(As usual, Chris provoked the discussion and then vanished into the cyber-ether. I'm beginning to wonder whether he really exists.)
I have a couple of posts on this topic that I've been meaning to publish. Actually, I've posted my first observation before, as a guest blogger on Jewish Atheist's blog. I'm referring to the middle section of that post, where I argued that there are two variant accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.
Both accounts insist that humankind is the focal point of creation. Genesis 1 makes the point by recounting that humans were created last — the crowning jewel of creation. Genesis 2 makes the point by recounting that humans were created first — thus taking precedence over everything else:
These are the generationsThere are at least two variant details in the accounts of creation.
of the heavens and the earth when they were created,
in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
When no bush of the field was yet in the earth1 and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land … then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground….
|Genesis 1||Genesis 2|
|"days" of creation||7||1 — "in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens"|
|order of events||humans created (day 6) after vegetation (day 3)||humans created before vegetation, "when no bush of the field was yet in the earth"|
Sceptics might suppose that the editor of Genesis was sloppy, and didn't notice the hopeless contradiction between the two accounts. This is a constant temptation: to suppose that "primitive" peoples lacked intellectual sophistication.
More likely, the editor considered that he had two creation stories which approached the topic from two different vantage points, and he was loathe to lose either of them. The presence of variant details was simply immaterial.
Why was it immaterial? Because neither account of creation is a lab report: they belong to the literary genre, myth. Myths are "metaphorical [nonliteral] narratives about the relation between this world and the sacred."3
Alternatively we could set out to describe the literary genre in more nuanced terms, as the evangelical scholar Gordon Wenham4 struggles to do:
Whereas the layman tends to see the issue in simple categories of myth or history, theologians have for various reasons tended to avoid this polarization. … Von Rad and Westermann call Gen 2-3 simply narrative (erzählung) and Coats calls it a tale.You can see Wenham struggling here. It's easier to say what the genre isn't than to say what the genre is: it isn't myth, or history "in the normal meaning of the term", or abstract theology, or pure "revelation" as understood in previous generations, or mere tradition.
Similarly, Otzen (Myths in the Old Testament, 25) states, "The narratives in the opening chapters of Genesis do not have the character of real myths." But the garden of Eden story does fulfill functions often associated with myths in other cultures. It explains man's present situation and obligations in terms of a primeval event which is of abiding significance. Marriage, work, pain, sin, and death are the subject matter of this great narrative. And this narrative is replete with powerful symbols — rivers, gold, cherubim, serpents and so on — which hint at its universal significance.
Yet for the author of Genesis it is clear "that here a factual report is meant to be given about facts which everyone knows and whose reality no one can question" (von Rad, 75). The introductory formula "This is the history of the heaven and the earth" (2:4) not only links this cycle of narratives with those which follow (e.g., 5:1 or 11:27), but implies that the characters who appear in Gen 2 and 3 are as real as the patriarchs.
But to affirm that Gen 2-3 is "a factual report" is not to say it is history, at least history in the normal meaning of the term. …
If earlier commentators tended to think in terms of the writer of Genesis putting into words a vision of the garden which was disclosed to him, or recording a primeval tradition for posterity, modern writers … prefer to think in terms of divine inspiration working through the author's creative imagination. …
Whereas a modern writer might have been happy to spell this out in abstract theological terminology — God created the world good, but man spoiled it by his disobedience — Genesis puts these truths in vivid and memorable form in an absorbing yet highly symbolic story. It is argued that such an understanding of the story's composition can account for its use of mythological motifs from neighboring peoples and its points of connection with other parts of the OT, particularly the covenant and wisdom traditions.
The opening chapters of Genesis borrow motifs from the myths of neighbouring peoples, and they fulfil the function of mythology, and they use archetypal symbols (e.g. the serpent) — yet Wenham still wants to deny that myth is the right literary category. He prefers to think in terms of "divine inspiration working through the author's creative imagination". This seems to bring us back to von Rad's label, narrative, albeit an inspired narrative.
In my view, Wenham's unease with the label myth is unnecessary. It's better to acknowledge that these chapters are Israel's myth, while carefully explaining what one means by the term. Wenham himself admits that the writer borrows motifs from the myths of neighbouring, pagan peoples: not in agreement with their theology, but rather in a deliberate effort to subvert their accounts of creation:
The known links of the Hebrew patriarchs with Mesopotamia and the widespread diffusion of cuneiform literary texts throughout the Levant in the Amarna period (late 15th century) make it improbable that the writers of Genesis were completely ignorant of Babylonian and cognate mythology. Most likely they were conscious of a number of accounts of creation current in the Near East of their day, and Gen 1 is a deliberate statement of Hebrew view of creation over against rival views. It is not merely a demythologization of oriental creation myths, whether Babylonian or Egyptian; rather it is a polemical repudiation of such myths.5Well-meaning believers thus miss the point when they get hung up over a literal seven days of creation. The point is, not Marduk (or Ra, or whomever) but YHWH.
Moreover, that YHWH is no tribal deity, but Lord of all the earth, which is his handiwork. And we might list other "points" as well. The opening chapters of Genesis are a fount of multiple, foundational doctrines. One of the characteristics of myth is its capacity to hold a "surplus of meaning": more layers and depth of meaning than a merely literal use of language can sustain.
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1"Earth" is the alternative translation given in a footnote to the English Standard Version. In the main text, the ESV translation is, "When no bush of the field was yet in the land".
2Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
3Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, p. 71.
4Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary vol. 1, discussing the form/structure/setting of Genesis 2:4-3:24.
5Genesis 1-15, discussing the form/structure/setting of Genesis 1:1-2:3.