Some Early Hebrew Legends

Some Early Hebrew Legends  (1910) 
by Ralph Vary Chamberlin

Some Early Hebrew Legends
With Special Reference to Babel.
By R. V. Chamberlain.

The ability to write history is not an innate power of the human mind. Uncivilized races have no impulse or desire to leave to posterity an accurate account of their deeds; nor do they possess naturally the power of reproducing their experiences objectively. As with young children, so with them, fact and fancy mingle quickly and inseparably. Their narratives take on inevitably a poetical form; their historical occurrences are transmitted only in song and story, where art has its due license. Only after a race has reached a considerably advanced stage in civilization and has become politically organized does objectivity become sufficiently developed and distinct and the interest in leaving accurate records of the great events of a time sufficiently strong to make possible the writing of history.

Evidently oral tradition cannot remain unchanged or uncorrupted very long; whence, history, in its very nature; demands a written record. The traditions of those who do not write inevitably undergo corruption and intermixture in transmission. Such traditions are termed legends. A considerable body of a people never rise to an appreciation of real history; and among such legend continues to hold sway. Hence, we may in this way have the two currents of written history and of unwritten tradition running on side by side, the latter treating, to some extent, different aspects of the same events as the former, but more especially dealing, in poetic way, with older, prehistoric occurrences. The popular legends of this kind, when brought together, give use the folk-books of different countries.

History further differs from legend, on the whole, in kind of subject matter. It treats, particularly, large movements of public import, the popular leaders, wars, etc.; while legends deal more especially with private or personal matters, such as appeal to the interest of the common people. When legend does deal with great national heroes or events, the ten­dency is for this same personal side to be emphasized. It in­ forms us of "unimportant anecdotes of country life, stories of springs, of watering-troughs, and such as are told in the bed-cham­ber" interesting in themselves, often enough, but by no means of historical rank. History coun­tenances only such reports as are verifiable; but legend is in no way concerned in establishing a clear chain of evidence to or through eye-witnesses, the imagination in time contributing much of its ma­terial. From the demand that these popular stories be interest­ing and full of action they be­ come inevitably much altered through such contributions of the imagination. Very frequently they come to relate things that would be regarded as wholly in­ credible according to the ordinary canons of common sense or of his­tory. The presence of these in­ credible elements is one of the surest indications of legendary character.

History among the Hebrews, as among other peoples, followed, in the manner indicated above, the earlier period in which oral tra­dition prevailed. It would be truly remarkable if this race, so highly gifted in the poetic faculty, and so intensely religious, had not developed in rich abundance the form of poetry, termed legend— for legends must be classed with poetry, their purpose being to please, to teach, and to inspire or elevate. And, as a matter of fact, anyone who reads the Old Testa­ment understandingly, and sympatheticically must recognize much poetry of this kind, form­ing, as it does, some of its most interesting and affecting portions. Some of the earlier sections of the Old Testament, such as Genesis, it is clear, had been matters of popular tradition for a great length of time before their final collection and commitment to writing.

If people would cease making the senseless "confusion between legend and lying" and recognize that legends are poetry and that they must be treated and inter­preted as such, they would no longer hesitate to acknowledge that the Bible contains them. To perceive their presence is not to take a step toward scepticism, but rather is to take a step toward per­ceiving the beauty and under­ standing the significance of the narrative. It is a matter of get­ ting correct knowledge. To one who reads with feeling and some­ thing of an aesthetic sense, to eliminate the poetry existing in the form of these legends would be to take away much that gives the loftiness and perennial inter­ est to the Old Testament.

How, then, shall we interpret these legends when they are rec­ognized? In the first place, not as history. But, on the other hand, it must be kept in mind that they come from a time when man did not—were not intellectually able to—distinguish between poetry and reality; and, hence, it would be an error scarcely less great to regard them as allegorical and symbolic and as never intended to represent reality. The legends are not the product of any one man, or of any one generation, although the artistic form of some of them suggest the final touch of the professional; but rather, in be­ing passed on from generation to generation, they come to be large­ly the product of the race as a whole, clearly reflecting the intel­lect, the ideals, and the hopes of the times from which they have been transmitted. Point and meaning the legends always have, for this is an invariable condition to their persistence; but this point and meaning can be arrived at only through a recognition of the nature of legends and of the con­ditions under which they arise.

Many of the legendary stories are clearly intended to answer questions. A reflecting person I may see how stories of this type arise in any country district. But the general origin of legends will be understood with especial clear­ness by one who has had, at first hand, close acquaintance with un­tutored savages, such, for exam­ple, as. the Indians. Why does the crane have such slender legs? The Indian answers with a story. Why is the Great Salt Lake so briny? Again he has a tale. Why the red earth at the mouth of Red Butte canyon? A legend tells. Why one kind of pinenut in the Rocky mountains, and another kind in the Deep Creek mountains? A tale, which the Indian believes sincerely, supplies the informa­tion. Why the rain-bow? Why the howling of the coyote at night? Why the quills of the por­cupine? Why the parasitic habit of the mistletoe? Why this deep cave or that great isolated crag? Why this ceremony or that cus­tom? Why so many tongues and tribes? — such questions have been asked over and over again by each new generation, and the old men have answered with pointed stories which they tell to a never-tiring circle around the winter camp-fires.

So, too, beautiful stories were told in answer to ever recurring questions about the camp fires of Israel. Such older variants of these as we have recovered to us are in metrical form; hence, it is believed that they were at first sung, only later being recorded in the prose form in which they are mostly recorded in the Bible. A few of the legends are from faded myths. Such a myth is clearly indicated, in the reference to the conflict between Jehovah and Rahab, the great monster living in the waters under the earth, in which Jehovah triumphs and cleaves Rahab in twain. Some of the legends of this class are ef­forts at answering questions, such as we are, at times asked even to this day by our children and which, moreover, are often, at bottom, profound questions which science today is still seek­ing to solve. Why does man die? Whence is his body and lan­guage? Whence the love of the sexes? Why does the snake lack legs and thus have to crawl upon its belly? Why must woman suf­fer and man toil? What is the rainbow and its meaning? To ask questions is innate in man—the child comes into the world with "Why" on its lips. Ask questions man will; and answer them he will as best he may. It is inevitable that a primitive people should ask the reason for tribal relations and boundaries. The Israelites asked these questions and we have the legends in which the answers came to be given. These were their first ef­forts at a philosophy of history. In these legends the underlying relations are commonly historical; but the explanations are clearly poetic. Why was Canaan the ser­vant of his brethren? Why had Ishmael become a Bedouin peo­ple? Plow did it come about that Gilead should separate Israel and the Arniaeans? And so on. The stories in which the answers were given are well known. In con­nection with these may be men­tioned the legends that seek to an­swer certain geological questions. What was. the origin of the Dead Sea and the surrounding desert? The sin of the inhabitants brought upon the region a curse. Whence the pillar of salt near by which so much resembles a wom­an? The familiar story of Lot tells.

Among the Israelites what may be called ceremonial legends were conspicuous. Customs and cere­monial legends were conspicuous. Customs and ceremonies are ex­tremely persistent, and, among different peoples, are often ob­ served long after their origin and original significance have com­pletely faded. It is well known to be so in the churches of Chris­tendom, even. The beginnings of the multitude of ceremonies and customs of the Hebrew were, at the earliest known time, mostly obscure or wholly lost. The ever- present "why" on the lips of the more inquiring adults and espe­cially of the wide-eyed children here again demanded explana­tions. A host of legends in time resulted from this demand; for the real, historical reasons it was impossible for anyone to have given. Why was it forbidden to eat the meat from the hollow of the thigh? Because God struck Jacob there while wrestling with him at Penuel. (Gen. 32.) And why did people limp in passing through this place? In memory of Jacob who was thus lamed there in this wrestling bout. Why the sanctuary at Bethel? Because a certain stone there served as a pillow to Jacob during the night in which he dreamed of the lad­der reaching to heaven. And, sim­ilarly almost, every other sanc­tuary had a legend explaining its origin or first anointing. These legends are invaluable in giving us an insight into the early reli­gious feeling among this people.

Finally, we may mention the class of legends having for their object the explanation of proper names, which, so often, are very old and much altered in form. The tendency to seek an explanation of such names is widespread and inveterate in the human race. There are many people among us who believe unquestioningly that the Connecticut river was so called in the first place because it runs between and thus "con­nects" New Hampshire and Ver­mont, while it runs across and so divides or "cuts" Massachusetts. Manhattan was not so called be­ cause of the exclamation of an Indian upon seeing there for the first time a colonist wearing a great Dutch hat, "Man hat on," although a story so affirms. Many stories current in London purport to explain the origin of the name of a certain street generally called "Rotten Row," but which, as a matter of history, comes from the French "Route en roi." Some peo­ple in Utah, likewise, take seri­ously the story that Ogden re­ceived its name from the words of an early English traveler who, in disgust with the place, exclaimed "It's an 'og den (hog den)."

Legends having an etymologic­al reference are especially com­mon in the Old Testament. As with other early peoples, and as with the uneducated classes of to­ day, the etymologies given in these legends are often extremely naeve and far from sound. Beersheeba is explained as originating from Abraham's giving to Abimilech seven (Sheba) lambs at the well there. (Gen. 21.) The name Isaac (more exactly Jishak) is ex­plained by the story that when his birth was foretold to his mo­ther she laughed (Sahak.) (Gen. 8.) Jacob is, with wide license, interpreted "heel-holder," the sto­ry being that at birth he held his twin brother by the heel and thus robbed him of his birth right. (Gen. 25 .) Reuben is loosely re­ferred to "rah beonji," he hath regarded my misery (Gen. 29.) And so in many other cases.

The child-like naturalness and simplicity of many of the ety­mological explanations is well il­lustrated by the legend of Babel (Heb. Babel). In Babylon there was a multitude of tongues due to the coming together there of many nationalities. The Hebrews made a connection between this fact and the name of the place, ex­plaining Babel as a derivative of their word balal, to confound, ut­terly unmindful of the fact that Babel is not a Hebrew word and that in its proper language it un­mistakably means "Gate of the Gods."

In Babylon and Assyria tall pyramidal temple towers, built for purposes of religious worship and of astronomical observation, were very common. The tower of Ba­bel referred to in the. Biblical le­gend and those of various neigh­ boring peoples seems most likely, although not with entire certain­ty, to have been the tower of Borsippa, concerning which an in­scription found on a cylinder re­ covered from the ruins of Baby­lon speaks as follows: "The build­ing named the Stages of the Sev­en Spheres, which was the tower of Borsippa, had been built by a former king. He had completed forty-two cubits, but he did not finish its head. During,the lapse of time it had become ruined. They had not taken care of the exit of waters so that rain and wet had penetrated into the brick­ work; the casing of burned brick had swollen out, and the terraces of crude brick are scattered in heaps."

A great tower of this kind left unfinished and falling to ruin, must have excited the wonder of people seeing it or hearing of it. Legend must quickly surround it. It was a very natural thing for the Hebrews, in story, to connect it with the confusion of tongues so conspicuous in Babylon — for, with the lapse of time, the ten­dency is ever for legends origin­ ally distinct to become united into larger units and to become asso­ciated with less distant things. The use of such towers for astron­omical purposes would be easily suggestive of the Hebrew and Arabic beliefs that the builders of the great tower were attempting to get near to the star or to reach heaven. To the Hebrew this would seem especially impious and a just cause for the divine wrath. Now a difference in lan­guage is obviously a disadvantage —an evil; and, since languages were then believed to be directly given by God, the confusion at Babylon would readily appear as a curse laid by God in his anger upon the builders of the tower. To the writer the story seems quite possibly to have been a re­moulding of an older legend un­der particularly suggestive con­ditions, as has frequently hap­pened in other cases. Oral tradi­tions preserves real history but a few generations.

Of course, it is now well known that we have records in several languages much older than the dates given for Babel, and that there is not the slightest ground for thinking that languages ac­tually began as a historical fact at the time or in the way de­scribed. Obviously the story gives no heed to the real antiquity of the races, to the clear contra­ diction of narratives found else­ where in scripture, to the wide distribution of the races or to their phyicsal differences which are far more deep-seated than their languages, etc. But the le­gend conveys a strong lesson in revealing to us vividly the He­ brew faith in the supremacy of God and in the punishment which he visits upon pride and arro­gance in man.

In the folk-stories of races of various other countries we find stories accounting for the differ­ences in language, some of them much suggesting the Hebrew ac­ count. Some of this type may be mentioned. The Hindu legend is as follows: "There grew in the center of the earth the wonderful 'knowledge tree.' It was so tall that it reached almost to heaven. It said in its heart, 'I shall hold my head in heaven and spread my branches over all the earth, and gather all men together un­der my shadow and protect them and prevent them from separating.' But Brahma, to punish the pride of the tree, cut off its branches and cast them down on the earth, when they sprang up as wata trees, and made differences of belief and speech and custom to prevail on the earth."

In Greece the legend recounts how the Aloidae piled Mount Ossa upon Olympus and then, in turn, Mont Pelion upon Ossa, in an effort to reach heaven and overthrow Zeus or Jupiter. Later, in the mind of Plato, the legend was, developed in more serious form. He held that there was a Golden Age in which men and animals all spoke a common tongue; but that, finally, Zeus confounded, their speech because men had become arrogant and demanded eternal youth and immortality.

Among various other peoples, legends concerning the origin of languages existed; but these were mostly less suggestive of the Hebrew narrative. Peoples exchange nothing so readily and so persistently as their stories and wherever races, have-had opportunity for contact we find evidences of such interchange. No greater error could be made, however, than to suppose that resemblances between. The stories of different peoples are necessarily to be accounted for on the ground of contact and borrowing, or of common traditions. By such hasty inference, different men have proved to their own satisfactions that the American Indians have descended from the English, from the Welsh, from the Greeks, from the Romans, from the Chinese, and from other peoples. The cause of resemblances is frequently psychological, for the mind of man is pretty much the same, wherever found, and inclined much to follow the same or closely parallel paths when seeking solutions to identical questions under conditions largely similar. Any one who has observed the untaught child spontaneously asking the same questions generation after generation, and just as spontaneously reaching the same or closely similar conclusions, will recognize the importance of psychological parallels in bringing about general resemblances between many folktales of different primitive peoples irrespective of any physical contact between them.

A person setting out specially to find resemblances between the stories and legends of any two peoples is likely to find them and, perhaps, duly to exaggerate them and to read into them much that is wholly unwarranted. Primitive peoples do not hold in common the view that there is a canopy over the earth because of any common tradition, but only because they are subject to the same optical illusion. And they all believe the sun moves across the sky and that the earth remains still because their minds act in the same way in interpreting identical phenomena. Similarly, they do not attribute a deity to every spring and stream, to volcano and wind, to the thunder and storm, and think of one back of every natural phenomena because of common origin or tradition; they do so because, it is the nature of the human mind in a certain stage of its development so to interpret causation.

The question concerning the origin of differences in tribe and language is one which must necessarily arise and which must necessarily receive some answer among the most diverse peoples and races. Primitive man quite as inevitably regards language as the direct gift of a God as he would look to the same source for the cause of wind or volcano. Diversity in language being obviously a hindrance and an evil among- men would naturally be regarded as brought about by God or by gods in anger at some offense or usurpation among men. The fact that legends concerning a confusion of tongues are widespread and in certain general features similar, is only what might be expected—it is no proof of a common tradition of an actual historical occurrence or of actual physical contacts Correspondence in myths and legends of peoples must be both extensive and detailed to establish community of source or of physical contact.

Only the childish and immature mind can lose by learning that much in the Old Testament is poetical and that some of the stories are not true historically. Poetry is a superior medium for conveying religious truth. "Everyone who perceives the peculiar poetic charm of these old legends must feel irritated by the barbarian—for there are pious barbarians—who think he is putting the true value upon these narratives only when he treats them as prose and history. Only ignorance can regard such a conclusion as irreverent for it is the judgment of reverence and love. These poetic narratives are the most beautiful possessions which a people brings down through the course of its history, and the legends of Israel, especially those of Genesis, are perhaps the most beautiful and most profound ever known on earth."

R. V. C.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1967, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 55 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.