Genesis 1 as Myth

Genesis 1 as Myth May 29, 2013

I had my attention drawn today to an article by Howard Bess, a retired American Baptist minister. The title is “Rethinking the Genesis Message.” Here’s a sample:

Genesis 1 is the Israelite response to chaos and endless war.

In the Genesis 1 myth, the Israelite God confronts a world that is without form and is engulfed in darkness. In modern language, the earth was chaotic beyond useful function. So God sets out to do something about chaos and the useless nature of the world. Simply by speaking, the Israelite God made light, vegetation, animal life and finally human life. God’s world was to be a place of plenty and robust life. As God completed his actions, he paused periodically and said that what he was doing was good.

This alternative reading of Genesis 1 and understanding Genesis 1 as myth were for me a marvelous discovery. I could let science do its work, while I was given a new vision of what my life as a religious person was to be about. Jesus and Paul affirmed the message that evil/chaos is never to be fought but overcome with the doing of good.

See also his earlier article “Genesis Myth: God Doing Good.”

I will simply add that the opponents of science and promoters of pseudoscience are at war with order and allies of chaos, and so take upon themselves precisely the opposite role to God in the Genesis 1 myth. If someone has ears to hear, let them hear.

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  • ScottBailey

    The entire book of Genesis is a myth. It is a retrojection of Persian
    era needs into the salient “past” as a form of understanding and
    justifying their present = myth.

  • People interested in this topic might enjoy “The Lost World of Genesis One” by John Walton.

    • I second that recommendation. And he has a more detailed scholarly volume on Genesis 1 in relation to its context as well.

  • LorenHaas

    Another primer on the subject is Peter Enn’s “Genesis for Normal People”. I went through this book in an adult bible study at my American Baptist. It opened quite a few minds to understanding Genesis from a “grown-up” perspective.
    Highlt recomended.

  • arcseconds

    Coincidentally, I just heard a talk given by Lloyd Geering, and he also said that in writing his latest book he ended up thinking about and having a deepened appreciation for Genesis 1.

    He also emphasized the Mesopotamian context of the book, but has a completely different take on it. He pointed out that at the time, the Babylonians had arguably the most scientifically (widely considered: obviously they didn’t have modern science) advanced culture, and that Genesis 1 reflects the Israelite reacting to that.

    That is to say, while his point seems quite similar in many respects to Bess’s, he sees Genesis 1 not as reacting to Babylonian mythology with its comparative emphasis on chaos, but rather Babylonian knowledge with its emphasis on order.

    (And he stressed the economy of Genesis 1, too. )

    • Interesting. Presumably the argument was that this element of Babylonian thought had a positive impact on the author of Genesis?

      • arcseconds

        I wouldn’t exactly call it an argument, it was something he mentioned in passing at the end of his talk, and the main point of the coda was more his own renewed appreciation of Genesis.

        But yes, that appeared to be the point.

        Genesis, at any rate, is an unusually ordered creation account when one compares it with other creation myths, especially those of the Mediterranean and Near East. There’s no bodies of primordial giants being carved up, or anything!

        And this kind of order is what we kind of expect from rational enquiry.

        Admittedly, it’s also what we’d expect of monotheism (or even henotheism, maybe). But were the exiles in Babylon monotheists?

        • Well, their thinkers had at least begun to move in that direction, as Genesis 1 itself illustrates.

          • arcseconds

            Well, it’s speculative, but it’s at least as plausible as any other speculation, right?

            An account that appeals to reason is going to want to have as few arbitrary elements as possible, and appeal to a minimal number of principles. A single god enacting out a divine plan is about as good as you’re going to get.

            Reason is closely connected to measurement and calculation (you can see this even in the etymology of ‘reason’, ‘rational’ (‘ratio’)). And the Babylonians were calculators par excellence.

            So it’s not at all impossible or even especially implausible to imagine that the Hebrew exiles were impressed by Babylonian science and mathematics, and felt an impulse to rationalise their own account. It’s easy to explain why the Babylonians did not do something similar with theirs: it’s much harder to change things in the face of newfangled notions once the myth has the status of state religion. Whereas the exiles still had the cultural freedom to alter their creation account.

            The rationalist impulse would therefore be directed in a similar direction to their monolatrism, and may have been a factor in their eventual monotheism.

            We even have an independent example of a creation story which is (notably) not unlike Genesis 1 that we can be pretty sure was motivated in a large part by rationalist considerations: Plato’s Timaeus.

  • Wayne

    Call the Word of God a myth if you will, but what you will come to understand is the “science” many of you hold up as god is the actual myth. (“Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”) I only hope you come to that realization in the lifetime God has given you on this earth He created.

    • Taking a text out of context and trying to make it a prooftext doesn’t do anything other than show your utter disrespect for the Bible. No one doubts that people can twist it into all sorts of things. I hope that you will come to realize your idolatry, treating the writings of human beings as though they were the Word of God, and will repent.

      • Wayne

        How can you give any credibility to the term “repent” you are using above when you look at the very book you take the term and its meaning from as an errant book of “writings of human beings” and not the Word of God. It is impossible to take a rebuke about the Bible from someone who continually shows the disrespect you show for the Scripture.

        As far as that quote being out of context .. Jesus said those words to Thomas pertaining to Himself .. about His resurrection from the dead .. proving He is who He says He is (the Messiah, the “I AM,” the One also “through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made.”)

        It is also a very fitting statement made by Jesus to me (and all of us now) about Himself, who He is .. Savior, God and Creator .. the Way, the Truth and the Life.

        I pray that you will be haunted by those words you just wrote until you come to the realization of the Truth, lest those words haunt you throughout eternity having never really known the Truth when you had it within your grasp the entire time.

        • How is taking the Bible’s own evidence seriously disrespect? Saying grandiose things in praise of the Bible are not true respect if they are untrue, or worse, idolatrous praise directed at human writings rather than to God who lone is worthy of such praise.

          I pray that you will realize that lip service to Scripture is not enough, and attributing to Scripture attributes such as inerrancy which belong to God alone is idolatry.

          • Wayne

            Where did you come to the conclusion that “God who lone is worthy of such praise”? If from Scripture, then how can you know that is true, that God alone is worthy of such praise, if Scripture is an errant writing from man?
            How too can you even define the idolatry you want to place in my life and how does that definition mean anything if the very place you get the concept and definition is from the very writing you dismiss at most every turn of the page as the errant word of human beings instead of the inspired (God breathed through the chosen humans He created) Word of God?
            I submit the idolatry here is with those who are so sold on what you want to call “science” that cannot be truly known, observed or recreated AND in the actual writings of human beings people keep trying to reter to others in some of the comments above. What gives them credibility? I submit also that you give them credibility as truth because you agree with them, not because they actually hold truth or can be proven or known.

          • What a load of silliness! Were your parents not to be listened to simply because they were not inerrant? Should I ignore your comments since you are not inerrant? Are you an atheist pretending to make stupid arguments on behalf of Christianity in order to make Christians look like fools and ignoramuses?

          • Wayne

            Since you have not answered any of the questions and have resorted to throwing out categorizations and names and being dismissive without any real thoughts, the only conclusion is you do not have an answer and have run out of thoughts.

            I find it quite ironic and hypocritical for you to use Scripture as reference to previously try and make points (and dogmatic points at that) all the while stating that Scripture is an errant work of man. Choose one side or the other please.

          • Again, you seem to be struggling with basic logic. If one cannot oppose idolatry unless one has an inerrant Scripture, then how did the authors of the texts that are now in Scripture do so before they wrote these texts?

            I am not sure why you are having such a hard time understanding. Do you think that the only people who can discuss a text, or find a text meaningful, are people who attribute inerrancy to it? Is that why you ignored my previous comment?

          • cdbren

            We get it. You think God had nothing to do with the Bible and that it was written by man. Cool. You can have that belief if you want to.

            Now it is true that said book claims otherwise. Even writings from seemingly eyewitnesses about what Jesus claims, shows Jesus/God is the author of the entire Bible. Written through other Godly men. These writings all spell out the history of the world, sin, and how to be saved.

            May I point out that previous OT writings predicting coming events have proven to be true.

            No one is making things up or attributing things to the Bible that it does not already claim itself. You seem highly intolerant of those that simply take the Bible as it is written and that follow the words of Jesus as recorded in the Bible.

            John 1: 1-15

            Matt. 22:29 Jesus answered them, “You are deceived, because you don’t know the scriptures or the power of God.”

          • I really do think that you are deceived, because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God. The Bible doesn’t claim anything about itself – nowhere does any text in it envisage that it will become part of a compilation, list what the contents of that compilation will be, and make assertions about the nature of their inspiration or the need to treat all claims within said collection as scientific or historical unless it is simply too ludicrous to do so.

            I suspect that you don’t even know what the New Testament authors meant by “fulfillment of Scripture” probably never having read them in their original contexts. What do you think it means when Matthew applies Hosea 11:1 to Jesus? Have you ever bothered to read Hosea 11?

    • the_Siliconopolitan

      Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.

      That’s a lovely quotation.

      Have you ever showed it to Ken Ham? He seems to have missed it.

    • Steven

      Wayne, don’t confuse God’s agency with God’s methods. God can and does work through nature, which science describes and seeks to understand.

  • Jerome

    Genesis 1 is people trying to figure out why the world is the way it is.