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Robert Holmstedt

Nice post, John. Your observations accord quite closely to what I discuss with my students in my "myth and legend" Hebrew course.

However, I'd like to follow up on a small but important detail in your third paragraph. You write that "the myths the biblical text plays off of are demythologized in a variety of ways and recast in monotheistic terms." Why use the word "monotheistic" here? In your other post on exegetical details of Gen 1:26-28 you suggest (correctly, IMHO) that the 1cp references are to the divine council. So, how does a divine council, in Gen 1 and elsewhere in the HB, fit with a monotheism? It seems that these other council beings are "gods" (as you know, Heb. mal'ak and Grk. angelos refer to a functional category not an ontological one).

This issue is precisely where I found Mark Smith's book on monotheism seriously deficient, since my reading of the texts leads me to concclude that the only really defensible interpretation of the worldview behind the texts is that of a henotheism.

Rob

JohnFH

Rob, you bring up an interesting point. We probably agree on substance here, but not on nomenclature. If I don't have much use for the term henotheism, it's because I think of both polytheism and monotheism in dynamic terms and view neither as mutually exclusive of the other in an absolute sense.

The buzz words among historians of religions these days include terms like inclusive and exclusive monotheisms, explicit and implicit monotheisms, and the translatability (or not) of deities across theological systems.

I think Mark Smith is right to challenge Assmann's claim that ancient Israel lacked translatability. If, however, translatability was pursuable within the monotheizing religion of Israel (a number of Psalms point in this direction), it stands to reason that polytheistic elements will have been folded into the monotheizing process and will have occasionally subverted it (though I don't think that's the case in texts like Gen 1:26; 11:7, and Isa 6:8).

Did you see the abstracts of the papers just given in Princeton? I'll send you a link if you haven't.

Robert Holmstedt

John,

Thanks for the Princeton conference information. Although this isn't my primary field, I have done enough reading of myth theory, folkloristics, theology, etc., to continue to be surprised that the term "monotheism" in any form and with any qualifiers is used of ancient Israel and early Judaism. Do they not even cast a glance beyond the Tanakh? It doesn't take much deep reading in, among other texts, the DSS, Philo, the NT, and the Talmud to see that a framework involving more than one divine being was not only operative for the writers of the first three sets of texts, it became central to the interreligious polemic of the second-fourth centuries C.E. and was a major theological concern in the fourth set of texts (the Talmud). Segal's work on the Two Powers controversy, while flawed, highlights the basic issues nonetheless. For the 2nd Temple Period, Mike Heiser's UW thesis contains a wealth of textual information.

I agree that the issues between you and I are probably terminological. Indeed, it is somewhat silly to replace one Indo-European prefix meaning "one" (mono-) with another one (heno-) to refer to two distinct concepts, but I still find the distinction itself useful. And, as you have little use for "henotheism," I think that qualifiers to monotheism, like "exclusive" and "inclusive," are more than a bit ridiculous. If the concept of "belief that only one exists" doesn't apply, don't use it -- that's my motto.

Hebrew Student

In Hebrew, the style of Genesis 1 is narrative. The teamim (accents) are those of narrative and not of poetry like Psalms, Job and Proverbs. In Hebrew Bibles and manuscripts it is laid out as simple narrative, and not poetry like the layout of some of the Songs in the Tanakh. So given that Hebrew tradition has always presented it as a factual narrative and it has been preserved like this from the beginning, I think we should respect that and not try to re-invent it with our modern western 'wisdom'.

JohnFH

It is not true that Jewish tradition has always presented Gen 1 as "factual" narrative, if by "factual" is meant a straightforward chronicle of events.

The genre of a cosmological narrative proceeds according to parameters that are different than those of a chronicle.

Midrash is often premised on a correct understanding of the genres of the Bible. That's why it doesn't hesitate to embellish on the text in ways that would be inappropriate if the dialogue in the texts for example were understood to be a transcript or tape recording of actual conversations.

In both Jewish and Christian tradition, Gen 1 has always been understood as *true* narrative. A snake speaking to the first couple is also presented as *true* narrative. YHWH slaying Rahab at the beginning of time is also understood as *true* narrative.

These narratives are not less true because they are not free of symbolical narrative. They are more true.

Cameron Willis

Hi John, nice post. I linked here from your recent post on the ZIBBC which was also very interesting. I hope our library gets a copy soon if it hasn't already.
I hate to be the guy who doesn't contribute anything new of his own to the discussion ... but I did think you might find the following article interesting: http://www.stimulus.org.nz/index_files/Stim12_4RikkWatts.pdf
Rikk starts approximately where you did and postulates a way in which this may have come about given the ANE context. For someone who grew up with his Grandmother's Genesis ... it was an interesting read! :)
Blessings!

JohnFH

Cameron,

Thanks for the link to a great read.

For those who land on this thread from elsewhere, the post on ZIBBC Cameron is referring to is found here:

http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2009/10/genre-identifications-in-the-zibbc-part-1.html

Nell1

I’m confused to if you are stating the Bible is made of myths or if myths are referenced to in the Bible? The bible was written by God, through people he chose. Even though humans physically wrote the Bible, the book contains the true words of God. I do not believe that anything written in the Bible is a myth. I wouldn’t necessarily say that God refers to myths, rather parables and other stories to help explain a certain point he is trying to make. I almost feel as though Genesis 1 is being accused of containing myths. However, if God wrote the Bible, why would he include myth? Wouldn’t he tell the truth, exactly how the world was created with no need for debate? It makes me wonder how Genesis, a book written by God can even be questioned in terms of science. “It seeks to answer questions that are beyond the purview of science as conventionally defined.” To me, this quote is suggesting that Genesis needs to explain science. In fact, God has nothing to explain to science at all. It’s almost as though scientists find it “too good to be true” about the creation of the world and are trying to find a way around God’s creation. I do not feel that God had any intention of trying to prove science. The bible was written by God and I truly believe that everything written in it is God’s true words that should not be related to science. Science cannot explain God’s words, they must be believed through faith.

JohnFH

Hi Nell 1,

Very good questions.

If compared to Enuma Elish and Atrahasis (Babylonian creation accounts), Genesis 1 comes across as anti-mythological, as a narrative that takes the myth out of its presentation of how the universe came to be. No battle between the gods is spoken of.

However, Psalm 74 recounts creation as a victory of God over Leviathan the primeval dragon. This text does more than cite a myth; it retells it.

IF I understand your line of argument, you want to suggest that God would not choose people to write scripture unless they signed a contract as it were not to speak of God as having a fight with a dragon and cutting it up in pieces.

But in fact some of the biblical authors speak in this way, Old and New Testaments. Many interpreters think of such language as symbolic; that seems to be a fair description.

Such language is also legitimately called the language of myth. There is no contradiction, unless you define myth as an untrue story. But that misunderstands what myth is. Myth is a form of speech that intends to express deep truths. See:

http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2011/02/wendy-donigers-positive-definition-of-myth.html

http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2011/02/bruce-lincolns-neutral-definition-of-myth.html

The other question you raise is whether the claims of science and the claims of a religion can ever be in conflict. Some religious people argue in this way. For example, if their religion teaches that the world has always existed and was not created, they do not think that is contradicted by science which argues on the basis of evidence that the universe came into existence as a specific juncture.

The problem with that way of arguing is that the claims of religion would then be true no matter what science comes up with. This protects religion but also makes it irrelevant to life as we experience it.

To recap: if I am preaching I'm not going to talk about myth in the Bible because there are people who can't get it out of their heads that myths are untrue stories rather than stories that express deep truths.

In a university setting, however, one must learn to make careful distinctions. Once that is done, it becomes clear in what sense Genesis 1 is an example of ancient science, with an anti-mythological thrust. It also becomes clear that Psalm 74 presents the act of creation in mythological terms precisely in order to express a deep truth. Finally, it becomes clear that what passes for science is sometimes science falsely so-called. See this excerpt from a lecture by Kenneth Miller:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2pZRyVX9bY

Breaker Morant 5

Psalm 74 really struck me as interesting when I first read it. The mention of God fighting the Dragon and the Leviathan really made it clear to me how the authors of the bible use the power of words to make their stories that much stronger. When I was first learning the Bible, I had the mindset that every word was to be taken literally and seen as truth. The more I have looked into the Bible the more I see colorful use of language to accentuate points being made.
One question I have about it is who decides what is just “colorful use of language” and what is truth? Are we supposed to decide for ourselves? If we say one part of the bible is just great storytelling who’s to say other parts aren’t fabricated as well?

True Grit 4

As I have stated before I do not believe the Bible is myth in anyway shape or form. I think if there is a genre to the Bible it is nonfiction. I think that if the Bible is related to myth it is because before all these stories were written down they were shared with other people and became part of others myths and tales. I do believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and nothing less than that. It was written down by men but all of it comes from God whatever is in the Bible is in there because he wants us to see it.

Chariots of Fire 1

I completely agree with True Grit 4. You really need to read the whole Bible as God’s words to you. If you look at it as just historical or just scientific, you are missing the point of the Bible. You can include the historical and the scientific views as you read it, but it can’t be solely just that. You can’t really place the Bible into a “genre” per se.

Pulp Fiction 1

Genesis is a straight forward, yet difficult chapter to understand/believe. There have been so many physchologists and biologists that have tried to prove the 7 days of work to be wrong. It seems as if people just come up with ridiculous ways and persuade others as if they are the "right person" as if they are turning there back on the Bible. If the Bible says something it may not seem right in modern day, but he did everything the way he did for a reason. If he didn't want light until the 4th day then that's fine. He's God... In the long wrong it was what was best for us.

TheMission7

I agree with True Grit 4 as well. You have to read the bible, especially Genesis almost as a bibliography written in the third person and God is the author. Whoever starts it with the perception that it’s either all historically true or false IS missing the whole concept. It’s for the reader to identify with the situation at hand and not expect exact truth, but ponder on how the scripture makes them feel in a personal level. These words were written down thousands of years ago, so they are hardly myths or tales conjured up by some men with spare time. The authors clearly believed in the Word, and they took their time to make sure that they were never to be forgotten. That kind of mindset is what a first-time AND a veteran reader of the bible should have when reading Genesis or any other book in the bible.

Breaker Morant 6

On Genesis, these are Hebrew tradition concerning creation, the fall, the flood, and the first man, Adam. Since it is a Hebrew tradition, I believe that when we approach the Genesis we must have a understanding of Hebrew tradition. Whether Genesis contains historical, scientific truths, the point is that God is trying to convey something to his people. That tradition that preserved that God is talking and working with men is recorded for us to read, so that we know how the lives of former saints have talk to God. The Fathers of the church have understood genesis story as something symbolically and literally. I guess the bible can be understood in different light as the Holy Spirit brings more light into the bible.

גופי תאורה

I understand these topics, to suggest that God choose people to write the Bible, if he signed the agreement because they did have to talk to God.

The Truman Show 5

I had never thought of the book of Genesis being scientific. I completely agree with the idea of Genesis not being a book of history. In the past I had always perceived this book to be a historical text. I like how theology, a intellectual science can explain how Genesis can be more science than history.
I also agree with Breaker Morant 6. If we knew more about Hebrew tradition would could better understand the book of Genesis, and the theology behind it.

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    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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    Copyright © 2005 by John F Hobbins.