Understanding Biblical Genres: Legends

Yesterday in this series on understanding the literary genres of the Bible, we looked at myths – the big stories around which civilizations, are built. I identified four such stories in the Bible: Creation, Exodus, Deuteronomy/Exile, and, for Christians, the story of Jesus. But of course not all ancient stories told around campfires would have such mythic importance. Today I’d like to look at an adjacent, and to some extent overlapping, category of storytelling, that, while still formative, has lower culture-building stakes: legends.

Legends are stories about heroes of the distant past, connected in some way to historical figures, events, or places. A myth might explain a people, its gods, and its values, but a legend might explain why a mountain looks like a woman’s face, or why a shrine is located where it is. While often having magical or miraculous elements, legends are more grounded in human experience than myths are. They may even be historical, but told in a way that heightens mystery or narrative fulfillment. They are also distinguished from myths in that whereas myths build culture, we might say that legends reinforce it. This is why I’ve included the Exodus under the category of myth: it is a legend that has become identity-forming and therefore has taken on mythic proportions. When groups of legends surrounding a single person or event are strung together, they called story cycles (e.g., the Arthurian legends), epics (subsets of story cycles that go together in a canonical form, told in verse, e.g. The Odyssey and The Iliad as subsets of the larger Trojan War story cycle), or sagas (groups of connected legends told in prose, such as the Norse sagas).

When we think of the Bible, legend as a literary genre is best seen in the Pentateuch and Historical books (or, in Jewish terminology, the Torah and Former Prophets), particularly in the stories of the patriarchs, the incidents of the Exodus and conquest narratives, the stories of King David and Solomon, and the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Outside the Bible, the Lives of the Saints also fit well into the genre of legends, and even often pick up on the specific tropes of pre-Christian legends in their regions of origin.

Let’s look at two biblical legends to have a better sense of how they work: Jacob wrestling with God and Elijah’s theophany on Mount Horeb.

The story of Jacob wrestling with God, found in Genesis 32.22-32. finds our rather ambivalent hero on the cusp of a major event in this life, meeting his life-long enemy and twin, Esau, for the first time as grown men. The story reads:

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

Notice how heightened the symbolism is here. It places our hero alone at a symbolic location (he is at the ford of a river, just as he needs to make a ‘crossing’ in life). In this moment, a stranger appears and the two grapple throughout the whole night. There is clearly a supernatural element to the story, but it takes place within the normal life of an Ancient Near Eastern pastoralist. While the stakes are low for the world, they are high for Jacob: Throughout his story, Jacob is shown to be a hard man. His selfish scheming is, in fact, the cause of his running feud with Esau. But here, his hardness is shown in a positive light, as perseverance and resilience. The same trait that got him named Jacob, ‘Grabs-the-Heel’ now causes him to be renamed Israel, ‘Wrestles-with-God.’ He leaves the encounter wounded, but blessed. The story ends with two footnotes showing how the story explains community traditions surrounding the place’s name and an idiosyncrasy in their butchering habits. From its symbolic setting and magical realism to its lower-stakes explanatory importance, this fits the legendary genre completely.

Now let’s look at the story of Elijah meeting God at Mount Horeb, which is found in 1 Kings 19.1-18. This is one part of the larger story cycle of Elijah’s power struggle with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, which the text reads as a proxy war between Israel’s God YHWH and the Canaanite God Ba’al. This is a war that Elijah finds himself losing despite winning every battle. At the start of this particular story, he finds himself fleeing the country and alone in the aftermath of his greatest victory:

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. (1 Kings 19.4-9)

We see so many of the trademark characteristics of legends here already in the story’s opening lines: The hero is on a journey and finds himself isolated in the wilderness. His hope fails him, but he is saved through supernatural intervention, fed by an angel. Thus strengthened, he continues his way to Mount Horeb, one of the many mountains that acted as ‘thin places’ in Biblical stories, places where one was to expect the unexpected and where one was likely to meet God. The story continues:

Then the word of the LORD [YHWH] came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ Then the LORD said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.’ (19.9-18)

True to his role as a prophet, Elijah receives a word from God telling him to go out and prepare for God to pass by. Elijah is then treated to a spectacular show — fire, wind, earthquake — but finds that God isn’t in them. But God then appears in the silence that follows and gives Elijah instructions on how to proceed and confirmation that he isn’t as alone as he thinks he is. This is a fascinating turn of events, in which the narrative both holds up and subverts the convention of legends. The message seems to be that Elijah is losing the war because he’s focusing on the wrong things. Elijah had thought that he needed to overpower Ba’al, but God tells him to go about God’s work not by calling down fire from heaven but in the quieter work of anointing others to their appointed roles. While it still ends in a pretty violent place, the story marks a huge turning-point in how the Bible talks about its prophets and their work. To put it in the language of cultural development, it’s the first step away from a ‘Power Gods’ mentality towards the ethical monotheism that we see in the later prophets, most notably Isaiah. But for our purposes today, again we see heightened and symbolic storytelling, the intermingling of supernatural and natural elements, and a lower-stakes story with consequences for the main character but not for the cosmos itself.

The point of all this is that, irrespective of their historical accuracy, these stories are told in conventional ways. Understanding this can help us to better understand what a text is trying to do. In the case of legends, these are stories that were told to help shape and justify aspects of the community’s belief system, cultural practice, and morality. As such, they invite us to learn from them and ask us how to apply their lessons in our own contexts. Thus, even if we decide that they are ‘historical’, they are not exactly history, for the actual ‘what happened’ is less important than what we can take away from the stories.

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