Biblical fables

 Some people will say that the Bible is just a bunch of fables.  However, I think most people who say such a thing are being a bit sloppy in their dismissal of the sacred book.  After all, a fable is not a make-believe story—or not just a make-believe story.’s first definition of the word fable is “a short tale to teach a moral lesson, often with animals or inanimate objects as characters.” A fable has a specific purpose, a specific format, and is designed to alter the reader’s behavior in a positive way.

In fact, there are only two real fables in the Bible that I can think of right off hand, and both of them appear in the Hebrew Bible.  They alone fit that strict definition of fable:

But Jehoash king of Israel replied to Amaziah king of Judah: “A thistle in Lebanon sent a message to a cedar in Lebanon, ‘Give your daughter to my son in marriage.’ Then a wild beast in Lebanon came along and trampled the thistle underfoot. You have indeed defeated Edom and now you are arrogant. Glory in your victory, but stay at home! Why ask for trouble and cause your own downfall and that of Judah also?” (2 Kings 14:9-10; parallel account 2 Chronicles 25:18-19)


When Jotham was told about this, he climbed up on the top of Mount Gerizim and shouted to them, “Listen to me, citizens of Shechem, so that God may listen to you. One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’

            “But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and humans are honored, to hold sway over the trees?’

“Next, the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come and be our king.’

 “But the fig tree replied, ‘Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?’

 “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come and be our king.’

 “But the vine answered, ‘Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and humans, to hold sway over the trees?’

 “Finally all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘Come and be our king.’

 “The thornbush said to the trees, ‘If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’

 “Have you acted honorably and in good faith by making Abimelek king? Have you been fair to Jerub-Baal and his family? Have you treated him as he deserves?  Remember that my father fought for you and risked his life to rescue you from the hand of Midian.  But today you have revolted against my father’s family. You have murdered his seventy sons on a single stone and have made Abimelek, the son of his female slave, king over the citizens of Shechem because he is related to you.  So have you acted honorably and in good faith toward Jerub-Baal and his family today? If you have, may Abimelek be your joy, and may you be his, too! But if you have not, let fire come out from Abimelek and consume you, the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and let fire come out from you, the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and consume Abimelek!” (Judges 9:7-20)

The most well-known examples of extra-biblical fables are those of Aesop. For instance, the story of the Ant and the Dove:

An Ant went to the bank of a river to quench its thirst, and

being carried away by the rush of the stream, was on the point of
drowning. A Dove sitting on a tree overhanging the water plucked
a leaf and let it fall into the stream close to her. The Ant
climbed onto it and floated in safety to the bank. Shortly
afterwards a birdcatcher came and stood under the tree, and laid
his lime-twigs for the Dove, which sat in the branches. The Ant,
perceiving his design, stung him in the foot. In pain the
birdcatcher threw down the twigs, and the noise made the Dove
take wing.

One good turn deserves another

I can’t help but notice that parables take the same basic form as a fable; the primary difference being that parables usually have people as the actors, rather than animals or plants. That said, some of what we call fables in the collection of Aesop are strictly about people, such as The Boasting Traveler:

A Man who had traveled in foreign lands boasted very much, on

returning to his own country, of the many wonderful and heroic
feats he had performed in the different places he had visited.
Among other things, he said that when he was at Rhodes he had
leaped to such a distance that no man of his day could leap
anywhere near him as to that, there were in Rhodes many persons
who saw him do it and whom he could call as witnesses. One of
the bystanders interrupted him, saying: “Now, my good man, if
this be all true there is no need of witnesses. Suppose this
to be Rhodes, and leap for us.”

He who does a thing well does not need to boast

Compare that Aesop fable with one of Jesus’ parables, from Luke 18:1-5:

 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’ ”

Thus, a case could be made that Jesus’ parables (which make up a sizeable percentage of the content of the first four books of the New Testament), at least sometimes, fit the basic framework of fable—except for one thing.  The actors in them are people rather than the animals or plants that usually inhabit those stories we call fables.

So if you believe the Bible is full of fables, you’re right, it is—strictly speaking.