In an attempt to remain open minded to the different interpretations of God’s word out there I bring Christian scholar and biblical Professor Peter Enns’ view into focus here. Views articulated here come from Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation, a book I trust that many Christians will profit from.
1. Parallels with Other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) Literature.
The parallels between the opening chapters of Genesis and other ANE literature such as Enuma Elish and Atrahasis/Gilgamesh raise the issue whether there is myth in the Old Testament. This has in turn been an area of concern among evangelicals for if Genesis is myth it would seem to bring the Bible down to the level of other ancient literature.
2. Genesis as Myth or History? Or a False Dichotomy?
According to Enns it is problematic to propose such a question; that is to force us to refer to Genesis as either myth or history. This dichotomy is a modern invention that what is historical, in a modern sense of the word, is more real, of more value, more like something God would do, than myth. In other words, if Genesis is myth then it is not “of God.” Or if Genesis is history then it is only worthy of being in the Bible. However, this is an assumption. This assumes that God cannot use a category that we call “myth” to reveal truth to the ancient Israelites. The problem is the baggage that comes with the word myth. Enns believes that we should abandon this word altogether as it prejudices the discussion before we even have it. He defines myth as “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?”
3. Near Eastern Myths Older Than the Biblical Account.
Enns claims that “We must begin our thinking by acknowledging that the ancient Near Eastern myths are certainly older than the versions recorded for us in the Bible.”
There are several reasons as to why this is the case. Firstly, the Israelite culture is somewhat of a latecomer in the ancient Near Eastern world. This is not to deny the antiquity of such figures as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the stories surrounding them. However, even this most ancient time in Israel’s history is much more recent than the Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian cultures that formed the backdrop of Israel’s world. The Old Testament Hebrew language did not exist in the second millennium (prior to 1000 BC). Enn’s explains:
“To be sure, linguistic “ancestors” of Biblical Hebrew were very much in existence during that time. Many scholars see reflexes of Hebrew-like elements in Akkadian and Egyptian texts from the first half of the second millennium BC. Such similarities certainly suggest Hebrew’s clear connections to its Semitic predecessors. Ugaritic, for example, is a language very similar to Biblical Hebrew. We have texts from these sancient peoples that date to around 1400 BC and later.”
Yet, this is not to say that these stories did not already exist in oral form before they were written down. But these oral versions already reflected other ancient worldviews.
4. Addressing the Fundamental Issue.
The fundamental issue is that “regardless of when Genesis was written and in what language, it still reflects an ancient Near Eastern worldview that is clearly significantly older. Logic and common sense must be stretched to try to protect the uniqueness of the Genesis accounts by arguing that Mesopotamian peoples, who existed long before Israel came on the scene and who were the dominant cultures of the day, had no creation myths for hundreds of years and simply waited for Israelite slaves to provide the prototype they then corrupted.”
So, why does the Genesis account look so much like other ancient Near Eastern texts? Enn’s believes that it begins with the story of Abraham where, beginning at the end of Genesis 11, a resident of Babylon left with his family and moved up along the Euphrates River to Haran (in modern-day Turkey). According to Genesis 12, God called Abraham out of his homeland. This is the biblical portrait of Israel’s rise in history; it begins in Babylon. Relevant here, too, is Joshua 24:2: “Joshua said to all the people, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: “Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.”’ It is important to remember where Abraham came from and where he was headed. He was not an Israelite. There were no such people yet. He came from “Ur of the Chaldeans” (Gen. 15:7). Ur is actually a city of Sumerian origin, a culture even older than the Assyrian and Babylonian cultures we have looked at. The Mesopotamian world from which Abraham came was one whose own stories of origins had been expressed in mythic categories for a considerable length of time.
Furthermore, the land that Abraham was going to enter, the land of the Canaanites, was also rich in its own myths. Keeping in the forefront of our minds the biblical portrait of Israel’s first father with Mesopotamian roots may be a helpful starting point from which to understand the origin of Israel’s creation story. God “met Abraham” where he was – as an ancient Mesopotamian man who breathed the air of the ancient Near East. We must surely assume that Abraham, as such a man, shared the worldview of those whose world he shared and not a modern scientific one. The reason the opening chapters of Genesis look so much like the literature of ancient Mesopotamia is that the worldview categories of the ancient Near East were ubiquitous at the time. Different cultures had different myths, they all had them.
5. The Different Nature of the Biblical Account.
The reason the biblical account is different from its ancient Near Eastern counterparts is not that it is history in the modern sense of the word and therefore divorced from any similarity to ancient Near Eastern myth. What makes Genesis different is that it begins to make the point to Abraham and his seed that the God they are bound to, the God who called them into existence, is different from the gods around them. We might think that such a scenario is unsatisfying because it gives too much ground to pagan myths. But we must bear in mind how very radical this notion would have been in the ancient world. For a second-millennium Semitic people, as Israel’s earliest ancestors were, to say that the gods of Babylon were not worth worshiping but that the true god was the god of a nomad like Abraham – this was risky, ridiculous, and counterintuitive. And this would have been no less true when these stories were later recorded in Hebrew. Ancient Near Eastern religions were hierarchical and polytheistic. The biblical claim that Israel’s God, Yahweh, alone is God might be analogous to someone claiming in our world today that the gods of ancient Greece really exist and that they sit on Mount Olympus ruling the world. To put it differently, theologically speaking, God adopted Abraham as the forefather of a new people, and in doing so he also adopted the mythic categories within which Abraham, and everyone else, thought. But God did not simply leave Abraham in his mythic world. Rather, God transformed the ancient myths so that Israel’s story would come to focus on its God, the real one.
6. Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Worldview
According to Genesis, as with other stories of the ancient world, the world is portrayed as a flat disk with a dome above. Below the earth were the waters threatening to gush up, and above the dome are the waters threatening to drop down (see Gen. 7:11). The biblical worldview described in Genesis is an ancient Near Eastern one. But the ordering of the world (for example, the separation of water from land) did not result from conflict within a dysfunctional divine family as seen in the Enuma Elish. Instead it was simply this amazing God who spoke. Here it is also worth noting that the degree to which Genesis may have been dependent on the Babylonian material has always been a matter of debate. For instance, some scholars argued that the differences between Genesis and Enuma Elish are so great that one cannot speak of any direct relationship. Enns explains:
“I think this is essentially correct (although the stronger similarities regarding the flood story may suggest some level of dependence)… The differences notwithstanding, the opening chapters of Genesis participate in a worldview that the earliest Israelites shared with their Mesopotamian neighbors. 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 within which they were first understood. And that context was not a modern scientific one but an ancient mythic one.”
It is also the case that our biblical account, along with the ancient Near Eastern stories, assumes the factual nature of what it reports. We do not protect the Bible or render it more believable to modern people by trying to demonstrate that it is consistent with modern science. It is also an anachronistic reading of the Bible because, in the ancient context which existed thousands of years before modern science came on the scene, the Bible needed no such defence. Therefore, the question is not the degree to which Genesis conforms to what we would think is a proper description of origins; as Enns articulates:
“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.”
It would also appear wholly incomprehensible to think that thousands of years ago God would have felt constrained to speak in a way that would be meaningful only to Westerners several thousand years later. This just borders on modern, Western arrogance. Instead, Genesis makes its case in a way that ancient people would have understood it. Because Genesis has its grounding in ancient myth does not make it less inspired. Quite to the contrary as such rootedness in the culture of the time is precisely what it means for God to speak to his people. This is what it means for God to speak at a certain time and places; he enters their world, and he speaks and acts in ways that make sense to them. This is what it means for God to reveal himself to people; he accommodates, condescends, and meets them where they are. This, as seen, does not come imply a disconnectedness to its ancient environment. Enns concludes:
“We will not understand the Bible if we push aside or explain away its cultural setting, even if that setting disturbs us. We should, rather, learn to be thankful that God came to them just as he did more fully in Bethlehem many, many centuries later. We must resist the notion that for God to enculturate himself is somehow beneath him. This is precisely how he shows his love to the world he made.”