My Quest for a Children's Book of Hebew Myths
I like reading myths to my kids. We’ve ready the classic Greek and Roman myths, a collection of Egyptian Myths, and even a few Irish folktales and stories. One of my favorite collections is a children’s version of the Epic of Gilgamesh which summarizes the story in a way that is both appropriate for children but also covers the essentials of the actual ancient myths.
While talking to my kids about my childhood growing up in a Mormon household, I realized that my children were at a disadvantage when it came to the stories from the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament that permeate our culture. They knew about the basic image of naked people talking to a snake in a tree about fruit, but I hadn't spent much time actually going over that story. They recognized Noah's Ark as the big boat full of animals and saw it in various toys and images.
I felt bad about the fact that they know the stories of Hector and Achilles probably in more detail than they knew the stories of Moses or Abraham. Whether or not we want the world to be saturated with imagery and stories from the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament is irrelevant to the fact that it is. It's going to be difficult to fully grasp the words of Shakespeare without understanding something of the Catholic and Protestant stories underlying many of his religious allusions.
I wanted to find a collection for children that approached these stories in the same way that the Gilgamesh stories approached his epic, or the books of Greek Myths approached the Olympian pantheon. These told the stories as internally consistent, but without trying to make a connection to the reader. The books said that Zeus's weapon was the thunderbolt, but they didn't say that even today you can see Zeus hurling his spear whenever a thunderstorm rolls by. When relating how the goddess Hel lives beneath Yggdrasil, the World Tree, the text doesn't encourage the reader to understand that the heat of the earth's mantle is actually caused by dragons.
But the only sources of ancient Hebrew myths and legends for children are in the form of religious Bibles. I'm not sure what to make of that, to be honest. I want a book that can introduce my children to the story of the man and the woman eating the fruit of the tree of knowing good and evil without making some sort of reference to original sin or to how humans might still be living in paradise today. I want a book that discusses the primordial creation of the world by Yahweh without saying that it's a story of actual history.
I'm not saying I want a book that says that people who do believe it to be actual history are wrong or stupid. Nobody reads the account of the battle between Zeus and his father Kronos and think “Those idiots, this never happened!” Instead people read the stories as stories and they enjoy them as such.
I wanted a collection for children that approaches the Hebrew myths of creation and the legends of ancient Israelite heroes in the same way. As stories within their own context, not within the context of the world of the reader. A world where God creates a flat world where the sky is blue because it's made of water that he stuck up there. The world that the ancient storytellers would have in their minds as they told the tales to their audiences.
That book doesn't seem to exist. The books are either simplistic paraphrases tightly dependent on the actual texts of the Hebrew Bible and Christian gospels, or if they do expand on the texts in any artistic fashion they also speak to the reader indicating what lessons they are supposed to draw from the stories.
So in the sense of if you can't find it, make it, I've decided to begin work on my own version of the book I couldn't find. And yes, since you're probably wondering, I have no idea as to the issues of respect towards Jewish people and towards faithful fundamentalist Christians. There is an important difference between this collections and one about Gilgamesh, Thor, or Zeus: people still use these stories as guides for their lives. I welcome suggestions and comments on how a book like this might be assembled in a way that is still appropriate to modern believers.
As for one issue that might be raised, which is that I am not of Jewish ancestry and these stories are still foundational to Jewish religion and culture, I respond that I am writing the same type of book that a non-Greek would write about the Olympian pantheon, or a non-Scandinavian would write about the Norse deities. I don't have to be Finnish to write my own children's version of the Kalevala. Do I have to have ancestry in West Africa to write a children's collection of stories about Anansi? That is the same approach I am currently taking towards this project. Perhaps that approach is far too imperial, though, and represents an appropriation of stories that cannot belong to me. Which opens up the larger question of how to stories belong to different groups and what are the ethics of how they are told and related.
Anyways, if you have any suggestions or responses, I would be very interested in hearing them.
The next post is an example of the style I am looking for. It is a retelling and harmonization of the various Israelite creation myths. It doesn't really cover the creation of humans, per se, but instead uses the Priestly creation story of Genesis 1 instead of the Elohist story of the creation as found in Genesis 2, as well as a smattering of other hints of the various myths of the ancient Israelites (Psalm 74:13-23, Job 38:7, the Book of Enoch, and Isaiah 59:1), though as with other various children's version of myths I've made small alterations that may or may not be demanded by the texts (Behemoth is created by Yahweh in some texts, and the climactic battle between Yahweh and Behemoth happens at the end of time in others). That's important to me as well: these are not just simplified versions drawn from the modern texts as they emerged from centuries of editors and redaction following the Exile in the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE. I want them to represent the stories in the same way that we represent stories from other cultures of similar age and importance.
I'm curious what you all think.