Interpreting Genesis myth legitimately

Let’s talk about myth. John Walton’s work on Genesis 1 shows that ANE myth is to be understood functionally, not physically. Genesis 1 describes 7 days in which Yahweh organises the earth as his temple with mankind as his priests. Walton points out how irrelevant this makes it to the evolution debate. It is more to do with revelation than manufacture.

Let’s go further. As an account of human evolution, the Mesopotamian Eridu Genesis is rubbish. It mentions men created as kings, as temple-builders, and the first (named) cities: 100K (or 4.5 bn) year anachronisms as far as physical creation is concerned. Wrong – actually it was written to explain the organisation of Mesopotamian civilisation, and matches archaeology there. The theology is pagan, the physics outmoded – but the history and general timeframe is fine. You only run into trouble if you foolishly apply it to Big Bangs and fossils, and Walton has put that one to bed.

So what should one look for in Genesis 2-3? A vague, mystic revelation of evolutionary origins for God-awareness or sin as H. sapiens emerged? Why? Like Eridu Genesis it’s set in Mesopotamia, and at very much the same period (not surprising since they are related texts). It describes a couple designated as priests of the true God, Yahweh, with gifts and responsibilities to match. It describes their failure and exclusion from God’s precinct, and the context in the carefully worked Pentateuchal narrative gives them key significance in the establishment of Israel and a wider plan for the world.

The theology and anthropology is Yahwist, the symbolism mythic, but the historical setting is as vital as that of Eridu Genesis. Cosmology, of course, is largely absent. To divorce from their context, and mythologise, the proto-historical elements of the story (and its succeeding chapters) is, in my view, to abuse its genre as grossly as the seven-day Creationists do.

As far as Judaism and early Christianity is concerned, the beginning of the world, and the beginning of salvation history, have nothing to do with the evolution of Homo sapiens, and everything to do with the establishment of the world as God’s temple at a historical moment, and the descendants of Adam as those who are the image (tselem) of Yahweh in, and for, the world.

Rightly understood, we expect ANE myths to tell us a lot about Mesopotamian civilisation and religion, and nothing much about natural origins. Why do we not take the same attitude towards the inspired text of Genesis, which deals with the spiritual origins of Yahweh’s world, the world which is his temple, in which dwell the fallen descendants of the couple he called as his representatives?

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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