The legends retold in Louis Ginzberg's classic work Legends of the Bible are a variation of the stories in the Scriptures as told and retold in the ancient east since the days of Abraham — in synagogues and churches and the in homes of a hundred generations of people. Prof. Ginzberg[*] culled them from a vast literature, scattered over many countries and centuries.[1]&

The cycle of legends about leviathan, behemot and the other marvelous creatures created on the fifth and sixth days of creation and the fantastic details they unfold, unblushingly echo the Old Babylonian epic of creation, going back to the early second millennium BCE.

The aggadah relates, for example, that after Leviathan, king of the sea, and Behemot, king of the animals, meet in battle and both drop dead, from the skin of Leviathan the Lord will spread a radiant canopy over Jerusalem, and the light streaming from it will illumine the whole world.

In the Babylonian creation myth, the gods all shrank in dread before Tiamat, the monster of the sea and her fierce crew, until Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, defeated her, and split her like a shellfish into two parts. Half of her he set up as a canopy of heaven, assigning stations in the sky to the great gods and their constellations to cheer with light the twelve months of the year.

Such palpable reminiscences or relics of pagan mythology in the legends of the Bible will seem surprising. Reported in the name of renowned scholars flourishing in the third century, they clash patently not only with the whole legacy of the biblical faith, but with the austere monotheism which these founders of rabbinic Judaism consistently maintained and invariably sought to implant and enforce in their people. It is altogether out of the question to consider such cosmogonic fancies as the invention of the period or personalities to which they are ascribed in our sources. Obviously the stories precede their storytellers by long centuries, often by more than a millennium, harking back to the earliest tales of their remote ancestors or heathen neighbors.

The imaginative accounts of strife with monsters of the deep, or the Princes of Darkness or of the Sea, with rebellious waters and insurgent stars, would appear most reasonably to be but splinters of ancient myths from pre-biblical or early biblical days. These remnants of dim sagas and residues of faded traditions, frowned upon by the makers of the Bible and discarded by them, survived, as it were, subterraneously for countless generations down to the last centuries of antiquity, or even the early centuries of the Middle Ages — an amazing testimony to the tenacity of folk memories.

Why were these myths not hushed up altogether? Banished from the Bible (save for a few snatches of poetic imagery), how were they readmitted to the legends of the Bible?

These ancient myths had charm and appealed to the imagination. The people, an eternal child, loved them. The stories were replete with stirring action and adventure, fight and suspense. They recalled the distant days, believed to be lost forever, when the world was gay and bold, innocent and savage at once. Moreover, they dealt with matters of immediate concern, the combat of seasons, spring and winter, rain and drought, increase or failure of crops and cattle, blessing or blight of the fruit of the body and the fruit of the ground.

With the directness of primitive poetry they spoke to all the senses, and yet seemed to make sense as well, confirming everyday experience of the world in which the word of God goes not unopposed. They appeared to reckon with and account for the stubborn reality of evil which the theologians chose to ignore.

Fantastic creatures on the fifth and sixth days of creations:

Leviathan, king of the fish
Ziz, king of the birds
Behemot, king of the mammals
Phoenix, most wonderful birds
Shamir and ziz, most marvelous of reptiles



[1] from the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, to compendia of legends compiled from the third century late into the Middle Ages, to the new harvest of folk tales and legends of the Bible which grew up in the eighteenth century during the period of religious revival in Eastern Europe. [back]

[*] When Louis Ginzberg died in 1953, he was recognized as the world's upstanding scholar in the field of Talmudic learning. His studies were carried on at the universities of Berlin, Strassburg and Heidelberg, and from 1902 at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he served with distinction as Professor of Talmud for more than half a century. The Legend of the Jews, a massive seven-volume work with notes, written in German, and translated into some forty languages, was originally published for scholars (the first volume was published in 1909).

From a shorter and simpler edition, published by Jewish Publication Society in 1975. [back]




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