacob, accepts them all as sons. Rejecting Ishmael was not the result of the birth of Isaac, but the result of Sarah’s jealousy.


    Just to be sure, I looked it up, fable is OK. But thanks for the check.


    No. The reference in Hebrews had to tie into a literal problem: Isaac was connected to promises god made to Abraham that had not come to pass. In other words, Isaac was necessary in the real world for real reasons that Abraham had discussed with Yahweh. Isaac was required to live in the hear and now to fulfill those terms. The author of Hebrews was extrapolating that Abraham must have reasoned that Isaac could not die and remain dead--or else Yahweh had lied. And since Abraham had "faith" in god's promises about his future and Isaac's role in that future, Abraham had great "faith" and is mentioned in the "great faith" roll call in Hebrews. But thanks for asking, it was a good question.

  5. Tracie, entries like this are why you're my atheist heroine. Your posts are always thought-provoking, and I can tell you've put a lot of time and effort into them. I really look up to you as a fellow female atheist in the South, and I appreciate everything you do for the atheist community. Have you considered writing a book? 'Cuz, I'd totally buy it :)


  6. Interestingly enough a common response I have seen to Jephthah is that he never sacrificed his daughter, or that he couldn't have because it would have violated some law. This is particularly prevalent amongst the crazies at Ray Comfort's blog.

    Also Yahweh, being God, had to know what the sacrifice was going to end up being when he made the deal.

    So basically God tricked Jephthah into sacrificing his daughter.

    And as you say, he's considered an Old Testament hero.

  7. I got into that exact conversation about Jephthah just this afternoon with some Mormon missionaries. They had no idea what to say when I pointed out the Hebrews verses. It was just one of many "um, we'll get back to you on that" moments.

  8. "Hi Ing:

    Actually, Ishmael was the son of Sarah’s handmaid and a legitimate heir to Abraham according to custom. If you read the story of Rachael and Leah, you see they give up their handmaids as well to bear children to their husband on their behalves. And the father, Jacob, accepts them all as sons. Rejecting Ishmael was not the result of the birth of Isaac, but the result of Sarah’s jealousy."

    I stand corrected. I had assumed that the 'only son' thing was some translation error from Hebrew or some stuff with the tribal laws. Looks like it's a legit plot hole. I stand by what I said though about the favored son thing being a mythological motif.

  9. Excellent essay. Helps bring perspective to 'sacrifice' of Jesus.

  10. Hi Emily:

    As wordy as I get in the blog, you'd think writing a book would be something I couldn't stop myself from doing if I tried. But I can't seem to write in that vein. So, no plans. But I appreciate your kind words. And I'm glad to see female atheists becoming more active.


    Yes, in the Bible there are other passages that describe human sacrifice. They use the exact same language as the passages describing animal sacrifice, and lack any clear reference to indicate the people weren't killed. But if you are a literalist, you have to reconcile other Bible content that seems to denounce human sacrifice. So you assert Jephthah can't have really killed his daughter, because this other story over here, says god rejects human sacrifice. Basically, you just grab a totally different tale, and assert the rules and values of one myth must be applied to the rules of the other. And instead of negating the "hate human sacrifice" value--you just choose "killed his daughter" as the losing value--because it's easier to stomach for you personally. But if you read the tales simply as tales that stand on their own, there is no problem. In societies, there are often varying values. Look at these two words of wisdom for example:

    "Look before you leap."

    "He who hesitates is lost."

    In our culture, we often refer to one or the other in situations where someone is presented with an opportunity--even though they're clearly contradictory perspectives on how to proceed. Also, the OT was written over long periods of time. Consider the U.S. position on Slavery 200 years ago, versus our position today. Think of how two writers from our own culture might compare. It's wrong to assert that if Hebrews wrote one story, and also another, they must not contradict--as both were written by Hebrews. It's a very simplistic and unsupported view of literature and social evolution.


    Thanks for the confirmation. Yes, most Christians aren't familiar with the New Testament praise.


    No problem. And I agree, obviously, about the motif of the only son. We all live and learn.


    Thanks! Glad it was helpful.

  11. Tracie,

    This is slightly off topic, but Dr. Richard Elliott Friedman in his book The Bible with Sources Revealed, posits that it is possible in the original E source story of Abraham and Isaac that Isaac was killed.

    The evidence he provides is

    1. In E God is always referred to as Elohim, thus why it is called E, but suddenly right in the middle of the story an angel of YHWH shows up.

    2. Verses 11-15, which describe the angel's instructions are enclosed in a resumptive repetition in which the angel calls out two times.

    3. Follow the repetition, the angel or Elohim says, "Because you did this thing and didn't withold your son."

    4. The story concludes, "And Abraham went back to his boys." Isaac is not mentioned - even though Abraham told the boys, "We'll come back to you."

    5. Isaac never appears in another story attributed to E source.

    6. In the E story of Mount Horeb in Exodus 24, there is a chain of eighteen parallels of language with this story of Isaac, but not one of those parallels comes solely from the angel intervention verses (11-15).

    7. There is a group of midrashic sources that say that Isaac was in fact sacrificed.

    The problems of course are the promise God made to Abraham through Isaac, but that was in a J source story.

    E never explains who Jacob's father is, but Abraham is given another wife immediately after the Isaac sacrifice in the E source.

    Just something interesting, wondering if you had heard that before.

  12. Regarding the popular apologetic that Jephthah never actually killed his daughter, I was sent a link to a site that made this particular argument. (

    My response was (edited with an addition):

    So, he begins by arguing for a different translation...changing the word 'and' to 'or'. That's not a trivial change. Curiously, this person thinks they're more qualified than all of the expert translators who have translated most of the various English versions we currently use. Additionally, even versions like the NIV - famous for 'softer' interpretations - use the word 'and'.

    If he wasn't going to kill her, then why does he get so sad and angry that he tears his clothes when he sees what he must sacrifice? And why doesn't this revisionist apologist include that verse in his analysis?

    Finally, claiming "she wasn't actually a human sacrifice" (even though the text clearly implies that she was) is actually a red herring. It ignores the core point: it doesn't matter whether he offered her as a virgin burnt sacrifice or just offered her as a perpetual virgin servant to the temple....both cases include God awarding a military victory in exchange for either the sacrifice of the life or virginity and freedom of some other human being. She was treated as property, offered up with no regard for her wishes (clearly violating her wishes as she went off to cry for months). That's not the act of a loving god. That's not the act of a god that values free will. That's not the act of a loving father. That's not the act of anyone who values people, their freedom and their desires equally.

    Add in claims about a God with foreknowledge of the specifics of the sacrifice and things only get worse.

  13. @Tracy

    I oddly find myself in your place now. I can't believe I forgot that part in the story and somehow it seemed more reasonable to me that I was missing something in the translation that explained it rather than it being a huge gaping plot hole.

  14. On an unrelated note, does anyone know anything about the Gospel of Eve? Crack has it listed as a lost sexbook of the bible. Their articles are often humorous but also sometimes erroneous so I was wondering if anyone knew about this.

  15. Beam:

    No, I’m not familiar with that. Although I did know the E and J situation. That’s another thing most “regular” theists don’t know—that these are collected tales put down much later that strongly assert different sources and versioning. And this is why you sometimes see stories repeated right after they’ve been told. Interestingly, The end of Mark has a repetition like this at the end of the book—right at the point of resurrection. And this is also identified as interpolated text. Whenever you hear a story, and hear it again, think: two different versions that may not align. Exactly right.

    The points you raise are interesting. There are a lot of theoretical constructs about the tales that I find interesting. And I just watched a program about the Qumran scrolls that indicated they’re still wading through them. I found that interesting because a lot of claims about how “valid” the texts have been shown to be in the OT are tossed around—but they don’t every note that we haven’t gone through all the material yet. Meanwhile, the translators in the program—some of whom were clearly theistic, admitted to things like missing prophecies in the texts we use, and differences in the stories. One guy suggested it might be time to revise the Bible and fix a slew of the more significant problem/errors that have been identified.

    The translation of Yahweh and El as “god” and “lord” is problematic—because the readers often assume it is the same personage being referenced in all cases. It adds, I think questionably so, to the idea that the books are homogenous and intended to be read as a single story/history, when in fact they’re collected works.

    We had an e-mail from an author recently who wrote to say that if you took his short stories (he’s written several), and added a few assumptions here and there, they could be put together as a cohesive story that takes place over a few centuries—even though he never intended them to be put together that way. I thought it was an interesting observation about how you can force unrelated—or weakly related—writings to become a single book—even if the authors disagree on core issues, but are writing on the same, or similar, topics.


    Serious thanks for that. You had turned me on to some of the other human sacrifice references in the texts that I did not recall from Sunday school. And I was stunned when I read them as well.


    Yes, I was shocked to have forgotten Ishmael, but moreso to see “only son” right there in the texts, repeatedly. It’s very clear that the tale should be read through the filter of psychological “meaning” rather than literal detail.

  16. @ Tracy

    Now I have to go back and see the exact wording...cause if God just siad "sacrifice your son" instead of just saying "your son Issac" then Abraham is a moron. Since he has his wife giving him a hard time about this other son and God wants him to kill one...if God didn't specified there was an easy way out of both problems. I'm not arguing that's a good idea but that's how it would have happened in the Greek myths. But they kind of had more of the theme of man outsmarting god/ogre/etc where I guess this myth is about obedience.

  17. Fascinating post, as always. I got aware only relatively recently of the story of Jephthah. I think it is a more "honest" version of the sacrifice of Abraham story, told to its logical conclusion, without the last minute deus ex machina intervention of an angel. A bit like Perrault's version of Little Red Riding Hood compared to the one of the Grimm brothers.

  18. Hey Matt, since we're discussing E and J sources, I'd like to bring up the whole issue of Noah and how many of each kind he brought along. You've complained before about people who claim there is a contradiction, because in your view it's clear - seven of the clean animals and two of everything else.

    But it seems to me there IS a contradition. In one place (Genesis 7:2) it makes the clean/unclean distinction, but in 6:19, 7:9, and 7:15, it just says two of everything, clean and unclean, in pretty clear language.

    I had the impression that these discrepancies were likely due to the E/J thing, but how do you not see these as contradictions?

    Oh, and one more thing:
    My favorite Noah cartoon

  19. @ Curt

    In Catholic school I was taught the contradiction wasn't the # it was the idea of clean/unclean where the rules of Kosher are not brought up until Moseiac law.

  20. Oh, and Tracie, like others I would strongly encourage you to write a book. About Biblical myths maybe? You could spend an extensive chapter about that topic you put on a post "dying for a lie". I still think it is probably the best post ever written here since I started following this blog (no offence to anyone, this blog is quality stuff, but that was outstanding).


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