γενήσομαι «ge-ney-soh-mey : i am becoming»
These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
reading genesis, part 2: genre
Please note, this is the second post of a series.
You can read the first post here.
I wrote last time briefly on the pitfalls of the Reformation and its decentralisation of biblical interpretation.
Indeed, as a result of every person being made eligible for hermeneutics, we've become conditioned to approach the Bible in such a way that all our life's problems can be solved by plucking out a few verses here or grabbing some passages there and twisting them to apply, somehow, to our context.
We are taught to think every part of the Bible should speak to us specifically where we are. The Bible, for many, has become a sort of 'life handbook,' or DIY self-help guide.
But this is asking more of the Bible than it's prepared to give. In our attempt to squeeze a life lesson out of each story we may in fact end up strangling the text.
Don't get me wrong—I believe the Bible has lessons to teach us, that it does have relevance for us today. I just don't believe what it has to offer us is what tradition tells us it does—or in the way we've been taught to believe it does.
Continuing with Genesis, we can see this attitude at work.
We come to Genesis with our present-day concerns to guide us—we read it with modern questions and try to spot modern answers.
For example, we very desperately want Genesis to tell us something about our origins as a species—and about the formation of the great cosmos. We want the creation stories to tell us the 'how' of the universe.
But asking those types questions from the text is the wrong approach. It's not what they're there for—though we've generally been taught that's what their purpose is.
What's more is that we want scientific answers from the Bible in hopes that this real-world verification will somehow help prove the Bible is 'true' and therefore validate all our beliefs. If science supports the Bible then maybe we aren't crazy.
In fact, I think it's this kind of quest that perhaps is what makes us crazy.
Consider Ken Ham and his ilk. He and other Young Earth Creationists are so firmly caught up in a literal reading of Genesis that their entire faith hinges upon it. If the Earth and the cosmos weren't created exactly the way they believe the Bible depicts it then everything else in the Scriptures cannot be trusted—if the world wasn't made in 6 days and if there wasn't an actual Adam and Eve then nothing else in the Bible makes sense to them. For them, the truth of the Scriptures is entirely dependent upon everything being read literally and historically.
It's sad to me that this is the case for many people. It's sad to me that the Christianity of these sorts of people is built upon such a flimsy and vulnerable—and misplaced—foundation.
Because it's entirely missing the point. It is, I'd go so far to say, reading the Bible wrong.
So how do we read it right?
I think there are a two major keys to keep in mind when reading the Bible—two important details I think everyone must understand when reading Scripture so that our eyes are opened to what is going on in the texts.
The first key is what type of genre it is.
There are certain cues within the stories of creation that tell us this is not a historical or scientific account. A talking snake is one, for starters.
Scholars know that the author of Genesis was using typical literary conventions to depict his story and discuss his world. They know these particular literary conventions from comparing with and contrasting to other creation stories of Israel's contemporary and surrounding cultures. Two of these have striking similarities with Genesis—Enuma Elish from the Babylonians, and Atrahasis from Mesopotamia.
So what does that tell us about Genesis? First, it tells us that the creation stories are the genre of 'myth,' and not a straight historical account.
Many people are put off by the categorisation of 'myth,' largely because we've come to understand a myth as a belief that's arisen out of incomplete or immature knowledge—it's a 'false fact' that we all collectively hold as true and has been passed down through generations. Myths, in our post-Enlightenment world, tend to be things we feel need to be 'debunked.' Like dragons or vampires.
Or think of the popular show MythBusters, whose entire premise was to scientifically prove or disprove commonly held assumptions about the world and from the media. Testing myths like whether a pedestrian can be killed by a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building; and whether a car engine is hot enough to cook a meal; and whether consuming alcohol makes other people more attractive, the MythBusters team took our culture's popular beliefs and revealed their validity—or their failure.
And these sorts of pursuits serve quite well in confirming the myth-or-fact dichotomy we all to some extent have.
But there is another type of myth—the storied myths of ancient cultures and their religions that were told in order to explain the functions of the cosmos.
We're familiar with many of these myths—Thor or perhaps Pandora to name but two. More ancient myths include the aforementioned Enuma Elish, and Atrahasis, but there is also Gilgamesh, Enlil, and Marduk—and if we want to look to Egypt there are stories of Ptah, Khnum, and Atum.
We tend to dismiss these sorts of 'cosmological myths' the same way we do cultural ones—as beliefs that have arisen out of an intellectual immaturity or out of the scientific ignorance we attribute to all nascent cultures.
But this completely disregards the way these myths are supposed to function. Reading them as untruths that need correcting or as scientific beliefs that need replacing ignores what these myths are meant to do.
Indeed, the intent behind cosmological myths was not to present a scientific account of the world of which the myth is depicting—instead the myths are meant to relay a truth about the world of the story-teller.
Dr Shawna Dolansky writes that myths were told and retold in order to convey and reinforce a particular worldview—and therefore studying these stories as myth help us to understand a 'culture's ideals, values, customs, beliefs, concerns, and fears.'1
There are truths in Genesis but they are theological truths. It is not the details of the story that are important but instead what the story is attempting to convey—the underlying perspective on the world is what matters, not the literary features used to get there.
The Israelites were somewhat radical among their peers in that it was their God and their God alone who acted without violence and without aid; it was their God and their God alone who defeated and ordered the chaos; it was their God and their God alone who brought forth and cares for the cosmos. This is in contrast to surrounding cultures whose myths all involve violent beginnings, creation out of carcasses, and a pantheon of competing characters.
Understanding the genre of a text will give us the insight into what we have the right to expect from it.2 What, that is, the author of Genesis is intending to say—and it is not to give a scientific account of the universe.
The creation stories are meant to portray to its audience that the God of Israel is the only God who is worthy of loyalty and trust—this is the major takeaway of the narrative.
But it doesn't end at genre—there's another key to understanding Genesis, and the Bible as a whole. ✤
1. Shawna Dolanksy, 'The Multiple Truths of Myths,' Biblical Archaeology Review (Jan/Feb 2016), https://www.academia.edu/22009195/The_Multiple_Truths_of_Myths
2. Peter Enns, 'Mesopotamian Myths and "Genre Calibration",' BioLogos (Nov 2009), https://biologos.org/articles/mesopotamian-myths-and-genre-calibration/