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Sunday, April 26, 2015

An alternative to a literal understanding of the Genesis account of creation

In previous posts, I have attacked a literal understanding of the Genesis account of creation. So, what's the alternative? If you propose a metaphorical/allegorical interpretation of these stories, where do you draw the line? Is there any way to reconcile these stories with what follows them? Good questions, that deserve some attention!

First, I think that it is essential to have some awareness of the other creation mythologies of the ancient world and how those may have influenced the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures. Various scholars have compared the Egyptian and Babylonian mythologies to the Genesis accounts and have noted both similarities and differences in explaining what is written there. Although some scholars have chosen to emphasize one tradition over another, I think that it is reasonable for any serious student of the subject to acknowledge that both traditions (Egyptian and Babylonian) had a profound influence on what ended up in the first few chapters of Genesis. After all, the history of the peoples of the Levant must be understood in terms of the almost constant efforts of these civilizations to dominate the region.

Hence, I believe that some of Tony Shetter's observations in his "Genesis 1-2 In Light of Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths" (https://bible.org/article/genesis-1-2-light-ancient-egyptian-creation-myths) offer some reasonable suggestions for the interpretation of the Genesis account of creation. Shetter points out that there are three characteristics that are common to all of the Egyptian creation stories: "a primordial ocean, a primeval hill, and the deification of nature." He goes on to propose that the presence of two distinctly different creation stories in the Hebrew Bible seems to take into account the different notions inherent within Egyptian creation mythology regarding the methodology employed by the gods in their creative work. YHWH speaks things into existence (chapter one) and fashions things into existence (chapter two). Shetter also points out that this is suggestive of the Egyptian view that the creation of the world and the creation of man were separate stories.

Even more significantly, Shetter implies that much of the Genesis creation account is written as a polemic against the gods of Egypt. He points out that the Genesis account makes God the author/source of light, not the sun god. By making the creation of the sun, moon and stars on the fourth day, the Genesis account is clearly downplaying the importance of these objects. This is further reinforced by the fact that the Genesis account fails to even name the sun and moon. Instead, they are referred to as "the greater light" and "the lesser light." The implication is clear that they are inanimate objects that YHWH has created to serve a purpose ("to give light upon the earth"). By their very nature, these writings also imply the superiority of the One True God to the many gods of the Egyptians.

In similar fashion, Bruce A. Robinson's observations in his "Comparing two creation stories: One from Genesis and the other from Babylonian pagan sources" (http://www.religioustolerance.org/com_geba.htm) point out parallels between the Biblical and Babylonian creation mythologies. Like Shetter, Robinson implies that much of the Genesis account is written in the form of a polemic against the Babylonian narrative. The author suggests that many of the characters (God, Adam, Eve, the Serpent) are the same, but their characters and roles have been significantly altered by the author(s) of the Hebrew scriptures. Once again, the objective is to demonstrate YHWH's superiority over the Babylonian deities. Robinson also provides an impressive chart within the text of the article demonstrating the agreement between the two creation chronologies (the order of the creative acts in Genesis compared to the Enuma Elish).

If we accept that the Hebrew creation story is based at least in part on the earlier Egyptian and Babylonian narratives, we should also note that most scholars recognize that these narratives were in turn based on even more ancient traditions. Hence, in a real sense, the Hebrew story is a reaction/response to everything that the cultures who had preceded them had offered on the subject.

In terms of the relation of the first three chapters of Genesis to the rest of the Bible, it is apparent that certain elements of the story had achieved something approaching an accepted or universal understanding among Jews by the time of the writing of the New Testament. Among these, I would characterize the most important notions as: 1) that the seven day week was inextricably related to YHWH's creation of the earth and everything else, 2) that God was the Master Potter who had fashioned mankind to be like "Him," 3) that the Garden of Eden was representative of an initial state of perfection which mankind was given access to and 4) that mankind had rebelled against his maker and had consequently fallen into a state of imperfection/uncleanness. Christians further refined these understandings to include two important elements relating to their narrative about God's plan to redeem mankind from his fallen state: 1) that the Serpent was representative of Satan the Devil and 2) that the account of the Serpent's punishment should be interpreted as representing a prophecy about Jesus Christ and his ultimate triumph over Satan. Finally, the Gospel of John (along with some of the writings attributed to Paul) insert Jesus Christ into the creation narrative (which also has significant implications for the redemption narrative) and seek to more closely identify him with YHWH.

All of these considerations have led me to state in previous posts that I consider the Genesis creation account to be an emphatic statement that YHWH is the Creator God. When I read the first three chapters of the Bible, the other considerations outlined here inform my understanding of these scriptures. Thus, not only do I reject a literal understanding of these scriptures, I believe that history and the Bible itself provide a framework for understanding them that makes sense and offers a clear alternative to the interpretation of the literalists.


  1. This is a tough question. You need to consult an authority:
    You could send it in to Ask Jimmie Swaggart at the Son Life Broadcasting network.

  2. Some folks like for other folks to tell them what to believe. I'm not one of them, but I appreciate the suggestion.