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Ranger

I feel like everything I've read on Genesis 1 says the same thing, "Myth? yes and no." Or, "It depends on what you mean by myth." Just about everyone says this, right? Just about everyone has said this for a century now with only a few disagreeing. But the masses in the pews don't get it. To most people it's either all myth or all literally scientific. It makes it a struggle for me to teach it so as not to be confused.

Whenever you preach/teach on the topic, do you struggle knowing that you have people on both sides in your congregation? I was doing a "catechism" class of sorts with two guys last night. The other guy is Cantonese and holds a much more mythical view (although he still sees the second Creation story as literal with an Adam and Eve selected among a pool of "almost humans"). We aren't to the point of discussing Creation yet (just God as Creator), but I'm already dreading the potential argument between the guys.

To be honest, I try to teach it as a hymn. The meaning is totally and completely true, it teaches us about God, relationship, care for Creation, grace, etc. but it's also very mythic in character and therefore similar to other ANE Creation myths. It teaches us much more than a science book on Creation.

I try to focus though on how theologically different it is from other ANE myths. I remember in my undergrad whenever I had a professor say that the Enuma Elish creation story is a virtual parallel to Genesis 1. As we read about Marduk and Tiamat, I remember thinking, "Aren't they really stretching this to make it a parallel?" Sure, there are similarities, but there are rather bold dissimilarities as well and I think it gets exaggerated both ways.

JohnFH

Ranger,

It sounds like you are doing a very fine job of bringing the text to life and taking its truth claims seriously. I need to properly label all the posts on this blog which have dealt with Genesis 1. That way teachers like you might more easily find an observation or two they might build on.

Alan Lenzi

This book is currently very close to the top of my reading list. A former student of mine is reading it and is going to lend me his copy when he's done. But now my enthusiasm has waned. I'm still going to read it. I just hope Smith is not doing what I think you're telling us he is doing. . . .

I am so very tired of hearing biblical scholars apologizing or hedging their bets on Genesis 1. If it were any other culture, any other non-biblical text, the story in Gen 1 would be "myth"--no problem, no further consideration necessary. A god speaks. Stuff magically appears. People are formed from dirt. The world is framed and filled by nothing but divine fiat. And this all happened a half dozen thousand years ago. What more do we need to cause us to read this text alongside other mythical creation accounts? What more do we need to use the M word?

Because Gen 1 is in the Bible, we get the "well, yes, it is myth; but, no, it's not" answer even FROM SCHOLARS! Pastors or teachers like Ranger can call it what they want (though I have my opinions on this that I won't share just now). But (biblical) scholars have no good excuse for their failure to place Gen 1 in a fruitful, cross-cultural, analytical category like "myth" (despite the definitional problems). Why they resist this category seems clear: they are predisposed to privilege and perpetuate the Bible's hegemony (authority) in their own thinking (and thereby aid and abet it in our culture's as well). The Bible is really TRUE, they assume. So one must always qualify the use of the word "myth." Why must Bible scholars always be caretakers and curators instead of critics and cross-cultural investigators. Even when they do the latter, apparently the former creeps in.

If your description is accurate (and I'll look for myself when I get the book), it is likely that I am going to be really disappointed with Smith. Seriously.

As for myth and the construction of "the modern," I don't doubt that "myth" had a role in that project and may still do so in some circles. But I think post-modernism has taught us to be a little more critical about such matters and has called us on our attempts at insulating our own cultures from such classification terminology. So it's ironic that Smith cites Van Hendry's caution about the use of the word "myth" but then, apparently, goes ahead and uses "myth" as a means to draw a different boundary, one between the Bible/Truth and the rest of the ANE.

Sigh.

Ranger

Alan,
I'm glad you contributed to this discussion. To be honest, as soon as I read it, I hoped that you would. I value what you contribute to the topic.

"Why they resist this category seems clear: they are predisposed to privilege and perpetuate the Bible's hegemony (authority) in their own thinking (and thereby aid and abet it in our culture's as well)."

That's probably true. It's evidently true in many writers. But I think that only matters if they aren't honest about their presuppositions, right? In the West, where most of the work from biblical scholars is still being done, the Bible has much more of an effect on the society, even on the academy, than any other piece of literature out there. The vast majority of people in the West (even in more secular states like Sweden) can give you the basic story of Genesis 1-4, but few can tell you anything about other ANE myths.

Even scholars raised in the West (whether agnostic, religious or anti-religious) bring a lot of baggage to their interpretation of the Bible, and even moreso to what they read about other people interpreting the Bible. I'm sure that your days at WTS have scarred how you view certain scholars, certain schools of thought, etc. (If I were in your situation, I'd be scarred by it as well).

To be honest, the way I was treated as an evangelical studying the Bible at secular schools scarred me against certain scholars and schools of thought as well. I didn't get a say in the discussions, and even when I did it was only rewarded if it agreed with their views. I graduated with honors, but couldn't get a recommendation whenever they found out I wanted to attend a seminary. That scarred me back then, and probably still affects my perspective.

Last I knew Mark Smith was a Catholic, so I'm sure that affects his interpretation even when wearing his scholarly hat. But even then, he has written some really amazing stuff. There are plenty of people who have left the agnostic position and are openly anti-religious, but does that mean that they can't write honestly about the text? If they lay their cards on the table so that we can think what "might" (and I do mean "might") be going on behind the scenes, then why does this matter much?

Thanks for your interaction, I always enjoy reading your responses. I'd also be interested to hear how you think pastors/teachers should interact with Genesis 1, even though you previously said you weren't going to write that here.

Alan Lenzi

Ranger, a few replies, that may not be all that coherent (it's late):

"But I think that only matters if they aren't honest about their presuppositions, right?"

Well, I would hope that they're honest about their presuppositions. Some still try to hide them, of course. But laying the presuppositional cards on the tablet isn't enough, in my opinion. When one is engaged in interpreting religious traditions, what methodologically goes for one must go for another. NO data set (i.e., religion) should be allowed to rule over the others, especially when a scholars is doing it consciously, confidently, and in a cavalier manner (cavalierily ?). I'm not saying that good scholars are objective. I'm saying that good scholars of religion will do their best to practice a kind of methodological atheism. Privileging one data set is methodologically flawed, every way I turn it over. The person who can't shake off privileging one religion over the others in their scholarship is a (closet) theologian, apologist, or devotee (perhaps a very knowledgeable one but one nonetheless). Smith is a Catholic and that does influence his scholarship, I'm sure. But his previous work led me to believe that he is not an apologist or theologian. So I am / may be disappointed to see that side of him come out here.

"I'm sure that your days at WTS have scarred how you view certain scholars, certain schools of thought, etc."

I left WTS a convinced, fairly hard-core Reformed Christian. I attended church all through my grad school course work. I don't hold to the positions that I do about "myth" for emotional reasons or because some prof. treated me poorly. My reasons are intellectual. Moreover, I don't study religion so I can dismiss it. Today in class, after hearing 25 brief field reports from my students, I discussed the communal/social benefits of religion. Sociologically speaking, a great many religions offer their adherents a social network that gives them support, a sense of belonging, love, etc. I think I'm fair and balanced when it comes to studying religion. But I don't see that among a great many of my Bible scholar colleagues. And that really irritates me. It makes our field truly laughable in the eyes of a good number of other scholars in Religious Studies, social sciences, and the Humanities.

About your experience at University. That's a crying shame. I just wrote about six letters for a Pentecostal student to go study American Religious History at some really great schools, even though he is an inerrantist, etc. He's a smart kid, who brings a lot of passion and commitment to his work. He also is intellectually honest enough to deal with the hard hitting issues up front and with an open-mind. (Imagine this: an intellectual Pentecostal!) He was just accepted to UC-Davis. One doesn't have to agree with me to do well. But I do expect people to be honest in my classes and to acquire an awareness about the ramifications of their ideas (across the board).

I am very weary of ideologues and fundamentalists of all persuasions. I'll read them and learn from them, perhaps. But I am not convinced that everybody, no matter their presuppositions, can write honestly about the ancient texts we study. Not all presuppositions are equal and not all deserve my attention.

About myth at church, maybe another time. . . .

Ranger

Alan,
Thanks for a very helpful response. I thought you had said before that it was at WTS that you started to struggle with your faith due to fundamentalism...it must have been someone else that I'm thinking about.

I also didn't mean to imply that you held this view of myth because of your metaphysical views...I was simply wondering if your ex-evangelical view shaped you against certain evangelical opinions and work due to your time in that camp. That's why I shared how I was scarred and thus sometimes biased today. You clearly showed that as long as the scholarship is top notch, you aren't biased in the least. I applaud that.

JohnFH

Alan,

I wouldn't give up on Mark Smith just yet. He goes back and forth on the issues at hand. It won't be hard for you to find balancing statements by him that reflect your concerns.

In this post, I developed a comment or two of his that move in one direction. There are others that touch on the senses in which Gen 1 might be termed a "myth"; others still, following Michael Fishbane, in which Smith makes a distinction between myth and mythic.

Unfortunately, Smith does not interact with Bruce Lincoln's work. At least I can't find the interaction if he does. The book is poorly indexed, with endnotes rather than footnotes.

Alan Lenzi

Ranger, my Evangelical past, I'm sure, has shaped how I receive Evangelical scholarship. I know their moves. So I tend to be more sensitive when I read their work. I think I also see more clearly just how much their view of scripture often influences their scholarship and works to insulate the Bible from being fully integrated into "ancient literature." The Bible is always sui generis for them, it seems.

Don't let your guard down! I have my biases!

John, I'm not giving up on Smith. I'll read the book before I pass final judgment. :)

I'm glad you mentioned Fishbane: I need to go back to his book on mythmaking. I read the first 40 pages of so and sort of got tired of it.

Gary Simmons

John, do you know any particular treatment of how the earth functions as a character in Genesis 1-11? When I try searching for that on Amazon, it's taken from a "scientific" perspective instead of a literary one.

Re: defining "myth": it's not the only word that has a precise technical meaning as well as a broader colloquial meaning. There is a specific category of insect that is scientifically called a bug (they're close to beetles, but do not have wings). Yet we use the word generically to refer to insects in general as well as spiders/scorpions. Likewise, "dog" apparently refers to a male canine, though we use it informally for both sexes. I can't substantiate that last one -- I heard it somewhere as an explanation of anthropos as "(hu)man." If we're to define "myth" without misunderstanding, I think it helps to show parallels of other technical words with precise and generic meanings.

Re: Genesis 1 and science: I've been reading Genesis a lot lately, and I had a thought on this based on the structure of the six days.

Day 1: Form Orbit. Day 4: Fill Orbit.
Day 2: Form sky/sea. Day 5: Fill sky/sea.
Day 3: Form earth. Day 6: Fill earth.

The earth gets bonuses on days three and six that have no counterpart in the other environments. Note day three's bonus: vegetation. Did the Hebrews know of aquatic vegetation? Surely they did. But the scientific fact of its existence -- which they were aware of -- is downplayed to make a literary point that the earth is the central environment. This sets the case for interpreting Genesis as literature with science or history only in the background (if even there).

I don't think this generates errancy since Genesis knowingly and purposefully omits scientific data. The book is not trying to be science, and it doesn't slavishly try to present all the data.

Perhaps this doesn't contribute to scholarly discussion, but it may be helpful in explaining Genesis to congregants who hold a literal (rather than literary) view of Genesis.

Thoughts, anyone?

JohnFH

Gary,

The way the first three and second three days mirror each others has often been noted. Mark Smith discusses the question as well. Good eye.

There is no question that Gen 1 intends to be comprehensive but not exhaustive. For example, it does not explain the origin of the waters; the "us" in whose image humans are created is left undefined and their origin unexplained; etc.

Jason

John, I read it as the royal "we" Man as the representative (the image) of the Most High. Since God is eternal it is meaningless to talk about "where did God come from."

I don't think that forcing parallelism into the text achieves much. Logically the Earth had to be created before it could be filled, logically the heavens had to be present to hang the Earth in. A necessary created sequence may lead the reader to seeing parallelism where none exists.

Alan, I am a Christian, why shouldn't I privilege the Bible above other texts when discussion time comes around? We are, after all, talking about a book preserved with astonishing accuracy through time. When I read the Babylonian epic and find parallels to the story of Noah, I don't assume it's myth (in the general meaning of the word). I assume they started with the same story but garbled some of the details. I think the same when I read the Maori flood story.

If the Bible is a true history of the world then we would expect parallels of its stories to be found in other cultures. Not necessarily every culture (memory does fade) but in at least some of them. That is what we find.

If we wish to consider who remembered better, ask yourself which Ark would weather the sea better, Noah's barge, or Utanapishtim's cube? One is recorded as a vessel that would be stable in very high seas, the other a vessel that would roll over with little provocation.

JohnFH

Hi Jason,

Elsewhere, however, in the book of Genesis and beyond, we hear of "the sons of God." That's why many students of the text read Gen 1:26 and 11:7 in light of 6:1-2 and, e.g., the prologue of the book of Job.

But I agree: it's meaningless to talk about where God came from. The question is whether Gen 1:1 speaks of an absolute beginning. That does not seem to be the case.

Your way of understanding the relationship of the Genesis flood story to all the others is still popular among many: the Genesis version gets the details of a particular sequence of events right; the other versions garble the details. At least I think that is what you are proposing.

But if one understands the genre differently, if one understands the flood narratives as a subgenre of a larger set of narratives that are protological and cosmological, then the relationship between the different versions will not be understood in terms of the preservation of memories. They will be seen as competing presentations of the ways are and came to be the details of which depend on archetypal means of describe archetypal realities. The details do not depend on memories at all, or at least they do so to a quite limited extent only.

I'm not trying to change your mind on the genre identification so much as explain why many students of the text, including myself, see things somewhat differently.

Jason

Thank you John. I hadn't thought about the "sons of god" angle, but that would fit too. The idea of the heavenly court in which God holds council. I think that exists in some midrashic expansions too...

God bless.

Jason

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  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    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.