FABLE. Usually defined as a narrative in which animals and inanimate objects of nature are made to act and speak as if they were human beings. The word “fable” is not found in the OT, but the OT has two fables: Judg.9.7-Judg.9.15 and 2Kgs.14.9. The word “fables” is found in the KJV as the translation of mythos in each of its five occurrences in the NT (1Tim.1.4; 1Tim.4.7; 2Tim.4.4; Titus.1.14; 2Pet.1.16). NIV has “cleverly invented stories” in 2Pet.1.16, “myths” elsewhere; other versions variously use “fables,” “legends,” “myths,” and “tales.“ The fables referred to in the pastoral letters may have to do with some form of Jewish-Gnostic speculation.

FABLE, (μυ̂θος, G3680, talk, tale, legend, myth). A literary genre in the form of a short story embodying a moral and making use of animals, birds, or inanimate things like trees, as persons or actors. This form of writing was wellknown in ancient lit., esp. in Sumer. and Akkad. According to Trench, a principal difference between a fable and a parable is that the former tries to inculcate maxims of prudential morality—like industry, foresight, and caution; while the latter teaches spiritual virtues.

There are two fables in the OT. In the first, found in Judges 9:8-15, Jothan, standing on Mount Gerizim and speaking to the people of Shechem in the valley below, tried to show them the folly of choosing as king a worthless fellow like his brother, who had just murdered seventy sons of Gideon. The trees of the forest asked an olive tree, a fig tree, and a vine, to rule over them, but they all refused, saying that they were too busy serving the community to waste their time waving their branches over their fellows. Finally they chose a useless bramble (representing his brother Abimelech), a dangerous choice, for conflict would result in all perishing in the forest fire.

In the other OT fable, Jehoash, king of Israel, told Amaziah, king of Judah, who had challenged him to a fight, that he would demean himself by accepting the challenge. “A thistle on Lebanon sent to a cedar on Lebanon, saying, ‘Give your daughter to my son for a wife’; and a wild beast of Lebanon passed by and trampled down the thistle” (2 Kings 14:9). Jehoash was not dissuaded, and in the battle that followed was roundly defeated.

Some OT prophets employ illustrations which approach the status of fable, like Isaiah’s poem about the vineyard (Isa 5:1-7), and Ezekiel’s poems concerning the lioness and her whelps (Ezek 19:2-9), the vine (Ezek 19:10-14), and the great eagle (Ezek 17:3-10).

The KJV uses the word “fable” in the NT to refer to some false teachings which were coming into the Church, but in each instance the RSV more accurately trs. the Gr. word muthos, “myth” (1 Tim 1:4; 4:7; 2 Tim 4:4; Titus 1:14; 2 Pet 1:16). It is difficult to determine the exact nature of the heresy. It may have been a kind of Judaizing Gnosticism or an elaboration of legends out of OT narratives similar to those in Rabbinic haggadah, the Book of Jubilees, and Philo.


R. C. Trench, Notes on the Parables (1882), 1-5; F. J. A. Hort, Judaistic Christianity (1894), 135ff.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


(1) Primitive man conceives of the objects around him as possessing his own characteristics. Consequently in his stories, beasts, trees, rocks, etc., think, talk and act exactly as if they were human beings. Of course, but little advance in knowledge was needed to put an end to this mode of thought, but the form of story-telling developed by it persisted and is found in the folk-tales of all nations. More particularly, the archaic form of story was used for the purpose of moral instruction, and when so used is termed the fable. Modern definitions distinguish it from the parable

(a) by its use of characters of lower intelligence than man (although reasoning and speaking like men), and

(b) by its lesson for this life only. But, while these distinctions serve some practical purpose in distinguishing (say) the fables of Aesop from the parables of Christ, they are of little value to the student of folk-lore. For fable, parable, allegory, etc., are all evolutions from a common stock, and they tend to blend with each other.

See Allegory; Parable.

(2) The Semitic mind is peculiarly prone to allegorical expression, and a modern Arabian storyteller will invent a fable or a parable as readily as he will talk. And we may be entirely certain that the very scanty appearance of fables in the Old Testament is due only to the character of its material and not at all to an absence of fables from the mouths of the Jews of old. Only two examples have reached us. In Jud 9:7-15 Jotham mocks the choice of AbimeItch as king with the fable of the trees that could find no tree that would accept the trouble of the kingship except the worthless bramble. And in 2Ki 14:9 Jehoash ridicules the pretensions of Amaziah with the story of the thistle that wished to make a royal alliance with the cedar. Yet that the distinction between fable and allegory, etc., is artificial is seen in Isa 5:1,2, where the vineyard is assumed to possess a deliberate will to be perverse.