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Etiology (in the Bible)


The term may be briefly defined as the assignment of a cause or reason for a custom, a name, etc. This article discusses first the concept of etiology, then the use of etiology in biblical narratives, and finally the question of the historical value of such narratives.

Concept. The word etiology is derived from the Greek ατία, which means cause. In the field of literature a narrative is said to be etiological when it attempts to explain the origins of some custom or institution, some monument or natural phenomenon; when it tries to answer the question why or how does it come about that such and such a thing is what it is today. The subject material ranges from the banal ("How did the pig get a curly tail?") to the basic problems concerning human and cosmic origins. The explanation given is often of a popular, unscientific nature.

In the Bible. Many parts of Scripture abound in etiological narratives, observations, and incidental remarks of all sorts. One simple type of etiology that is found quite often seeks to explain through popular etymology the reason why a particular person or place received such a name: e.g., in Gn 2.23 it is said that adam's partner was called woman (Heb. iššâ ) because she was taken from man ('îš ); in 3.20 he named her eve (awwâ ) because she was the mother of all the living (āy ); and Eve called her firstborn Cain (qayin ) because she had gotten (qānîtî ) a male child with the help of Yahweh (Gn 4.1); and the city with the half-built tower was called Babel (see tower of babel) because there Yahweh confused (bālal ) the builders' language (Gn 11.9). At times more than one explanation is given for the same name: Isaac (yiāq ), which means "he laughs" or "may he laugh," has given rise to various scenes of laughter in the Genesis narrative. Abraham falls on his face and laughs (yiāq ) when God promises him another son, in spite of his age (Gn 17.17); Sara has a similar reaction when she overhears the same promise (Gn 18.915); and once Isaac is born, she says that God has given her cause for laughter, and whoever will hear of it will laugh with her (Gn 21.6). There are narratives that explain the origins of sacred places, such as Beer-lahai-roi (Gn 16.714) and Bethel (Gn 28.1122). Others attempt to give an account of various religious practices (circumcision, in Gn 17.914 and Ex4.2426; the sabbath, in the divine precedent of Gn2.23). The Book of esther intends to show how the feast of purim began. An etiological preoccupation is particularly evident in several narratives of the Book of joshua, where the formula, "and so it has remained to this day," or its equivalent, continually recurs (Jos 4.9;5.9; 6.25; 7.26; 8.28, 29; 9.27; 10.27; etc.). Sometimes a single narrative contains several etiologies: for example, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gn 19) succeeds in explaining why the region south of the Dead Sea is so desolate, why there is only one city in that area, why the name of that city is Segor, and how a woman-shaped pillar of salt came into existence. It also explains in a rather disparaging way the origin of the moabites and the Ammonites.

The Bible, however, contains etiological material of a much more profound intent. In Gn 2.2124 the author explains why "a man leaves his father and mother, and clings to his wife, and the two become one flesh"; by means of the narrative of the rib he suggests that the union of man and woman in marriage is a return to a primitive unity. The story emphasizes that the distinction of the sexes is willed by God [see sex (in the bible)] and that marriage is instituted by Him. Chapters 2 and 3 attempt to explain man's present unhappy state, including the fact of death, the hard lot of a farmer trying to eke out a living from a rocky soil, woman's attraction for man in spite of the harsh treatment she received from him in the ancient East [see woman (in the bible)], and the necessity of wearing clothes (see nudity), by the story of the fall of man from a far happier state (see primeval age in the bible). Similarly, Gn 11.19 does not merely explain the origin of the place-name Babel, but seeks to give a reason why humanity, although one in origin, now finds itself dispersed in various localities throughout the world, each people speaking its own language.

Historical Value. The question arises: what is the historical value of such narratives? The profusion and diversity of the material at hand make a general answer impossible. Two points may be made, however. First, the factor of inspiration does not change the character of the literary form utilized; there is no reason to believe that etiology in the Bible has greater historical value than etiology outside the Bible. So the question of historicity is not peculiar to the Scriptures; it must be solved within the broader context of etiology in general. Secondly, each instance of etiology must be examined and judged on its own merits. In the vast majority of cases it will be found (when it is possible to arrive at a definite conclusionwhich is not always the case) that the narrative rests simply on the love of word-play so easily observed in the Bible, on the desire to explain a mysterious monument or some feature of the landscape, or on the author's desire to communicate some deeper teaching, rather than on any real historical basis. Yet this is not to be automatically assumed in every case. The universal rejection by M. Noth in Das Buch Josua (2d ed. Tübingen 1953) of the historical value of etiological stories has been justly criticized by J. Bright (see bibliog.). The historical value of an etiology in any given case will be open to suspicion and must be confirmed by independent documentary evidence, archeological findings, or other reliable sources, before the genuineness of its tradition can be recognized. There are no universal solutions to this problem; each narrative has to be judged on its own merits.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 695697. k. rahner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 1:101112. j. fichtner, "Die etymologische Atiologie in den Namengebungen der geschichtlichen Bücher des A.T.," Vetus Testamentum 6 (1956) 372396. j. schildenberger, "Aussageabsicht der inspirierten Geschichtsschreiber des A.T. bei der Komplication von Überlieferungen, sich widersprechenden Doppelberichten und ätiologischen Erzählungen," Sacra Pagina, ed. j. coppens et al., 2 v. (Paris 1959) 1:119131. j. bright, Early Israel in Recent History Writing (Chicago 1956) 91100. a. m. du-barle, Les Sages d'Israël (Paris 1946); "Le Péché originel dans la Genèse," Revue biblique 64 (1957) 534.

[l. f. hartman]

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