Genesis: An Authoritative Myth?

Genesis has been on my mind this weekend, so I thought I would cite a few passages from “Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament,” the infamous book by Peter Enns, which I happen to really enjoy.

What I like about Inspiration and Incarnation is that it moves beyond the entrenched debate between liberals, who see the Bible as unscientific and therefore unauthoritative, and fundamentalists, who see the Bible as authoritative and therefore scientific, to instead explore a third way, of reading the Genesis text within its Babylonian context.

Enns writes:

…the degree to which Genesis might have been dependant on the Babylonian [myths] has always been a matter of debate, and there is no need to commit ourselves to one view or another. Some scholars argue, quite persuasively in fact, that the differences between Genesis and Enuma Elish are so great that one cannot speak of any direct relationship. I feel that this is essentially correct (although the stronger similarities regarding the flood story may suggest some level of dependence). But again, the point here is not one of textual dependence but conceptual similarity. The differences notwithstanding, the opening chapters of Genesis participate in a worldview that the earliest Israelites shared with their Mesopotamian neighbours. To put it this way is not to concede ground to liberalism or unbelief, but to understand the simple fact that the stories in Genesis had a context in which they were first understood. And that context was not a modern scientific one but an ancient mythic one.

Therefore, the question is not the degree to which Genesis conforms to what we would think is a proper description of origins. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis to expect it to answer questions generated by a modern worldview, such as whether the days were literal or figurative, or whether the days of creation can be lined up with modern science, or whether the flood was local or universal. The question that Genesis is prepared to answer is whether Yahweh, the God of Israel, is worthy of worship.

To argue, as I am doing here, that such biblical stories as creation and the flood must be understood first and foremost in the ancient contexts, is nothing new. The point I would like to emphasize, however, is that such a firm grounding in ancient myth does not make Genesis any less inspired; it is not a concession that we must put up with an embarrassment to a sound doctrine of Scripture. Quite to the contrary, such rootedness in the culture of the time is precisely what it means for God to speak to his people.

Of course, the next question is, if it is authoritative even so, what was and is Genesis trying to say?

Stay tuned.

9 thoughts on “Genesis: An Authoritative Myth?

  1. Thank you for this, and for the very helpful extract.
    I have often wondered whether the Genesis 1 account is principally saying, “wherever you look in creation, God made it”. The heavens, the earth, the lights in the sky, the earth, the oceans, vegetation, animal life and ultimately human life. All of this is the creativity of this one God, in contrast to contemporary creation myths that may have had different gods for different things (sky, rivers, animals etc).
    To me this absolutely affirms the divine inspiration and truthfulness of the Gen 1 account without trying to read back into it modern views of scientific enquiry and forms of questions.
    I’m off to hear a talk about the first eleven chapters of Genesis by some Young Earth Creationists this week. I might have to bite my lip a bit!
    Thanks again,


  2. Most definitely, the first book that came to mind was The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, which looks at science from eastern perspectives, sacrilizing science (especially quantum physics) and scientizing spirituality (especially the the Hindu scriptures) in the process. Of course, Capra is not the only one to have done this, the writings of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ are full of sacrilized science. Wiccans too look for pseudo-scientific justification of magic via quantum mechanics. And of course, can we forget “What the Bleep do we Know?” Onto folk religion, I also recall some indian Hindus getting upset at some scientific explainations for their rivers about six months back. Oh, and now I think of it, who could go past Scientology in a discussion like this? It is a common phenomena. If fundamentalist Christians are unique, it is only in the attention they give to genetics and geography over physics and cosmology. But spiritual traditions the world over grapple with science.


  3. Genesis One in particular has a lot of parralels to an Egyptian Creation Myth (in style NOT theology!). There’s an interesting review of the research in between the two in a recent edition of the Asbury Theological Journal. If you can find a copy, read it, it’s quite interesting.
    Also interesting with that Egyptian parralel is the old tradition of Mosaic authorship of the Torah.


  4. Matthew, this reference gives a unique understanding of the purpose of “creation” myths of stories.
    They were written by and addressed to a different form of mind that we moderns now use to define and thereby presume to be real and possible.
    A magical/mythical form of mind and world which was alive with “magic” and “magical” possibility.
    God is alive–magic is afoot.
    By contrast we “live” in a culture and collective mind in which all magical possibilities have been systematically eliminated.
    Discussed in the book Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas


  5. I really appreciate this post and this discussion. Six day creation science is one of my pet hates… simplistic theology, dreadful science. Sigh….


  6. I don’t like calling it science. Science makes testable predictions that lead to new insights. I have never heard of one new insight or investion coming out of young earth creationism circles.


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