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Folk-lore in the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion and Law. Vol. III

by James G. Frazer

Bibliographic information

TitleFolk-lore in the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion and Law. Vol. III
AuthorJames G. Frazer
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2001
SubjectJewish Religious Thought


From Preface

Modern researches into the early history of man, conducted on different lines, have converged with almost irresistible force on the conclusion, that all civilized races have at some period or other emerged from a state of savagery resembling more or less closely the state in which many backward races have continued to the present time; and that, long after the majority of men in a community have ceased to think and act like savages, not a few traces of the old ruder modes of life and thought survive in the habits and institutions of the people. Such survivals are included under the head of folklore, which, in the broadest sense of the word, may be said to embrace the whole body of a peoples traditionary beliefs and customs, so far as these appear to be due to the collective action of the multitude and cannot be traced to the individual influence of great men. Despite the high moral and religious development of the ancient Hebrews, there is no reason to suppose that they formed an exception to this general law. They, too, had probably passed through a stage of barbarism and even of savagery; and this probability, based on the analogy of other races, is confirmed by an examination of their literature, which contains many references to beliefs and practices that can hardly be explained except on the supposition that they are rudimentary survivals from a far lower level of culture. It is to the illustration and explanation of a few such relics of ruder times, as they are preserved like fossils in the Old Testament, that [the author has] addressed.

The instrument for the detection of savagery under civilization is the comparative method, which, applied to the human mind, enables us to trace mans intellectual and moral evolution, just as, applied to the human body, it enables us to trace his physical evolution from lower forms of animal life. There is, in short, a Comparative Anatomy of the mind as well as of the body, and it promises to be no less fruitful of far-reaching consequences, not merely speculative but practical, for the future of humanity. The application of the comparative method to the study of Hebrew antiquities is not novel. In the seventeenth century the method was successfully employed for this purpose in France by the learned French pastor Samuel Bochart, and in England by the learned divine John Spencer, Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, whose book on the ritual laws of the ancient Hebrews is said to have laid the foundations of the science of Comparative Religion. In our own age, after a lapse of two centuries, the work initiated by these eminent scholars and divines was resumed in Cambridge by William Robertson Smith, and the progress which the study made during his lifetime and since his too early death is due in large measure to the powerful impulse it received from his extraordinary genius and learning. It has been [the authors] ambition to tread in the footsteps of these my illustrious predecessors in this department of learning, and to carry on what I may be allowed to call the Cambridge tradition of Comparative Religion.

It is a familiar truth that the full solution of any one problem involves the solution of many more; nay, that nothing short of omniscience could suffice to answer all the questions implicitly raised by the seemingly simplest inquiry. Hence the investigation of a point of folk-lore, especially in the present inchoate condition of the study, naturally opens up lines of inquiry which branch out in many directions; and in following them we are insensibly drawn on into wider and wider fields of inquiry, until the point from which we started has almost disappeared in the distance, or, to speak more correctly, is seen in its proper perspective as only one in a multitude of similar phenomena. So it befell [the author] when, many years ago, [he] undertook to investigate a point in the folk-lore of ancient Italy; so it has befallen [him] when [he has] set [himself] to discuss certain points in the folk-lore of the ancient Hebrews. The examination of a particular legend, custom, or law has in some cases gradually broadened out into a disquisition and almost into a treatise. But apart from their immediate bearing on the traditions and usages of Israel, these disquisitions may be accepted as contributions to the study of folk-lore in general. That study is still in its infancy, and [the authors] theories on the subjects with which it deals must probably for a long time to come be tentative and provisional, mere pigeon-holes in which temporarily to sort the multitude of facts, not iron moulds in which to cast them forever. Under these circumstances a candid inquirer in the realm of folk-lore at the present time will state his inferences with a degree of diffidence and reserve corresponding to the difficulty and uncertainty of the matter in hand.

Throughout [his] inquiry [the author has] sought to take account of the conclusions reached by the best critics [of his time] with regard to the composition and dates of the various books of the Old Testament. [He believes] that only in the light of these conclusions do many apparent discrepancies in the sacred volume admit of a logical and historical explanation.

The scope of [the authors] work has obliged [him] to dwell chiefly on the lower side of ancient Hebrew life revealed in the Old Testament, on the traces of savagery and superstition which are to be found in its pages. But to do so is not to ignore, far less to disparage, that higher side of the Hebrew genius which has manifested itself in a spiritual religion and a pure morality, and of which the Old Testament is the imperishable monument. On the contrary, the revelation of the baser elements which underlay the civilization of ancient Israel, as they underlie the civilization of modern Europe, serves rather as a foil to enhance by contrast the glory of a people which, from such dark depths of ignorance and cruelty, could rise to such bright heights of wisdom and virtue, as sunbeams appear to shine with a greater effulgence of beauty when they break through the murky clouds of a winter evening than when they flood the earth from the serene splendor of a summer noon. The annals of savagery and superstition unhappily compose a large part of human literature; but in what other volume shall we find, side by side with that melancholy record, psalmists who poured forth their sweet and solemn strains of meditative piety in the solitude of the hills or in green pastures and beside still waters; prophets who lit up their beatific visions of a blissful future with the glow of an impassioned imagination; historians who bequeathed to distant ages the scenes of a remote past embalmed for ever in the amber of a pellucid style? These are the true glories of the Old Testament and of Israel; these, we trust and believe, will live to delight and inspire mankind, when the crudities recorded alike in sacred and profane literature shall have been purged away in a nobler humanity of the future.

About the Author 

James G. Frazer ---

British anthropologist, historian of religion and classical scholar, whose best-known study The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion traced the evolution of human behavior, ancient and primitive myth, magic, religion, ritual, and taboo. Frazer did much to popularize anthropology and made its agnostic tendencies acceptable, although his conclusions are now outdated.

James Frazer was born in Glaskow, Scotland, into a pious middle-class family, as the eldest of four children of Daniel K. Frazer, a pharmacist, and Katherine (Brown) Frazer. He was educated at Larchfield Academy, Helensburgh, and University of Glaskow and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became a classics fellow from 1871 until his death. Except for one year, 1907-08, spent at the University of Liverpool as professor of social anthropology, Frazer remained from 1908 most of his life in Cambridge.

Frazer also studied law because of his father`s wishes. He was called to the English Bar in 1879, but he never practiced. His wife, Elisabeth Grove Frazier, whom he married in 1896, devoted herself into guarding his peace of writing and research. Frazer was knighted in 1914. Aside from occasional trips to Greece and the Continent, he and Lady Frazer rarely left Cambridge. In 1931 he went blind but continued his work with the aid of secretaries and amanuenses. Frazer died in Cambridge on May 7, 1941.

































1. The Ordeal of the Bitter Water in Israel

2. The Poison Ordeal in Africa

3. The Poison Ordeal in Madagascar

4. The Poison Ordeal in India

5. The Geographical Diffusion of the Poison Ordeal

6. The Meaning of the Poison Ordeal

7. The Drinking of the Written Curse








Before we pass to an examination of some particular Jewish laws, it may be well briefly to consider the place which the Law as a whole occupies in the history of Israel, so far as that place has been determined by the critical analysis of modern scholars.

The most important and the best attested result of linguistic and historical criticism applied to the Old Testament is the proof that the Pentateuchal legislation, in the form in which we now possess it, cannot have been promulgated by Moses in the desert and in Moab before the entrance of the Israelites into Palestine, and that it can only have assumed its final shape at some time after the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in the year 586 B.C., when the Jews were carried away into exile. In short, the legal portion of the Pentateuch, as we now have it, belongs not to the earliest but to a late date in the history of Israel; far from having been promulgated before the nation took possession of the Promised Land, very little of it appears to have been written and published till near the end of the national independence, and the bulk of it, comprising what the critics call the Priestly Code, seems to have been composed for the first time in its present form and committed to writing either during or after the captivity.

But it is necessary to distinguish carefully between the age of the laws themselves and the dates when they were first given to the world in the shape of written codes. A very little thought will satisfy us that laws in general do not spring armed cap--pie into existence like Athena from the head of Zeus, at the moment when they are codified. Legislation and codification are two very different things. Legislation is the authoritative enactment of certain rules of conduct which have either not been observed or have not been legally binding before the acts enforcing them were passed by the supreme authority. But even new laws are seldom or never complete innovations; they nearly always rest upon and presuppose a basis of existing custom and public opinion which harmonize more or less with the new laws, and have long silently prepared for their reception in the minds of the people. The most despotic monarch in the world could not force upon his subjects an absolutely new law, which should run counter to the whole bent and current of their natural disposition, outraging all their hereditary opinions and habits, flouting all their most cherished sentiments and aspirations. Even in the most seemingly revolutionary enactment there is always a conservative element which succeeds in securing the general assent and obedience of a community. Only a law which in some measure answers to a peoples past has any power to mould that peoples future. To reconstruct human society from the foundations upward is a visionary enterprise, harmless enough so long as it is confined to the Utopias of philosophic dreamers, but dangerous and possibly disastrous when it is attempted in practice by men, whether demagogues or despots, who by the very attempt prove their ignorance of the fundamental principles of the problem they rashly set themselves to solve. Society is a growth, not a structure; and though we may modify that growth and mould it into fairer forms, as the gardener by his art has evolved blooms of lovelier shape and richer hue from the humble flowers of the field and the meadow, the hedgerow and the river-bank, we can as little create society afresh as the gardener can create a lily or a rose. Thus in every law, as in every plant, there is an element of the past, an element which, if we could trace it to its ultimate source, would lead us backwards to the earliest stages of human life in the one case and of plant life in the other.

And when we pass from legislation to codification, the possible antiquity of the laws codified is so obvious that it seems almost superfluous to insist upon it. The most famous of all codes, the Digest or Pandects of Justinian, is a compilation of extracts from the works of older Roman jurists in the very words of the writers, all of whom are carefully named in every separate citation; thus the code is not a series of new laws, it is simply a new collection of the old laws which had obtained in the Roman Empire for centuries. Of modern codes the most celebrated is the French code issued by Napoleon, but though it superseded that immense number of separate local systems of jurisprudence, of which it was observed that a traveller in France changed laws oftener than he changed horses, it by no means formed an entirely novel body of legislation; on the contrary, it is the product of Roman and customary law, together with the ordinances of the kings and the laws of the Revolution. But to multiply modern instances would be superfluous.

In the Semitic world the course of legislation has probably been similar. The most ancient code in the world which has come down to us is that of Hammurabi, king of Babylon, who reigned about 2100 B.C.; but there is no reason to suppose that the enactments which it contains were all brand-new creations of the royal legislator; on the contrary, probability and evidence alike favour the view that he merely erected his structure of law upon an old foundation of immemorial custom and usage, which had come down to him, at least in part, from the ancient predecessors of the Semites in Babylonia, the Sumerians, and had for long ages been consecrated by popular prejudice, sanctioned by kings, and administered by judges. Similarly the critics who assign the great bulk of the so-called Mosaic legislation to the ages immediately preceding or following at no long interval the loss of national independence, fully recognize that even in its latest form the Law not only records but enforces customs and ceremonial institutions, of which many, and among them the most fundamental, are undoubtedly far older than the time when the Pentateuch received its final form in the fifth century before our era. This conclusion as to the great antiquity of the chief ceremonial institutions of Israel is amply confirmed by a comparison of them with the institutions of other peoples; for such a comparison reveals in Hebrew usage not a few marks of barbarism and even of savagery, which could not possibly have been imprinted on it for the first time at the final codification of the law, but must have adhered to it from ages which probably long preceded the dawn of history. A few such marks will be pointed out in the sequel; but the number of them might easily be much enlarged. Such customs, for example, as circumcision, the ceremonial uncleanness of women, and the employment of scapegoats have their analogues in the customs of savage tribes in many parts of the world.

What I have said may suffice to dissipate the misapprehension that, in assigning a late date to the final codification of Hebrew law, Biblical critics implicitly assume a late origin for all the laws embodied in the code. But it may be well before going farther to correct another possible misconception which might arise in regard to the critical doctrine. Because little or nothing of the so-called Mosaic legislation in the Pentateuch can be proved to have emanated from Moses, it by no means follows that the great lawgiver was a mere mythical personage, a creation of popular or priestly fancy, invented to explain the origin of the religious and civil constitution of the nation. Any such inference would do violence, not only to the particular evidence which speaks in favour of the historical reality of Moses, but to the general laws of probability; for great religious and national movements seldom or never occur except under the driving force of great men. The origin of Israel and Judaism without Moses would be hardly more intelligible than the origin of Buddhism without Buddha, the origin of Christianity without Christ, or the origin of Mohammedanism without Mohammed. There is, indeed, a tendency in some quarters at the present day to assume that history is made by the blind collective impulses of the multitude without the initiative and direction of extraordinary minds; but this assumption, born of or fostered by the false and pernicious doctrine of the natural equality of men, contradicts both the teaching of history and the experience of life. The multitude needs a leader, and without him, though it possesses a large faculty of destruction, it possesses little or none of construction. Without men great in thought, in word, in action, and in their influence over their fellows, no great nation ever was or ever will be built up. Moses was such a man, and he may justly rank as the real founder of Israel. Stripped of the miraculous features, which gather round the memory of popular heroes, as naturally as moss and lichens gather round stones, the account given of him in the earlier Hebrew histories is probably in substance correct: he rallied the Israelites against their oppressors in Egypt, led them to freedom in the wilderness, moulded them into a nation, impressed on their civil and religious institutions the stamp of his own remarkable genius, and having guided them to Moab, he died in sight of the Promised Land, which he was not to enter.

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