The Parable in the Hebrew Bible
and Rabbinic Literature
Gary G. Porton
The Greek word parable means comparison, juxtaposition, or analogy, and the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible completed in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third to the first centuries BCE—chose this word to translate the Hebrew word mashal (meshalim in the plural). The Hebrew texts do not distinguish among a fable, allegory, simile, metaphor, or parable. They all appear in the Rabbinic documents in similar literary formulations, and the Hebrew word mashal can refer to any one of them. Many who have studied the parables in the Synoptic Gospels have drawn distinctions among these categories; however, those who have dealt with parables within the Hebrew texts have not been engaged in dividing the meshalim into similar categories.
There are a limited number of parables in the Hebrew Bible in the form of stories that make a single point. Scholars seem to agree that Judges 9:7–15; 2 Samuel 12:1–14; 2 Samuel 14:1–20; 1 Kings 20:35–43; and Isaiah 5:1–7 are the only examples of developed story parables in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some writers have suggested that the entire biblical books of Ruth and Jonah are merely extended parables, but the majority of biblical exegetes do not accept this reading of these stories. Other biblical scholars have argued that Ezekiel 17:3–10; 19:2–9; 19:10–14; 23:2–21; and 24:3–5 are allegories and that Judges 14:14 is a riddle, which is another meaning of the Greek term parable. Some have suggested that the metaphors in the prophetic oracles, such as Isaiah 1:5–6 and Hosea 2:2–15, are also types of parables.
These biblical examples often are placed within the context of other Near Eastern wisdom traditions. For example, the Sumerian and Akkadian collections contain several examples of highly articulate plants and animals engaging in debates concerning their relative virtues and strengths, and some authorities have argued that these can be compared to many Greek and later Hebrew fables. However, within the context of the ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible appears to be the first document that contains parables in which humans are the main characters.