Judaic Mythology

January 15, 2006

I was recently watching a show on PBS wherein the narrator was traveling the lands of ancient Canaan, illustrating the paths of Abraham in the book of Genesis. At one point he and his guide climbed a slope next to the Dead Sea, and, having entered a tunnel in the cliff-side, found themselves staring up an immense shaft blasted by salt. Due to a confluence of geographic and climactic factors, the pressure from the Sea will often push great fountains of salt up from the seabed through this shaft, and thence cover the plains above the cliff.

These very plains are one of the rumored locations of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The film crew left the tunnels and returned to the cliff top plains. The land was harsh; the uneducated eye would have no idea that salt covered all, preventing growth. Was this spray of salt perhaps the origin of the Bible's story of the destruction of these cities? Even more interesting to me, however, was the pillar of salt that the crew passed – just bigger than a person. "But Lot's wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt" (Gen 19:26). Could this be she?

The show was relatively well balanced, largely looking at the Bible as a historical record but also acknowledging the possible/probable mythological status of many of its stories. Personally, I have long considered stories such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to be mythological. But what I suddenly realized on this occasion was that, having been raised initially with the belief that these tales were historically accurate but later abandoning them, I had never fully considered the significance of this Judaic mythology in terms of explanations of natural phenomenon.

It has always been easy to see elements of natural but unexplainable occurrences in Greek and Norse mythology, for instance, but I had never thought about them in the Judaic (or Egyptian, for that matter). But here we have a woman becoming a pillar of salt, and I realized that this is the exact same genre of mythology as the legend of Daphne turning into a laurel-tree to escape the pursuit of Apollo. Realizing this, I think I've come to see the ancient Hebrews in a little more earthly perspective. I've always rationally known that their mythology was not as wholly unique as it appears today, but this realization forged a new intuitive link between this ancient society and others.

One might expect that this minor epiphany might cause me to lose some respect for the Hebrew people and their plight through the ages. On the contrary, it actually makes me see the books of the Old Testament in a fresh light. Whereas for long I had dismissed them as mere myth, I now see them as doorways into an ancient culture – just as I had already come to see the mythos of the Greeks and the sagas of the Norse. But unlike the legends and fables of these cultures, the tales of Abraham, his ancestors and descendants, live on today both as living stories and the cultural underpinnings for all the great religions of the West (including my own).