“Can God Speak through Myth?”: Rachel Held Evans Continues Her Review of I&I.

Rachel recently posted the second part of her five-part review of my 2005 book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. The first part can be found here.

What I appreciate about Rachel’s review is that she gets it–she understands what I am saying and why I am saying it. She is not alone in that regard, but I am still miffed at how many people have read in the book things I never said or taken it in directions I never envisioned.

In this post, Rachel tackles the chapter on the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern myth. Ever since archaeologists began unearthing the mythic stories of primordial time of Israel’s neighbors, namely Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan, all people who take the Bible seriously have had to think of how Genesis 1-11 fits into this context.

The horse is not only out of the barn, he’s out of the county.

The bottom line is that Genesis 1-11, when viewed in its ancient context, is clearly not prepared to provide an account of history. Rather, the ancient Israelites were talking about their God in the categories available to them. To be sure, those categories are not simply adopted but also transformed to tell the story of Israel’s God and why Israel should worship that God rather than the gods of the other nations, a constant source of temptation.

But–and this is the point too often missed–morphing those ancient mythic stories is not a setting aside of the idea of myth as if to say “we have risen above such nonsense.”  The Israelites wrote as ancient people, and their argument for why Yahweh is above all the others gods (see, for example, Psalm 95) only worked because of the shared mythic categories between Israel and her neighbors.

Finally, it continues to perplex me how adamant some are to distance the early chapters of Genesis from ancient myth. For one thing, it is a bizarre logic to think that every other ancient culture was replete with origins myths, but somehow, Israel rose above it all to provide an historical account.

Also, the presumption is made that “the God of truth” would never stoop so low as to employ myth. But an incarnating God does the very thing we might not expect: he let’s his children tell the story. Genesis 1-11 talks about God from the point of view of ancient Israelites. If that’s what God wanted to do, who are we to say otherwise?

Modern readers of Genesis have to mindful to read with ancient eyes, not modern ones. This is one of the key points Jared Byas and I made in our recent book Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible.


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  • Doug


    I’m sure you’ve heard this question a thousand times. I notice you frame this as an either/or: Either history or myth. I do tend to think that much of Gen 1-11 is mythic narrative, maybe even all of it. But I was wondering if you could explain your reasoning as to why it must therefore be non-historical? For instance, if 200+ cultures refer to a great deluge with a few people making it through, often on a boat, and if these cultures are spread apart by far distances (even if they once were together), it would seem reasonable to conclude that they are recalling an historical memory, even if they take that memory and retell it in a mythical fashion. Of course, we see the same thing with cosmic mountains, divine councils, giants or demi-gods, the scattering of nations around a tower, etc. I’m not suggesting that all of the “facts” in these chapters must be taken as literal-historical “facts”, but more broadly–simply that it does remember historical events and even people while taking great liberty to tell the story mythically. It seems to me that many scholars across the board and through disciplines take myth as anything (apologetic, polemic, phychological metaphor, etc) but history. Why can’t it be big enough to contain elements of all these things? Thanks.

    • peteenns

      Briefly put, I think some mixture of historical core and myth is certainly the case with the flood story–although the stories quickly leave the abode of history and speak in mythic terms. Still, speaking of “mythicized history” is a valuable category. But the question always turns on how much of a historical core. That question is even exacerbated in Genesis 1-3.

  • Dan

    I would agree it’s “bizarre logic” ti assume the Bible got it right while the genres correspond with ANE genres. But my understanding was that ANE creation myths while not error free, touch on something that actually took place. So the Babylonians and Egyptian creation “myths” are interpreting something, albeit very creatively, that had taken place. This could go the same for how each individual cultures understanding of gods/God was. They interpret what they believe to be driving everything either as marduk or Yahweh. I would reason that Yahweh is the correct among these other mythic interpretations of the reality of deity, so in a similar way, taking the Bible as revelation, I would in a waay hold Israel’s interpretation as valid above he other myths, and as something that is grounded in history.

    I do think they used ancient catagories and conventions of writing, so what the text is and is not saying needs to be discerned. But I have a hard time saying none of it (particularly Genesis 1-11) is historical. For me this goes for other ANE texts. I cant see how those are completely anti-historic ether. This isn’t too ignore that there aren’t fanciful myths, likely some related to creation catagories, but many are probably cultural projections on historical events.

    And example of

  • Dan

    …of some of this could be seen in Paul Seely’s interpretation of the flood narrative. He shows how the ancient geographical assumptions are tied to the understanding of the historical event, and yet its still historical. Israel’s interpretation, while still using ancient catagories of ancient geography, could be the correct interpretation of what happened. It cannot be proved, but its not bizarre to accept

    • peteenns

      Dan, See above under Doug’s comment. You are both asking pretty much the same question.

  • “The Israelites wrote as ancient people, and their argument for why Yahweh is above all the others gods (see, for example, Psalm 95) only worked because of the shared mythic categories between Israel and her neighbors.”

    This comment made me think of how, when we evangelize and try to make disciples, we meet people at where they are in life. I think something like that happened when Genesis was written (and when God inspired it). It was designed in such a way to meet Israel’s neighbors where they were and to preach to them the one, true God in a way that they understood.

    • peteenns

      Justin, this is one of the main points to take away from this, as far as I’m concerned. Thanks!

  • davey

    “their argument for why Yahweh is above all the others gods (see, for example, Psalm 95) only worked because of the shared mythic categories between Israel and her neighbors”

    I’m not sure what you can mean by this. If the argument only works because of their shared categories, that implies it won’t work for us!

    • peteenns

      No, it means we have to think theologically about how it applies to us.

  • James

    No it shouldn’t surprise us that God allows his people to tell their story using the categories they have at their disposal. Though we shouldn’t forget the Hebrew concern to recount reliable history as they understood it. Strange view of inspiration that would have the story told in 21st Century historical and scientific categories. Strange, because those categories are time sensitive. So how would the story be told 500 years from now, a 1000 years, should the Lord tarry?

  • RS

    An approach to interpretation, that I learned as an attorney, is that you first line up all possible interpretations, and then argue for or against each one.

    In this instance, those scholars, who seek to dismiss Genesis 1-11 as history, have not included the following in their list of possibles, and therefore have not knocked it out of consideration.

    That possibility is this. Based on Genesis, all ancient and peoples came from the original three, Shem, Ham and Japheth, but the Israelite nation only came from one of them. This would explain why all ancient nations would, somewhere in their memory, have a recollection of the Genesis and flood events in their history. Therefore it would not be surprising that the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Canaanites may have had some version of the flood story in their historical records.

    Now, you can spin it both ways. Liberal scholars use that to argue Genesis is not an original revelation.

    I’d argue that all the people’s that came from Noah’s sons would have some version of the flood, but the Biblical account is the definitive one – based on arguments of Biblical inspiration etc.

    Therefore, to keep rolling out the theory that Genesis is not ancient history, you need to refute what I’ve just said above. But I’ve never any liberal scholars doing that. Rather, they selectively present their theories to establish their agenda.

    • LorenH

      Your arguement is based on an assumption that a literal worldwide flood happened when there is no physical evidence to support that assumption. Refute that.

      • jerry lynch

        loren, this is clear and substantial evidence that a large flood happened in that area, of such proportions it would seem the world had been engulfed.

    • I was going to say something similar. If all the nations are descended from Adam, then one could expect God to have an interest in all of them. The Chosen People were not chosen until the time of Abraham … no reason why God wouldn’t be speaking to other nations prior to that, or even afterwards (Jonah). Perhaps the Israelites were chosen because they heard best, or developed the message in the way that God wanted. The commonality of motifs is only upsetting if you have a need to insist that ONLY the Bible has ANY truth.

      Loren: Anybody who lives near a river on a floodplain sooner or later discovers (often to their surprise, judging by recent examples) that floods to the horizon are something that happens.

  • jerry lynch

    The God of Abraham loses nothing in our accepting Genesis1-11 as myth. I would go further to state that it is up to our loving service to others and keeping our monds open, that certain passages in the Bible are meant to be overturned or clarified. We are designed to question, to seek an ever-deepening realtionship with God and the ultimate meaning of life. Blatant errors in ancient perspective do not refute God but offer an opening for an ongoing dialogue. Taking the OT as unerring truth is to end a loving relationship with God.

    The Jews insisted on having a king, which “God” argued against: is the book of Kings to be trusted, anointed, as truth?

    The Greek myths are wondrous insists into the human psychic. To argue against them as not factual is silly: most contain the deepest truth of our nature.

  • Michael

    It is fascinating to me that intelligent people can look at objective truth, there were many competing and comparable myths among peoples in the ANE and then take a great leap and say the particular variant of one of those myths that they subscribe to today is actually not a myth , but the revelation of the one true God. How much more need be shown to prove man invents the Gods he needs.

  • Mark Chenoweth

    In Claus Westermann’s commentary on Genesis, he sees Abraham as an historical person but a lot of the stories surrounding him to be legends that developed over time. For example, he sees Sodom and Gommorah as happening but the author or oral culture PLACING Abraham in the midst of it (at least that’s how I understood it).

    Might it be that Noah was a historical person who the Hebrew culture PLACED in the flood narrative? Sort of like a meshing of myth and heritage? I don’t know, I’m just asking questions. Anyone’s thoughts would be appreciated, especially Pete’s. : )

  • AT

    The acceptance of myth and history (mixed together) as a means of God communicating to a people, using common culturally-relevant genres has completely liberated my theology in the past three years. I had previously changed from a young earth perspective overnight when I realised that we are witnessing the ‘histories’ and ‘stories’ of stars (things that occurred millions of years ago). I completely changed my perspective from a wooden literal interpretation of the OT to a more flexible understanding when I realised that no ancient people (writing in the time of early OT) had any sense of how (or why) to write in a modern, historical genre.
    However, I actually believe that we need a better word than ‘myth’. Many Christians hear the word ‘Myth’ and think Greek/ Roman. I believe that the genre differences (that can be hard to see at first glance) are powerfully significant. I don’t think we have a word to capture that yet.

    • peteenns

      What would you call the stories of the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Canaanites?

  • gingoro

    Pete this is probably not a fair comment but I often feel that you have shown that our traditional theology based upon Gen 1 to 11 is misguided but that nothing or very little is offered to take it’s place. Sometimes I feel that Gen 1-11 should be removed from our scripture and discarded. The old theology is gone but I have a hard time seeing what takes it’s place. I think you still talk about a fall but how can one have a fall when mankind has an evolutionary background and like the chimps did lots of bad things.
    Dave W

    • peteenns

      I think this is a fair comment, Dave. Basically–and I want to space to fill in the gaps as I go along–I think Genesis 1 is universal in its theme, but with Genesis 2 the focus begins to be narrowed to Israel; that’s my whole Adam is Israel in ministure idea (which isn’t my idea but very old, even pre-Christian). That, positively, is what the story is about. I also think the Bible, slowly but surely, models the problem of human nature but does not explain why we are the way we are. The story of Adam is, as I try to point out in The Evolution of Adam, does not explain WHY humans do what they do. I know conventional theologies desperately want such an explanation in the Bible, but it is not there, and the Orthodox going back to some church fathers have known that all along. Having said that, why we do what we do, holding both a religious and evolutionary paradigm in tension is a huge project and I am all ears. But, to get there, I think it is important to clear away some of the hermeneutical clutter surrounding Adam.

      • gingoro

        The questions I need to defend against is then
        1.how can God consider creation good or is that just the writer of Genesis personal assessment of creation and not in any way inspired?
        2. does mankind intrinsically do bad things which become evil after God’s commandments are given. at which time we could be considered intrinsically wholly evil? Yes this does not match with the Psalms were mankind is exalted in places.
        3. as I read scripture there seems to be a theme of restoration, yet if we are intrinsically evil then restoration does not make sense.
        As you know Pete I accept common descent but am still struggling with how to manage early Genesis. A liberal Christian friend who was part of the old ASA email group simply throws any part of scripture that he does not accept into the dustbin eg all or almost all of Paul, Genesis…