Understanding Biblical Genres: Folk Tales

Back at the start of this series, we looked at two different types of story, myths and legends. We saw that myths are the foundational stories around which cultures understand themselves, and legends are traditional stories that reinforce those identities, while often explaining the origins of specific place names, customs, or beliefs. Today I’d like to look at another type of narrative that fits into this larger spectrum of storytelling: folk tales.

Folk tales are traditional stories told primarily for the purpose of imparting a moral, or wisdom. In this purpose, they are similar to proverbs. But because they are longer, richer texts — many paragraphs or pages, rather than a few words — they are able to convey more complex and diverse morals, can be read in different ways, and allow for far more nuance and irony than proverbs. And, while proverbs are fixed, folk tales are flexible, being adaptable to suit changing times and morality. A great example of this for us is the story of the Little Mermaid, which was traditionally about the dangers of trying to fit into a world where one doesn’t belong, but in the hands of Disney has become a story about not letting our limitations stop us from achieving our goals.

Because of their moral purpose, folk tales fit well into the larger world of Wisdom Literature, which as we’ve seen is all about creating a shared understanding in a community of what it means to live a good life. When thinking about folk tales in the Bible, the Hebrew Bible’s structure is more instructive than the Christian Bible’s. For, in Jewish Bibles, most of the folk tales are included as part of the Ketuvim, ‘the Writings’, which is essentially a catch-all collection at the end of the Bible containing secular history, songs, poems, philosophy, and stories that the Jewish people wanted to preserve as part of their holy texts, but in a different way from the Torah and the Prophets. Again, the ancients had a far more nuanced understanding of sacred Scripture than many contemporary Christians do, understanding that different parts of Scripture function in different ways and have different ways of being authoritative.

For the most part, biblical folk tales are found in the narrative parts of Daniel, Esther, and Job, as well as Deuterocanonical stories such as Susannah, Bel and the Dragon, and Tobit. What is ‘authoritative’ about these stories? It’s not their historicity — many of these stories are very unlikely to have actually happened — but their goal or aim. Just like how we tell stories like The Pied Piper or Goldilocks and the Three Bears to shape attitudes, values, and behaviour and not because they actually happened, so too have these stories been preserved in the Scriptures for precisely this same purpose. What is ‘sacred’ about these stories is their power to shape community identity and morality.

As an example, let’s look at the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from Daniel 3. The story takes place during the Babylonian Exile and shows how three Judahite exiles navigated the challenging question of cultural assimilation. In the story, these three young men are well-educated and rising in the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy. But, the king implements a policy that forces officials from around the Empire to bow before a statue of him to demonstrate their allegiance. To fail to do so would be considered an act of treason punishable by death by being thrown into a furnace. As good Jewish boys, however, they refuse to comply, preferring execution to idolatry. But, God miraculously saves them, sending a protective angel to them in the fire. The king is amazed and calls them out of the furnace and then promotes them to higher office. Not only does the story have a clear message about participating in broader society without sacrificing one’s identity and faithfulness, but that message is really the only reason why this story would be told. The lives of three random civil servants don’t make the history books. We also see that there is more than one idea present in the story: it’s a call to continued monotheism and rejection of idolatry, an exhortation to do the right thing even when it’s hard to do, and an expression of trust that God will vindicate the righteous. Any one of these meanings (or others) may jump out at someone who reads it.

Another example is the book of Esther, in which a Jewish woman taken as one of the Persian king’s many wives schemes to foil an antisemitic plot by a government official. This is a remarkable story in the Bible because not only does it not talk about God at all, but also because Esther and her fellow conspirator Mordecai are portrayed as being fully assimilated into Persian culture: Their concern for their fellow Jews is ethnic, rather than religious. The theme of this story ends up being something like “the saving power of the faithful working together.” Or perhaps even “God helps those who help themselves.” This is quite a different idea — opposite in fact — from the moral of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In both Esther and the book of Daniel, there is an existential threat to the people of God, but while Daniel urges what we might call nonviolent resistance, and insists that God will rescue the faithful, in Esther the crisis is resolved entirely through human action.

So what do we make of this, as Scripture? So fussed were the Reformers about this question that Luther openly disdained Esther (“I could wish that they [Esther and 2 Maccabees] did not exist at all, for they judaize too greatly and have much pagan impropriety” (Table Talk, Weimarer Ausgabe)) and Calvin removed it from the canon altogether! By contrast, the Jewish tradition has been far more curious about the ‘God-problem’ in Esther. The most common interpretation among the rabbis is that the story shows how God is present, actively working behind the scenes, whether we can see it or not. Interestingly, it would seem that at least some prominent Jews in the Second Temple Period shared the Reformers concerns, for the ancient Greek translation of Esther includes a whole six additional chapters, which are mostly Esther and Mordecai’s prayers for God’s intervention; therefore, the longer version of Esther resituates the story in a more conventional theological framework. The two versions of Esther show how folk tales can be simultaneously very traditional and highly adaptable — just like the older and newer versions of The Little Mermaid, they tell the same story but offer different twists to impart a different moral.

I have to admit I don’t spend a lot of time with biblical folk tales. But I’m always glad when I do. Whereas the ‘wisdom’ of Proverbs is primarily about discerning which ones apply in which situations, the wisdom of folk tales is about uncovering often surprisingly nuanced themes and following those threads, like a vein of gold in a mountain. But again, we need to understand these stories for what they are. If we don’t, we’ll fall into the trap Luther and Calvin did, and expect them to be theological treatises full of correct doctrine, and then find them lacking. But that’s not what they are. What they are are rich stories of faith that invite us to deeper questioning and reflection. And that is a very worthwhile thing.

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