Folk-Lore/Volume 30/Folk-lore in the Old Testament

692693Folklore,Volume XXX — Folk-lore in the Old TestamentMoses Gaster


A work from the pen of Sir James Frazer commands the respectful attention of all who are interested in the history of civilisation and its primitive origins. But the subject becomes more important when traces of such primitive culture are sought for in the ancient records of the Bible. In a way, the Bible has been throughout the ages a kind of touchstone for every new idea which swayed the western world. Every new theory put forward, every new system, every new phase in the evolution of the human mind was successively, though not successfully, applied to the Bible either with the object of elucidating its supposed true meaning in the light and with the help of the latest theory, or with that of vindicating the truth of the new theory by its agreement with Holy Writ. The history of the exegesis of the Bible proves in consequence to be one of the most fascinating; there are many chapters in it, from Philo to Frazer. Philosophy and mysticism, especially that of the Neo-Platonic school, found their mysteries and speculations already told by Holy Writ, and so one can go from century to century and realise that the Bible has always stood in the centre of the spiritual life of the West.

And when in the last century a new interpretation was started of the ancient Myths of Greece and Rome in the light of the then newly discovered Indian literature, and the first beginnings of comparative mythology led to a new understanding of the vast field of popular beliefs, customs and traditions, the Bible was at once drawn into the midst of these investigations and researches. It is not here the place to follow up in detail the successive phases through which this comparative study has passed and is still passing. For whatever theory had been applied to the elucidation of those ancient myths and legends with the help of the popular beliefs and superstitions, was sure to be applied to the Bible. To the euhemeristic, allegorical and mystical interpretation, to the Astral, the theory of the reproductive powers of nature was added. The whole Biblical narrative with its heroes and legends became the personification of these natural phenomena. It is sufficient to mention at the one end of the chain Nork, with his confused learning and great imagination, Buttmann, etc., and Steinthal and Goldziher at the other, as representing the Sun and Moon and Wind theories.

Modern commentators of the Bible have gone a step further. One has only to look at the works of Bousset, and especially Gunkel in his great commentary on Genesis, not to speak of other scholars, to see them delight in the attempt of comparing Biblical incidents with similar ones in popular legends and fairy tales as if they had made a most wonderful discovery. The student of Folk-lore has only a smile for such "discoveries." Commentators of the Bible often live in a narrow world of their own, like philologists of an older school. What Folk-lorists have seen long ago comes upon them with the suddenness of a revelation. These vagaries of the modern students of the Bible, and especially of the votaries of the cult of Higher Criticism, are often so extraordinary and so full of imagination that one is tempted to look upon them as so many tales—with or without the fairies.

It is refreshing to find now a master in the science of Folk-lore trying his hand and bringing Folk-lore to the Bible and not making the Bible Folk-lore. The foremost modern exponent of the anthropological interpretation of Folk-lore is Sir James Frazer. To him all these legends, customs, practices are survivals from a state of savagery through which every civilisation has of necessity passed, but which it has been unable to discard altogether. Thus according to his theory can the identity of such legends and practices among so many races and nations be satisfactorily explained. Such rude and undigested relics of the past Sir James is trying to find embedded in the stately fabric of the Bible. He has prepared himself for this task by his great work The Golden Bough and other studies which have won for him the great reputation of mastership in his subject. Each of these works is a recognised storehouse of learning. Thus equipped Sir James approached his task of selecting a large number of incidents from the Biblical narrative and subjecting them to a close investigation and to a minute comparison with similar narratives among the nations of the earth. As was to be expected, he paid special attention to the parallels among the backward races. In order to obtain a true insight into the Hebrew text Sir James learned Hebrew and went through the pages of the Bible from beginning to end, studying it side by side with the English translation. One can fully agree with him in the high praise which he bestows upon that translation which approximates as closely as possible to the stateliness of language and the depth of meaning of the Hebrew original.

Without at the same time ignoring the fact that even this translation is open to many objections as far as the accuracy of the rendering is concerned. Sir James approaches his subject moreover in a spirit of touching modesty and freedom from dogmatism which adds still greater value to the results at which he arrives. He does not confuse for one moment the few fossils carried along by the stream of tradition with the majestic flow of law and ethics which have made the Bible The Book. Interesting in this connection is the attitude which he assumes towards Higher Criticism. It is a very interesting fact that Folk-lore should be placed now in the service of Biblical criticism. Beyond and above the light which it is expected to throw on the historical and legendary incidents and on various laws and regulations embodied in the Bible, Biblical criticism will have to take these researches into careful consideration.

A new line of investigation has been opened which may in the long run, nay is sure to prove fruitful in results even if some should prove negative. The main burden consists in running commentaries of diverse sizes, some long some short, on some of the chief incidents of the Biblical narrative. The largest is accorded to the Deluge, which covers no less than 300 pages of the first volume (pp. 104-384). All the Flood stories scattered throughout the world are gathered up, and the author comes to the conclusion that they are independent of one another, local memories of geographical and climatic conditions which have occurred in various parts of the world. And yet the problem remains unsolved. For if such be the case, the details concerning the selection of certain individuals, the manner of rescue and of the re-peopling of the world would not show such startling uniformity as so many of these tales show. Next to it come the various incidents in the life of Jacob, of which each one is treated separately. Such as the heirship, Jacob and the kidskins, Jacob at Bethel, Jacob at the Well, Jacob’s marriage, Jacob and the mandrakes, the covenant on the Cairn, Jacob at the ford of the Jabbok. (Vol. i. pp. 429-567, vol. ii. pp. 1-425.)

Among the incidents in the time of the Judges and Kings, the Witch of Endor comes in for special treatment (vol. ii. pp. 517-554). In vol. iii. the longest chapter is devoted to the boring of the servant’s ear (pp. 165-269), and the Bitter Water (pp. 304-414). The other incidents are treated very summarily, and the author is in most cases satisfied with adducing parallels from the modern popular literature among less civilized races, often without drawing conclusions as to the primitive origin of these tales and the priority of one over the other. Herein lies the real crux of the whole problem, which however can only be lightly touched upon here, viz., what value is to be attached to the parallels of those backward races. Are they to be considered as of independent origin, springing from the primitive mind of man, or are they also the result of migration, starting from one common centre, and being communicated to the other nations in various ways, and especially through the migration and mixing of these races. The possibility of the dissemination of legends and tales from one centre is now being more and more recognised, and the results of such comparative studies would then become a truer chapter in the history of civilisation than by adopting the theory of independent primitive origins, which does not always satisfactorily explain the similarity. Sir James has probably felt this difficulty, and with the true insight of the great scholar that he is, he has often been satisfied with recording the facts without drawing the conclusions. Needless to say that the bibliographical notes and literary references are as full as possible, and will prove of invaluable assistance to the student who wishes to continue these investigations. It cannot be passed over, however, that in the case of many of these stories and incidents there is room for divergence of opinion and fuller treatment than has been accorded to them by Sir James Frazer. Some of them belong to the cycle of ancient magic, and have been treated from that point of view by the present writer in Hastings’ Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, in the article s.v. Magic (Hebrew). Under this heading come Joseph’s Cup, the Witch of Endor, and some portions of the chapter on Oak and Terebinths, all found in the present work. Poorest of all is the chapter on the Solomonic legends, which, like the Alexander legends, have grown in the course of time from a small seed to a mighty tree covering the whole earth.

But, however fragmentary these chapters may be, the work will remain a standard book helping towards the understanding of many obscure and difficult passages in the Old Testament, and explaining many an incident which has baffled the ingenuity of commentators. It brings the Bible within the circle of the modern science of Folk-lore, and will be a powerful stimulant to the investigation of the relation which must have existed between the various nations of East and West. It is thus an invaluable contribution to Biblical Archæology and to the study of the Orient, as well as a widening of the perspective of the comparative study of religion and folk-lore.

A very full index (pp. 481-566) increases greatly the helpfulness of this book for which students can never fail to owe a debt of gratitude to Sir James Frazer.

  1. Sir James George Frazer, Folk-Lore in the Old Testament. Studies in Comparative Religion, Legend, and Law. 3 vols. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd. 1918.