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Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

It’s been said that evolutionary atheists and evangelical creationists alike read the Bible with a crude literal-mindedness that fails to acknowledge the literary riches embedded in the text. The creation narrative of Genesis 1 is perhaps the prototypical case. Instead of interpreting it either as the purportedly factual exposition of events as they unfolded or as a primitive legend that’s simply not true, the reader is encouraged to regard the creation narrative as a “true myth.” What could it possibly mean, this seemingly oxymoronic notion of a “true myth”? Here are some possibilities; there may be more:

1. Genesis 1 fits within a literary genre of creation myths, but only Genesis 1 gets the story right.

Many cultures have myths about gods who created the universe. These myths are types: approximations to a truth revealed in its fullness in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. Tolkein and Lewis espouse True Myth interpretation 1 with respect to the Gospel, in which Jesus fulfills the widespread mythos of an incarnate God who dies and is resurrected. Presumably the reader can distinguish the True Myth from the other myths that get it only partially right. A True Myth that still contains elements that aren’t factually true presumably points toward its own future fulfillment in a “true” True Myth.

To claim that the Biblical version of the Creation myth “gets it right” would seem to require independent verification; i.e., that there is some definitive standard of truth against which myths can be evaluated and compared for accuracy. What should be the source of mythic verification? If it’s historical and empirical evidence, then the Genesis 1 story doesn’t stack up very well. So far, science has not provided empirical evidence in support of a God-created material universe. Empirical verification of God’s involvement in the origins of the universe or of life is at best debatable. It seems that only those who already see the world theistically interpret the empirical evidence as consistent with God’s participation in the origins of things.

Other Biblical texts affirm God as creator of the material world. Verification also comes through the community of believers in the Old Testament God. While Gnostics were skeptical about attributing the imperfect world to a perfect God, the Judeo-Christian mainstream has consistently affirmed God’s creatorliness. If consensus within the Judeo-Christian tradition is the arbiter, then how can we know whether the collective opinion is accurate? If God confirms the truth of Genesis 1 via what Calvin called sensus divinitatus – a kind of spiritual insight into truth bestowed by the Holy Spirit – then how are we to confirm that the source of this confirmatory insight really is God and not some other source of inspiration? So far Genesis 1 receives support as True Myth of type #1 only among those who already believe that God created the material world, and the origins of this theistic belief stem in no small part from Genesis 1 itself. There’s a kind of circularity or overdetermination at work here.

2. Genesis 1 is a myth that eventually proves to be verifiable as truth. 

The writer of Genesis 1 didn’t know how the universe began; he wrote a story to serve as a placeholder for the truth. However, the author’s imagination was moved in the right direction by the Holy Spirit. When the empirical facts about the origin of the universe finally become known, they will confirm the mythic narrative. Until all the data are in, the Holy Spirit testifies to the reader’s spirit that the narrative is factually true even if empirical evidence is incomplete or seemingly conflicts with the story as written.

Interpretation 2 is probably best regarded as a subcategory of interpretation 1. It more explicitly demands empirical confirmation, which is perhaps the least persuasive argument in support of the accuracy of Genesis 1.

3. Genesis 1 is a myth whose truth is to be found in the moral and metaphysical lessons it teaches. 

A myth should be interpreted as an allegory or parable. The details of an allegory are largely metaphorical; they are important to the extent that they illustrate, dramatically and poetically, the “moral of the story.”

The author may have chosen the mythic form in order to enhance the emotional and imaginative impact of the message on the reader. If the writer doesn’t explicitly distinguish the moral truth of the story from the allegorical details, then presumably it’s up to the reader to make the distinction. It also becomes necessary to interpret what the myth is a metaphor for. For example, Jesus’ parable of the sower isn’t really about sowing seeds; it’s about the Kingdom of God. If Genesis 1 is a kind of parable then maybe it isn’t really about creating the universe; it’s about, say, the power of elohim compared with other gods, or about man being similar to God. Also, if the writer doesn’t explicitly state whether a text is to be interpreted literally or mythically, then presumably it’s up to the reader to decide.

The moral of a story is what the story means; it’s the interpretive framework for making sense of the facts of the story. The events in The Lord of the Rings aren’t true of our world; the characters don’t exist here. Within the story, the characters and events fit together in a meaningful way – evil can be seductive; you can delude yourself into thinking you’re saving the world when you’re really on a power trip; and so on. These lessons might generally hold true in our world as well, but it’s necessary to evaluate whether the lesson applies to particular instances. A moral or metaphysical lesson derived from a story is true interpretively, not factually; it’s a schema for making sense of facts. But even a robust, generally-applicable moral derived from a story doesn’t make the facts of the story any truer outside of the story. Evil can be seductive, and not just in Middle Earth, but that doesn’t mean that the One Ring exists in our world.

Mythic truths are interpretations that make sense not just in the mythical world but also in our everyday world. “Frodo Baggins saved the world” isn’t a mythic truth. It’s a broad statement of fact about the mythical world of Middle Earth, but it’s not true at all in our world (as far as I’m aware). There may be interpretive truths that cross the threshold from the mythic world of Middle Earth into our world: good eventually triumphs over evil, even an insignificant individual who perseveres can accomplish heroic deeds, and so on. Similarly, if Genesis 1 is a mythic allegory, then “God created the heavens and the earth” is a broad statement of fact about the mythical world of Genesis 1, but it’s not necessarily a fact about our world. Still, there may be interpretive lessons that cross the threshold from the mythic world Genesis 1 into our world: try to create things that are “good” in and of themselves rather than just trying to please yourself or your customer; separating things from one another and naming them is a good way to organize one’s environment; etc. “‘Let there be light,’ says elohim; and there was light” – let’s say this verse from the Creation narrative illustrates the creative power of language. And it’s true: language often is powerful in our world. But just because the lesson derived from the myth is true doesn’t mean that the facts in the mythic story are true. The “real” elohim may never have said these words; light may not have come about through an act of elohimic creation; elohim might not even exist in our world. The interpretive truths derived from the creation of the mythic universe in Genesis 1 might have no implications whatever about how our particular universe came into existence.

In conclusion regarding “True Myth” version #3, the Genesis 1 story might contain lessons, morals, and interpretations that are true of actual events in our world. The task of the exegete is to identify the lessons embedded in the text; the task of the person living in the world is to evaluate life situations in light of the lessons derived from Genesis 1. But if the narrative is a True Myth of type #3, then the factual events of the mythical world of Genesis 1 shouldn’t be expected to bear any more relationship to the events of the world we live in than do the factual events of Middle Earth.

4. Genesis 1 is a myth written by God. 

The Creation story isn’t meant to be taken as factually true. It’s true in the same way that a short story is true: it contains elements of character and setting and story that hang together inside the story itself, but the story has no factual reference to the “real world.” God is the storyteller of Genesis 1. The story doesn’t purport to explain how he “really” created the universe; it’s a story intended for our edification rather than our scientific enlightenment. The story is “true” in the sense that those who read it enter into a sort of literary communion with the Author who is the source of all truth. Meanwhile, what “really” happened in the beginning remains unrevealed.

Perhaps God really did write Genesis 1, either directly or through inspiration. If so it would lend weight to the lessons the story conveys. But as in #3, even a really profound and robust lesson doesn’t make the details of the story factually true. So True Myth #4 is a kind of intensified version of #3.

5. Genesis 1 is part of an all-encompassing myth created by God that includes not just the Biblical text but also the “real world.” 

Genesis 1 isn’t to be interpreted in light of the real world; rather, the real world is to be interpreted in light of Genesis 1 and the rest of the revealed Canon. We live our lives inside a mythic reality outlined in the Scriptures. Our experiences can be interpreted only in light of the ongoing Judeo-Christian saga in which we too are characters. Empirical evidence is irrelevant because the divine saga and its truths are self-contained. Or, more strongly, even empirical evidence can be understood only within the interpretive context established by the mythic reality of the Bible. Karl Barth and Hans Frei espouse this position with respect to the “Jesus Myth.” There is no need to confirm the historic facts of Jesus’ life because the reality of Christ’s resurrection defines the truth of history itself. Empirical-historical reality isn’t the standard against which True Myth is evaluated; rather, the mythic reality is a standard that transcends or contains or gives shape to the material reality of facts and dates. The mythic truth receives its guarantee by the reality of the risen Christ, who in essence has absorbed the everyday world into his own mythic world.

To apply True Myth version #5 to Genesis 1 it would be necessary to assert that Christ’s mythic reality extends all the way back through the Old Testament. The historical facts and empirical data aren’t important; what’s important is to live inside the mythic reality that includes the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and so on all the way through the New Testament. Christ and the disciples seem to do just that, embedding themselves and their culture inside the Biblical reality rather than the other way around.

The challenge isn’t to verify the facts of the Genesis 1 story against the evidence. Genesis 1 is true by definition, as confirmed by the reality of the risen Christ who lives inside a Biblical reality that includes Genesis 1. The believer’s task is to understand the larger Biblical reality and to live with the risen Christ inside that overarching mythic truth. If material evidence seems to belie the textual evidence of Genesis 1, presumably the first recourse is to re-evaluate the material evidence in light of the text. True Myth #5 is a kind of holistic inerrancy position: the Bible describes a whole reality that isn’t to be picked apart and evaluated verse by verse.

I find it hard to evaluate True Myth #5. I can imagine God writing a True Myth, and then writing me in as a character who lives inside that mythic world. For me to step outside the myth is to turn myself into a fantasy. I can imagine what it might be like to live inside a mythic reality, where everything makes sense relative to the facts of the mythic world rather than those of the everyday material world, which isn’t “really” the real world at all but an illusion. Once you make this mythic plunge then truth takes care of itself, because all truths, including empirical and historical ones, are subsumed in the overarching mythic reality. If you can find yourself entering inside this whole Biblical reality, there’s no longer any point of contact with people on the outside. They think they live in the real world, whereas in fact it’s a ghost world. What’s real and true for them is entirely different from what’s real and true for you. There is no basis for an independent evaluation of version #5 from the outside. Either you accept it and live it, or you don’t.

Is this a clear and fair treatment of what a True Myth might be? Which of these interpretations makes the most sense in reading Scripture? Are there other, better interpretations of True Myth?

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Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

Fascinating reading. To some extent, I would like to combine all five possibilities. I take Genesis 1-3 as descriptions of how things began - but not as explanations which will satisfy the current state of modern, empirical science. To enter that particular debate seems to me to be as misconceived as it is futile. I tend to think empirical science is on the very margins of what can be called science when it makes assertions about what happened 2.5 - 4 billion years ago. It becomes just as much of a faith exercise to say that life began through self-generated causes as it is to say that life began because God created it. In the last century, many of the certainties that governed science were overturned, and I’m sure this will continue into the future.

It’s therefore, for me, a statement of faith to say that I believe in a God who created the world in an orderly fashion, and that the created world was in itself a good place, with life that was created inherently good, as opposed to a chaotic place where life was governed by inherently amoral or evil forces (as seen in other creation stories). The Genesis account is mythical as opposed to scientific in the modern sense of the word, but for me, it is myth which does have a historical basis. That isn’t a contradiction, but it is a statement of faith. Like the scientific explanation, there is a good deal of evidence to support this view - but not all the evidence will satisfy the current explanations of empirical science.

I don’t take the view that Genesis, or the Christian faith, rests within a self-contained mythical view of life disconnected from life as it may actually be - outside its own mythical world. I don’t see anywhere that we are expected to believe in such a disconnected belief system. Rather the opposite, the Christian faith arose because it contended with historical realities, on an international and personal level, and the bible sets out the history of the unique, particular and historical way in which God sought to contend with those realities - reaching their climactic conclusion in Christ.

The Christian faith does provide a belief system which understands the world in a particular way, but it’s not mythical in the sense of being disconnected from reality. Rather, it chimes very much with the way things are, and provides a satisfying way of addressing those realities from within the perspective which it brings.

And now for the seven seals and the eighth scroll?

sources of truth about the Creator-God

Peter –

It’s therefore, for me, a statement of faith to say that I believe in a God who created the world in an orderly fashion, and that the created world was in itself a good place, with life that was created inherently good, as opposed to a chaotic place where life was governed by inherently amoral or evil forces (as seen in other creation stories).

These are the core truths as generally agreed within the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the Genesis creation narrative affirms these truths. But where does knowledge of these truths come from in the first place? It’s not intuitively obvious that the material universe was created or designed by a supernatural force. As you observed, belief in god doesn’t by definition mean belief in a creator-God. The early Christian era was roiled by turmoil over whether God created the material universe (Jewish), whether matter and spirit are coeternal (pagan and Greek), or whether the material world was created by the devil (Gnostic). The Jewish interpretation eventually prevailed in Christian orthodoxy, with Torah and religious tradition proving decisive in resolving the dispute.

Skepticism regarding cosmological science is probably the norm among contemporary Christians. It’s conceivable – it may even be a tenet of the Christian faith – that Newton’s first law describes the process by which the Prime Mover makes things move. But it’s also possible to describe a host of phenomena without invoking God’s invisible hand. The same could be said for less firmly established areas of empirical science like evolution and cosmology. Formulating, testing and refining naturalistic hypotheses is what empirical science does. Even the most strongly supported scientific findings neither affirm nor deny supernatural involvement “behind the veil.”

So: Neither a belief in god nor an understanding of how the material universe works necessarily leads to belief in a creator-god. As you acknowledge, belief in the Creator is a matter of faith. And what is the source of this faith? Tradition within the community, Scriptural authority, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. If Genesis 1-3 is the original source of knowledge of the creator-God, then the text merely affirms its own truth. If the source is the religious tradition that produced the Genesis text, then why did the author include speculative details that aren’t essential truths? Either way, it seems that even the faithful interpreter has to account for details that don’t stand up to evidentiary scrutiny.

The Genesis account is mythical as opposed to scientific in the modern sense of the word, but for me, it is myth which does have a historical basis. That isn’t a contradiction, but it is a statement of faith. Like the scientific explanation, there is a good deal of evidence to support this view - but not all the evidence will satisfy the current explanations of empirical science.

You invoke evidence in support of the creator-God, but you also acknowledge that the evidence won’t satisfy modern empirical science. The evidence to which you allude: does it support the Genesis narrative, not just in general but in specifics? If not, then you need to decide something about either the evidence or the Biblical text. Of course there have been attempts at reconciling the text with the data. Since you talk about a universe that’s billions rather than thousands of years old, you perhaps subscribe to Day-Age Theory or Gap Theory to justify this extended non-Biblical time horizon. Still the problems remain: fruit trees are created before the sun, and so on.

Hence the “True Myth” idea: it avoids invoking even more esoteric and complicated literal reconciliations by assigning the Biblical text to a literary genre in which details aren’t intended to be read as facts about the world. The True Myth notion has been floating around in a kind of vague fideistic haze. Hence my elaboration of how the mythic genre might be interpreted to distinguish truth from fiction. The implicit question is whether True Myth adequately reconciles truth, faith, text, and evidence. The alternatives, it seems to me, are to look harder for a literal reconciliatory reading of the text or to acknowledge that the Genesis narrative contains errors.

… and still the seven scrolls remain unread; the eighth seal, unbroken…

Re: sources of truth about the Creator-God

I may not have understood what you mean by ‘true myth’; I do have a problem if the concept encourages disconnection from the outside world - the very nature of which is a primary source of engagement of the Judeao-Christian tradition.

Where do the truths asserted by the Judaeo-Christian tradition come from? Despite your own assertions, I do believe that the existence of one God who created the universe is ‘intuitively obvious’, without recourse to tradition or texts. A comparison of the three ‘theories’ of creation which you describe appears to me to point to the reasonableness of believing in a God who created everything there is. It cannot be ‘proved’, so in the end it involves a step of faith to believe this is so. But the step of faith rests on assessment of the evidence, and comparing this belief with the alternatives. It is likewise a step of faith to look at the evidence and assert that there is no God who created everything. But such an assertion is stepping beyond the bounds of empirical science - whose task is by its very nature not to seek evidence either for or against the existence of a supernatural deity in the workings of the natural world.

The bible, OT and NT, does not seek to provide proofs of God’s existence; such an assumption is taken as a first truth. But on the basis of that assumption, there is a great deal of evidence in the natural world, and yet more evidence in the particular historical narrative of intervention which the biblical texts present. Further, the narrative is a continuum which connests with the experience of believers today.

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘speculative details’ of the author of the Genesis text. But for instance, a ‘speculative assumption’ of modern science is that processes which can be observed today hold good for all time and periods of history, including the origin of things. Theism asserts that God exists, and is involved in his creation. A dimension is introduced which is not subject to empirical science, though you would expect to find its imprint there.

I don’t subscribe to any theory of dating the universe; I simply observe that a 2.5/4 billion year old universe is the assumption of modern science, based on data which assumes that currently observable processes in the natural world hold good for all time. Actually, our understanding of currently observable processes is changing all the time.

An understanding of Genesis 1-3 holds good on different levels. It tells us a great deal about God and the nature of the world - order and design rather than randomness and chaos; an origin in such order and design which held good also for moral beings; an introduction of disorder which affected both moral beings and the natural world which was subsequent to the origin of things, and which remains the case today. If science does date the world at billions of years old, it is just as much a faith assumption to assert that naturalistic forces as we presently observe them held good then as it is to assert that a supernatural deity was the source of the origin of things, and that Genesis 1-2 give some idea of how this came about.

What science does not address is the phenomenon of self-awareness, our sense of moral obligation which overrides social conditioning or any kind of origin in environmental considerations, our intuitive sense of purpose which conflicts with our observation of tendencies within us and in the world around us, our search for resolution of these conflicts, the satisfying resolution which is to be found in the figure of Christ, both as a historical person and an on-going reality in people’s lives today.

who is in the details?

I do believe that the existence of one God who created the universe is ‘intuitively obvious’, without recourse to tradition or texts.

When you, Peter, read the Genesis creation narrative, you’re able to recognize its correspondence with what you’ve already intuited as true. There are, of course, others who claim that the proposition “God created the universe” is not intuitively obvious. Is the God intuition granted only to some, or do the others deny or lose this intuition? The New Testament makes a case for both positions. It seems like an honest Christian response to the atheistic materialists: either you haven’t been given eyes to see, or else you’ve become futile in your speculations and so your foolish heart has been darkened.

As someone who by intuition and faith already believes in God, you find no evidence to disprove this belief – just as someone who doesn’t believe in God finds no evidence to disprove his disbelief. Fine.

Now we move beyond the broad assertion of intuited truth – God created the universe in an orderly way – to the details. Genesis 1 asserts that God created the trees before the sun and that He finished creating everything in six days. Do these Biblical details resonate with your intuition about the truth? Or, because you have faith that the Creator-God is responsible for the Biblical text, do you believe that the Biblical details are true even if they seem contrary to reason, to evidence, perhaps even to intuition? Based on your comments you seem to endorse one or both of these two positions. You have no need for True Myth, because you believe it’s possible to read Genesis 1 as a literally true historical narrative describing the origin of the universe.

Unbelievers and religious liberals are more likely to assert that the Genesis 1 details are “mythical” in the usual use of the word: primitive ideas that served a purpose at the time but that just aren’t true. Again, no need for True Myth.

There are some among the emerging post-evangelical community who wish to affirm the general truth of God as creator without having to defend the literal truth of the Genesis details either to unbelievers or to themselves. Decisions must still be made about why the details appear in the story, what they signify, and how to evaluate their truth status. Here’s where the True Myth explanation is often invoked. The purpose behind my post is to explore which versions of the True Myth idea can best achieve the desired ends.

The Reformed tradition of Biblical exegesis has been criticized by the emerging community for overemphasizing timeless propositional truths at the expense of historical narrative truths. The Biblical creation story is written as a historical narrative, and it has traditionally been read that way by exegetes schooled in the Reformed tradition. It seems to me that the True Myth approach to the creation narrative is an attempt to de-historicize the text, transforming it into a set of general propositions (God’s creatorliness, the goodness of the material world, and so on) while ignoring timelines, sequences, and other distinctly narrative features of the text. Frankly, True Myth strikes me as both disingenuous and untenable, but I wanted to give the idea a fair shake. I get the sense that you, Peter, agree. This agreement would return us to the longstanding dichotomous question, the kind of question that perhaps marks us indelibly as ham-handed modernists with no sense of literary subtlety: is the Genesis creation text a true historical narrative, or is it a false one?

Re: who is in the details?

I would take the existence of God as an a priori - perceived intuitively as true. I don’t see that the NT allows both for this and the inverse position - that God’s non-existence can also validly be perceived intuitively as true. The argument through Romans 1:18-32 seems to be that the knowledge of God is something that people train themselves out of - rather than something that is vouchsafed to some but not others.

There is plenty of evidence that challenges my belief in God - particularly the Judaeo-Christian God. I find the evidence that counterweighs this evidence to be more compelling, however. There is evidence in the natural world, but above all, the most compelling evidence is that provided by Christ, his death and resurrection, and especially the experience shared with those who become part of his renewed humanity.

There are all kinds of ways of looking at Genesis 1 - but I don’t see why the primeval conditions of the original creation should not have been different from conditions that have held sway subsequently - so that a six period creation should have been a supernatural act, or series of acts, while subsequent history settles down to conformity to more natural laws. I would add that the changes introduced by Adam’s disobedience also probably affected the natural world, but we have no detail about that in Genesis. So yes, I believe it’s possible to perceive historical truth through Genesis 1 & 2, but it is history presented in a mythical form, and with literary stylisation.

It sounds as if we agree then, in rejecting the True Myth explanation of Genesis 1-3. I wouldn’t want to spend a great deal of time and energy over explanations of Genesis 1-3, except to draw out the timeless truths, and to hold to a personal belief that somewhere in the mists of the mythical presentation, there is historical truth - that God created all that there is, including Adam, and that subsequently Adam fell through disobedience, which has affected us ever since. If God is a supernatural being, he can both override and work through natural laws.

Also, it seems to make sense, to me, to believe that something came from somewhere/someone, rather than believing that something came from nowhere - or it has always existed all by itself.

How do we find the time to indulge in all these wise cogitations?

will the mists never part?

Somewhere in the mists of mythical presentation there is historical truth, you say. If you’ve got an interpretation of historical truth presented in mythical form that’s different from the ones I’ve already proposed I wish you’d spell it out, especially since in the next sentence you reject the True Myth explanation. Does it, for example, mean “historical truth commingled with historical untruth”? If so, why not say it and be done with it? Or does it mean something like this: “Genesis 1 is true to the extent that it validates my a priori intuition, but the rest of it adds nothing of certainty to my conscious understanding of this intuition?” Or are we perpetually awaiting further light that will penetrate the mists and clarify the mystery?

I wouldn’t want to spend a great deal of time and energy over explanations of Genesis 1-3, you say. I take it, then, that you’ll not be placing a pre-order for my book. How do we find the time? We must find these cogitations either more entertaining or more important than alternative pursuits.

Re: will the mists never part?

I don’t know whether this is another possibility to add to your five, but the Genesis account of creation seems to me to have some mythic/poetic qualities - such as repetitions, patterning, hints of symbolism. My own view is that the mythic qualities are a dressing-up of actual events, in contrast with other creation myths (Norse mythology, Greek mythology, Babylonian mythology etc) which are purely poetic accounts without historic basis - attempts to provide explanations of how things are by inventions of how things began.

I don’t know whether this is trying to sound wise by being obscure, or is obscurely saying what has already been said by more clearly by many others, or is simply wrapping illogic in mystic obscurity. It makes sense to me though, and avoids getting into debate with modernist thinking, which wants to subject anything that is said about origins to modernist scientific scrutiny. I simply don’t think Genesis is written in the terms of modernist science, or deals with issues that can be thrashed out in scientific debate - simply because there is too much primeval prehistoric supernatural activity going on, presented in poetic form.

Science should respect its own limitations. Didn’t Keats speak of ‘dull philosophy’ that would ‘unweave the rainbow, clip an angel’s wings’? Science does not, I think, possess instruments that can measure God or his supernatural actions. When it comes to the primeval prehistory of origins, it is just as reasonable to believe in a 6 day creation as in life emerging from primeval sludge over a few million years (a possibility as yet unreproduced in the laboratories of investigative science). No, it’s more reasonable.


Genesis 1-3 is an integral part of Genesis, however one reads it historico-critically. There is certainly good literary evidence that different motifs have been woven together yet it is the whole that we have as one narrative that is so fascinating!

Perhaps tantalizing would be an even better word! What has been dawning on me with more and more force is how little we really know about what these chapters do and do not assert.

For example, there has been a lot of heated discussion about what the creation narrative says about equality and relatedly hierarchy. The problem comes to a head today in the relations between men and women in the church. Paul has added his bit of exegesis at various times almost as asides and this makes the hermeneutical exercise even more interesting. Overall though, in looking at these debates, one is struck by the amount of assumption about what the creation account says. Obviously each of us has constructed a favourite scenario that we then take pretty much to be fact without bothering to consult the source itself.

With the paucity of scientific information, and the obvious lack of knowledge about what Genesis has to say, it seems to me that as uncomfortable as it makes me feel, I will have to maintain a bit of agnosticism about how the two do or do not come together.

If I had to guess,  I would take a stab at a mixture of 1 & 2 but guesswork does not really get us very far when we are trying to work out the practical implications of the creation account for life in and out of the church.

Live to serve : Serve to live

theistic intuition

Thanks Peter and Sam. You seem to be in general accord: Genesis 1-3 describes God’s creation of the material universe through some process that cannot be grasped by modern empirical science. Through supernatural intervention God set creational operations in motion that may bear no resemblance to the natural physical properties of the universe as we experience it. The Genesis narrator’s mythopoetic language may reflect the fact that the creation event cannot adequately be described in human conceptual terms, that perhaps even the writer didn’t fully understand the events to which he bore witness. One day a better kind of science may arise that can accurately describe the creational environment and process, and in that day it will provide confirmatory evidence verifying the ancient Genesis creation narrative. Meanwhile our imperfect understanding is augmented by faith that Genesis 1-3 is a true story. Sam proposes that this interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative fits category 1 or 2 of the proposed taxonomy of True Myths in the original post.

Now imagine yourself in the unbeliever’s shoes. You have no a priori intuition that God created the universe, consequently nothing resonates with your intuition when you read Genesis 1. It seems like straightforward narrative prose, lacking the kind of flowery language or convoluted syntax that might suggest poetry or mysticism. The Biblical creation story conflicts not only with cutting-edge scientific arcana like string theory, not only with fairly well-established findings of normal evolutionary science, but with seemingly commonsensical knowledge about sequences and time intervals. You find it hard to grasp the believer’s commitment to the Genesis creation story as authoritatively true.

Presumably the pathway to belief leads through the a priori intuition about a creator-God. Since God makes this intuition available to everyone, its absence is evidence of a corruption in the unbeliever’s intuitive faculties. Perhaps the intuition can be restored through natural means like reason and observation of nature, but ultimately what needs to be confronted is the corruption that darkens the mind and obscures the true intuition. If the corruption can be overcome, then the true intuition about a creator-God can be restored. Once this restoration is accomplished, the essential truth of the Genesis 1-3 narrative will become evident to the reader. And once the essential truth has been grasped, so too does it become plausible that the seemingly straightforward narrative prose of the Biblical text is actually a mythopoetic recounting of supernatural phenomena that exceed normal human thought and language.

I’ll stop here. Can I get a witness?

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

The “true myth” kind of idea is attractive, but I feel that by beginning with that question, we’re skipping a better beginning point. Or perhaps I’m at the beginning point.

When the text was written/compiled (also a nice discussion in itself), what was the intent of the author(s)/compiler(s)? In the seminary I went to, folk pushed for a literalist interpretation of the text, while acknowledging that there seemed to be an apologetic against the surrounding pagan cosmologies built-in to the order of creation, set in a clear poetic structure (at least for Genesis 1). Why the apologetic, and why the poetic style?

I am trying to get back to the same kind of thinking that seems to be behind much of the approach here: asking anew what the text could have meant for the author and to the recipients within the historical context within which it was written. But I’m very rusty at this, and am wondering if any others are interested in chasing this further (maybe as a separate thread?). I find that I’m hesitant to speculate about the “true myth” interpretation of the creation story until we’ve talked about how it fit into the lives of those who first heard and read it.

Authorial Intent in the Creation Narrative

Authorial intent is indeed a good starting point. Did the author of Genesis 1 intend for the text to be read as literal truth? The idea of a “literal” reading came into use among medieval exegetes in an effort to distinguish the natural meaning of a text from its mystical or allegorical meaning. To read a text “literally,” then, is to assume that the writer uses words as normally defined, with reference to the normal world we occupy. The natural meaning of the word “light,” for example, has to do with a property of the world that makes vision possible, as opposed to a metaphorical understanding where “light” means “truth” or “moral goodness.” It’s also natural to understand that “light” refers to the “real world” – the world as jointly experienced by the writer and the reader – and not some other mystical realm or imagined world. This is how we use language most of the time. Still, the terms “normal” and “natural” can’t really be defined categorically. There’s a more-or-less quality, a gradual fade from black to gray as you move farther away from dead-on normalcy. If I say “bird” and you think “penguin,” are you normal? Do we occupy the same real world as some Near Eastern bedouin who died three thousand years ago?

I think it’s fair to assert that a “normal” reading of Genesis 1 presumes that the author intended to describe an event in which God created the heavens and the earth. There are no obvious clues in the text itself to suggest that the writer intended for words like “day” and “night,” “plants” and “trees,” “birds” and “cattle” to mean something other than what ordinarily comes to mind. We can superimpose a spiritual reading on the text, but the natural reading would still be there underneath, in the text itself.

It’s possible that the writer intended something else altogether. He might, for example, have intended to write a polemic. Other ancient Near Eastern cultures wrote creation stories prominently featuring their gods; the ancient Hebrews may have written their own variant on the creation genre in order to extol the greatness of elohim vis-à-vis rival gods. The author’s intent, then, would not have been to recount the actual creation event but rather to spin a yarn in which elohim demonstrates his omnipotence. So when elohim creates light on day one but waits until the third day to create the sun and the moon, perhaps the author is illustrating his god’s pre-eminence over the sun gods and moon gods of other tribes. In this situation the text moves into what I’ve called a Category 3 True Myth: a story written about a mythical reality, the intention of which is to demonstrate a real truth about God.

Source critics contend that Genesis 1 is the work of “P,” a very late textual source dating from perhaps the 6th century BC – after the destruction of the first temple and after the Babylonian captivity. Purportedly the P writer’s intent was to emphasize the priestly function within Judaism (as opposed, say, to the legal aspect). Accordingly, Genesis 1 is intended to illustrate the importance of the Sabbath, when the priest performs his ritualistic function. The specific creational events occurring on days one through six wouldn’t have been important to the writer except as a buildup to the climax. What really interested P was the seventh day, the Sabbath, the day that God blessed and sanctified as His own day – the day the priest does his thing. Here is another Category 3 Myth: the writer spins an imaginary yarn with the intention of demonstrating the real importance of the Sabbath.

There are problems in asserting that the writer intended that Genesis 1 be read allegorically rather than literally.

First, even if the writer’s intent was to emphasize a particular truth about God (his omnipotence, his commitment to the priesthood), even if the writer made up a tale to drive home his emphasis, how would such a tale have made it into the Pentateuch? Not only did it make it through the editorial cuts, it gets the most prominent position possible.

Second, wouldn’t the Jewish community have treated Genesis 1 as an allegory? According to the Jewish calendar this is the year 5767, which is the number of years following the Genesis 1 story if it and all subsequent genealogies are regarded as literally true. It seems the Jews took the story literally, even if they also engaged in more creative midrashic interpretations.

Third, if we persuade ourselves that the author(s) of Genesis 1-3 intended for the text to be read mythically, then these texts aren’t really about the Creation at all. Since these are the only passages that deal directly with God’s creation of the universe, the Bible is left with a rather large gap at the beginning.

Fourth, if a seemingly straightforward narrative was really intended to be read mythically, might not every other Biblical text be second-guessed in this same way? Maybe none of the Biblical writers intended for their texts to be read literally.

Genesis 1 - Any Possibilities?

I definitely prefer a literal reading where possible, certainly as the best place to start. With Genesis though one has a unique set of problems. Taking the text as it stands, as one connected and coherent narrative, the summary statement of Gen. 1:1 tells us the really important thing - everything was created by God. Thence we have a problem, language is meaningful when we know something of what is being referred to; ‘and the earth was without form’ now how would we go about understanding what that refers to?

As we go further we seem to approach more familiar ground, heavenly bodies, land separated from water, fish, birds and animals and finally man. But is this only an apparent familiarity. Did Adam and Eve resemble ‘modern’ mankind? How would we know?

It seems to me that the uncertainties involved are very great indeed…

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities


I agree with most of the statements in your last post. I also question whether the original author/compiler of the text would have intended the story of creation as set out in Genesis 1 & 2 to be taken “mythically”. Do we have evidence that the Jewish nation (whether in the time of Moses or later) thought mythically? Did the Babylonians believe the story that Tiamat’s literal body was used to fashion heaven and earth? Do we have enough available data to make a fair judgement?

I’m not sure that I would want to set the idea of a polemic off against a “literal” retelling of the creation story, however. Why not both? It would seem to me that part of the grandeur of the creation story for the Jews was the fact that the one true God (seen as a separate entity) created everything. It would not seem odd to me to place tags in the text (such as the place of the sun and moon in the text), to reflect the largeness of this God. But I’m guessing here, not leaning on a detailed exegesis.

The question of P is certainly interesting. However, I think the way I would like to approach the text is not simply from the pericope level, but from the larger textual context. Somebody or somebodies, put the text together (no author is named), linking stories by similar formula’s and stretching certain catch phrases not only throughout Genesis, but throughout the Pentateuch. Regardless of the “original” intent of the pericope, I think we need to look at the intent of the compilation as a whole.

The Expositor’s Bible had a note that intrigued me (it’s about the only commentary I’ve got here…). The commentator (John Sailhamer) wrote about the fascination of the author with the eres, the land. He sees a link to the concept of inheriting the “land”, and thus with the inheritance of Abraham’s descendants, worked into the text as kind of typology (is that yet another mythological framework?). He further sees this linked with a kind of eschatology (“in the beginning” is a kind of primer to ask “what about the end?”). The story is literal, but packed with heavily weighted typological terminology. By the way, I’m not saying that I follow Sailhamer’s whole pitch, just that these points strike me as very possible indeed.

That kind of idea fits very well with Wright’s model, which sees the land and the end as major typological centerpieces in the continuing revelation of God to the Jews and later to the church. Genesis as an authentic history that helps, from the onset, to tell the story of God’s interactions with the humans to whom he entrusted the place.

Whether we are bound to take the story as factual (it is biblical history, and therefore must be factual history) is another question altogether. I for one would rather look for a hermeneutic that allows us to let the Genesis story stand on it’s own terms and hear it’s meaning for the original audience, while letting us not be bound to the specific pre-scientific worldview of ancient Israel.

Samlcarr’s question of whether Adam would have resembled us seems then to me more a question of our worldview being placed upon the text, than a question about the original intent of the text itself. Would the listener’s have thought of anything else than a human like themselves when they heard that God made “Adam” male and female? Did they think of earlier forms of homo sapiens (or homo erectus)? I am not discounting the point. I simply mean that this seems more a question of our hermeneutic, than a question of authorial intent. But I’m willing to hear evidence otherwise!



an alternative Biblical reality?

Both Sam and Russ believe that the Biblical creation narratives intend to convey the general literal truth that God created the material universe. This understanding of an intended literal meaning is consistent with a priori beliefs about God. Neither seems persuaded that the writer meant for the text to be read mythically by the original readers. It isn’t transparently mythic in literary style: it uses ordinary words and ordinary syntax; it makes sense when read literally. The reason for invoking True Myth is, I suspect, the difficulty in reconciling details of the narratives with evidence (e.g., creation of trees prior to the sun). This difficulty might be resolved if we no longer read the details literally.

Sam suggests instead that our literal readings may be faulty. Exegetes have gotten themselves into trouble before by making unwarranted assumptions about the meaning of the text. For example, how often have we heard that the “firmament” of heaven in Genesis 1 refers to a solid disk above the sky – evidence of a primitive and erroneous cosmology? But then you read verse 20: “and let the birds fly above the earth in the firmament of the heavens.” The writer must have understood the heavens the same way we do: the sky itself, not something above the sky. The firmament idea was Aristotelian, not Biblical; the Medievalists were overly persuaded that Aristotle knew what he was talking about scientifically. Now the word formerly translated as “firmament” is usually rendered as “expanse,” which is a better fit with the Hebrew. Here is a case of Biblical exegesis and empirical science converging on the same understanding.

Perhaps “formless void” wasn’t a primal chaos that God systematically organized – an interpretation based on ancient pagan and Greek cosmogonies – but something else altogether. Perhaps “man” in Genesis 1 refers not to our species but to a predecessor on the evolutionary tree. Maybe the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 are the biologically modern humans, as Sam mythically speculates in his comment on the “Christmas at Sir Toby’s” post here. Perhaps all the seeming contradictions and conflicts will eventually be resolved through a convergence of better exegesis and better science; perhaps some things will retain their indeterminacy.

The implication, though, is that the author didn’t have a complete understanding of the text he was writing. That wouldn’t be surprising, inasmuch as the creation events themselves would have been overwhelming for either an eyewitness or a recipient of special revelation. However, the text just doesn’t have the mystical “feel” to it that, say, portions of Daniel and Ezekiel have. As Russ points out, when the writer uses ordinary words like “earth” and “man” in seemingly ordinary sentences, the original readers would likely have assumed that these words were meant to convey their ordinary meanings.

Russ proposes that the author may have wanted to emphasize certain metaphysical implications embedded within the creation event itself; e.g., by noting in passing that the stars are inanimate objects rather than gods. If the creation narrative was written or edited long after the events it describes took place, then the text can highlight events in the creation that would prove to have particular significance later; e.g., that the same God who created the whole earth also set aside a portion of the earth for Israel. In a similar way paleontologists go into great detail in describing the fossil record for certain subspecies of extinct primates because humans eventually descended from them. It seems plausible that the writer/editor would have intended to emphasize details within the narrative that the readers would have found particularly significant theologically. Still, the concrete sequence of the creation events remains problematic, especially if we assume that the words of the text retain their ordinary meaning as well as their symbolic significance for subsequent Jewish history.

So: did the writer assign extraordinary meanings to seemingly ordinary words and phrases, rendering the text deceptively uninterpretable to its original audience? Or was it enough for the writer to affirm God as creator, after which he was at liberty to insert whatever details best supported his theological and rhetorical agenda? We’re still stuck, I fear.

Russ observes, as did Peter W., that the creation narratives don’t just stand as isolated texts at the beginning of the Bible; they point forward to Abraham, to Israel, to the Law, to the Messiah. Genesis 1 no longer merely reaffirms an a priori belief in a creator-God; it’s also embedded in a long book and an even longer tradition. For the Christian, what the creation story meant when it was written may be less important than what it meant to Jesus and John, Paul and Peter. When, for Christians, Genesis 1 derives its fullness of meaning from texts like John 1 and Revelation, then it seems to me they’ve entered into the mythical world of Barth (as I understand him). An outsider to the Christian canon and tradition would never find in Genesis 1 a reference to the Word as someone who was with God and who also was God. To interpret Genesis 1 through the lens of John 1, to see in the creation a foreshadowing of the new creation, is to immerse oneself in an all-encompassing story that goes far beyond a naïve a priori theism into a self-contained reality. And it still doesn’t solve the problem of the inconsistent details – unless in this alternate reality the details don’t need to be reconciled any more.

higher to lower

Actually I was thinking that the original author may have felt that the original ‘humamankind’ was a ‘higher’ being especially if one takes Genesis 2 into account. One clue is that the entire creation was vegetarian and man was a fruit eater (fuititarian?). Another clue is that the original man was asymetrical, he had an extra rib. The very literal reading also precludes the male pronoun for Adam. Adam was “both male and female”.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: higher to lower

Sorry, Sam — my mistake.

Re: higher to lower

John Doyle,

As a matter of fact I had not seen your post when I wrote that, I had Russ’s response in mind and was on an interestingly parallel route to the one that you took!

With what we know of human and humanoid fossils, ancient history etc. our tendency now is to try to fit our view of archaeology into the Genesis account, and I have seen some surprisingly good ‘fits’ so created. I don’t think that that really does justice though, to the original author(s) and is hardly likely to come close to what they had in mind. 

Prior to modernity, I think the universal view was that Adam was a ‘superior’ human being and that the fall has left us a lot lower than the angels. On a different tack, looking at the evidence that now exists, it can be read as a fall though that would give our paleontologists severe indigestion!

As Russ pointed out, the Babylonian and Canaanite mythologies probably do have something to contribute in helping to give us a picture of the worldview of those times, but just looking at our text it does seem to me that there is a significantly different story behind the writer(s) of Genesis and we just don’t have those sources to inform our explorations.

I think therefore that it is better to treat the Genesis account as sui generis and to keep our uncertainty uppermost when we are tempted to be most dogmatic about what Genesis does and does not mean for today.


Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: higher to lower

Interesting idea about Adam being a “higher” form of man. I’ve never heard it before. Where does it come from?

My reference to Babylonian mythology was only meant to ask the question of how groups interpreted their creation stories in the broad sweep of the OT framework. It’s probably too general a question to really be answered, now that I think about it again. But it does seem to me that the Genesis creation does exist in a kind of league of it’s own. It certainly isn’t surrounded by the pomp and wild goings on of the gods, as most other cosmologies of that area of the world (at least the ones I’ve read) are.

About the extraordinary meaning of words in Genesis. I would think - again I haven’t done the exegesis on this, so it’s only a thought - that different words have different kinds of weight. The reference to the “greater light” and the “lesser light” may indeed have been a polemic. Perhaps “beginning” and “land” were also key words. Certainly if the text was written/redacted from the viewpoint of the whole of Genesis and the Pentateuch, then certainly the framework for thinking about the eschatological importance of Israel and the role of the land would certainly be in place. I’m not sure if this extra weight makes the words in the history less historical, at least from the author’s point of view, but only that they are invested with another level of discourse. In my view this would not be a secret discourse, but exactly one chosen to make the original readers go “hey! That’s there already!” This, I would think, follows the kind of line that is often used for explaining eschatology on this site. Key words and images, typologies, add theological depth to the description of an event. In this case I don’t think the author had to use extraordinary terms, as was often done with eschatological prophecy, but rather that some everyday terms may have carried extra weight.

This doesn’t solve the problem of the order of creation in Genesis. I’m still trying to understand the order as it is given - is this straightforward description (handed down by generations), and if so, why this order? The order is easier to understand from a polemcial perspective, as John pointed out, but still leaves us with some difficulties. But I at least don’t (yet) want to ask what the text can “mean” for us today, until the “what it meant for them” is more clear. Unfortunately, this moves far away from (far behind) the original intent in this thread, which was to look at the options and meanings of Genesis as a “true mythology”.

Do we need to delve into some serious exegesis here? Or can you give some tips for sources?


Re: higher to lower

Russ, you mentioned being rusty, well I never got started as far as original languages are concerned (a little greek but no hebrew/aramaic). Still, serious exegesis is what is called for if we really want to get into Genesis!

I’m prepared to muddle along and be corrected whenever needed by all the real scholars who will have oversight of our discussions here at OST - and thanks to all of you, that is a great feeling!

As far as the first humans being superior, that assumption is at least as old as the targums (like Pseudo Jonathan). in fact the suppositiion is that satan was so envious of these glorious creatures that he was driven to tempt Eve.

An interesting exegesis of the creation of mankind (The Living Breath of God and the Three Steps in Fashioning Humanity)


if the link doesn’t work it can be found at 



Live to serve : Serve to live

weighty words

Sam, I found the link you posted fascinating. While I resonate with your and Russ’ enthusiasm for detailed exegesis of the Biblical creation narratives, I hope you’ll bear with me as I pursue the hermeneutical issues a bit further. After all, an exegesis that ascribes mythic status to the text might look very different from the sort of endeavor we’re accustomed to seeing and practicing.

We’ve previously discussed whether the words used in Genesis 1 were intended to convey their normal meaning. In his last comment Russ provided an elegant discussion of the “extra weight” borne by everyday terms in Genesis 1. The final redactor of the Pentateuch probably consolidated multiple already-existing Creation fragments and integrated them thematically into the longer narrative. He would have retained the essence of the earlier documents but tweaked the emphases and word choices, perhaps even eliminating bits that didn’t fit into the larger scheme – like a film editor excising unnecessary scenes from the final cut. It’s the Pentateuch as a whole that’s canonical, not necessarily the original sources from which it was compiled. Though for the reader the narrative begins at the beginning and moves forward in time, the redactor knew how the story was going to turn out and how it was going to get from here to there. Consequently the text as a whole transcends strict linearity, and every scene becomes suffused with eschatology. The beginning doesn’t just point toward a future that’s yet to unfold: the beginning includes an ending that’s already happened. This isn’t a prophetic glimpse into the future as seen from an eternal perspective; rather, it’s a normal artifact of editorial work.

The New Testament writers weren’t able to re-edit the Old Testament texts in light of subsequent events. However, they could re-interpret the older canonical texts in much the same way that the Pentateuchal redactor may have re-interpreted long-past events in light of subsequent developments. If the text of the Torah hadn’t already stabilized, Christian redactors might have incorporated terms like “the Word” into a re-edited Genesis 1, piling even more eschatological weight onto the ancient narrative.

These considerations reinforce and refine the idea of a literal rather than a mythical reading of the Creation narrative. So, for example, whereas the term “light” eventually gains additional metaphorical weight, the literal meaning persists in Genesis 1. If we were interpret “light” as a metaphor for “good,” then we’d have to concern ourselves about why elohim permitted darkness to oscillate with the light in the day-night cycle, as if good and evil were equally balanced force on the eternal cosmic wheel.

Because the Biblical editors imbued the historic narratives with metaphysical weight that transcends the sheer facticity of the events per se, it’s tempting to discount the events altogether in order to focus exclusively on the transcendent meaning, as a platonic or Gnostic exegete might do. Alternatively, the reader could decide that meaning shouldn’t be abstracted from narrative, that meaning is intrinsically narrative – sort of like life itself. This sort of reader becomes immersed in the meaningful flow of the story, perhaps even without being concerned about whether the events described are fact or fiction. This approach, it seems to me, is what Barth and Frei mean by a True Myth. But that sort of indifference to the purported historical truth of Biblical events seems like a variant on the platonic separation of reality from incarnation. The creation story that found its way into the final cut of Genesis 1 might have originated in the fevered imagination of an anonymous Semitic Bedouin, but the later redactors would have treated it with all the respect afforded by an eyewitness report of actual historical events. This certainly was Calvin’s understanding:

But here presumptuous men rise up, and scoffingly inquire, whence was this revealed to Moses? They therefore suppose him to be speaking fabulously of things unknown, because he was neither a spectator of the events he records, nor had learned the truth of them by reading… They greatly err in deeming it absurd that the order of the creation, which had been previously unknown, should at length have been described and explained by him. For he does not transmit to memory things before unheard of, but for the first time consigns to writing facts which the fathers had delivered as from hand to hand, through a long succession of years, to their children. Can we conceive that man was so placed in the earth as to be ignorant of his own origin, and of the origin of those things which he enjoyed? No sane person doubts that Adam was well-instructed respecting them all. Was he indeed afterwards dumb? Were the holy Patriarchs so ungrateful as to suppress in silence such necessary instruction?

…Therefore we ought not to doubt that The Creation of the World, as here described was already known through the ancient and perpetual tradition of the Fathers. Yet, since nothing is more easy than that the truth of God should be so corrupted by men, that, in a long succession of time, it should, as it were, degenerate from itself, it pleased the Lord to commit the history to writing, for the purpose of preserving its purity. Moses, therefore, has established the credibility of that doctrine which is contained in his writings, and which, by the carelessness of men, might otherwise have been lost.

biig mouthfulls

I agree with you that the hermeneutical issues are very important but it also strikes me that the lack of primary data may be adding its bit to the confusion. By getting into the text itself, we may find that some of the supposed options are not convincing or we may find that there is a need for  other options to be proposed…

Probably, our text was ‘literal’ as opposed to being designed to be mythological/typological/allegorical to the original author(s), but the fact is that now we almost have to treat it as myth or at least as ‘story’, perhaps  based on historically true happenings, but in a literary category other than ‘chronicle’.

Apart from early redactions there is also the question of later reconstruction, during the time of rabbinic ascendancy or after the exile, but perhaps even during the division of the kingdom, when political forces may have had a vested interest in promoting one reading over another…

A related fascinating exercise will be to try to delineate what we mean by history and how history does and does not coincide with the early chapters of Genesis.

In any case the text should be our starting point, the ‘raw data’ as it were, in the light of which the various hypotheses will finally need to be judged.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

Just a comment relating to john doyle’s most recent contribution: there is no evidence, is there, apart from academic speculation, of the existence or activity of JEPD redactors in the Genesis creation accounts or the Pentateuch as a whole, or of a late composition of the first creation account during the Babylonian period?

On the other hand there is evidence of the very high levels of accuracy in the transmission of oral and written tradition - the former calling on powers of memory which would be unheard of today.

I simply mention this because it is a feature of academic discussion (of which I accuse nobody on this site) that hypothesis can, almost without anyone noticing, transform itself into accepted wisdom. Somebody has pointed out, I think in relation to the JEPD compositional theory, that it depends on a very modern idea of the cutting and pasting of texts, which would have been alien and impractical to any middle eastern redactors in ancient times.

At this point, historical criticism as applied to textual critcism, which has its place, needs to work alongside some form of canon criticism or narrative criticism - which focus on ‘the final text’ (depending on whose version of canon criticism you go for).

Having said that, I don’t see how thorough exegesis (of the Genesis creation accounts, for instance) can proceed without some stab at how the texts were intended to be used - provided the hermeneutical guesswork is treated in a fairly provisional way.

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities


I agree with your assesment that the JEPD compositional theory is provisional. Even if one leaves elements of this behind, the idea that the pentateuch was put together at a much later date than is “traditionally” assumed, needs to weighed in the balance as carefully as any “traditional” interpretation of the authorship, intent and date.

I’m not sure if we can crystallize the various views into a single hermeneutical presentation, however. I think if we start by discussing the issues you and John have addressed, and including what how these views affect one’s basic hermeneutic (a discussion which has been running in the background of this discussion already), we might be able to proceed into an approach to the text that allows each to give imput from their own perspective. If we try to wear our hermeneutic on our sleaves, we’ll get farther along, I think.

Also agreement that if we talk about a redactive proces, for our purposes we have to primarily deal with the end product, however that came together. Earlier forms of the story/stories are of interest only as we can show a connection between the earlier story and the way the original audience would have heard it, and how that affected any later redactors. Whether any of this is actually possible with the creation stories, is a wild guess to me!

Sorry if I want to jump into exegesis too quickly here. The original discussion was about the nature of “True Myth”. Our hermeneutic (and it’s application) will tell much about how or if we view Genesis as a true myth.

For my part, I want to start an analysis of the creation stories with the question of what this version of the story as it’s penned was meant to communicate to it’s hearers/readers. How the original hearer/readers would have “heard” the story (and with what others stories floating around in their heads) is I think a very important question. But as you pointed out, this too is dependant on who we think that audience is, and what the intent of the author/redactor was.

I don’t yet have a set position on the point of authorship/dating/provenance. Nor do I feel like I’ve got a good grasp of the various possibilities (yet!). Maybe someone can give a sketch of various options to start the discussion moving in that direction. 

Sam, I hope to check out your links tonight. Thanks for sending them through.

Welcome future mythic voyagers

Let’s assume that the redactors of the Pentateuch had access to archaic narrative fragments in either oral or written form. Let’s assume further that the redactors exercised restraint in modifying these ancient narratives while consciously integrating them into a coherent whole. The redactors would have retained the thrust of the original creation narratives, consciously employing certain “weighty” words and phrases that point forward to subsequent developments and themes in the longer story of God’s dealings with Israel and the world.

At the same time, a truly ancient creation narrative would have charted the course toward the future, would have set the trajectory for long strands of meaning, would have imbued certain words and phrases with primal potency. Steeped in the ancient oral tradition, wouldn’t the subsequent chroniclers of the ongoing Jewish saga have recognized that certain words – light, man, image and likeness – already carried more weight than others? Of course there are dangers of overinterpreting the cross-textual linkages: consider the medieval kabbalists who, observing that the first word of Genesis begins not with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet but with the second, conclude that something must have existed before the beginning.

This bidirectional interweaving of themes and keywords gives the Bible a complex unity, with each separate segment in the larger story pointing simultaneously back to the beginning and forward to the end. A good novel arrives at its coherence through a similar process: the first draft moves roughly forward in time, but the writer already has the ending clearly in mind while editing the beginning. Call me Ishmael – was this the first sentence Melville wrote when he sat down to begin Moby Dick? It’s impossible to know, but it’s almost equally impossible to imagine the book beginning otherwise. If Melville had made a different editorial move then maybe today we would regard an entirely different first sentence as inevitable.

It’s interesting that all the discussion on this topic points to a rather orthodox approach to reading Genesis 1: a divinely-bestowed intuition to guide the reader, a literal exegesis of the text, the interpretation of individual passages in the context of the whole Bible. No one participating in the discussion so far seems to support any of the Truth Myth ideas that presumably inform post-evangelical hermeneutics of these problematic texts. Perhaps the True Myth solution is itself mythical. Perhaps tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, some virtual traveler will arrive and will read with bemused tolerance our primitive speculations. To you, mythic voyager, we extend our welcome.

As for conducting an exegesis of the text, it sounds like a good idea but I think I’d better bow out. I’ve done my own literal exegesis of Genesis 1, disregarding the usual a priori assumptions, ignoring scriptural unity, and arriving at an entirely heterodox interpretation of the narrative. Perhaps the heretical old theologian will offer a mythic version of this exegesis to his tolerant (semi-)fictional interlocutors on the “Christmas at Sir Toby’s” post.

Re: Welcome future mythic voyagers

John Doyle,

The composition could indeed have been, and probably was, a very complex one for good story telling is a highly developed art that is always technical and so both difficult and rare. The fact that this ancient tale so fascinates speaks for itself. And there is a fallacy in assuming that we moderns and postmoderns are somehow more advanced, for in this field i suspect that we are quite backward. The ancients were certainly better versed and more sophisticated than we in the ‘simple’ art of narrative.

i would be very interested to get your personal take as a part of this conversation itself rather than having to wait for Sir Toby! For one thing, each one of us will have a slightly or even markedly different view on Genesis (that’s a bit obvious) and it is in the sharing of the interpretations that we can each broaden our perspectives on what the story could mean.

getting back to true myth, it’s quite probable that ‘the truth is in the story’ or as another put it in a more PoMo fashion “the truth is in the fiction”, but this is something that we will have to discover together as we go along. As Russ suggests, we could just try to be transparent about what hermeneutoc we are plumbing for as methodological diversity and differences of perspective are, I think, an essential requirement if we are to collectively search for that oh so elusive ‘truth’.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

John - something must have happened whilst I was engaged in one of my trappist reveries. I truly hadn’t realised that you had offered your own exegesis of Genesis 1. Do you think you could summarise it - for the sake of those like me who weren’t paying attention?

You do seem to refer frequently to pentateuchal redactors, ancient fragments and words that become imbued with significant meaning. I do see some rather self-conscious repetition of words like ‘blessing’ and ‘fruitful’ which migrate from Genesis 1 and attach themselves to the likes of Noah, Abraham, and the Israelites on entering the promised land. I don’t see this necessarily as the work of redactors. Could it not have been a conscious recapitulation of and response to existing oral accounts of Genesis 1 - or even, horrors, a divinely inspired recapitulation. (The words do appear in the context of what God was purported to have said to Noah, Abraham, Israel etc.)

I don’t see that words like ‘image’ are significantly repeated, and ‘light’ is a normal metaphor for moral or intellectual clarity as well as a physical phenomenon; it’s bound up in the very nature of the thing, isn’t it?

Anyway, I’d appreciate a bit of recapitulation from yourself if you could spare the effort. I can see that you are not too keen on the ‘true myth’ concept (never realised it came from Barth/Frei; there’s always something new to learn). I couldn’t see what your own line was - unless it was to do with these mysterious redactors. I feel another chapter of Sir Toby’s coming on: enter the redactors stage left.

let them enjoy their soup

No, Peter, I didn’t slip my exegesis past you while you were otherwise occupied. We’ve discussed weighted words in the context of a literal hermeneutic, in contrast to metaphorical or mystical words which might point to a more mythic reading. Our speculations on redactive strategies for pulling the Pentateuch into a unified document seemed quite orthodox – I thought you were on board with this approach already. I accept that the redactors of the Pentateuch faithfully preserved the creation narratives as they’d been handed down through the tradition.

My reason for opening up the True Myth was that I’d seen the idea alluded to, though never explicated, in various emerging theological discussions as a way of reconciling Genesis 1-11 with modern science. The True Myth approach provides a rationale for relaxing the literal hermeneutic without relaxing Biblical inerrancy. None of us participating in this discussion seems persuaded that the True Myth hermeneutic applies to Genesis 1. Unless and until someone comes along who sees more merit in the approach, the True Myth topic seems to have run its course. I also don’t see anyone here prepared simply to acknowledge that Genesis 1 is a myth pure and simple, the product of ancient superstition and magical thinking that shouldn’t be taken seriously even by Jews and Christians. Or am I wrong about this?

And so the conundrum remains: how to reconcile Genesis 1 with modern science? There seems to be some enthusiasm for launching a new post that delves directly into the exegetical work. It seems that an acceptable “open-source” exegesis of Genesis 1 would be: (a) literal, (b) consistent with a priori intuitions about the creator-God, and (c) consistent with the rest of the Bible – in other words, a roughly orthodox evangelical exegesis. My exegesis is literal but it purposely ignores the other two criteria. I believe the resulting interpretation of Genesis 1 is internally consistent and also consistent with modern science; it does, however, deviate significantly from the usual interpretation of the passage. And so I thought it was time for me to step away from the table. Originally I hoped that my reading would be well-received in post-evangelical circles; I no longer entertain that hope. Still, I believe it has merit and I would be happy to give it an airing here. Over the next day or two I’ll try to write a concise summary and then post it here. The crowd at Sir Toby’s can continue eating their soup undisturbed while we carry on awhile longer.

Time for the next course?

Let’s get into it. I believe that our sharing of exegetical insights and individual hermeneutics will be enlightening. We may finally not enjoy a ‘new creation’ but certainly our understanding of Genesis will be a fitting main course.

I’m not entirely willing to give up on your original five categories either. Seems to me that my initial response was that there may well be some mythical element in my reading of Genesis today even though that may not have been so to the original author(s), hearers. The very fact that story telling is the most probable original route of transmission of the tale makes one wonder whether the original hearers may not also have received it so…

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Time for the next course?


On your a,b and c assumptions about the kind of exegesis that we’d probably do here, I myself don’t think I could necessarily agree with b and c, either. And as for a, while I accept “literal” as a tag, by that I would mean trying to hear the text as it was meant to be heard in it’s orginal context. This gets into the issues of authorship and dating, but also the context of the original hearers (here comes Sitz im leben around the corner again). Words that we might consider weighted could have various implications for various audiences and periods of time. But I certainly would not in the initial phase to try to make the text consistent with the rest of the Bible. That in itself calls for a huge a priori assumption about what that consistency would entail; I for one only want to deal with that after we look at Genesis “as is” within the setting of the Pentateuch. I’m not saying that the relationship of Genesis to the rest of the text of the bible is not important, but only that it’s secondary to me. That’s the point at which I see the concept of “true myth” possibly peeking around the corner again, as one of the hermeneutical devices to transport the story into other times and settings.

In a previous post about the redaction of the text you wrote this:

Let’s assume that the redactors of the Pentateuch had access to archaic narrative fragments in either oral or written form. Let’s assume further that the redactors exercised restraint in modifying these ancient narratives while consciously integrating them into a coherent whole.

This would in my view be true regardless of the dating of any redaction. As far as I understand it, even Moses would have been a redactor as regards the creation narratives (Calvin, as you pointed out, certainly seemed to think so). What greatly interests me is the stylistic difference between the first and second creation accounts in Genesis. Granted, the second account is actually an account of the creation of man. But Genesis 1:1-2:3 seem lyrical and poetic to me. The lines, even as I read them in English (only begun to grind to through the Hebrew…) are measured. The story is structured it wat strikes me as a mimetic fashion. It may be redaction, but it is a beautiful piece of redaction. It makes me wonder if this is not a fairly solid pericope of oral tradition that was passed down. If that’s the case, then what we probably have in Genesis is nothing “new” for the audience of Genesis, but rather the formalization/condensation of the community’s beliefs about how the world came to be, and what this has to say about man, his place and ultimately, the community’s place in the world. This is how I would make sense of your statement that “a truly ancient creation narrative would have charted the course toward the future, would have set the trajectory for long strands of meaning, would have imbued certain words and phrases with primal potency.”

As of yet I have no set opinion as to who wrote Genesis, or when. When you mention the redactional process, when do you see this happening? How does the time period affect the impact of Genesis and the Pentateuch for the original audience? Why was the text produced when it was, and how was it important for the people at that time?

two short replies

Sam, I agree that I overstated the irrelevance of True Myth in our discussions. You suggest, I think, that the writer of Genesis 1 may not have entirely understood the truths he was trying to describe, thus making it difficult for the reader to grasp the full meaning of the text. This would make the creation narrative a “category 1 True Myth,” at least in part.

Russ, you make a good point about the two creation narratives. The fact that they differ from one another not just in content but in style suggests that the redactor didn’t smooth over all the differences in the name of consistency. As you and Paul both say, it’s likely that the readers of the compiled Pentateuch would already have been familiar with much of what they read there, either through oral tradition or in shorter written manuscripts. So we can at least try to imagine reading or hearing the narrative that would later become Genesis 1 without having access to parts of the Bible that hadn’t yet been written or compiled. I too am curious about when and why the Pentateuch was finally pulled together into a continuous text.

I’m working on a summary of my reading of Genesis 1, recognizing that I may have to invoke Pascal’s apology: I have made this letter rather long only because I have not had time to make it shorter.

An alternative literal reading of Genesis 1

Suppose you approach Genesis 1 with no a priori assumptions about a creator-God. You treat the text as an eyewitness’ accurate report of an actual ancient event. Since this event occurred before any other part of the Bible was written, you do not use the rest of the Bible to help you interpret Genesis 1. What sense do you make of it?

It’s the story of when elohim created the heavens and the earth, culminating in the creation of man in the image and likeness of elohim. In the context of a creation story, “image and likeness” evidently means that man, like elohim, is a creator.

The work of creation begins in Genesis 1:1 (In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth) and ends in Genesis 2:1 (Thus the heavens and the earth were completed). This implies that the creation described here is a discrete time-limited event rather than a continually-unfolding work in progress.

Elohim is a plural noun – “gods” – but the narrator consistently uses singular verb conjugations when describing elohim’s actions. Perhaps elohim is a collective noun. The story is told not by elohim but by an unidentified narrator who frequently quotes elohim as the events unfold.

God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void. By asserting these two seemingly contradictory statements one after the other, the narrator establishes a paradoxical ambiguity about baseline conditions. Perhaps elohim started the work of creation by making a formless void – a blob of undifferentiated matter that he would push and shove into place. Or perhaps a precursor to the earth already existed, but it wasn’t really and fully the earth yet.

…and the Spirit of God was moving… This passage could just as accurately be translated as follows: and the breath of elohim was moving… The narrator describes the opening scene in physical terms: earth, darkness, the surface of the deep. Why is “breath” plausible? Because in the next verse elohim begins to speak…

Then God said, “Let there be light.” To whom was elohim speaking? Was he commanding his underlings to do the work? The narrator is clear: elohim did the creating. Was he speaking directly to the light, as if the light was a sentient being that could obey commands? Nothing else in the creation narrative supports this idea. Was elohim speaking to himself – or among themselves? The “Let there be” construction lends tentative support this interpretation: it’s the precative mood, falling somewhere between a direct command (“Light come forth!”) and a simple declarative statement (“There is light.”). A speaker might use the precative to express intent or to make a request or to elicit a response from the listener; e.g., “So we’re all agreed about the light then?”

“And there was light.” If the “Let there be” phrase indicated a decision or agreement, wouldn’t we still be waiting for the command to make it so? But the fulfillment (and there was) immediately follows the precative (“Let there be”), implying that elohim’s spoken words had some direct effect in making the light a reality.

What if elohim was speaking to someone else who was present at the creation – a witness, perhaps even the narrator himself? In addressing his precative suggestion to the witness elohim isn’t asking the witness to make the light; instead, he’s asking the witness to understand the light. Now elohim’s first phrase becomes an initial proposition for the witness to consider: “This abstract property shared by the campfire and the lightning and the rising sun: let it be called light.” The witness is a fully-evolved, genetically modern human, but in many ways he’s still just a primate. He reacts to the world instinctively, but as yet he has no cognitive or linguistic understanding that the world even is, let alone what properties it possesses. The light as a physical property was already there in the universe: perhaps it spontaneously emerged from the Big Bang, perhaps it had been physically formed by elohim prior to Genesis 1. But light is real only to beings who can understand what they see and who can express their understanding in words – beings like elohim. From the witness’ primitive proto-human perspective the light was there but not there, a formless void, part of the physical environment but not yet part of the conceptual schema by which a conscious being makes sense of his environment. When elohim spoke the words, awareness began to dawn in the witness. And there was light, the witness exclaims: by repeating elohim’s words the witness shows elohim that he understands. Perhaps what elohim created in Genesis 1 wasn’t the raw physical stuff of the universe, but the cognitive-linguistic reality of the universe. Before this day no one could even imagine what a universe might be. Now they’re beginning the see the light.

And God saw that the light was good. Light isn’t just an idea and a word that the witness can understand; it corresponds to something that actually exists in the world. Light is a good initial construct on which to build a meaningful reality, a way of making sense of things. Curiously, elohim doesn’t say that the light is good – perhaps the narrator made an inference from the expression on elohim’s face as he gazed at the light.

And God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. Here elohim elaborates on the initial concept he introduced in the prior verse, showing how light relates to the day-night oscillation that naturally structures the witness’ physical existence. Elohim is creating the basic framework for making sense of the physical environment, starting from an everyday human perspective.

And there was evening and there was morning, one day. The first day of discussion between elohim and the witness is ended. The narrator applies elohim’s day-night schema to assign a name to a single day-night cycle. Before this day no one had ever thought about linear time as a way of segmenting experience and keeping track of significant events. This has been the first day of history.

Over the next few days elohim elaborates on his conceptual-linguistic framework for making sense of things. The formula is consistent: elohim speaks, naming some category of things in the physical environment; the witness repeats and elaborates on what elohim just said. Elohim progressively adds detail and complexity to the reality he is creating. So, for example, on day one he created light as a category, on day two he created heaven as the space above the earth, on day four he created sources of light located in heaven – sun, moon, stars. On day three he created the seas, on day five he created the various kinds of creatures that live in the seas. And so on. From time to time elohim looks at what he’s created and sees that it is good. The narrator counts the days of elohim’s work of creation as they go by.

Toward the end of day six the story reaches its climax: the creation of man. Man, like everything else, has until now been a raw thing, unnamed, instinctive, unconscious. Now elohim declares who man is. But man is different from everything else because man can understand the names and the categories and the overall framework of the reality that elohim has created. Man can even understand who he himself is and how he fits into elohim’s newly-created reality. Man already had the innate brainpower; what he needed was someone to teach him to use it, to show him a way of transcending raw animality, to introduce him into full participation in a meaningful reality. Elohim was that teacher, creating man in his image as both a participant in and a creator of meaningful realities.

Up to now elohim has spoken only of the world; now, for the first time, he speaks of himself: “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness, and let them rule…” It’s interesting that elohim refers both to himself and to man in the plural. The narrator immediately affirms the creation of man, which is also the creation of himself as a newly-sentient being. The narrator alternates between singular and plural: And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them. “Man,” in Hebrew as well as in English, can refer either to an individual (a man) or to a collective (mankind). Presumably the image and likeness of elohim applies equally to individual people and to humanity as a whole. Each of us is a creator; we as a people create collective realities.

“Fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule… over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Man, like elohim but unlike any other earthly being, can understand the meaning and purpose of things; consequently, man can imagine ways of seeing the world that will enable him to subdue it. Man, alone among the creatures, can impose his creativity on raw nature, purposely modifying it in order to make tools, weapons, agriculture, exchange economies, plans for the future, and so on. And people don’t repeatedly have to re-invent the wheel; unlike other creatures they can learn from one another, just as the narrator learned from elohim over the course of these six momentous days. Man’s creativity will spread rapidly, from mind to mind, throughout the earth.

And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

I didn’t read all the replies so I may be redundant here, but has anyone considered the author’s intent as to why the story was written.  According to many theologians (I believe Greg Boyd among them).  The author was not trying to write an accurate account of how things all started.  The point was to write about what was important to the jewish people “hear o israel, the lord our god is one!”.  This is a monotheistic manifesto in a world full of pantheistic myths about the origin of the cosmos.  As such, as christians, we should hartitly embrace this literary crticism for all its worth since it sets up our faith and points us in the direction of the creator…which is pretty much all anything genesis 1-3 can really do. Unless you have a time machine and a camcorder to go back and see how “literal” the story is. 

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

John doyle,

that’s a very interesting reading both from the perspective of potentialities becoming and from the aspect of active dialogue within the text. It does indeed add a different dimension when viewed as a conversation about revelation in action!

As dissident asks, one of the very acute questions is authorial intent, and I guess as we go into the text, we will have to come to some conclusions. However, one primary matter is the question of who God is. Is our text unequivocally monotheistic or could there be some other explanation for the plural form of elohim ?

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities


Thanks for your read on Genesis 1. As Sam said, who Elohim is, is crucial. It’s hard not to read Genesis 1 without the Pentateuch, because at the end of the day this is how the story has come to us, as dissident mentioned.

If I try this, however, I tend to think of Elohim as a council of God/divine beings. What we hear as the voice of Elohim is either then the collective speaking as one, or the head honcho speaking for the group. What strikes me about this council, however, is the lack of bickering, fighting and reordering that goes on. In most other cosmologies I’ve read, there’s a fair amount of this before the gods finally get around to making the heavens and earth. So either the narrator wasn’t interested (or unaware) in what happened before, or this is a very different kind of divine council.

Whom is the council speaking to? If I follow the track above, I come up with two options: 1) it’s the head honcho speaking out for the rest of the council to hear; 2) it’s the council speaking as a collective, and creating by the power of it’s voice. But both of these scenarios assume that it’s real creating/reshaping that’s going on, and not simply a revelatory event.

I’ve heard a kind of variation on your idea before. The idea that it’s man who is being aided into sentience, perhaps at the end of a very, very long period of evolution. The distinction between the way I’ve heard it before and your story is that you make it a literal retelling (how Elohim “recreated” man, as man remembered it), whereas the version I’ve heard before treats Genesis 1 as a metaphorical retelling (back to True Myth again).

But where do you find your clues that it is proto-man to whom Elohim is speaking? When I read the text, at this point I don’t see it. In terms of treating the text as an interpretion of potentiality it’s intriguing, but I don’t see how the text itself leads us to this. Can you help me better understand your reasoning?

We’re still left with the question of who Elohim is. An unidentified divine being? Can you give some more insight into who you read Elohim to be within the context of Genesis 1?

elohim speaks

Thanks for engaging with an admittedly idiosyncratic reading of the creation narrative. Dissident, Authorial intent is certainly a factor to consider. Russ on 13 Jan opened up this issue, and on 16 Jan I addressed briefly the speculation that Genesis 1 was intended as a polemic myth demonstrating the superior power of the Jewish God rather than a blow-by-blow description of the creation event. Genesis 1 seems ambiguous about whether God is singular or plural, so if the author’s primary intent was to emphasize that “our God is one,” then arguably he wasn’t entirely successful at conveying the message. We’ve discussed the integrity of the Jewish oral tradition, supporting the possibility that the creation narrative might well have been an ancient story eventually committed to writing by a later editor.Sam,The plural elohim instead of the singular eloah certainly isn’t decisive but it is intriguing, especially combined with the “let us make” and “in our image” constructions of verse 26. Some interpreters see evidence of a pantheon; others, of the Trinity. The argument for the “royal we” I haven’t explored thoroughly, but my preliminary understanding is that the ancient Near Eastern gods or kings never referred to themselves as “we.” Russ,You’re right: the Genesis narrative gives no hint of the kind of turmoil that characterizes other gods’ collective creation projects. In fact the narrator tells us nothing about who elohim is or where he came from.As you point out, it is possible to interpret Genesis 1 as a “true myth” in which elohim is an allegorical personification of human sentience. Similarly the serpent in Genesis 3 could be an allegorical personification of the human capacity for independent moral choice. But we’re going for the literal reading here.It is odd that the narrator would describe elohim as speaking the creation rather than shaping it or giving birth to it or pulling forth a material copy of something that already existed in a spiritual realm. We can only speculate about why elohim spoke, and to whom. The narrator provides us with no direct evidence of a conference among the gods, or of God speaking to invisible helpers, or of some magical creative power intrinsic the words themselves. The voice of elohim and that of the narrator alternate throughout the story, so to link them in conversation seems at least plausible. Interpreting the creation as a teacher-student exchange about the universe as a mental and linguistic construct avoids the difficulties of time sequence in the creation; e.g., fruit trees created before the sun. It also makes the 6-day time period plausible. Day and night, evening and morning – the text certainly seems to intend that the reader interpret “day” in an ordinary way. If what elohim creates in this story is a conceptual framework, then his creatorly “image and likeness” is much more directly applicable to man than if elohim was creating a material universe ex nihilo.

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities


Thanks for the quick response.

I agree that the creation story lacks most of the elements present in the cosmologies of the civilizations surrounding Israel. Debates about literary dependance of Genesis 1-2 upon other sources tend to be inconclusive, mostly because there’s a lack of real evidence (as far as I can gather). There seem to be a few conceptual parallels (drawing on John Walton’s “Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context” here), but even there it’s darn near impossible to prove any dependance. The whole picture seems to make this creation story, regardless of how we interpret it, as something unique; more different than more like other cosmologies.

If I understand your explanation of the teacher-student role of elohim and man in Genesis, it’s based on the idea of exchange embedded in the text. Why doesn’t the text then make this plain? I want to give a further think (and a few good reads of the story), but I do wonder about this. Can’t the alteration be explained as a simple narrative style? That said, I find the interpretation intriguing, so I want to think about it some more.

Oscillating persectives in the Genesis 1 narrative


Here’s more to consider as you read and deliberate. Hopefully it will clarify more than it confuses.

The alternating structure of Genesis 1 is clear: elohim speaks, the narrator repeats. The traditional interpretation is that God issues commands and the narrator confims their fulfillment – at which point we face the apparent discrepancies in temporal sequence of the creation.

It’s long been recognized that the sequence seems to reflect a hierarchical logic, split into two 3-day segments. One interpretation contends that days 1-3 present a static representation of the universe, whereas days 4-6 describe the dynamic forces. So, for example, day one is light (static) and day two is the heavens (static), while day four is the lightbearing bodies that move through the heavens (dynamic). Augustine and many others, arguably influenced by Greek idealism, believed that an eternal God transcends linear time. He would not have needed as long as six days to create the universe; instead, he would have done the job instantaneously. So, for Augustine, the sequence of Genesis 1 is logical and metaphorical but not literal. The problem of the days remained unsolved: why does the narrator count the days, which seem clearly to refer to ordinary day-night cycles of time?

In the twentieth century the “two-register cosmogony” theory was put forward to link the logical structure of the description of the universe with the 6-day interval. It’s a complicated argument – here’s a link to to an explanation by Meredith Kline. Here’s my understanding:

The Genesis 1 narrative oscillates between the upper, heavenly register where God is, and the lower, material register where the creation is. God, acting outside of time and space, envisions a hierarchically structured universe. Operating within the upper register, God speaks his vision in six segments, labeled “day one,” “day two,” etc. After God stops speaking, the scene changes to the lower register. The narrator describes those aspects of the material universe that, over some unspecified duration, have come into conformity with a particular piece of God’s upper-register plan. As Kline says: “The lower register relates to the upper as replica to archetype.”

The six days refer to logical divisions in God’s timeless deliberations; they take place in the upper register and so should be interpreted figuratively. The temporal duration and sequence by God’s plan is made manifest on the lower register bears no relationship whatsoever to the six-day logical sequence of the upper register. Essentially there’s a division internal to Genesis 1 between God’s thinking up the universe and the universe’s eventual manifestation of God’s idea., with the text bouncing back and forth between the two.

The two-register cosmogony is based on the oscillation between God’s voice and the narrator’s. It acknowledges that the sequence of creation is more helpful in making sense of the universe than in describing its emergence over time. But the two-register idea invokes a split between the eternal immaterial realm and the temporal material realm, a division that strikes me as distinctly Greek. It also invokes a figurative, allegorical meaning to the six days, even though the narrator explicitly describes the days in terms of light and darkness, day and night – terms that seem distinctly materialistic and lower-register.

The interpretation I proposed a few days ago bears distinct similarities to the two-register theory, the main difference being that all the action takes place on one register: the material world. Instead of oscillating between eternity and temporality, the narrative oscillates between speaker and listener. In this proposed conversation God is describing the universe in terms of its logical hierarchical structure. The six days refer literally to the duration over which God puts forward his explanation.

To me the big question is whether it’s legitimate to speak of a system for making sense of the universe as a work of “creation.” To create a people or a nation doesn’t necessarily require physically making new beings or a new place. The creation of a legal code isn’t reducible to the tablets on which it’s inscribed. To create a natural science doesn’t require the creation of a nature to which the scientific content applies. The physical stuff of the universe might have been designed or physically formed by God; billions of years might have passed before anyone came along who could recognize it as a universe. Certainly no earthly creatures other than men understand the idea of the universe. If man evolved from lower primates, there surely was a time when man did not understand that there was a universe. Would primitive man, hearing God explain the idea and its relationship to the material world, have regarded the event as the creation of the universe? It’s hard to say, because it’s hard to imagine a time when we could see the world without understanding what it was or knowing its name.


While your wisdom-based creation story is surely worth considering, I’m having a hard enough time keeping track of my own interpretation. Since I’m trying to read Genesis 1 without looking ahead to other parts of the Bible like Proverbs, I hope you’ll understand my not trying to incorporate your thoughts into my own for the time being.

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

I won’t say that I’m totally out of my depth following this conversation, but it’s getting close.

My observations are twofold.

Concerning the God/narrator statement/response counterpoint suggested by John - aren’t God’s statements part of the narrator’s narrative - ie God’s words as narrated by the narrator? In any case, I couldn’t see where it took us to divide the creation narrative in this way. (But I may not have been paying enough attention). Otherwise I do agree with John in his summary (and rejection) of the upper/lower register theory, as a way out of a literal six day creation ‘impasse’.

There is also an intriguing patterning of the six day creation narrative - which I don’t think has been alluded to by any of the contributions so far. This is that days 1, 2 and 3 correspond to days 4, 5 and 6. In other words:

Day 1 (Light) corresponds to Day 4 (lights)

Day 2 (Sky separating waters) corresponds to Day 5 (fish and birds)

Day 3 (land, vegetation) corresponds to Day 6 (living creatures)

I don’t think this advances any of the theories, except to highlight the orderliness and design built into the creation accounts, and therefore to be a feature of God/Elohim himself/themselves, and of his/their activities built into the subsequent historical narrative, albeit severely skewed by having to deal with a humanity committed to its own ends and not his.

This would also have the effect of emphasizing the trustworthiness of God - which is a key theme of the ensuing narrative. He acts in an orderly, not arbitrary way.

Incidentally, I don’t think Elohim is anywhere used of God except in the context of a singular being, is it?

swimming along nicely

Peter,Out of your depth? Hardly.The repeated alternation between God’s words (as quoted by the narrator) and the narrator’s words is integral to the structure of the narrative. The question is how to interpret this oscillation: command and fulfillment, upper and lower register, teacher and student. The traditional command-and-fulfillment reading leads to seemingly intractable sequencing difficulties: trees before the sun, etc. The upper-lower and teacher-student interpretations avoid this issue. Instead of temporal sequence, the days establish a hierarchical orderliness to the universe, as you point out.I see you’ve slipped the Fall and the steadfastness of God into the interpretation – it’s difficult to resist looking ahead.My cursory word study of elohim indicates that the the Hebrew God almost always takes the plural form elohim. Elohim is also occasionally used in reference to an individual foreign god. But elohim is also used whenever the text refers to multiple gods; e.g., “I am Yahweh your elohim; you shall have no other elohim before me. Recall also the enigmatic reference to the “sons of the gods” (elohim) in Genesis 6:4. Conversely, the singular adam is more often used as a collective (mankind) than as a singular noun (human being).

Not waving but drowning

I suppose I’d go for the command/fulfilment interpretation of Genesis 1 - it seems the most obvious. I don’t see that there need be any difficulties with the sequencing of events if supernatural actions are assumed.

Nor need this conflict with the presumption of vast ages in evolutionary theory. It’s quite possible that a supernaturally fully formed creation was followed by the operation of natural laws within a lengthened time scale. Seems just as likely to me as life crawling by chance out of the primeval sludge.

It’s possible that the appearance of ageing arose out of the non-natural conditions that operated at an initial supernatural creation.

It’s possible that many assumptions based on observation of natural processes are incorrect, such as the assumption that ice ages obliterated the existence of giant kangaroos and marsupials in southern Australia. It is now assumed, according to a Daily Telegraph newspaper report, that the climate of Australia remained constant, and that man changed the environment, which had provided habitat for these now extinct creatures. What other sweeping generalisations about climate are incorrect?

And what’s a contributor like me to OST doing subscribing to that bastion of British conservatism and reaction, The Daily Telegraph? I don’t; it was at my parents’ house, where I was visiting on Saturday for my father’s 90th birthday.

The Fall and Genesis 1? Plenty of motifs linking Genesis 1 with other parts of the Pentateuch - though if you like, this is with the benefit of hindsight.

The steadfastness of God? It overarches the Pentateuch, even without which, Genesis 1 speaks by implication about the kind of God who undertook creation.

Elohim - a plural word, but always used in a singular sense, I think?

This is an interesting thread, but I was always much further out at sea than you thought, not waving but drowning.

time and sequence

The preliminary explorations have been fascinating!

There is a unique problem with Genesis 1 that will keep haunting us as we go along and this is the problem of chronicity. There are a number of places, like Proverbs and Job and even John’s prologue where we are given different glimpses of the beginning. It will be hard to not keep trying to read back from these texts into our Genesis account. I think that we have to assume that we have no older threads than the Genesis account itself, at least in our initial stages of study.

The relation of Genesis 1 to 1-3, then till Genesis 11, to the rest of the Genesis acount, and to the rest of the pentateuch will also be a fruitful area of study as there is a venerable tradition linking the pentateuch together as a unit.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

The Creation story may need to be read as a whole.Here Ill show you a sample between Gen 1 and Gen 2.

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

4And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

5And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night

2).4These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they, were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,

1) 26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

2)5And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.

2) 6 But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.

2) 7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

You will note that God creates man in both chapter. The concept between the two are the same. Also day can mean eon.also spelled eon or æon, means “age,” “forever,”

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities


Granted that the two creation narratives need to be looked at as a whole. Eventually one needs to look at them, as Peter mentioned in his bit above, within the larger context of the Pentateuch as a whole. But we’ve started with Genesis 1, as there are clear stylistic and thematic differences between the two stories.


I tend to think that the various themes that you mention can be incorporated into the story, especially given the fact that we’re looking at what is a piece of constructed narrative. Someone, Moses or whoever, at whatever time within the history of Israel, set the story down in writing. The themes you mention are absolutely correct, I think, as they are real themes within the Pentateuch. This, I think is part of freespirit’s point. Earlier we’ve mentioned looking at Genesis 1 as a polemic against pagan cosmologies. From that perspective, the singleness (and singlemindedness) of Elohim is even more telling. It also makes “sense” of the placing of the Sun and moon on day four, and the apparent throw away line “and he made the stars also” (or are we to read that with an exclamation mark in mind?). I’m attracted also by the possible eschatological/teleological theme running in the background of the story, but am not yet certain how strong that is loose from the rest of the Pentateuch. And there’s of course the theme of six days themselves, and the importance of the sabbath within the mindset of the Pentateuch.

I suspect that many of these themes can be incorporated into the underlying layers of Genesis, and this within the various constructs of how the narrative actually works, as John says: “The question is how to interpret this oscillation: command and fulfillment, upper and lower register, teacher and student”. For each of these I think we need to go back to the basic question of which story line the original listeners/readers would have “heard” when they encountered the story. I suspect that that will always remain a fair bit of guesswork, in which again we will need to refer to the rest of the Pentateuch.


I’m still reading Kline, and hope to look at a few other bits that summarize various views. What I wonder when I read your construct is whether there are linguistic/structural clues that it’s a teacher/student kind of relationship. I’ve glanced at Kline’s defense of the opening phrase of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He argues that the sentence cannot be a summary statement, after which comes the details, but that it must point to creative activity before the “creation” detailed in the remainder of the chapter. I find his usage of Proverbs 8:22-23 in this regard unconvincing, as I think one could successfully argue that the persona Wisdom in Proverbs is a fictitious persona constructed for the sake of the argument concerning the virtues of wisdom. And, like you and Peter, I’m uncomfortable with the separation of the universe into the seen and unseen realms. And I simply don’t understand why Day 4 is an “upper” register in his construct, as the place of the Sun and Moon (in the expanse of the sky) would seem to me to be far more lower register (the visible) than upper. “The heavens” are to him the invisible dwelling of God and the angels, and distinguished the from the sky, which is made from the murky, yucky stuff of those primordial waters in verse 6.

If I read your construct right, I’m not sure we could call it a true creation story, however. It’s rather a revelation about the created order, given to homo sapiens. Man is, if I understand you, not being given a strictly historical account of creation, but an iterative insight into how creation is structured. Is this your equivalent of the black rectangle in 2001: A Space Odyssey? (Great book and movie, by the way). The obvious advantage is that we’re off the hook with science, but it moves us back into what dissident stated: “The author was not trying to write an accurate account of how things all started,” at least not the things of creation. The story is perhaps a literal account of revelations from God, which man (the first pair, a group, the whole of mankind alive at that point in time?) received, but not an account of creation itself. In this sense it parallels, perhaps, the view that Genesis is a polemic, structured to teach the truth about Elohim/Yahweh in the midst of the surrounding pagan cultures. So yours teaches the truth about creation’s order, but not necessarily about the order of creation. Or am I being too black and white here?

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

I haven’t been to the OST site in a while and I’m sorry I missed this post and am late getting in the discussion.

I think option #3 is the best choice of the 5 but still isn’t exactly on target.  I think any time you read a myth like the Genesis stories or even things in the NT you make a mistake if you try to ask the question “What does this story tell me about reality?”.  You can only ask the question “What does this story tell me about how its authors (and possibly its audience) thought about reality?”. 

I think the Genesis myths tell us a great deal about what it’s authors thought about reality which could be summarized as - mankind tends to make self destructive decisions at our own peril.  I would argue that this is a very TRUE statement, so I would agree that this is a “true myth” because my experience along with thousands of documented cases since this one have also shown this truth to be “true”.  There are other truths about reality that are in the story as well, but this is clearly the main truth.  It also comments about mankinds issues  with nakedness, honesty, painful childbirth, difficulties with survival, etc.

I feel certain that the story tellers (possibly over centruies) started with the idea of “man is self destructive in his quest for knowledge and power” and then worked out a story to illustrate the point.  The myth is a critique of mans current status and situation and is NOT meant to accurately tell history. However it is the most ”true” story ever told.  Crediting God with the story paints an insulting picture of God and it is also an insult to the creative ability of its authors by assuming they were incapable of creating such a fine true myth.

Trying to discern facts about the creation of the world from the Genesis myth is like trying to learn about the behavior of swine from reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  It makes no sense and misses the point.

Danutz http://danutz.blogspot.com

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

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reading from inside the story

Thanks, Danutz, for offering a refined understanding of True Myth category 3 as a metaphorical representation of the author’s understanding of reality, not necessarily of objective reality. Thanks also to freespirit for reminding many of us that there are perspectives we’ve never even considered. And thanks to Sam, Russ and Danutz for advancing the discussion.It’s customary to interpret the Bible by the Bible, to regard the entire canon as an integrated whole by which the reader can make sense of the separate parts. For Christians the life of Jesus is interpreted in the historical context of Israel and Abraham, of the “first Adam” and the creation that was made “through Him and for Him.” Reciprocally, the Creation story acquires eschatological meaning by pointing forward to Israel and the Word made flesh and the new/renewed creation. This holistic hermeneutic both builds and reinforces a coherent worldview. If, on the other hand, the reader focuses on the details rather than the big picture, the holistic coherence can sometimes feel a bit forced. Any isolated bit of text supports alternative readings, but it has to be made to fit into the whole picture. Sometimes the fit isn’t perfect.Genesis 1 seems to be a straightforward narrative about a historic event. The story is of a piece with the rest of the Bible as it has come down to us (discrepancies with the second Creation narrative of Gen. 2-3 notwithstanding). The reason we’ve explored alternative interpretations is that the story doesn’t fit inside the “book of nature” as written by modern empirical science. There are three basic strategies for resolving the discrepancies: either natural science is wrong, or the text is wrong, or the traditional ways of reading the narrative are wrong. In this post we’ve been exploring the third way.Reading Genesis 1 as a “True Myth” resolves discrepancies with natural science by freeing the text from literal interpretation. True Myth turns Genesis 1 into an allegorical story about something other than the creation: the superiority of the Hebrew God, say, or the importance of the Sabbath to religious practice. We’ve also touched on some alternative literal readings. Extend the timeline from six days to six eons. Insert an extended “gap” between verse 1 and 2, during which the original creation deteriorated. Re-envision the narrative scenario as the repeated alternation between the eternal-spiritual register and the temporal-material. I’ve offered a different literal interpretation, one in which God creates conscious awareness of the material universe. This reading reconciles the text with natural science essentially by seeing God as the first natural scientist. The downside of this reading from a Judeo-Christian perspective is that Genesis 1 remains silent about how the physical universe began. This isn’t a bad thing for those of us who hold no a priori theistic beliefs but who have confidence in the modern scientific method. What difference whether God created the material world, or intelligently designed it, or had absolutely nothing to do with it? Isn’t it more important for God to be able to define the meaning of things and to teach that ability to humanity? Man could never have wondered about the origins of the universe until he first grasped the idea of a universe. To create the conscious awareness of something: it’s not the same as creating that thing, but surely it is an act of creation in its own right and not merely a metaphor? Surely it is man’s sentience rather than his raw power that sets him apart from the rest of the beasts and makes him more like the God in whose image he is created? And doesn’t this theory of Genesis 1 recapitulate the “anthropic principle of cutting-edge astrophysics?… and so on. Inevitably I find myself defending my exegesis, arguing its merits when they aren’t sufficiently self-evident, seeing in it the one true reading hidden since the foundation of the earth. Who is the unnamed and previously undetected witness I place at the scene of the creation? Maybe it’s me. Trying to put myself in the narrator’s shoes, seeing what he saw, hearing the words that elohim spoke – maybe without realizing it I inserted myself into the story. There are worse mistakes a reader can make.Perhaps the lesson is a postmodern one: Genesis 1 is open enough to sustain a limitless number of possible interpretations. An Eastern monist will see in Genesis 1 the universe emerging as an emanation of pure Mind. A Gnostic will see a secondary deity mistakenly creating an imperfect universe. One Christian will see the triune God creating everything from nothing and establishing the precedent for the new Creation in Christ; another will see a well-meaning storyteller trying to capture something beyond his grasp. One scientific secularist will see a teacher explaining the basics of natural science to his students; another will see the source of an anti-scientific superstition. How you interpret the text depends on what presuppositions you bring to the text and what worldview sustains you. But the interpretation also depends on the text itself, which has outlasted a hundred generations of exegetes. The ability to see this one ancient text from so many different points of view is surely a tribute to human creativity. Whether this hermeneutical flexibility is a sign of man’s goodness or of his corruption is, of course, open to question.This being a Christian gathering place, I’d be interested in exploring whether and in what ways it’s essential to the faith that God physically created the universe. I think it might be fruitful to extend this aspect of the discussion to include Genesis 3 and the implications of the Fall for the Creation and its renewal in Christ — though maybe we should resist the temptation to bite into that added complication. Alternatively or in parallel, we can continue exploring exegetical options for the text itself.

Re: reading from inside the story

I like the way you summarise and synthesise the arguments, John. But doesn’t your own summary position, that “God creates a conscious awareness of the material universe” hit the same buffers of conflict with the “book of science” as any other literal understanding of Genesis? Isn’t the creation of a conscious awareness of what happened at creation saying the same thing as a description of what happened at creation - as described in Genesis 1? The issue remains a creation, in the sequence in which it is described, as opposed to a naturalistic development of life over the aeons, from the simpler forms to the more complex, without external divine assistance.

I personally have more problems with the latter than I do with the former, as explanations of the origins of life. I don’t find that a purely metaphoric understanding of Genesis 1 resolves anything. Somewhere, there remains the question: where did the universe come from, and how reasonable is it to suppose that a divine being had any role in its formation? Mine is a ‘faith’ understanding, but then all understandings rest on a considerable element of faith, just as they all appeal to evidence on which to support their conclusions.

I have therefore provided another view, which is not quite included in your summary, that extraordinary supernatural forces were at work in the initial literal six day creation, but that these were followed by naturalistic developments. This does, of course, have its problems - such as conflict with the evolutionary view that man appeared at the end of an evolutionary process. But it does reconcile other pieces of evidence which stand at variance with the evolutionary view, such as the discovery of creatures which were supposed to have died out millions of years ago, according to the fossil record, at the beginnings of the evolutionary chain - such as the coelacanth, and that peculiar shark creature looking like an eel with its mouth open, which we all saw captured on camera several days ago, a creature supposed to have died out 20 million years ago. In other words, what business do such creatures have being around today, when they should have evolved into something else - like all other well behaved members of species?

I think, too, when we are talking about events which by modern science’s reckoning happened some 4.5 billion years ago, naturalistic science is at the very limits of what can be asserted with any confidence. Science of all kinds, physical and natural, has been shown up as spectacularly wrong in the last hundred years, and this despite the use of ‘science’ to disprove the so-called supertsitions of Christian tradition.

open possibilities

Peter,Surely the scenario you describe is possible: that the Creation was an intrinsically supernatural event, generating extraordinary environmental conditions bearing no relationship to the natural world that followed. Certainly this view supports a straightforward reading of Genesis 1 and the Garden of Eden story that follows.While the rest of the Old Testament asserts that God created the material world, it doesn’t specifically cite the Creation narratives as a description of how and when the Creation unfolded. Curiously, the New Testament writers seem more insistent on upholding Genesis 1-3 as authoritative. Jesus, arguing from analogy, cites Genesis 1 and 3 in asserting the equality of men and women. But the Epistle writers, and especially Paul, explicitly build their teachings on the Creation stories. The Fall in particular captures Paul’s attention. As far as I can recall, after Genesis 3 there is no explicit Old Testament teaching about the Fall’s lasting impact on mankind and the world. Jesus doesn’t talk about it either. In contrast, Paul’s theory of sin and salvation relies in no small part on his understanding of the Fall. Perhaps of most relevance to our current discussion is the impact of the Fall not on men’s souls but on their bodies. In Romans 5 Paul says that through the sin of one man (presumably Adam) death entered the world and spread to all men. He repeats this idea in Romans 8 and I Corinthians 15. Paul seems to be saying that there was no physical death before the Fall, not only among mankind but throughout the natural world. If this is so, then the basic evolutionary mechanism of natural selection could not have been operational before the Fall. Survival of the fittest, after all, implies its darker flip side: death of the unfit. Evolution would be ruled out, not just for man but for every other life form preceding the Fall.Peter, your understanding of the supernaturalism of the Creation supports Paul’s theology here. What about Christians who believe that evolution is compatible with Christianity? How might evolution be reconciled with Paul’s attributing physical death not to natural processes but to human sinfulness?

Creation, sin, death and evolution

If somebody knows how to access it, there was a discussion along these lines between erlenmeyer and eric boehmer some time back (about two years ago).

Re: open possibilities


I agree with Peter that you’ve done an excellent job (again) of summarizing the issues. Agreement too that the text can easily bear more than one interpretation. Earlier is this thread, someone mentioned the near impossibility of getting back to the roots of Genesis: what did it exactly mean back then?

About possible strands for moving forward: I’m interested in looking at structural/linguistic/contextual arguments for various views of Genesis 1. If we outline how various interpretations reading the various parts of the text, we also have a means for evaluating the interpretation in the context of Genesis 1-3 and beyond. This stays basically at the level of “what does the text mean” within the context of the scriptures, and the worldview(s) operating there.

On the other hand, looking at the (dis)unity of the first three chapters, certainly with a view to how the scientific community views human origins and failings, could be quite interesting. This moves to the level of “what does the text mean” to us informed by the findings of contemporary science.

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth":

This comment has been moved here.

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

I have tried to do my own synthesis of Genesis and Science and the result has been interesting but there are some rather large methodological problems with this enterprise and it always remains a ‘just so’ sort of speculation.

The story that science propagates itself is filled with many gaps. These gaps are places where many have tried to ‘squeeze God in’ and we know where that leads, but the gaps in the science story are nevertheless glaring and very much underexplored territory at least popularly.

One example is our atmosphere, it happens to be very rich in Oxygen. This is a fatal problem for the production of life, or at least for any of science’s current hypotheses on how life could have formed. An essential requirement right now, is a reducing environment (i.e. O2 is out). What’s fascinating here is that science does its own little bit of handwaving as the earth was supposedly originally reducing (no O2) but along came life and plant life in particular and that was so successful at photosynthesis that this resulted in O2 production and lo and behold the atmosphere became oxidising! Well…

Looking at Venus and Mars (on either side of us in our trips round the sun) we find that they have oxidising atmospheres. if one looks at volcano output, no surprises - oxidising, but then that original (reducing) atmosphere, last I heard, was supposed to have come from degassing from earth’s interior - i.e. volcanoes.

Now that is just one example and one which strongly supports a theory of Godly intervention, for so far science cannot imagine life evolving in the presence of abundant oxygen.

Live to serve : Serve to live

monkey business

Peter and Sam, you seem to be entering into a critique of evolutionary science. If you don’t mind I think I’ll sit that one out. Even though tens of thousands of scientists work in this field, collectively they’ve been at it for only 150 years or so. If there wasn’t more work to be done, all these people would be looking for another job by now.I think it’s safe to say that some Christians accept evolution as compatible with the Creation narratives. When I wondered how it’s possible to reconcile natural selection and survival of the fittest with Paul’s doctrine that “death entered the world through sin,” Peter alluded to a prior OST post that addressed this conundrum. Assuaged, I was prepared to retire from the field and to bed. At 3h30 I began to wonder just what answer lies tucked away in the archives. Equipped with a double cappuccino and Peter’s clues I tracked down the post in question, dated 11/04, provocatively entitled “Did We Come from Monkeys.”It’s somewhat difficult to reconstruct the timeline, but it seems that Eric Boehmer began the discussion:

Theistic evolutionists, including many Bible-adhering Christians, see no theological problem with the concept that the Creator may have used ‘natural’ processes in his creative feats, including natural selection, genetic drift, etc.

Ga-ge demurred:

I will raise an objection concerning the much-vaunted ease with which some believers synthesize the notion of an inherently Biblical God and Father with the necessary millions and millions of years required for Evolutionary origins to have its impact and, indeed, any credence. Our doctrine establishes the phenomenon of Death as a result of God’s judgement upon the Sin of male & female described at Romans 5: 12 (also at 1 Cor 15: 21 - 22). Eternal Life is restored by Christ – presumably (!) the Promise forsaken by us and denied to us at the Fall itself (Genesis 3: 22). For Evolutionism to have any sustenance or credence, it must perforce advocate millions and millions of years’ worth of death prior to the emergence of the Image of God from a pre-biotic gloop… this phenomenon of ‘death’ is considered an enemy of Creation and as such will be dealt with accordingly.

From that point forward the discussion shifted to a sometimes-caustic debate about evolution. Eventually del dominus returned to exegetical concerns:

What do you think of this theory: In the garden, God told Adam that the consequences of sin would result in death – “for when you eat of it, you will surely die.” Is it not probable that Adam had an understanding of what “death” meant? Therefore, God may have designed some form of animal death in the garden as an example for man to grasp the concept of dissolution or the end of life.

Here the redoubtable Peter Wilkinson makes his presence known. He offers (surprisingly enough) a True Myth interpretation of Genesis 1-3, pointing to Romans 1 as evidentiary support for God as creator. Then Deacon proposed this alternative:

With sin man was cut off from God and died spiritually. Physical death then became the final seal on a life estranged from God. Before that death was simply the end of one animal’s life and the start of another’s lunch… I think the death Adam & Eve experienced was pretty much what Paul talked about in Rom 7:9 – I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. Paul lived a full life after this first experience of law and sin and was able to tell us about the experience, so I don’t think it was physical death he was talking about. The main thing to happen to Adam & Eve the day they rebelled was their guilt and loss of relationship with God and denial of access to the tree of life. Adam was told ’dust you are and to dust you shall return’ but all that says that his mortality was the result of the way he was created rather than a change brought in through the fall. God was reminding Adam of his mortality. Only now Adam no longer has access to immortality when his body wore out.

The debate about evolution resumed. Finally erlenmeyer brought the conversation back around to exegetical concerns, expressing incredulity that there would have been no death prior to the Fall. After all, wouldn’t the earth have been swarming with flies and other prolific vermin by the time Eve plucked the forbidden fruit? What about predators whose teeth seem “designed” for eating meat? Besides, Adam didn’t die until he was 950 years old: how can his long life be reconciled with God’s warning that he would die as soon as he ate of the forbidden fruit? Presumably, then, Genesis 3 refers not to physical but to spiritual death. Likewise, Paul in Romans must mean spiritual death. Summarized erlenmeyer:

The concept of death in the creation narratives makes all the difference in harmonizing the natural sciences with the supernatural sciences. For if the answer is that only humanity would not suffer death, then our creation-evolution conundrum can be harmonized by assuming that at some point in evolutionary development God “breathed into” a hominid the breath of life, and he became a human. Perhaps we can call this the ensouling process. And that was Adam, and Adam became a rational and moral being, and God placed this moral hominid in charge of his creation.

For 7 months erlenmeyer’s was the last word, until at last ga-ge replied:

Logically and scientifically, this requires an exclusively spiritual atoning death and spiritual resurrection to restore our Humanity to a full (spiritually-alive) humanity in-Christ - i understand some people may already be trying to argue this and have backed themselves into a corner where ‘Christ’ didn’t really, physically, BODILY die nor therefore have any need to resurrect as such and xianity is just buying into earlier ‘re-cycle’ myths (prevalent in eastern cultures especially) to do with purification and the cycle of re-incarnation etc ad infinitum(!!)

Thus ends the descended-from-monkeys conversation. I come away with the impression of an uneasy truce. On the one side stand those Christians who accept evolutionary theory, contending that the “death” resulting from the Fall is spiritual rather than physical. On the other side are those who believe that natural selection, a core premise of scientific evolution, violates New Testament doctrines linking sin, death and resurrection in Christ. Is that a fair summary?



Physical death prior to the fall, to allow for evolution?

Maybe. But physical death associated with sin (as its consequence) is something Jesus was said to have overcome through his resurrection. (The resurrection was not just spiritual but physical defeat of death).

Could there have been a non-judicial first death , with only the second death (Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8 etc.) being judicial? Or does the appearance of the second death make the first death judicial also?

Can a non-judicial death be unravelled from a judicial death - which came in after the fall?

This is all too complex for me. It’s getting very speculative. I retreat into my semi-literal interpretation of Genesis 1. I still don’t have any particular anxieties about the conflict between this and macro-evolutionary theory. But then that’s not my problem. I just enjoy taking random potshots from the sidelines.

Re: Golly!

I’m all for getting into the text and regret any diversionary moves! My point was that science is not ‘finished’ with its theoretical problems and these will indeed continue to provide fodder for thousands of scientists for some generations to come. Then there’s always the very real possibility of another paradigm coming in to shake everything up again and which will necessitate further mental gymnastics to fit our good olde Genesis account in with whatever the latest scientific fad may be.

Of course, the corollary is that we are not any closer to being ‘finished’ with our exegetical and theological endeavors either. So one unfinished process interacts with another unfinished process in a most unsatisfactory manner! How deliciously PoMo can things get…

I have always thought it quite possible that the original creation was nothing like what we are now so avidly dissecting in our laboratories, certainly there seems to be little scope of scientifically explorable parallels in a world without entropy (read disorder) so if thermodynamics was different, so fundamentally was everything else in the creation.

Back to the text!

Live to serve : Serve to live

almost talmudic

I see that Russ managed to post a comment at the bottom of page 1, thereby disrupting the orderly progression of argument and counterargument. Perhaps someday someone will note the anomalous timestamp and wonder: was Russ ahead of his time, or behind?

Reading and summarizing the archival materials of OST, retrieving the ancient teachers’ meditations on holy texts and bringing them forward to the present — it gave me a distinctly Talmudic sensation. I begin to detect the outlines of Sir Toby’s, the rough-hewn stone walls lined with shelves holding the frayed and dusty ledgers, the stooped archivists perpetually transcribing and cataloguing and cross-referencing according to arcane ordering principles passed down through the generations…

In any event, maybe it’s time for someone to start a new post or two. As Andrew observed, this one is getting unwieldy. Two possibilities are on the table, perhaps more: arguments for various alternative views of Genesis 1 in a larger Biblical context; discussion of whether “death” in Genesis 3 is physical or spiritual.

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

I haven’t read the entire thread, but I have skimmed and I did a few searches and I haven’t seen anyone talking about this as of yet. Regarding even the concept of the Gensis account as myth, I think John 1:1 is significant., in that we see Christ in the beginning as logos and not as mythos [muthos].

I realize that this thread is about the “true myth” concept itself, but thought I would throw this log onto the fire as well.

Thanks,Charles Churchill

Was it the sheep climbing onto the altar, or the cattle lowing to be slain, or the Son of God hanging dead and bloodied on a cross that told me this was a world condemned, but loved and bought with blood.


If the creation of the whole universe were to be squeezed (say by time lapse) into just a few minutes of video and the ages to the present were roughly divided into six scenes separated by fades to black, what would it look like? If there were a narration to accompany the clip, would that resemble what we now have as Genesis? The whole of creation in around 800 words…

Scene one : Nothing followed by a rushing, roiling, stormy confusion.

Scene two : Galaxies and individual stars coalesce and eventually start to produce light.

Scene three : Planetary discs form and individual planets emerge.

Scene four : Life is produced of myriad forms that quickly start to resemble species that we recognise - fish, birds, land animals.

Scene five : Mankind appears and begins to conquer the world.

Scene six : Mankind totally dominates the planet and starts to both self destruct and to destroy earth.

Live to serve : Serve to live

One mankind or two?

The setting of the fall and the beginning of human history is placed within a highly summarised view of beginnings. The principle Actor is God Himself initiating creation and culminating that creation with the Garden of Eden.

In the accounts of mankind’s creation, one primary question that arises is : Were there two creations of man? i.e. The creation of mankind in Gen 1: 26-31 could be a separate event from that in Gen 2: 7-8 & 20-25, making the second account a second story, or is the second account a more detailed look at what was stated very briefly in the first setting?

I tend to prefer the first hypothesis, humankind was created and then two people are separately made and placed in a garden within the the earth, the second account then is the conversion of a barren tract of land somewhere on earth into a garden of plenty that sits within the silently larger context … but my textual support for this is slim. What’s most convincing is the contrasting sequences - while Gen 1 has plants, fish, birds and animals appearing before mankind, in Gen 2 man (specifically one individual human) is created first, then the trees (v9), beasts and birds (v19), and finally, in a grand culmination, the female human and simultaneously the male human!

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: One mankind or two?

Sam, I remember your tale from Sir Toby’s in which you suggested that the “sons of the gods,” who caused such strife by interbreeding with the “daughters of men,” might have been a different branch of humanity: maybe Genesis 1 man versus Genesis 2 man. Elohim was the creator in Genesis 1; Yahweh in Genesis 2-3. The sons of elohim were the cause of the trouble in Genesis 6; Yahweh sent the flood. Perhaps there’s some competition between creations — and even between creators?

Whither Job?

Certainly the tone as well as the structure of the two accounts is markedly different. Perhaps this signifies two very ancient historical sources maybe coming from two different Hebrew roots? Both are acurately reported and specifically not forced into harmony. We can respect that and allow the facts to encourage us to dig a bit ‘below the surface’ as it were, without feeling a necessity to do a more modern bit of harmonization.

I’m trying very hard to not think of anything archaeological or paleontological but it’s the case of pink elephants popping up all over the place… and then there’s Job, so there may even be 3 ancient histories to consider.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom


Order of Creation:
Fifth—Mankind; male and female.

In this story male and female man are created simultaneously, both alike, in the image of the gods, after animals have been called into existence

Here, joint dominion over the earth is given to woman and man, without limit or prohibition.

Everything, without exception, is pronounced "very good."

Man and woman are told that "every plant bearing seed upon the face of the earth and every tree… "To you it shall be for meat." They are thus given perfect freedom

Man and woman are given special dominion over all the animals-" every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth."


Order of Creation:
Third—Male Man, only.

In this story male man is sculptured out of clay, before any animals are created, and before female man has been constructed.

Here, woman is punished with subjection to man for breaking a prohibitory law.

There is a tree of evil, whose fruit, is said by Yahweh to cause sudden death, but which does not do so, as Adam lived 930 years after eating it.

Man is told there is one tree of which he must not eat, "for in the day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die."

An animal, a "creeping thing," is given dominion over man and woman, and proves himself to be truthful . (Compare Genesis chapter 2, verse 17, with chapter 3, verses 4 and 22.)

It will be of interest to note during the breakup of the northern tribes and Judah.The northern tribes followed the Elohim (The Suns or Sons)and Judah the WORD.Also that the Bible was written backwards as a his-story and not forwards as we go.The books we have now are not 7000 years old.

recreating myth

Sitting round the campfire after relishing the roasted meat of the day’s hunt, and the Old Man approaches as dessert (choice nuts and some gathered fruit artfully arranged in the communal pot) is passed round… Smoke swirls as I chew thoughtfully and await the song-story that he always begins with. The drums begin to beat : IN THE BEGINNING! I am quite certain that I can’t actually get into the minds of the original authors or even receive the narrative in a way similar to the original audiences. Some things of great importance are critically missing! Wonder, anticipation, the figures and STORY that will play through my mind stimulated by the recitation, perhaps a little different each day, evolving and drawing my world together, telling me who and what I am, was, and will be, empowering me to live in this community meaningfully, and providing the framework for my identity as an integral part of those who live the visions with me each day that we share/renew together each night. Myth, to be effective, needs deep roots in my mental makeup. My thinking should be based on the foundational stories in an essential but subliminal way. But, it’s not so. Instead, I find the ‘wrong’ myths occupying that ‘root and soil’ area - mostly junk science and ‘history’ from my school days along with a fair mix of unrelated stories that have no lasting value or integrative capacity! Was the story alive after stone carved it into clay? Or, did it bypass this both in Mesopotamia and then in Egypt by being told and retold around the herdspeople’s campfires all the way to the hill country when David-jonathan, and then a millennia later, Jesus, John, and Saul were young? Perhaps I can start with thinking back just this 2 millennia in trying to get an NT perspective. At least there are hints in the NT as to how the Genesis accounts were viewed which may prove helpful. Of course the fact that I am much at sea with getting the NT context right doesn’t help much but, ever the optimist… As John Doyle pointed out, one major source is Paul. Romans 1 - God created the world and reveals Himself in His creation while mankind as a whole “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images”. Romans 5 - Sin entered through one man and (with the loss of righteousness) death reigns . In spite of the law, righteousness was not restored. By one man’s righteousness and sacrifice now righteousness and therefore life, is available as a free gift of God’s grace.

Romans 6 has dying and rising through baptism and the concept that our binding now assures our resurrection with Christ.

Romans 8 (I find the Romans 7 hypothesis a stretch) the body is dead but the spirit is alive. The creation groans awaiting the ‘revealing of the sons of God’. The creation was ‘subjected to futility’ and ‘the bondage of corruption’ deliberately by God ‘in hope’! Eschatologically our adoption as sons is also awaited eagerly not only by us but by creation itself and the (eventual?) fulfilment will be glorious all around.

Paul is freely using contemporary concepts in remarkably new ways but the important point for me is that his interpretation of the ‘new Adam’ rests solidly on standard understandings of how sin enterred and corrupted the good creation through the original Adam. Instead of the Jewish understanding of the salvific value of the law/covenants, Paul has Jesus and the new covenant in His blood.

One implication of Paul’s reading of Genesis is that functionally and spiritually the creation has undergone a massive change and is bound within that reduced and achingly imperfect form until the eschaton.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: recreating myth

Sam -

You say: I am quite certain that I can’t actually get into the minds of the original authors or even receive the narrative in a way similar to the original audiences. Some things of great importance are critically missing… Myth, to be effective, needs deep roots in my mental makeup. My thinking should be based on the foundational stories in an essential but subliminal way. But, it’s not so. Instead, I find the ‘wrong’ myths occupying that ‘root and soil’ area - mostly junk science and ‘history’ from my school days along with a fair mix of unrelated stories that have no lasting value or integrative capacity… Perhaps I can start with thinking back just this 2 millennia in trying to get an NT perspective.

It’s far from clear that the NT writers were seeing the OT texts the way either the writers or the original readers did. So, for example, Paul’s interpretation of the Fall in Romans 5 leads to a doctrine of innate human corruption that’s central to the Christian doctrine of sin and salvation. This interpretation of original sin was probably startling to the many first-century Jews who believed that they could achieve righteousness under the Law. In the story of Cain and Abel, immediately following the Fall, God says to Cain: If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, and you must master it (Gen. 4:7). Isn’t it conceivable that the original hearers of this story would have believed that it was possible to do well, to master sin? Even in the NT we read in Luke’s gospel about Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist: And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinanaces of the Lord blameless (Luke 1:5). In Dt. 30:11-14 God says this: For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you… But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, that you can do it. In Romans 10:5-8 Paul reinterprets this passage, saying that “the word which is very near to you” isn’t the Law but rather the confession of faith in Christ as savior risen from the dead.

The historic Christian faith accepts Paul’s reinterpretations of the Fall and the Law as being the right ones. Still, it seems clear that Paul infused the OT texts with novel interpretations not held by his Jewish contemporaries, let alone his ancestors. I suppose the question is whether 21st-century Christian readers should try to recapture the original contexts in which the OT texts were read and written, or instead to see these texts the way the NT writers saw them. Or is it legitimate for emerging Christians to reinterpret the ancient texts through (post)modern lenses, possibly resulting in interpretations that vary from the interpretive communities both of the ancient Hebrews and of the 1st-century Christians?

the same old story?

John, I agree that my assumptions are hermeneutically suspect especially as far as the stability of the understanding of the Genesis story over such a vast time and across so many changes in culture/language/location over that time. I would suspect that major changes in interpretation-understanding would at the very least have been evident under Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Palestinian, United Kingdom, Divided Kingdom, Exile, 2nd Temple, Greek influence and finally Roman occupation! The only element of constancy over this vast period of time would have been that the Genesis accounts are always taken as the foundational mythic constant within which the covenants and law are integrated to give us the longstanding characteristics of Judaism.

With Paul, he is indeed breaking a lot of new ground, yet the major component is that Jesus has replaced, or better superceded, the earlier reliance on law-covenant. Apart from this ‘apical change’, the mythic foundation remains intact and with the old Adam - new Adam perspective, in many ways these foundations are reinforced! Paul is in fact following Jesus own approach in that He was quite willing to let the creation stand over the law as primary and therefore authoritative!

Live to serve : Serve to live

back to 2nd base

God’s ecosystem.

Genesis, the story of beginnings. Poetic and mythic in proportion but carrying that unmistakable ‘ring of truth’ that draws us back to this story over and over again. Genesis 1 is the story of the making of the world as a complete ecosystem including the creation of mankind. God in Genesis 2 then sets up a garden, a very special garden, containing representatives of all the species that He has made so far but especially plants that are beautiful and produce fruits and seeds that are edible, and God gives the garden into the charge of Humankind’s first representative both to work it and to keep it safe.

Perhaps the sequence of events in the formation of Eden can yield some interesting possibilities. We see God first making or forming Adam (seemingly here in unisex mode) and then, having Adam nearby, God plants the garden. Adam is therefore ‘taught’ the art of horticulture. Then God brings in the animals that Adam is to name, perhaps also including here some lessons in husbandry? Finally God ‘divides’ Adam into male and female, thus completing His forming process, lays down a condition, and then becomes an absentee landlord!

The four rivers are very interesting because they do seem to help to somewhat fix the era and place of this part of the story. Most interesting is the last of the four, for while the first three lands are described as being elsewhere, the last is just named, from which we may assume that it is already very familiar. The third river’s land is also somewhat familiar, perhaps neighboring. So Eden itself is somewhere near the source of the Euphrates (Perath) and the narrator(s) are somewhere near the Euphrates itself and not too far from the Tigris. This is assuming that we can identify these rivers with any precision. Further geographical speculations could be made about the second named river, the Gihon which ‘encompasses’ Ethiopia. It’s just possible that if the roots of this tale really are very ancient, the Red Sea would have formed a narrower rift, perhaps with a river in its base, and seeming to surround Ethiopia. Or, we may even be dealing with even more ancient traditions that hark back to a time when the rivers were different on the earth…in which case placing the tale anywhere near the Levant is itself risky!

What follows in Genesis 3 is the story of How Mankind broke that first commandment and died. The advent of death and whether there was death beforehand or not is of course a matter of great contention as indeed is the very nature of the ‘muwth’ itself.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: back to 2nd base

Sam -

Nice work in moving the creation story along.

Carrying the unmistakable ring of truth,” you say of the creation narrative. I suspect this ring can be heard clearly only by those who receive spiritual testimony that this text is indeed a revelation of God. Says John Baillie,

the revelation of which the Bible speaks is always such as has place within a personal relationship. It is not the revelation of an object to a subject, but a revelation from subject to subject, a revelation of mind to mind. That is the first thing that differentiates the theological meaning of revelation, the revelation that is made from faith, from the sense in which all valid knowledge has been said to be revelation… Yet in the last resort it is not information about God that is revealed, but very God himself.

In this theory of revelation the text itself doesn’t testify to its own truthfulness, but rather the Spirit of God speaks through the text, testifying to its truth about Himself. Read by one who is not of the faith, the Genesis stories become textual objects like any other, subject to the same criteria for validating their truth. The truth of Genesis 1-3 probably doesn’t ring clearly for most readers whose truth validation criteria are empirical and scientific. Efforts to clarify the nature of the revealed truth of a Biblical text are initiated primarily by those who already accept its truth.

You comment on the four rivers that delineate Eden geographically. The writer seems to be emphasizing Eden’s real existence in the same physical world that the reader occupies. It is sometimes claimed that the depiction of Yahweh here is anthropomorphic, that he wouldn’t literally stroll around in a garden. Why not? Isn’t it just as possible that those who conceive of God as wholly spiritual have “Platonized” a Hebrew God who is a physical being right from the beginning? Even Genesis 1 doesn’t show God appearing on earth from some other spiritual abode; he is always already on the earth that he creates around himself.

I look forward to your clarification of the Fall and death — if you dare!

Re: back to 2nd base

Certainly John, those who have a belief in the truth of the text will see this truth as somewhat self-evident! I was not really thinking along those lines when I wrote that there is a ‘ring of truth’ to the story of Genesis, rather that the elements of this story are very easy for a reader to understand and be empathetic to as somehow bringing out for the reader who and what we in fact are and why we are the way that we are, elements that I think were of central importance to the authors as to so many generations of those who have heard and passed it on.

Empirical and scientific are categories that one would find hard to reconcile with any mythical story. It is also worth asking whether a scientific approach inherently is in any way a superior approach to truth than say a wisdom centred approach would be.  While the myth does not ’ testify to its own truthfulness’ it does indeed assume it, don’t you think?

Before coming to that very interesting question of death, I am struck by a particular feature of the command that God lays down. Again taking the context as God having appointed Adam as the ‘caretaker and horticulturist’ of His garden, I wonder whether God is not doing what many an owner does - tell His gardener that, “it’s all yours to do with as you have been instructed. But there’s this bit that I want for myself. The fruit of this tree is mine, you are not to do anything with or to it, I’ll take care of this bit myself”.

I find that in India, when we have absentee landlords (very common), and the land has been essentially handed over to the tillers, it is normal for the tiller to enjoy, by prior agreement, X proportion of the fruits of his labour but some types of crop or produce are exclusively reserved for the owner. He will periodically send someonge over at the appropriate times of the year to take away what has been reserved for him.

Could such an arrangement have been at the heart of the prohibition as far as the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is concerned? 

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: back to 2nd base

Sam -

Your use of “myth” and “truth” in contiguous sentences assures continuity with the thread, if not clarity of concept. Moby Dick is true perhaps in the way you’re using truth here, along with Madame Bovary and The Brothers Karamazov and Lord Jim and Lolita and and any other memorable story in which wisdom can be discerned. I’m okay with that. Not that I’m saying Genesis 1-3 is fiction; I’m saying that its truth value might be of the sort shared by great works of literature, including fictional (i.e., non-historical) ones.

Your “absentee landlord” interpretation sounds right, and would probably have been understandable 3000 years ago. Anticipating subsequent developments in the story a little bit, it’s interesting that John Locke in his Second Treatise built an explicit rationale for property rights on the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. The first couple left a territory owned by Lord Yahweh and entered into an unclaimed territory. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, Yahweh tells Adam. From this “curse” Locke argues for sweat equity as the basis of land ownership. Whoever by his sweat improves the land thereby lays claim to it, he and his descendants down through the ages, even unto the Earl of Shaftesbury under whose benign patronage John Locke earned his pay.


God's own country

It was a thought that tickled me too. The assertion of Genesis seems to be that Adam was never an owner whether in or out of Eden. The perpetual steward perhaps, but one thing that definitely changes is that instead of not having to worry about where the next meal will come from, Adam has been cast out into an ecosystem where he will have to compete for food even with thorny scrubs!

I see this understanding of ‘ownership vs. stewardship’ as issues that were alive and implicit still at the time of Jesus, with Jesus consistently pointing back to the original situation in Genesis as the ideal. But that’s being diachronic again.

For ancient agrarian civilisations, the king’s garden is a familiar theme, a place where no one else is allowed except for the favoured caretaker. The king will take his leisure there as and when he pleases. This in no way diminishes the fact that he anyway owns everything else in the kingdom too. 

Live to serve : Serve to live

The promise of death

If we have been somewhat successful in placing Genesis 2 somewhere in the ANE, possibly in ‘the land between the rivers’, God’s claim over the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ is the owner’s claim and the penalty is primarily a breaking of a covenant agreement for which the penalty becomes “on pain of death”.

But this reading is much disputed. Some point out that death did not immediately result and this has been taken as perhaps ‘it was an empty threat’ and so the serpent was right all along. Some question whether death itself was known beforehand, making the penalty for disobedience somewhat lacking in bite.

Our text however, assumes that God’s words were understood, so death must already have been a known reality. Still, physical death did not immediately ensue instead what did happen is that man is cast out of Eden and given a much harder furrow to plough.

I wonder whether the story in fact could contain a much more sophisticated analysis of the meaning of ‘life’ and subsequently of death too? For, man was created for the purpose of taking care of God’s garden in a balanced, productive and purposeful environment. To be then forced to adapt to a different and much tougher environs where one has to spend most of one’s time and effort in just staying alive, with little left over for creativity or even fitting-in meaningfully as an important part of the overall order of the system is certainly a type of living death. Certainly this is part of the understanding of life after the fall that is analysed so beautifully in Ecclesiastes, Job and a number of the Psalms.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: The promise of death

God’s claim over the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ is the owner’s claim and the penalty is primarily a breaking of a covenant agreement for which the penalty becomes “on pain of death”. Couldn’t it be a warning rather than a threat? Perhaps death was a natural consequence of eating the fruit of this particular tree — like poison.

Our text however, assumes that God’s words were understood, so death must already have been a known reality. Probably so; that seems like a natural interpretation of what’s said.

To be then forced to adapt to a different and much tougher environs where one has to spend most of one’s time and effort in just staying alive, with little left over for creativity or even fitting-in meaningfully as an important part of the overall order of the system is certainly a type of living death. Would the man have known about this sort of “sophisticated” death? Perhaps. In the story Yahweh creates the man in Gen. 2:7, then he creates the garden in verse 8. At the end of the story, in Gen. 3:23, the writer says that Yahweh elohim sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. That implies that Yahweh originally brought the man into the garden from outside, doesn’t it? Maybe the man spent some time struggling in the dusty wilderness living the hard life before he got invited into Yahweh’s garden.

Assuming society

John, one of the basic problems with the Genesis story is that in the story itself, society has not previously existed. I keep trying to place the story within something that I imagine ‘must have been’ its original cultural millieu. This is a very interesting and itself a very sophisticated creation, if the authors did create this story!

As a reader, I find it very difficult to imagine myself in Adam’s place! A society of three or perhaps four (if one counts the serpent) and without antecedents - no history, no education and no enculturation.

Now, that brings up another interesting thought, were there very intelligent creatures other than God and man in God’s original creation? The role of the serpent is too often assumed to be anything other than that of a real conversation taking place between two intelligent beings. Eve certainly has no difficulty in communicating with, understanding and even in believing what the serpent has to say to her.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Assuming society

Sam — I hear you so far. If Yahweh can walk in the garden, why can’t the serpent? You’ve opened the possibility of a tough and lethal ecosystem operating outside the garden, a wilderness from which Adam was taken and to which he is doomed to return. I begin to wonder who’s out there hiding in the thorn bushes…

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

Genesis 1 seems to be a straightforward narrative about a historic event. The story is of a piece with the rest of the Bible as it has come down to us (discrepancies with the second Creation narrative of Gen. 2-3 notwithstanding). The reason we’ve explored alternative interpretations is that the story doesn’t fit inside the “book of nature” as written by modern empirical science. There are three basic strategies for resolving the discrepancies: either natural science is wrong, or the text is wrong, or the traditional ways of reading the narrative are wrong. In this post we’ve been exploring the third way.

I agree with the basic thrust of this paragraph; there is a third way to read the texts. But I agree with danutz and something close to option three.

The problem I have is, contrary to what I was taught growing up in conservative Evangelical circles, this is not a straightforward narrative about an historic(al?) event. It is historic in the sense that God did indeed create the world. But there really isn’t a single rational “how” God did so in the entire text. In fact, according to classwork I’ve done on the Pentateuch, “the text is begging us not to read it this way,” (as literal history). There are complex and beautiful number games going on involving sets of three, seven, etc. Most mainstream scholars theorize that it was in fact a reworking of the Enuma Elish to emphasize, correctly say the Jews and Christians, the utter supremacy of Yhwh over all powers that controlled the waters, the sun, the moon, etc. Fertility does not come from the earth itself, but is a gift to the earth from God. And human beings, rather than being created from Tiamat’s entrails as slaves to the gods, are in their gender and biology the image of God, co creators and stewards of a good (rather than dualistic and chaotic) creation.

The “problems” between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, especially regarding the literal sequence of the creation, should alert us to the error—if I can use so strong a word—of attempting to derive a literal interpretation. I am one who believes that Genesis 1-11, in particular, are extensive re-workings of stories already circulating in the ANE. My own position makes me somewhat uncomfortable, because many of my brothers and sisters who are to my theological left don’t start talking about history in the Biblical narratives until you get to the reign of David and Solomon. I believe passionately that there is a huge historical core at the heart of the canon, but the “happenedness” of Genesis 1-3, at least, is not needed to derive truths that still hold as historically true because we experience them day to day (for example, alienation between people and God, what we call the Fall).

I read a scholar yesterday who said that if Genesis isn’t literally true, people have no reason to become Christians. And I hope it’s clear by now that I absolutely believe that to be false.

My two cents; thanks for reading!

In peace,


was it or was it not?


certainly a reworking of other ANE myths is a part of the rich possibilities that our Genesis story may involve. What we do know of the times and cultural roots of our stories is really very little. Job would perhaps contain more definite links to enuma/tiamat. Genesis 1 and 2 both use elohim for God (though in slightly different ways) perhaps indicating some Canaanite linkage. Apart from this though, other common themes such as validating the political-priestly leadership and laying down enculturating principles are very remarkably missing from our stories. They have a different mythic role to play and I guess we have been working first with the text as it stands to try to find the clues that may be there. The list of factors that set Genesis apart is often more of a negative list; not this, not that either… and in effect such a comparitive reading can be very enlightening!

Most of what I have seen of the numerological and metaphorical analyses are highly speculative and also remarkably variable depending on whom one is reading and the particular bit of esoteric knowledge that they claim to have in hand. So, I tend to take such studies in ‘arcane’ meanings with a pinch of salt!

Anyhow, thanks for your two cents and I can only hope you have a pocketful of change to share with us!

Live to serve : Serve to live

was Adam created immortal?

I subscribe to an online Biblical Hebrew discussion group. Someone there has been trying to get clarification about the consequences of eating of the forbidden tree. In the KJV translation of Genesis 2:17 God tells Adam, for the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. A direct translation goes something more like dying you shall die. One discussant says: It means that from that day on you will be subject to death, as Adam was at first created to be immortal. Someone asked her how she knows that man was immortal. Her reply:

Because that is what the ORAL TORAH that G-d taught to Moshe, says, and much more. Adam's soul contained all the souls of all people. Not only that, but after this event, he fasted and repented for three days, his repentence was accepted, and he was taught by the angel, Raziel (raz = secret). ie; his spiritual stature was awesome. But the literal text will not tell you that, nor was it meant to teach that.

There is an Oral Torah that was given to Moshe to give over at the Revelation, but which was also known to the righteous of previous generations (ie; Adam, Noah, Shem….), handed down generation after generation to a select few, that contains a great deal of information that the written Torah does not contain, but alludes to, and if you think you can learn it by means of Hebrew linguistics, then you are mistaken.

The Talmud isn't just a commentary on Torah written by diasporate rabbis after the destruction of the second temple. The Talmud commits part of the oral tradition to writing, a tradition that purportedly precedes the written Torah. Most of it remains oral, still passed down through the rabbinic tradition. So let's say your a 21st century Christian exegete trying to interpret the Genesis creation stories. You try to ascertain authorial intent, as well as the cultural context within which the original readers understood the texts. Is it relevant, or perhaps even authoritative, to consult the Talmud — or, even better, a living orthodox Rabbi who is a carrier of the ancient tradition, of the Oral Torah?

Re: was Adam created immortal?

Quote: Is it relevant, or perhaps even authoritative, to consult the Talmud — or, even better, a living orthodox Rabbi who is a carrier of the ancient tradition, of the Oral Torah?

Response: With respect, it may be relevant, but it cannot be authoritative in the same way as the text itself. I always feel a little suspicious when there is any kind of tradition that cannot be accessed by the "average person" - it smacks more than a little of Gnostic heresy. The relevance happens, though, because texts are interpreted in community. Communal understanding, in my opinion, is different then exegeting the text. The oral tradition (be it Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and even Fundamentalist) can be wrong and must be adjusted by the text itself. How would one go about proving that oral Torah predates the written? Or better, how would one go about proving that the content of the oral Torah is different then the written? I suppose it might come down to faith, and I don't have faith in Tradition as a reliable interpreter of the sacred text.

In peace,


Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

"Genesis 1:1 is so overlaid with interpretations that the text itself almost disappears."

This comment was recently made by the original author of this post and it is startlingly true! Nonetheless, I’d love to see this discussion continue not just because there have been some new ideas proposed but also because the text itself has been allowed to speak.

After quite a bit of brewing, one thing that is clear is that there are big differences between the accounts of Gen 1:1 - 2:3 and what follows from Gen 2:4. My reason for dividing what seems to be a continuous narrative at this juncture is that this is about where ‘Elohim’ is replaced with ‘Yhovah Elohim’.

As has been remarked before, the settings and the very style also differ. Now, I’m of the opinion that the fashioner(s) of Genesis knew and appreciated the contrasts and still, quite deliberately wove the two accounts into one less-than-harmonious whole.

Perhaps there was an oral component that originally accompanied the written parts that explained how everything fit together and why, but we certainly don’t have such a context to refer to.

To some extent, the problems are minimised if the second narrative is not considered as an alternative to the first. Is it possible that the second narrative can be understood to refer to the creation of the garden, rather than of the whole earth? For such a reading to flow, Gen 2:4-5 could be considered a bridge that summarises what has gone before and makes us think ahead to a (portion of the?) land - ‘erets - that can not yet support vegetation for it has no means of regularly receiving water!

An additional possibility is that the 2nd account is meant to be read as an interpolation into the first account which functions to explain what happened after God created man, but I find this less than convincing.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

A different type of theism is present in the Genesis accounts to whatever is known of the cultures and religions of the rest of the ANE. The account starting at Gen 2:4 is no less negatively fascinating as there is only ‘Yhovah Elohim’.

Wikipedia tells me that there are 109 entries for ‘weather gods’ and the second account begins with God’s modification of ‘the land’s’ weather by causing a heavy dew (or something like it but not apparently rain!). I am more inclined to see this land as being a portion of undeveloped land located within the world that has already been created and populated.

But, in any case, as has been noted before in this string, the other deities are prominent in their absence. The absence of deities is not just a curiosity but also points to this people (the owners of this true myth) having a significantly different economy and political structure, for in all other ANE cultures that have been studied, the gods, their temples and the economies that they helped the rulers to regulate and tax were a very significant part of the structure of the particular society. So, if it’s missing then what replaces it? More particularly too the purpose of the story is not to promote one god over against all others. There are no others!

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

A couple of things, Sam. First, in view of the original subject of this post I’m wondering in what way you regard Genesis 2:4ff as a "true myth." True historically, true in a way that some future version of natural science may be able to validate, true in the sense of meaning that goes beyond the details of the story, true within the larger Judeo-Christian saga in which the Christian community lives a reality parallel to that lived by non-Christians?

Second, and more specifically to the exegesis, you say that there is only Yhovah Elohim in this story, that there are no other deities in this story. What about the end of the story: Then Yhovah Elohim said, "Behold the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil." Doesn’t this particular bit of text at least leave open the possibility that Yhovah is one among many elohim? That would be provide a point of continuity with Genesis 1, where Elohim says "Let Us create man in Our image…"

Are you proposing that this story tells the origins of one particular group of people, whom this God regards as the first ones as far as he is concerned? So perhaps it’s a story about setting a particular subset of people apart for God?

Polytheism or collaboration?

The easy way to deal with these fascinating plurals/singulars and mixtures of both is to say that they are a leftover from some ‘other’ oral tradition or a product of some fairly indiscriminate mixing of stories that originally were quite separate. As far as I know, there is no solid evidence for this, and in fact when backed up on the question of textual (source/form) evidence for any oral tradition it must be admitted that there is little enough definitely there to point to!

Indications of trinitarianism or the use of a royal we here are for those who prefer to be unbiblically diachronic!

The fact remains that in the first acount it is Elohim and in the second Yhovah Elohim and while these could have ‘originally’ been alternates in a pantheon, or alternate names for the same God, or different tales from different places, this author makes no other attempt here to distinguish them. In our text of Genesis, with its continuity of narrative, the natural reading is that we are dealing with only one God, and perhaps with one or more ‘companions’ whose nature and purpose are left unspecified.

An interesting speculation is that the plural could also be an inclusive one. Perhaps, parts of the ‘act’ of creation were collaborative, with that already created then participating on what is to come. In this case the ‘we’ is an inclusive one and implies that all of the creation is consciously involved with God in this particular massive collaboration that finally produces ‘man’.

It is also very interesting that the singular and plural pronouns with Elohim (in Gen 1) do both occur and this could either signal that sometimes one of the Elohim were acting and sometimes two or more OR that sometimes the only Elohim (one God with a plural name but with a singular masculine pronoun - ‘he’) is acting and sometimes (plural preposition - ‘we’) when the one Elohim chooses the collabortive route, though it should be said that the word form elohim is itself a plural construction…

Could there be other possibilities too?

Live to serve : Serve to live

Garden in the world

"I am more inclined to see this land as being a portion of undeveloped
land located within the world that has already been created and

Genesis 2:7-8 says that Yahweh Elohim formed man from the dust of the ground, and then He planted a garden and put the man in it. In Genesis 3:23 Yahweh Elohim sent man out from the garden, perhaps back to where he came from in the first place. For you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3:19).


Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

I am rather disappointed that not one person pointed out my nasty gaff in calling pronouns "prepositions". Luckily I was given enough time to spot that bit of stupidity and still be able to edit it out!

That aside, in Genesis 2:18f we have this fascinating passage where God again creates/forms "out of the ground" all the beasts of the wilderness and birds of the skies and brings them to Adam for examination, to see if they would be a "help meet" for this protohuman. God’s relationship to the creatures is interesting. God has formed them but God does not name them. That job is left to the protohuman Adam and it stands in contrast to the planting of the garden where God took the lead (perhaps with Adam alongside to learn?). Here Adam is to decide on the taxonomy and as God brings each creature to Adam (a fascinating exercise in itself) Adam names and fails to find his fitting helper.

Adam is anesthetised and after a bit of complicated surgery and what looks to be very advanced cloning cum genetic engineering, God produces out of Adam a meet help for Adam and she is recognised as such by Adam who ecstatically proclaims her to be "bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" and Woman. this is followed by a rather strange but lyrical statement (the author is unacknowledged) about leaving and cleaving and in a reversal of what has just happened, the two will again become one flesh!.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

In Genesis 2 we have the story of Eden, the creation of man, the creation of woman and finally the two fittingly coming together. In Genesis 3 we have the story of what then went tragically wrong.

The story of the fall again seems to flow uninterrupted from the account of the creation of mankind, but does it? There are important differences in the handling of the narrative in Gen 3, with more pronounced poetic structuring, parallelisms and with important differences introduced in the characters, especially the character of Yhovah Elohim.

God has been the creator, the doer who envisions and makes things happen. God started in Gen 2 to notice a problem without immediately proposing an answer, but nonetheless, in Gen 2, God does know the answer and provides it in his own time.

In Gen 3 we see God not proposing to know in any detail what has actually occurred. In fact God prefers to infer what has happened by asking for information and evaluation the answers that are given.

It is also implied that mankind was not the only form of life that had been created with intelligence and language. In fact the serpent is noted to be the most cunning (subtil in the KJV) of all the creatures and when God curses, or execrates the serpent, God demotes the serpent to being lower than the dumbest of beasts (bhemah) again implying that there are both dumb and linguistically capable beasts.

In Gen 2, woman is the crowning glory of God’s creative work. In Gen 3 she is the cause of all sorts of trouble.

I’m not all that sure what to make of these differences but it is a distinct possibility that in Gen 3 one or more new sources are being woven into the narrative by the author(s).

In the final analysis as far as Gen 3 is concerned, there are no heroes. Adam turns out to be one who no longer seems to have the ability to think clearly. Eve is just as easily beguiled.

Even God comes out looking more bemused than commandingly in charge while a shaddow is cast on the veracity both of God’s assertions and promises. But the story now also throws into focus the fact that God is very much like an absentee landlord. He invested and created a garden, trained a gardener and saw to it that the gardener could function effectively by providing the meet help that Adam so badly needed.

God gives instructions including what Adam can take a share of and what not to touch. Then God apparently disappears until God is ‘heard’ (v8) and this is a fascinating verse! God calls out to Adam, and the implication is that God expected Adam to know that the Lord God has come and to be in attendance, perhaps even making his report?

One of the key results is reversal. Adam is from the ground, so God makes the cooperation between the ground and Adam into a difficult thing. In the case of the Woman, she is from Adam and while in the original state she was Adam’s completion and Adam had longed for her, now the Woman is to be the one doing the longing!

Live to serve : Serve to live

Genesis 2-3

Sam, you observe continuities between Gen. 1 and 2, even though they also seem to show evidence of being two different stories glued together. In Gen. 1 Elohim does a lot of creation through a procedure of separating and naming: light from darkness, heavens from earth from seas, etc. In Gen. 2 Yahweh assigns this naming task to the man. It would seem, then, that conceptual-linguistic categorization of natural phenomena is a creative capability that man shares with God. Certainly no other animal in our world has this capacity — not even serpents.

You also observe that in Gen. 3 Yahweh is presented on a very human scale: he’s assigns people to cultivate his land, he walks around in the Garden, he has to look for Adam and Eve, he seems not to know what they’ve done. Gen. 2 describes the Garden as a real physical place in the real Middle East, with the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowing through it (Gen. 2:14). Reading this story literally, one wonders when and why God became a non-corporeal being.

"while in the original state she was Adam’s completion and Adam had
longed for her, now the Woman is to be the one doing the longing!"

Gen. 3:16 reads like this: In pain you will bring forth children, yet your desire will be for your husband. It’s paradox that women have sexual desire even though severe pain is a predictable outcome. One might argue that if it wasn’t for sexual desire women would have very little motivation to be fruitful and multiply. For men it’s a very different story…

Re: Genesis 2-3

Reading this story literally, one wonders when and why God became a non-corporeal being.

I seem to recall from many years ago in my OT overview course in college being told that the word used to name G-d in chapters 2 and 3 changes just when Adam and Eve are thrown from the garden. That it was a change from a very present kind of word (what you’re describing here, a physically local G-d) to a “way up there” kind of word (G-d in heaven). This was stressed as an important aspect of the consequences of The Fall. That human beings were removed from their very direct, face to face relationship with G-d to an indirect relationship with a non-present G-d.

Maybe someone who knows the non-translated texts better could comment, as my memory could be flawed on this point.


nothing lasts.
nothing is finished.
nothing is perfect.

Re: Genesis 2-3

"That human beings were removed from their very direct, face to face
relationship with G-d to an indirect relationship with a non-present

The direct relationship with God in the Garden seems to have relied on verbal communication and visual awareness of one another’s presence — very much like human-to-human interaction. It would seem that this sort of relationship could work only on a small scale — unless, say, God were to generate multiple physical manifestations of himself. In his non-corporeal manifestation God presumably is aware of everything that everyone is doing and thinking, yet he cannot be detected by human senses.

One could speculate that Jesus’s bodily presence on earth was similar to Yahweh Elohim’s presence in the Garden. Could one also speculate that, to the extent that Christians are also "sons of God," indwelt by the Spirit of God and Christ, that the Church constitutes the multiplex physical manifestation of God in a heavily-populated earth?

you will surely die

I’d like to ask Andrew about his post on Romans 5:12-14, but the Fall is necessary background for Paul’s discourse on sin and death, so I thought I’d start here.

In Genesis 2:17 Yahweh issues a command to Adam, coupled with a dire warning: from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die. After awhile the Serpent comes along: You surely will not die, he tells Eve, for God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:4-5). As it turns out the Serpent is right about the second half of his claim: when Adam and Eve at the fruit the eyes of both of them were opened (Gen. 3:7), and Yahweh acknowledges that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:22).

What about the dying bit: was Yahweh right, or was the Serpent? Clearly Adam did not drop dead on the day he ate from the tree, otherwise Yahweh wouldn’t have kicked him and Eve out of the Garden, they would never have had children, and so on. Genesis 5:5 says that Adam lived 930 years, mostly after his expulsion from the Garden, and then he died.

Maybe Adam became mortal when he ate the forbidden fruit? But God tells Adam he will die on that day. Adam’s eyes were opened on that day, just as the Serpent predicted. Maybe Adam died spiritually, being thrown out of the Garden and separated from God. But why didn’t Yahweh just say "in the day you eat the fruit I will kick you out of the Garden"? And Genesis 5 says that Adam died — same word — hundreds of years later.

What interpretation makes the most sense of Yahweh’s warning to Adam that "in that day you will surely die"?

Re: you will surely die

As wih the bulk of our previous explorations, it does seem that the questions outnumber the answers! In retrospect, I think back to how glibly certain I was that I understood what the creation was all about and what it signified for my faith and my beliefs, and I realise that I was wrong, and wrong, and wrong again!

It’s also frightening to think of how much unquestioned theological speculation had been tied up in my mind on a very ‘surface’ reading of this fascinatingly deep and complex text. And we haven’t really tangled with some of the BIG questions yet: Gender and gender relationships, sin, satan, and incidental stuff like what is man, now fallen, and the potential for relationship with God - and other men, and what does all this point us towards, if anything???

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: you will surely die

Some infer Adam died a “spiritual” death the day he ate from the tree, i.e. the day he was separated from God (examples of death used figuratively include: Mat 8:22; Col 2:13; 1Jn 3:14;). It seems to me the people who advocate this position are reading modern Christian ideas back into an ancient Israelite text. I’m not so sure how much Scripture backs up the common views about “spiritual death” in the first place. The idea seems a bit modern to me. I would appreciate it if Andrew or anyone else could share their opinion about this.

Spiritual death scriptural or not, I think we need to take Genesis 2:17 with a grain of salt. I would say the passage hyperbolically expresses the inevitability of Adam and Eve’s death in the event they eat from the tree thereby sinning against God. Support for this interpretation can be taken from the similar use of the phrases of Genesis 2:17 in the story of Solomon and Shimei:

And the king sent and called for Shimei, and said unto him, Build thee an house in Jerusalem, and dwell there, and go not forth thence any whither. For it shall be, that on the day thou goest out, and passest over the brook Kidron, thou shalt know for certain that thou shalt surely die: thy blood shall be upon thine own head” (1Ki 2:36-37).

Shimei in fact does leave Jerusalem but does not die that very day; he goes in search of his runaway slaves in Gath and upon returning to Jerusalem from Gath he is summoned by Solomon and summarily executed (1 Kings 2:39-46). Without the benefit of hindsight for the reader, Solomon’s warning is if Shimei leaves Jerusalem he will secure his own death. Neither Adam or Shimei die on the day they are told they will die on, but both seal their fates and ensure their eventual untimely deaths.

I’m not sure if the combination of the imperfect and infinitive absolute form of the Hebrew verb muth, literally “dying you shall die,” should be taken into consideration. Did God mean Adam and Eve would begin dying the day they ate from the tree? I’m not sure. It seems the combination of the imperfect and infinitive absolute form of the verb is employed just for emphasis as it is elsewhere. I’m no expert with Hebrew, Greek, or even grammar in general, so maybe Andrew can comment on this.

Re: you will surely die

2.17 …except the tree fo the knoweldge of good and evil. You are not to eat from it, because on the day that you eat from it, it will become certain that you will die.

3.19 …til you return from the ground—for you were taken out of it; you are dust and you will return to dust

from the Complete Jewish Bible (David H. Stern, 1998)

On the day that Adam disobeyed the command not to eat.. it became certain that he would return to the dust from which he came. The dust was originally given life; on the day of disobedience a curse was pronounced that ensured that the life (breath) would be taken from the dust again—this is still what happens at the point of death—the ‘curse of death’ is fulfilled.

For what it’s worth, (and I note from the tetelestai thread that the agreement of others is in danger of being held as not worth much these days!) I agree with enarchy (and I understand from previous discussions that Andrew advocates a similar position), that the idea of "spiritual death" as commonly touted or understood is not particularly sustainable from Scripture.

shalom! - john (eternalpurpose.org.uk)

Re: you will surely die

John’s interpretation has merit: if Adam eats the forbidden fruit, he will be returned to the dust, separated from the Tree of Life that grows in the Garden, doomed to mortality. Again, though, Yahweh assures Adam that he will die on that day, and Genesis 5 informs us that Adam didn’t die until hundreds of years after that day. Based on the events as described we could conclude that Satan was right and that Yahweh either lied or made a mistake. Let’s presume, though, that Yahweh was a God of his word: man died on that day, but he didn’t literally die. Whether Yahweh meant that man would on that day become mortal, or become aware of his mortality, or forfeit eternal life, or suffer separation from God, the text requires us to take Yahweh’s word figuratively.

Re: you will surely die

I first would like to comment on my first post. Now that I think about it, there does seem to be marginal support for a doctrine of “spiritual death,” but considering it is so marginal (or maybe I’m wrong about that?), I don’t think it should be read into Genesis. I think we need to avoid reading (modern?) Christian ideas back into Jewish texts, but try to the do the opposite: read Jewish texts into Christianity; I think this is what Andrew has hinted at before. A good example of “spiritual death” (but maybe that is not the best phrase to describe it) can be found in the parable of the prodigal son.

John said,

Whether Yahweh meant that man would on that day become mortal, or become aware of his mortality, or forfeit eternal life, or suffer separation from God, the text requires us to take Yahweh’s word figuratively.

I don’t think it requires us to read his words figuratively. Jesus has said that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. Do we take that to be an ultimate truth? I don’t think so. Do we come up with absurd theories about what figurative truth that may have or something? I hope not. In the case of Genesis, I think we need to take YHWH’s words for what they are: hyperbolic. Perhaps he said Adam would die on that “day” to make his threat all the more serious.

On the other hand, perhaps the author of Genesis wrote “day” for a specific reason. Would he not have caught the apparent contradiction (if contradiction is the best word to describe it) and took the word out? Could he be trying to tell us something? What have Rabbis interpreted it as in the past? Perhaps these are things we should look into.

Re: you will surely die

Just a quick note on "day" in these passages. The interpretation of YOM has been a major bone of contention with the Creationist camp insisting that "day" always means only a 24 hour period and others pointing out that Gen 2:4 "in the day" summarises the whole of the creation effort and that the sun itself (that one would expect to be a necessary ingredient for 24 hours to come into effect) is not created till the fourth day.

If the author(s) has deliberately made chronology into a secondary matter, then "the day" here could indeed be meant figuratively, indefinitely, or even  prospectively.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: you will surely die

According to the Bible story Adam did not literally die on the literal
day he ate the forbidden fruit. Enarchay says "I don’t think it
requires us to read his words figuratively."
He then says that God may have been speaking hyperbolically. But
hyperbole is a figure of speech, isn’t it? "If you don’t get your
homeword done mom is going to kill you." Hyperbolic is not literal.

Sam discusses the figurative meaning of "day," suggesting that it
refers metaphorically to an entire related sequence of events extending
over an unspecified duration of time. In particular Genesis 2:4 refers to the "day" Yahweh created the heavens and the earth. (The writer of Genesis 1 goes out of his way to make the reader understand that a day is a day — light and darkness, morning and evening, a single day as we understand the term. That chronology is integral to the Genesis 1 creation narrative is witnessed by its being the very first order of business in the six-day creation event. But that’s another story.)

God’s threat refers to the day that Adam eats the fruit of the tree. To eat a piece of fruit doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes, so if "day" refers to a single event of unspecified duration, in this case "day" might mean significantly less than 24 hours. Other events seem to happen "on that day," most notably man’s coming to know good and evil and being expelled from the Garden. All the events of the Fall are described as if they took place in rapid succession immediately after the fruit-eating episode. It seems incongruous regard the literal death of Adam, which took place hundreds of years later, as part of that same "day."

I suppose I’ll have to go along with one of the usual interpretations: on that day Adam and Eve were barred from the Tree of Life, which would have given them immortality. If I were to interpret this whole story metaphorically or mythically, I might come up with a different interpretation; e.g., spiritual death, or humans’ coming to awareness of their own mortality.


Re: you will surely die

One possibility is that the fruit of the tree of knowledge itself is somehow physiologically poisonous but then in the design of the garden itself in Gen 2:9 we are told that "the Lord God made to spring up every
tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life
was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good
and evil."

In God’s injunction the "surely eat" and "surely die" are examples of emphatic Hebrew construction by repetition i.e. literally ‘eat, eat’ and ‘die die’.

Regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil this and the ‘tree of life’ have both sprung up in the centre of the garden. No prohibition is attached to eating the fruit of the tree of life.

The immediate effect of eating the ‘forbidden fruit’ is a moral self consciousness and one that is not related to any objective reality. They are ashamed of themselves because they now perceive themselves as naked, and somehow that’s wrong, they are incomplete in themselves. Their inherent sufficiency in their being created good and being one is now disturbed. They are suddenly concerned with how they will be perceived by others, and perhaps even each other?

Could this be the equivalent of death? If so, it has indeed happened in that same day and whether they then eat of the tree of life or not they will always be ashamed of themselves as long as they both shall live. 

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: you will surely die


I noted your comment upon my earlier comment—you thought it had some merit, I think perhaps in connection with the idea that Adam would return to dust.

However, I note you did not seem to comment upon—and comments made since then seem to overlook—the idea also contained in that post that "in that day it will become certain that you will die."

2.17 …except the tree fo the knoweldge of good and evil. You are not to eat from it, because on the day that you eat from it, it will become certain that you will die.

3.19 …til you return from the ground—for you were taken out of it; you are dust and you will return to dust

from the Complete Jewish Bible (David H. Stern, 1998)

I.e., it is the "making certain" to which "on the day" refers.

Accordingly, on the day that Adam’s eats (disobeys) it becomes certain that he will die because that is the day on which the curse of death ("you will return to dust") is pronounced. The curse makes it certain and happens on the day Adam eats.

Thus, the original threat / promise is completely fulfilled: on the day you eat, it will become certain you will die. He eats. The curse is pronounced. It is now certain that Adam will die. Later, he dies.

[The implication is that there was another option: that Adam would not die, ever. This possibility is perhaps to be associated with the Tree of Life.

However, as well as being cursed regarding ‘death,’ Adam is also cursed in terms of working by the sweat of his brow etc. He is also barred from the garden, specifically because, it seems to my reading of the text, because this might allow him to live forever—cheating the curse of death?…but doing so in a way that would leave him in a perpetual state of being under the "work" curse and in a form of relationship with God associated with guilt etc. Moreover, the following narratives of Genesis suggest that something graver than awareness of nakedness, eventual death and guilt has entered: a form of wickedness has entered the heart of humanity…

It seems to me that all of these issues are eventually addressed in the new covenant, under the Messiah, who offers both Eternal Life (equivalent to the tree of Life) and the Sabbath Rest from working in our own strength—ie. delivered from the curse aspect of working. Not that we don’t work, but that work, for those under the new covenant has a new, hitherto denied aspect and Holiness—a deliverance from the sinful nature.

However, these are asides and my apologies if you’ve been over that ground. I’ve not read the whole thread, and am only now following the discussion via google reader, which has been interesting.]

shalom! - john (eternalpurpose.org.uk)

Re: you will surely die

"In God’s injunction the "surely eat" and "surely die" are examples of
emphatic Hebrew construction by repetition i.e. literally ‘eat, eat’
and ‘die die’."

"in that day it will become certain that you will die."

The text in Gen. 2:17 & 3:4 uses an infinitive form of "to die" preceding the verb "you will die." Here’s what Marks & Rogers, one of my Hebrew grammars from seminary, says about this construction: With verbs of the same root, the infinitive absolute immediately preceding the verb serves to strengthen the verbal idea. E.g., Deut. 7:18 — "remebering you shall remember," i.e. "you shall surely remember;" Gen. 2:17 — "dying you shall die," i.e. "you shall surely die." The Deuteronomy passage is illustrative here. God is talking to the Jews in the desert during the exodus from Egypt to Israel, telling them they shall wipe out the other nations who occupy the promised land. If they should become fearful, God tells them they shall "well remember" (remembering they shall remember) what God did to Pharaoh and Egypt. Really remember it, says God. I would think the parallel for Genesis 2 is that Adam will be "really dead" if he eats the fruit.

Sam points out that Adam and Eve immediately become self-conscious about their nakedness and how they will be perceived by others. This self-awareness is characteristic of a fully sentient being, but it’s also a mental awareness of one’s physicality. This awareness is presented in the context of Yahweh also being a corporeal being, walking through the Garden looking for Adam and Eve. John also points out the corporeality of God’s curses: the man’s sweaty physical labor, the woman’s pain in the labor of childbirth, the imminent return to dust.

What about this: Before eating the fruit Adam and Eve didn’t just have immortal bodies; they had living bodies, bodies that didn’t feel pain or exertion, godlike bodies. Immediately after eating the fruit they found themselves trapped in dead bodies.

The writer of Ecclesiastes presents a commentary of sorts on the creation and fall narrative:

Remember now thy Creator
in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years
draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them; While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:… Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall
return unto God who gave it. (Eccles. 12:1-2,7)

Maybe the Fall resulted in the immediate death of the living body, leading to this sorry sort of body-spirit dualism that the writer of Ecclesiastes subsumes under his angsty "all is vanity" discourse. So the death is immediate — it’s the death of the godlike body and its replacement by the zombie-like body we’re all saddled with now.

Re: you will surely die

What about this: Before eating the fruit Adam and Eve didn’t just have immortal bodies; they had living bodies, bodies that didn’t feel pain or exertion, godlike bodies. Immediately after eating the fruit they found themselves trapped in dead bodies.

I don’t think Adam and Eve had immortal bodies or godlike bodies to begin with.

“And the LORD God formed man of he dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen 2:7).

Paul draws a contrast between the soulish (psychikos) and spiritual (pneumatikos) body (1Co 15:44). He says the human is first sown (i.e. created or born) as a psychikos body. He even goes as far to contrast the first Adam as a soul (psychēn) and the last Adam as a life-giving spirit (pneuma zōopoioun).

So it seems Adam was created mortal, dying, but did not know it until after the Fall. This begs the question: when was God going to give Adam access to the tree of life had he not sinned (i.e. how long was God going to wait)? Was it’s really God’s intention for Adam to remain in his pre-fall state? Or was God’s intention for Adam to screw up? After the fall, Adam is said to have become like God, to know good and evil (Gen 3:22). Could this tie in with Paul’s statement that, “[T]he creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21-22). Was Adam ever a child of God? Was he ever “like him [Jesus]” (1Jn 3:2)? If anything, it seems like Adam was less like God prior to the Fall than after. Maybe these questions can’t and shouldn’t be answered.

Re: you will surely die

However, I note you did not seem to comment upon—and comments made since then seem to overlook—the idea also contained in that post that “in that day it will become certain that you will die.”

The “become certain” bit is an inference into the text, right? Do you think that inference can be drawn from the Hebrew?

Re: you will surely die

According to the Bible story Adam did not literally die on the literal day he ate the forbidden fruit. Enarchay says “I don’t think it requires us to read his words figuratively.” He then says that God may have been speaking hyperbolically. But hyperbole is a figure of speech, isn’t it? “If you don’t get your homeword done mom is going to kill you.” Hyperbolic is not literal.

I don’t know what I was thinking.

Re: you will surely die

I think you make an excellent case here, Enarchay, both from Gen. 2 and from I Cor. 15, that Adam wasn’t intrinsically eternal, that eternity was to be ingested from the Tree of Life. Paul introduces a tripartite body-soul-spirit anthropology that seems more Aristotelian than Hebraic. In so doing he makes Yahweh imparting the "breath of life" to Adam something less than a fully spiritual infusion. Paul says that the mortal must "put on" immortality (I Cor. 15:53), suggesting that man’s corporeal immortality must always be imparted from outside.

So we’re left with these other, more oblique meanings for "you shall surely die" in Genesis 2 — awareness of mortality, inevitability of future death. I have a Jewish commentary proposing that Yahweh bestowed His characteristic compassion on Adam and Eve, deciding not to kill them, but I don’t think Paul goes for that interpretation.

Re: you will surely die

John Doyle,

self-awareness is characteristic of a fully sentient being feels a bit strange to me. The text seems to say that this self consciousness, the whole idea of self and other is the most obvious sign of being wrong, of having wrong in relationships.

The main reason for God making Eve was so that mankind could be completed by the oneness that was then a reality. So, while Adam and Eve are two separate sentient beings, they are one and are also not conscious that they are imperfect in their otherness to God. The idea of not being one is first subtly proposed by the serpent in introducing the possibility that God may not have told the whole truth about something that really would be good. Adam and Eve are together when they eat the forbidden fruit.

Finally, while being deceived may have been Eve’s fault it is Adam who is cursed and the ground along with him. Collectively it was Adam and the Ground, but now, the ground becomes AN OTHER, a rival and a hindrance.

We are conscious of our otherness and this consciousness is a reflection of the reality that we are not one either with each other or with the very world that has birthed us. 

Live to serve : Serve to live

Gender, sexuality and all that stuff.

Did the author(s) of the early chapters of Genesis intend their stories to teach on stuff like the nature of God, and mankind? Were they explaining what they had observed? Were they proposing a theory that significantly modified the prevailing opinion? Did they expect their work to be understood literally, say as a historical and scientific reality now being summarised for convenience, or were they aiming more at an enthralling story that wove together varying elements of truth and poetry with greater emphasis on literary truth but without great emphasis on literal truth?

There is not much that can be pointed to of a polemical nature up to Genesis 4. It also seems to be interesting that the originally different origins of the base stories can be discerned even after thousands of years of transmission and finally translation into so many foreign languages. Had they desired to homogenise the narratives it would have been a simple matter to accomplish.

Yet, with all of our uncertainties, we continue to allegorise, typologise, and theologise on these enticing few sentences as if we knew what the stories both meant and mean.

For better or for worse we would like Genesis to tell us who and what we are.

Adam’ is a transliteration of the Hebrew and means something like ‘out of the ground’, and by implication, from the colour of rich reddish earth, ‘ruddy’. Initially there is no indication of Adam’s gender. In Gen 1:26 we have :"Let us make [Adam] man in our image …" and shortly afer this in 1:27 "…male and female created he them".

As an aside it is also interesting that the stress on "after our likeness" precedes the dominion statement in 1:26 implying that it is as God’s representatives and in God’s stead that the idea of dominion is stated and this dominion is a joint dominion of the male and female together ("them").

In Genesis 2 the suspense on the gender status of the first Adam is maintained until after the formation of Eve. It is not good, declares God, for Adam to be alone. This implies to me that while thus far God has been there with Adam, now God will no longer be around and Adam will be left alone.

Then comes a startling statement in Gen 2:18 of what God intends Adam’s helper to be. This is where the KJV first has ‘help meet’ and what it actually seems to mean is a helper "to go ahead of’, or to put it bluntly, ‘to lead’ Adam. God proceeds to form ‘out of the ground’ various potential helpers but none of them is found entirely suitable to help and lead Adam. Note also that the word translated ‘help’ is in all other instances in the OT used to denote God’s own help to various people.

The ‘out of the ground’ is again interesting for the logic here seems to be that in order to find a suitable helper, the helper should come from the same base material from which Adam was formed.

God then stops trying to form a helper from the ground and instead turns to a potentially even more suitable base material, Adam. So, Adam is put to sleep. Eve is formed from a "rib" actually something angular or side oriented, and the flesh is ‘closed up’ (definitely impying surgery) and the Lord God here uses a new word, related to building up, for now from this ‘piece’ of Adam, Eve is built.

If anything is to be learned from this narrative, it is that Eve was in all ways created at least equal to Adam and is there perhaps even an implication of superior purpose and design?

Live to serve : Serve to live

Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 - Contrasting Natures of God

A number of contributors to this thread have speculated that there may have been a number of different stories that have been utilised and transformed into the present Genesis narrative. What I have been thinking about for quite a while now, is that the authors and the ones who actually finally put things together into something like the story that now unfolds for us, are really very smart people. They knew what they were doing. There was nothing mechanical about the welding together processes, nor about what resulted!

In Genesis 1, we have GOD, Elohim who speaks and in speaking calls forth and thus creates. God does this in successive and altogether logical stages. God acts decisively, and God acts masterfully, to accomplish everything that God sets out to do - and it is done, and it is good.

Then on the 6th day, God creates mankind, male and female in his image…gives mankind dominion, and then RESTS.

In Genesis 2 God (The LORD GOD) comes in a different guise altogether - perhaps as the absentee landlord, or occasional visitor. The garden has been left to mankind to enjoy and to tend. God does not know what is going on. God is not in control. God’s wiretapping services have also been turned off, there are no hidden monitors and there are no spies. After finding out what the situation is and the outline of the major events of significance, again, God acts, but not to take control! God instead acts to limit the damage, and apparently then leaves. When next we encounter God, it is in the story of the next generation…

Is it only us that see the drastic change between Elohim in Gen 1 and YHWH Elohim in Gen 2? Would not the original authors/redactors/editors have been as sensitive to the contrast? Could it even be deliberate?

A retiring God. A God who is "taking rest". An abdicating God. A self-limiting God. A God who believes in freedom and in allowing mankind to make mistakes. The apparently omnipotent God who voluntarily leaves, having delegated the authority to mankind - whatever be the consequences…

Live to serve : Serve to live

Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 - Contrasting Natures of God

One could envision the Elohim of Genesis 1 as a collective godhead ("let us create…"), with Yahweh as one member of the elohimic collective assigned to a particular earthly territory. Still, this wouldn’t resolve the distinction you draw between the omnipotent mastery of the Gen. 1 God and the limited God of Gen. 2.

As you know, Sam, I read Genesis 1 as a discourse, an integrated set of propositions set forth by Elohim to categorize and name the basic phenomena of the human physical environment. Elohim doesn’t transcend this environment; the narrator doesn’t describe the Creator’s arrival from some eternal noncorporeal realm at the beginning of the story. Rather, when Elohim makes his first appearance in Gen. 1:2 he’s already in the midst of things. At the end of Gen. 1 man is named as bearing the image and likeness of Elohim; i.e., man too can create by categorizing and naming. The elohimic image continues in Gen. 2, where Yahweh, positioned inside the Garden, assigns man the task of naming all the creatures in the Garden. In this interpretation of the two-phase creation narrative God’s power begins and remains mostly conceptual and verbal.

Adam and Eve leave the Garden at the end of Gen. 3, but it seems that Yahweh stays inside. So in Gen. 4, when he speaks with Cain, Yahweh may be paying a short visit to the "world of dust" outside the barricaded gates of Eden.

Re: Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 - Contrasting Natures of God

 A collective God is a possibility in which case Elohim (all together) is the powerful, the all high, the creator etc. while YHWH Elohim is naturally expected to be limited because of individuality. It’s a distinct possibility though I’m not that convinced. The impression that I get for Eden is that mankind is kicked out while Eden is basically then abandoned. But, I can’t say exactly why I have that impression…

Certainly the power is actually expressed as verbalisation in Gen 1 but in Gen 2 God silently invites Adam to undertake the specific task assigning names. There is also, I think a more than incidental connection between God’s breath, God’s calling outs, and God’s breathing in of human life to a bit of formed dirt. 

The naming ‘ceremony’ is itself very interesting. It looks as though the spontaneous identifications that Adam produces are themselves the indicators primarily of the presence of "helpmeetness". Both God and Adam can tell by the quality of each expressed first impression, whether the helpmeet has been found. The assignation of specific names to the creatures is then an incidental benefit.

"THIS IS fleshofmyflesh" 

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

I just discovered the discussion about Genesis and have found it very interesting and fun to follow.I only found these articles on nov.3 I have not read all of the comments as it is 70 pages long.
I would like to make some comments on all the questions submitted,but that will take sometime to accomplish.
Although my observations may not follow the “TRUE MYTH” theme
it does vary from the traditional thinking.
Before I start I would like to say I believe we should read the whole Bible as mention in the 28th chapter of Isaiah “precept upon precept line upon line here a little and there a little.Also remember our Bible is a translation and we should
go to the original language for clarification.
It seems that something happen between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2.
Verse 1 seems to be just an statement that in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth period.In verse 2 states the earth was without form and void. acording to some the word was should be translated became,even if we leave it as “was”does not mean it was created in that state.
The 45th chapter of Isaiah verse 18 reads “For this saith the LORD that created the heavens ;GOD Himself that formed the earth and made it;HE hath established it,He created it not in vain,He formed it to be inhabited :I am the LORD;and there is none else.
The words “in vain” in this verse is the Hebrew word tohu which is the same Hebrew word that was translated as “without form”in Genesis1:2.This seems to show that something must have happened to the earth between the time
GOD created the earth and Genesis 1:2

buddy nov. 10 2007

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

A number of scholars agree with what Buddy says above including the famous bible translator Dr. James Moffatt who takes the first part as a clause and not as an independent statement:  "When God began to form the universe, the world was void and vacant,
darkness lay over the abyss; but the spirit of God was hovering over
the waters, …
" Whatever one makes of the "Gap Theory" it is certain that there are a lot of uncertainties in our efforts to translate without confusion.

Live to serve : Serve to live

To Dominate and to Subjugate?

What did God really create? Did God provide a framework within which things would automatically allign themselves and perpetuate themselves without a need for supervision or adjustment? Or, did the creation envision, demand continuous fiddling or even radical reorderings?

Questions like these lead to answers that will determine our ideas of government, our ethic, and our eschaology!

If one takes God’s mandate to man as a form of stewardship, where God ultimately retains ownership but appoints Mankind to organise and to order within limitations and according to the overall plan that remains God’s then our interaction with the creation will be of a milder type.

Some have argued that God calls on us to be dominating, to wrest power and control and to actively subjugate all of nature with the ultimate goal of making nature Mankind’s servant in all things. Here, God has given a mandate and now effectively leaves Man to follow through according to Man’s wishes, desires and needs. God may have a preferred ethic but that is not a particularly significant factor in how Man is to function.

Such are the larger implications for how we understand first God’s soliloquy

From Gen 1:26`… Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness, and let them
(radah) over fish of the sea, and over fowl of the heavens, and over
cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that is
creeping on the earth.’

and then the instruction itself: Gen 1:28-30 And God blesseth them, and God saith to them, `Be fruitful (parah), and multiply (rabah), and fill (male’) the earth, and subdue (kabash) it, and rule (radah) over fish of the sea, and over fowl of the heavens, and over every living thing that is creeping upon the earth.’ And God saith, `Lo, I have given to you (nathan) every herb sowing seed, which [is] upon the face of all the earth, and every tree in which [is] the fruit of a tree sowing seed, to you it is for food (‘oklah); and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the heavens, and to every creeping thing on the earth, in which [is] breath of life, every green herb [is] for food:’ and it is so. (YLT).

When we take a ‘lexical’ approach to figuring out these key words one is struck by the fact that important resources like BDB and Strong’s derive the meanings of these words from an agrarian context. Radah and kabash in particular invoke ideas of pacing out, treading down fields in preparation for planting. Images like these are probably diachronic to the origins of our stories and especially so if the garden images from Gen 2 are taken as the major setting (hotly disputed).

It’s worth keeping in mind that if the origins are the forests and thence the gardens/orchards (as implied in Gen 2) then the implications for our stewardship are perhaps different.

One might also recall here that the Cain and Abel story (post fall) could well be Targumic and set the stage for our understanding of what precedes. Cain, after his banishment, seems to take the stronger view of dominion and proceeds to build a city…

What then is to be our creative work? What will God’s kingdom be like… a city (Mat 5:14) or a garden (Mk 12:1 f) ?

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: To Dominate and to Subjugate?

Zecharia, Galatians and Revelation allude prophetically and eschatologically to the heavenly Jerusalem. This doesn’t sound like a return to the Garden.

Re: To Dominate and to Subjugate?

One problem with the Genesis myths in all later interpretation is that they become somehow tied up with Israel’s nationalistic agendas. A similar process takes place with the Abrahamic covenants only on a markedly greater scale than with Genesis. Here is a remarkable fact about what the Genesis myths are not - they are NOT in any sense political. The stories in fact give very little purchase to ideas of nationhood or of national identity being linkable to favor or blessing from God. Most certain of all, Adam and Eve were not proto-Jews!

It takes some pretty involved and deft reinterpretation to make the Genesis myths an uneasy part of the Jewish national story and a very great leap of the imagination to tie them to the New Jerusalem of later prophecy.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Option 6: One has to break the egg...

As I was composing this particular soliloquy it struck me that we have played rather fast and loose with John Doyle’s original purpose which was to place the various mythic options clearly before us in order for us to evaluate and perhaps identify which of the 5 choices would be most apropo.

In the process of then digging into the early chapters of Genesis, many and rich insights have been gained. But, I am still at a bit of a loss as to which of the five is closest to what I believe to be true. I must admit again to being enamoured of features from each of the options and this is confusing indeed.

I have also been toying with a sixth option ad that is that the true myth is a product of an ancient but still ongoing dialogue between God and man, in which it is not always altogether obvious as to which parts are God’s and which are mostly man’s.

Using the Genesis accounts as basic, if I were to have attempted to make a separation, perhaps I would begin with the characterisations within each story. Perhaps there is a true myth, but is it possibly obfuscated by peculiarities that particularise the story within a given context that is now almost wholly lost to us? In which case, it may be possible that we would need to first ignore, or even to subtract from, the story in order to approach what ‘essential’ truth is hidden within.

Are we perhaps not seeing the woods for the trees?

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities

This attempt to see Genesis from a more ancient perspective has been fascinating. In fact it has been a real eye-opener for me. I always knew that I was making too many assumptions as I blithely read along, but I had no idea at all of how many possibilities lurk within the confines of these few hundred words.

The first few chapters of Genesis are full of meaning - yet, at the same time so effortlessly capable of jumping such huge cultural and linguistic barriers that I am left wondering. How much of the meaning that I perceive would have also been in the minds of the authors or of the first readers/hearers of this the foremost Mother of all Myths? How much of this meaning is purely a creation of my own?

John Doyle’s own startling reading  provides enough fodder for thought in itself. One can only hope that he will get round to publishing all of that in the book form that it so badly deserves!

Still, even though this has proved to be a long discussion, I have no sense that we have done other than scratch the surface of the mystery that is the True Myth of the genesis of our world and of ourselves.

Perhaps the richness of the Genesis story is that while we can dig into it in search of wisdom, we ALWAYS quite fail to subvert the account for our own political or cultural ownership. It is in fact the superb universality of the myth that invites each and every person to find therein their own grounding - and at the same time gently reminds us that our own particularities and little cultural pride is quite misplaced within the vision of a God who both cares for every part of her creation and who still gives us the freedom to disobey; a God who is never nationalistic; the God of justice who deals with each individual according to their own actions, and a God who while allowing us to make our mistakes will not abandon us however nasty, stupid, idiotic and unikonic we have been.

As always I overlay my own theology, and as always after putting forward my best foot, that foot is still stuck firmly in my own mouth.

Oh well, and a forgiving God too! 


Live to serve : Serve to live

Pandora's Box of deadly utopias

There is a very long tradition that identifies  ‘sin’ as a product of a loss of innocence. Somehow this explanation has alweays raised more questions in my mind than what it seems to offer as a solution to the mystery of the origin "original sin".

The story is then retold like this. Adam and Eve were innocent. They did not know that there was right and wrong. These two beings therefore existed in a sort of a naive and amoral world where apparently neither was work toilsome nor in fact was relationship either. Nature and mankind were cooperative and nature naturally was mankind’s ally. Along came a serpent, one that had yet not evolved to a legless state, and this serpent introduced mankind to subterfuge, to the existence of lies, to hidden truths and mysteries too awe inspiring (so beautifully depicted by Blake) for such innocent minds to comprehend. In eating the ‘forbidden’ fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve chose to forego their innocence.

Pandora’s box, the hidden mystery of hidden knowledge proved to be too great a temptation. Once initiated there was no going back. One cannot unknow what one has discovered. One cannot eliminate reality nor even the memory of reality. Tainted by knowledge, mankind feel out of innocence and out of grace into a state of ‘worldly’ enslavement.

Nature  ceased to cooperate, and paradise was lost. 

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Pandora's Box of deadly utopias

I’m reminded of an episode of The Simpsons my daughter told me about the other day. A bear attacks Homer, and Homer sets out to hunt down the bear. Lisa thinks it’s a bad plan: "Dad! You can’t seek revenge on an animal! That’s the whole point of Moby-Dick!" Homer condescendingly replies, "Lisa, the point of Moby-Dick is be yourself."

The most straightforward summary of the Eden story goes something like this:

The god Yahweh tells the man and woman not to eat the fruit of a tree that will give them knowledge of good and evil. Someone tells them that if they eat from the tree they will become more godlike. They eat the fruit; they acquire the knowledge of good and evil; they become more godlike. The Tree of Life also grows in this Garden. To keep the man and woman from eating the fruit of this other tree and thereby achieving immortality, which would make them even more godlike, Yahweh expels them from the Garden.

How many different mythic interpretations could be assigned to this story? Even Homer Simpson’s reading would work.

Eden pushed back a few thousand years?

The sophistication of human religious thought and practice just moved back a few millennia with the discovery of a really ancient worship site in Turkey.

Some quotes from the article:
“The level of importance here is that of the pyramids in Giza, or Stonehenge,”

"To put this finding in perspective, until the discovery of Göbekli
Tepe, arguably the oldest temple excavated was at Eridu, in Iraq, which
dates to 5000 BC."

“What we have here is an expression of religion in a very stylized way
that is not repeated anywhere else in the world,” he says. “We see that
religion was existing in the early neolithic period in a way that we
didn’t expect. Only religion could be responsible for what we see here."

"From Göbekli Tepe, the flat and arid Mesopotamian plain stretches south
toward the nearby Syrian border, a thin haze floating above it. Around
the site, the landscape is treeless and rocky. But it wasn’t always
like this, Schmidt says. When hunter-gatherers lived here, he explains,
fruit trees and wild grasses grew in abundance, and there were more
than enough animals to hunt. With its carvings celebrating the
abundance of the surrounding countryside and the freedom of hunting
life, was Göbekli Tepe actually a memorial to what was slowly becoming
a paradise lost?

Schmidt is reticent about linking his work to the Adam and Eve story,
worried it will be lumped together with such quasi-Biblical
archaeological pursuits as the search for Noah’s ark and, well, the
Garden of Eden. Various theories have situated paradise on at least
three continents. But Sanliurfa, the closest city to the dig … is already happily
promoting Göbekli Tepe as the birthplace of civilization — and home to
Adam and Eve"

Any thoughts? 

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Eden pushed back a few thousand years?

That does sound like an exciting discovery, Sam. The idea that the Garden of Eden story constitutes farmers’ nostalgic longing for the free-ranging natural paradise of their forebears seems like the inverse of the Genesis 2 story. In the Biblical narrative Adam is brought in from the wilderness to work a cultivated garden, as you’ve observed on this thread before. Rather than regarding the garden as a form of captivity, the man believes he’s entered into a paradise. So it seems to me that Genesis 2 celebrates agriculture and the civilization it represents. Presumably after Adam and Eve are expelled from this civilized place, they take the agricultural skills they’ve learned back into the wilderness, digging up the thorns and thistles that plagued the land, planting crops, taming the wilderness. Already in Genesis 4:2 Cain has become a "tiller of the ground."

What are your thoughts Sam?

Re: Eden pushed back a few thousand years?

Sites like Gobleki Tepe, and many others being studied in Turkey now, have deeply puzzled the archaeologists. I’ve read some rather fantastic tales built on various bits of this information.

What is clear is that these are hunting societies and startlingly they seem to have had very advanced thoughts on religion even though they had not yet got round to building permanent towns. In other words, the temples predate any other signs of ‘architecture’ and these are temples built by hunters, NOT farming communities. These peoples (whoever they were) had not even gotten round to doing pottery yet!

So, as in Genesis, the forest/garden comes first, though Eden seems to push us even further back to before there was a need to hunt, i.e. Adam and Eve were gatherers. It is God who apparently teaches them to hunt. Other questions naturally arise as the Genesis account indicates that the altars came first and then farming/herding which in turn preceded towns and this may now be thought an accurate remembrance.

One random thought is that our ability to think, to philosophise, to worship, and to imagine, is in no way limited by our technology! One wonders whether the inverse may be true too; too much technology may be eroding our brains. Perhaps Adam and Eve were a lot smarter than we give them credit for being, and perhaps even a lot more sophisticated in their beliefs than "modern" humans…

Live to serve : Serve to live

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