IS GENESIS 1-11 HISTORY OR MYTH?

This article is drawn from my new book, Rebooting the Bible, Part 2.  This is cut from the Introduction and simplified a bit to focus just on the issue of why historical truth matters even in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, which is often the most likely section of Scripture to be labeled “myth.”

The revised date for the book being available is now Memorial Day weekend. May 23-25. Only the last chapter, indexes, and a couple of small appendices are left to complete.  If you haven’t read Rebooting the Bible, Part 1, I do encourage you to get a copy.  It will make Part 2 come alive. I will be selling the book at a special price this week, $19.95, plus 2-day USPS priority mail.

When we were kids, we learned the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. fascinated and duly proud by his new hatchet, little George had to find something that needed to be chopped down. He
happened upon the famed Cherry tree. Chop, chop, chop, and the tree – not that much taller than George – went down with a soft rustling of its leaves.  Then, within a minute or two, his father saw what had happened and he challenged George with the obvious allegation, “What did you do?” Supposedly without any hesitation, George said, “I cannot tell a lie, I chopped down the Cherry tree.”

Whether George got in trouble or not is not the outcome anyone cares about. “Did it really happen?” isn’t either. Most historians believe it didn’t. The point is that the Father of our Country told the truth – he could not tell a lie.  President Washington was an honest man. Even as a child, George demonstrated his commitment to the truth. I do know the myth of George Washington and the Cherry tree had an effect on me. I believe the myth of George Washington and the Cherry Tree played an important role in how I turned out.

The point is that we do learn things from myth. Moral lessons are frequently the subject matter of fables, parables, and myths. But can historical events also teach us important lessons?  Absolutely. Perhaps the most famous way to express how history can provide “those teachable moments” is the oft-quoted line, “Those who cannot learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” (George Santayana, 1863-1952) And we see such blunders in geopolitics every day. Most leaders aren’t students of history.

When we turn to the stories of Genesis 1-11, we come upon Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the disobedience of humanity, Noah, Nimrod, and finally, to the lineage of Terah, whose famous son becomes the subject of much of the rest of Genesis, Abraham.

It is certainly true that there are a number of things that challenge those who believe the Bible is God’s Word, is inspired, and is without error (in its original composition). When we read Genesis 1-11, we encounter some of the most difficult biblical pills to swallow: A creation in seven days; only two persons beginning the saga of homo sapiens; the Sons of God (angelic beings) mating with human women; Noah building a massive ark on terra firma to hold pairs of land and air animals (God selected) protecting them from the Great Flood; the testimony that the Patriarchs lived into their tenth century (e.g., Adam to 950 years and Methuselah to 969); and finally the Tower of Babel event (an ancient skyscraper reaching into the heavens) whose destruction by an purposeful act of God caused humanity to scatter and ultimately, to replenish the entire earth.

Since the Enlightenment 250 years ago, Bible believers have looked for a way to believe the Bible is true even while admitting the stories of Genesis 1-11 might to be tall tales. Aren’t the accounts of Genesis 1-11 just too fantastic to believe? The challenges of science – astronomy, anthropology, Darwinian biology, and more recently archeology – have bested the Bible as the knowledge most people rely on. Can we find a way to put the history question aside and still believe the accounts are true?

In reality, a good percentage of laity don’t still have a problem squaring the Bible with science:

In 2004, in a poll conducted by ABC News, the findings of the inquiry showed a majority of Americans still believe in the historicity of Biblical events. Out of 1,011 adults, 61 percent of Americans believe the account of creation in the Bible’s book of Genesis is “literally true” rather than a story meant as a “lesson” … Sixty percent believe in the story of Noah’s ark and a global flood, while 64 percent agree that Moses parted the Red Sea to save fleeing Jews from their Egyptian captors.

In a more recent study by Gallup, in 2017, the number of Americans that believed in the historical aspects of the Bible declined. 24% believed the Bible is the literal word of. which was the lowest percentage in Gallup’s 40-year trend. While 47% still believed the Bible is the inspired Word of God, 26% continued to believe in the Bible’s accounts being historical and capable of passing the challenge from secular historians.[1]  However reassuring these numbers are or aren’t, they don’t tell the whole story.

If we were to survey seminarians from most schools (both teachers and graduates – anyone trained in the last 40 years), we would find the professional clergy much less likely to believe in the historical aspects of the Bible. Most would talk about Genesis 1-11 not as history, but as myth.

The evidence against the historicity (the factual basis) of the Genesis events consists in a variety of challenges. But one of the most important is that the biblical accounts have some elements in common with the myths of early Mesopotamian epics (i.e., Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian versions) such as the Epic ofGilgamesh, Enuma Elish, and Atrahasis.  Indeed, when we consider the similar stories of Mesopotamia and Babylon – characterized as comparable myths – even evangelical thinkers who promote the value of the Bible, have forsaken the premise that real history exists within the first eleven chapters of the Bible. No longer does history play any part in the value of these accounts. I see that as a serious problem.

But what is “myth? When we hear the word in our everyday usage, we know it means something like, “What fools believe that isn’t true.” However, this is expressly not the way that theologians use the term.  The Bible story has value even if doubters insist it built on fiction.  So, although it may not be historical, there is still truth present within its mythical qualities. But should we go so far as to say, “Aesop wrote fables and so did Moses”? Was history so far from the author’s mind?  Is Genesis 1-11 really not historical with only moral imperatives or spiritual lessons?  Do the Bible’s accounts teach us what happened “way back when”?  Why is it important that we can trust the event really occurred in the past?

Andre van Oudtshoorn, Dean of Academics and Research at Perth Bible College, produced a lengthy paper on this topic in 2015 entitled: “Mything the Point: The Use of Mythology in Genesis 1-11.” I appreciate the pun and many of his thoughts on the subject. But generally speaking, he is a perfect example of how evangelical scholars have forsaken the history of Genesis’ initial chapters. He explains myth this way: “Texts which are intended to orientate people within their everyday reality by telling them who they are, what God or the gods are like, and how they relate to God(s) and the world, are technically designated as myths.”[2]According to Oudtshoorn, the tellers of these tales never thought the tales were real history – they were simply shared stories explaining the mysteries of life.

Some scholars affirm that the manner of Genesis 1-11 is to critique and challenge the prevailing myths of Mesopotamia and Egypt.  Author Tim Deppe states, “Many scholars have proposed that Genesis 1-11 is designed to intentionally and deliberately critique Mesopotamian and other contemporary surrounding ideologies.” He goes on to cite scholar G.J. Wenham who contends that Genesis is “a tract for the times, challenging ancient assumptions about the nature of God, the world, and mankind.”[3] In contrast with creation myths from cultures round about Israel, “We are presented in the very first sentence with a single God who has no rivals. There is not even a hint of any cosmic battle…” In grand contrast to the Egyptian creation myth, Genesis 1:1 supplies the backdrop for the whole story that follows. “This verse then refers to the creation of the entire universe and implies that God created it from nothing, thus further emphasizing his complete sovereignty and lack of rivals.”[4] The sun, moon, and stars are for signs and seasons, not for worship. There is a “democratizing” component of the story too as humans are to dominate (as stewards) animals but not each other. And women as well as men are created in the image of God. The Patriarchs are not given titles and no reason to be worshipped. Nonetheless, humanity is charged to replenish the earth after Adam and Eve’s creation and later, when the Ark rested, and the creatures disembarked.

Truth can be expressed through tales and parables. We can discern these elements and express them plainly without addressing whether history does or doesn’t undergird the reason why our Genesis “myths” are superior to theirs. We can find strong counterpoints from the stories told in Genesis 1-11 contradicting the myths of the surrounding cultures: (Progressively) Sumerian, Akkadian, and finally Babylonian. Selecting a few of these teachings from Genesis 1 and 2:

  • God created a distinct cosmos by Himself. There were no other gods helping Him.
  • The world He created was not a part of Him, although He always seems to be everywhere (that is, wherever the protagonists of the accounts are).
  • Humanity rules the natural world – not the gods. There are humans and there are animals. And there is Elohim-Yahweh. No other characters are cast in the play.
  • Humans are not animals – they are made in the image of God. Human beings should look upward to God not downward to animals to understand their core nature.
  • God wants humanity to take dominion, not to allow the gods to run (or ruin) their lives.

Scholar Gerhard F. Hasel provides this summary:

With a great many safeguards, Gen(esis) 1 employs certain terms and motifs, partly taken from ideologically and theologically incompatible predecessors and partly chosen in deliberate contrast to comparable ancient Near Eastern concepts, and uses them with a meaning and emphasis not only consonant with but expressive of the purpose, world-view, and understanding of reality as expressed in the Hebrew account of creation.[5]

According to Hasel, Genesis 1-11 constructively counters the myths of Mesopotamia by advancing an understanding of reality derived from the Hebrew point of view. For most of the world today (and for many centuries), the Judean “myths” have been judged superior to what the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians believed. Exactly why this is true, cannot be as easily proven as simply asserting it is so. And therein lies the rub. Myth doesn’t have any grounding but opinion alone when there is no history.

Indeed, these scholars present Genesis 1-11 as myth only – because the worldview of this early portion of Scripture can only be affirmed as myth because it couldn’t possibly be historically true. But does this represent how the author intended his words to be taken?  The problem with the scholars of most evangelical seminaries today is they have rejected and repudiated for so long the belief in the history of the Genesis 1-11 stories, it’s pointless to argue that history plays any part in substantiating the “myths” are true. They won’t change their views. Thanks to the now almost universally accepted mythological interpretation of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, history has been forsaken.

So how can we present a combination of mythical and historical facets to the Genesis accounts, one that provides synergy rather than contradiction?

We can resolve the dilemma by first asserting “our myths” can have a historical basis, despite those elements which seem too fantastic to believe. Biblical myths contain a kernel (or more) of fact. Myth and history are not necessarily incompatible.  To say that Adam and Eve are historical is to state that what we are told about them includes the fact they were real people. The historical framework can be embellished with storytelling to emphasize what we should learn from the account.  However, should we settle on only one aspect of the account (it being solely historical or it being only mythical), we shortchange if not undermine what the author intended to impart to his readers.

Sacrificing its historical element to preserve the value of the text, which is really what modern-day evangelical scholars are doing, isn’t the panacea they believe it is. The late Christian intellectual, Francis Schaeffer explained this point using a somewhat obscure concept. Separating history altogether from biblical myth puts the truth of the Bible, Schaeffer states, on the “upper shelf” where it is out of reach. This means that if you say there is no historical basis for the account even when it clearly presents itself as such, and yet you still insist it’s true, you have double-talked your way into intellectual oblivion. The logical mind judges that you must be talking nonsense.

That is why we must uphold that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are built on historical fact even if there are few details and seem to contradict what we know about the world today. In other words, some features of the episode must be historical; otherwise, the account becomes suspect. Asserting that only the moral, ethical, or theological teaching is true despite portions of the story being “over the top,” ignores the possibility that there remains a core of historical facticity underpinning what the account presents. Therefore, when we use the term history in Genesis 1-11, we must be mindful of the subtle features of both myth and history. Only in this way, can we be receptive to what the biblical author wanted to communicate.

NOTES

[1] Saad, Lydia. “Record Few Americans Believe Bible Is Literal Word of God.” Retrieved from news.gallup.com. Published May 15, 2017, p. 1.

[2] Van Oudtshoorn, Andre. “Mything the Point: The Use of Mythology in Genesis 1-11. Retrieved from academia.org. Published 2015, November at www.crucible.org.au, p. 2.

[3] Dieppe, Tim. “The Theology of Genesis 1-11.” Westminster Theological Centre. March 2015, p. 2. Citation of Wenham, G.J., “Genesis 1-15” (Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas, Texas: Word, 1987, xlv.

[4] Ibid., p. 2.

[5] Hasel, “The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology,” Evangelical Quarterly 46 (1974), p. 91.