Folk Tales, Myths and Legends: The Origin of the Stories
It might be helpful to understand how these myths and legends came to us. They were passed down orally through many generations in the Near East by Hebrew nomadic shepherds who had no written language. People told stories sitting around campfires in the desert or in tents and palaces during communal meals at important religious ceremonies. We don't know who first told these stories or who first wrote them down. Some of these stories did not originate with the Hebrews—there was a common tradition of storytelling throughout the Near East and stories were shared without much regard to particular tribes or peoples. Stories were told for lots of different reasons over many generations, sometimes as a way of remembering events and happenings from the past that were important, sometimes to explain why things happen or why things are the way they are, sometimes to explain religious ceremonies or differences between people or why life is difficult or why bad things happen to good people. The reasons for the stories are many.
Over time some of these stories were adopted or adapted from other cultures that these nomadic tribes had contact with, and some of the stories came down to later generations in different variants. At some point, most likely after 500 B.C., collections of stories were written down, collected into different compilations, edited by priests and scholars into roughly the form they are in today, and finally copied by scribes repeatedly over hundreds of years into different collections of manuscripts only some of which survive today. Then of course they had to be translated into modern languages. This is not the place to discuss the complexities of the documents and their various translations, but those who wish to pursue those questions can find plenty of resources to assist them in that pursuit.
Readers will notice that the term Yahweh [or Lord Yahweh] appears where many are accustomed to seeing the word god and that is for a very important reason. The originally separate nomadic tribes that joined together over time to form the Hebrew people (and eventually the Israelites, or people of Israel) called their gods by specific names and when they referred to their god they used the god’s personal name (i.e., the Shield of Abraham) rather than the generic term god. To be faithful to the meaning, but without making the stories too cumbersome or laden with footnotes, I have chosen to use the most common name for their traditional god, Lord Yahweh. These early nomadic tribal people believed in many gods (polytheism) but they tended to recognize a particular god of their tribal group as patron and guardian to whom they looked for protection and to whom they sacrificed as a form of worship. Put succinctly they believed in many gods but in practice worshipped only their own tribal god (monolatry). That concept is accurately reflected in the first of the “ten commandments” issued to his people by Lord Yahweh—“You must not acknowledge any other god as more important than me.”
In writing these stories I have tried to be faithful to the intent and meaning of each story, sometimes using the more traditional and familiar language of the translations that many are accustomed to but exercising the literary freedom to change unfamiliar terms and concepts into language where the sense and meaning of the story will come through more clearly and accurately than is conveyed by the traditional language. At the end of each story is a brief comment to help explain aspects of that story that might be useful information to the reader.
Whatever else it may be to various religious groups and religions, the Bible has influenced our literature, our art, our drama, our music, our traditions, our politics, our sense of values, and our culture, and therefore we contend that familiarity with these stories is an important part of everyone's education.