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 cha
racter 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 Abrah
am’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.