Thursday, November 17, 2011

Of Myths and History: Clarifying a Myth about Myth

In my book, Revisiting the Days of Genesis, I ask the question as to whether Genesis 1-11 is history or myth. My answer to this question is, Yes. But let me explain some things first, as I say in the book that I don't even like to use the term "myth" because so many people misunderstand it. I prefer using "symbolic representation," and hope that sticks, but occasionally, I have to use it to clarify something to other scholars (as it is the language that has been largely adopted in these settings).

First, the word "myth" is used differently in scholarly circles than it is in lay circles. "Myth" does not refer to what is false. Although there seem to be as many definitions as there are scholars, the basic idea in most of the definitions is that myth is a way to describe an event or phenomenon in symbolically supernatural terms (as opposed to describing them in literally supernatural terms). The truth of those supernatural events is left up to the belief of the reader, but myth itself is a genre of literature that paints the event in terms of the supernatural. It can do so because the event is supernatural, or it can paint an ordinary (to the average eyes) event as supernatural. Hence, natural phenomena are often depicted in the ancient Near Eastern world in mythic terms, because the ancients believed all things were supernatural (in the sense that natural and supernatural are not separate categories in the ancient mind) and thus, commonly natural things can be depicted in supernatural terms. Likewise, all history is supernatural in the same way, not because history is not natural, but because the ancients do not divide between the two as we do.

Hence, "myth" refers to a description of supernatural events and events that are described supernaturally. In other words, one can find the causes in the natural world and its events and focus upon that (which is more what we would consider history in our day) or one can find the causes of the natural world and its events in the metaphysical/supernatural realm and focus in on that (which is what scholars usually mean by "myth" in our day), or one can discuss the natural world and its events in terms of both. I believe Genesis 1-11 discusses the natural world and its events as a mixture of both, as this is important to the theology that the entire Book of Genesis (if not the entire Bible) teaches us about God and His working both beyond (without or against nature and natural events) and within the world (within nature and natural events).

So when I use the term "myth," I'm not referring to the truth or falsity of the Genesis account. I obviously believe in inspiration and inerrancy, and thus, am committed to its absolute truthfulness in everything that it asserts. But it doesn't necessarily assert what many people think it does, simply because their categories of myth and history are off base.

To be sure, some scholars think that anything supernatural is false, just as laymen do, but this is a value judgment based upon one's faith, not a scholarly opinion. A scholar ought to keep himself to the scholarly task of observation in letting the text he is studying speak for itself. Whether he believes it or not is something outside the text itself, and as such, is not helpful in understanding it.

However, my concern is for fundamentalists and evangelicals who take the mythic descriptions as historical descriptions (in our modern sense). In other words, those things that are meant to be described as symbolic representations of supernatural things (or even things/events unknown to the human author) are taken literally as historical description that is being asserted by the text, and hence, it must be defended to the end.

If myth is a genre to explain content, not a judgment concerning the truth or falsity of the content, then the practice to take those symbolic representations that paint a theological picture out of an event should not be taken as a literal picture depicting the event as though it was described in such a way as if you were standing there watching it happen yourself. I do think that our need to recreate the event, rather than let the text interpret the event becomes a massive wall to our understanding the text at this point, since I want to experience the event as God experienced it, rather than trust God to describe it to me in a way that I cannot experience for myself, but only can grasp the basic truth of its existence and any truths that God may be teaching me from the presentation and application of the actual event in symbolic terms.

But this sounds all so very "theorish," so let me use a text to explain it.

In Exodus 14:19-22, we have the supernatural event described in what we would describe as more of an historical-narrative:

And the angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud along with the darkness, yet it gave light at night. Thus the one did not come near the other all night. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord swept the sea [back] by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided. And the sons of Israel went through the midst of the sea on the dry land, and the waters [were like] a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

Notice that this is still a supernatural event, but it's spoken in such a "matter of factly" fashion, with only the sea being split as anything that could be construed as symbolic, but it would be wrong to take here as such simply because the narrative does not evidence itself to be a symbolic representation of the event, but an actual depiction.

Now, let's look at the second description of the event in Exodus 15:8-12:

"And at the blast of Thy nostrils the waters were piled up, The flowing waters stood up like a heap; The deeps were congealed in the heart of the sea. "The enemy said, 'I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; My desire shall be gratified against them; I will draw out my sword, my hand shall destroy them.'  "Thou didst blow with Thy wind, the sea covered them; They sank like lead in the mighty waters. "Who is like Thee among the gods, O Lord? Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders? "Thou didst stretch out Thy right hand, The earth swallowed them.

Notice the difference here. This is in a song filled with ancient Near Eastern symbolism that is reminiscent of the Storm god myth in the ancient Near East who is a warrior (see v. 1-3, where YHWH is described as and called a warrior). The Babylonian Storm god, Marduk, fights Tiamat (the personified abyss who represents chaos), splits her in half, and begins to create the world through her. Notice the connections as well with Genesis 1, where God splits the sea and creates dry ground. Scholars have noted for some time that the Exodus here is being described in terms of what is called the chaoskampf motif, where creation occurs through a battle with forces that present themselves in opposition to the creator deity. He overcomes them and creates the world. In this case, however, the event is being described in terms of YHWH creating His people, a nation for Himself. In other words, the symbolic representations that are taken from common symbols found in mythic literature within the ancient Near East are used to interpret the event as an act of creation on God's part. They are not meant to be taken as literal, as though God actually rides horses, sneezes on the water, or literally melts the Canaanites with this event (the enemy here isn't even the inhabitants of Canaan that the song describes). Instead, this is meant to be a theological text about God creating His people. Does it contain the event as history? Yes, it's not a different event than that depicted in Chapter 14, but the description of the event no longer serves in Chapter 15 as a means to recreate the event, but as a means to communicate a theology using the event as the starting point (of course, one could argue that Chapter 14 is also not recreating the event, but telling us what to believe about it). In other words, if we were to take what is symbolic as a literal depiction of what happened, we would not only have an odd view of God and what He did, but we would miss the awesome theology that the text seeks to teach us through mythic language.

Now, fortunately for Exodus 14 and 15, everyone can see that one is in historical-narrative and one is in a song (i.e., poetry). Unfortunately, for the modern reader, the genre of Genesis 1-11 is not so easily detected, although for the ancient reader who is familiar with the imagery, it's not quite as difficult as it for us. What may help us detect the same type of symbolic presentation as that described above, however, is to see the same event described in two different ways. We have that in Genesis 1 and 2, but many just see these as complimentary descriptions (i.e., literal recreations of the event) of creation. So what will really help us is to see if the two contradict one another in their details. If they do, that will help us understand that perhaps these two accounts are not meant to describe creation to us, but are meant to teach us something theological through the event of creation (an event that is not known to the human author).

We find this in certain details like the time of creation. It takes seven days to create the world in Genesis 1, whereas it only takes one day to create it in Genesis 2 (see Revisiting the Days, 70-98 for a discussion concerning why bĕyôm cannot be taken as a longer period of time than a single day). Where the plants and animals are made before man is created in Genesis 1, they are created after him in Genesis 2. Yet, they are created before the woman in Genesis 2. 

The details just don't match up for one to take these as recreations or literal descriptions of the actual creation event (a supernatural event indeed). Instead, the two texts seek to convey numerous aspects of theology, governed by the idea that Genesis 1 is creation from God's transcendent perspective and Genesis 2 from man's finite perspective. God speaks and creation comes into existence in Genesis 1, but in Genesis 2, God makes things directly with His hands. He is called Elohim in Genesis 1, the transcendent deity who is above His creation, but in Genesis 2, He is called YHWH Elohim, and works within it and through it. Hence, the image of the temple is cosmic in Genesis 1, as it conveys God's complete rule over the entire universe, without challenge, but Genesis 2 (and beyond) presents the garden as the local temple within a creation where chaos still exists, because YHWH works to fight it from the inside. Hence, the elements presented are meant to employ specific imagery that paint each picture, one of the transcendent sovereign and one of the warrior-God who fights to overcome chaos and gain sovereignty over it. This has important implications for the theology of Genesis that conveys that it is through YHWH's struggling with, through, and against us that His sovereignty over creation is accomplished (50:20). In other words, it is through the creation of Genesis 2 that we arrive at the creation of Genesis 1. The imagery is employed to communicate that important point, not to recreate an event that we may never understand. 

The event itself, of course, really occurred. I disagree with anyone who argues that because the event is described in mythic terms, the event is a myth within itself (i.e., the event never actually happened in time and space). I think that is equally a confusion between language and content, as well as a failure to see myth employed to describe something real, not something made up. In other words, the very presence of myth, especially in a type of historical narrative structure, implies the existence of the natural world and natural event it seeks to describe in those terms. As such, myth assumes history. It does not discard it. Hence, I see the historical structure intact, as I would see the historical structure in Exodus 14 intact when reading Exodus 15. To deny the history because of the presence of mythic language utilized in its description is like denying the existence of the sun because myth is used to describe it. It's simply a bogus practice to do such a thing. Hence, a claim of historical events is still being made. It's just that more is being made than just a claim of history, and less is being made than the idea that the text seeks to literally depict the event as it occurred in real time. That is not it's purpose, and a failure to understand this has a good chance in resulting in specifically disbelieving the Bible's teachings while generically affirming the truth of them. 

In the end, I remain in the dark concerning the literal unfolding of the actual event, precisely because my role is not to know the event as God has known it, but to trust in the history and lessons thereof in which God wants me to trust. So is Genesis 1-11 myth or history? Yes.

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