Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


PARABLE, from the Greek παραβολὴ (lit. "juxtaposition"), the usual Septuagint rendering of Hebrew mashal ("comparison," "saying," and "derived meanings"). No distinction is made in biblical usage between parable, allegory, and fable; all are forms of the mashal and have the same functions of illustration and instruction. The comparison may be explicit or implied. It may take the form of declarative or interrogative sentences (e.g., Prov. 26:1; 27:4). When developed into a short story, an interpretation or application is usually appended.

The story-parable, often introduced by "like" or "as," is told in terms drawn from ordinary experiences and usually makes one principal point. Some examples are Nathan's parable (II Sam. 12:1–5), and the parables of the Surviving Son (II Sam. 14:5b–7), the Escaped Prisoner (I Kings 20:39–40), the Disappointing Vineyard (Isa. 5:1b–6) and the Farmer's Skill (Isa. 28:24–29). All but the last-named are followed by explicit interpretations. The rhetorical question with which the Book of Jonah ends may suggest that the book was intended as a parable. Ruth, too, may be a parable, with its more subtle point underlined by the appended genealogy.

The allegory-mashal is a more artificial narrative having individual features which are independently figurative, so that it becomes a kind of riddle. The one of the Eagles and the Vine (Ezek. 17:3–10) is described as both ḥidah ("riddle") and mashal. The oracular Laments of the Lioness (ibid. 19:2–9) and the Transplanted Vine (ibid. 19:10–14) and the stories of the Harlot Sisters (ibid. 23:2–21) and the Cooking-Pot (ibid. 24:3b–5) are allegorical. A third type of mashal is the fable, where animals or inanimate objects are made to speak and act like men. Judges 9:8–15 and II Kings 14: 9–10 are examples; in each case the moral is made explicit.

A riddle (ḥidah) is a kind of parable whose point is deliberately obscured so that greater perception is needed to interpret it; Samson's riddle (Judg. 14:14) is an example. Mashal and ḥidah are used almost synonymously in Ezekiel 17:2; Habakkuk 2:6; Psalms 49:5 and 78:2; and Proverbs 1:6. Certain proverbs are in effect parable-riddles, e.g., Proverbs 30:15a, 15b–16, 18–19, and 21–31.

Other biblical forms related to the parable type of mashal are: prophetic oracles where a metaphor is extended into a lively description, e.g., Isaiah 1:5–6; Hosea 2:2–15; 7:8–9, 11–12; Joel 4:13; and Jeremiah 25:15–29; prophetic oracles proclaimed through symbolic actions, e.g., I Kings 11:29; II Kings 13:15–19, and Isaiah 20:2–6; extended personifications as of Wisdom and Folly in Proverbs 1:20–33; 8:1–36; 9:1–6, 13–18; and revelatory dreams and visions having symbolism which the sequel interprets as allegorical, e.g., Genesis 37:6–11; 40:9–13, 16–19; Zechariah 1:8–11; 2:1–4; and Daniel 2:31–45.


O. Eissfeldt, Der Maschal im Alten Testament (1913); A. Bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1 (19522), 167–77; Johnson, in: VT, Supplement, 3 (1955), 162–9; Haran, in: EM, 5 (1968), 548–53 (incl. bibl.). IN TALMUD AND MIDRASH: Ziegler, Die Koenigsgleichnisse des Midrasch beleuchtet durch die roemische Kaiserzeit (1903); I.J. Weissberg, Mishlei Kadmonim (19502). For a collection of parables see: Ḥ.N. Bialik and J.H. Rawnitzki, Sefer ha-Aggadah (1908– ) and C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology (1938), passim. W. Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie der juedischen Traditionsliteratur, 1 (1899), 121f., 2 (1905), 120f.; S. Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine (1942), 144–60. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: POST-TALMUDIC PERIOD: M.A.L. Beavis, in: CBQ, 52:3 (1990), 473–98; J. Stern, in: S'vara, 2:2 (1991), 35–48; Y. David (ed.), Sippurei Ahavah shel Ya'aḳov ben Eleazar (11701233?) (Heb., 1992/3); M.M. Epstein, in: Prooftexts, 14:3 (1994), 205–31; M. Gómez Aranda, in: Judaísmo hispano, 1 (2002), 109–19; Isaac ben Sahula, Meshal Haqadmoni: Fables from the Distant Past: A Parallel Hebrew-English Text, ed. and trans. R. Loewe (2004). ḤASIDIC LITERATURE: A. Wineman, in: Hebrew Studies, 40 (1999), 191–216.