Myths, legends, history and truth

Chaos Monster and Sun God

In my last three posts (plus an earlier post) I have looked at ways that we may see that biological evolution points to God as the creator, perhaps in ways that many would find unexpected.

In all of these ways, I believe science shows that evolution alone is unlikely to lead to the outcomes we actually see, suggesting that God has used evolution to create something more than a smart animal.

So now I want to look at how we may best understand Genesis in the light of evolution.

Religion and culture around the world

It is an interesting fact that most cultures around the world have their aetiological stories, which explain their view of the world and themselves. These pre-scientific stories explain how the world was created, why certain features of life are how they are, and how people should survive and relate to the gods. These stories would generally be called “myths”, but this term should not be taken, as in popular usage, to mean untrue, for the stories were believed to contain deep truths, and may or may not have had a historical basis.

Australian Aboriginal Dreaming and songlines

The 600 nations of the Australian Aboriginal peoples are apparently the oldest living culture on earth. Scientifically, they have been in Australia for more than 50,000 years. From their own perspective, they have always lived here, and each belongs to the country of their nation, of which they see themselves as custodians. Much of Aboriginal culture is passed down to the next generation through Dreaming stories (a poor translation into English of a complex concept).

“Dreaming stories pass on important knowledge, cultural values and belief systems to later generations …. through song, dance, painting and storytelling.” Dreaming stories and songlines can explain and pass on culture on many topics:

  • creation stories
  • traditional knowledge, law and religion
  • explanations of land formations, animal behaviour and plant remedies
  • protocols for social behaviour and consequences, including punishments and disciplines
  • how to care for country
  • practical guides to where water, food or medicinal plants, etc, may be found

It would be foolish for white people to disregard the wisdom in these stories and ceremonies. Besides containing necessary and helpful practical advice on how to live in country, anthropological studies show that the stories preserve memories of distant times and places, before the sea level rose after the last ice age and submerged the features mentioned in some stories (see Indigenous Australians, climate change and the New Testament gospels).

Creation stories from around the world

Wikipedia lists over a hundred different creation myths from around the world, which explain how the world was created out of chaos, or out of nothing, or in some other (often strange) way. The stories involve gods, heroes and sometimes strange animals. For example …..

  • There were many Ancient Egyptian creation myths. The earliest date from around 2,500 BCE and comprise some of the earliest religious accounts in the world. In these myths, the world emerged from an infinite, chaotic, lifeless sea when the sun rose for the first time. The creation was attributed to different gods in different parts of the country.
  • Völuspá is an Old Norse poem that tells the story of the creation of the world and its future end. In it, the Æsir (the highest pantheon of gods in Norse mythology) create by lifting the world out of the sea and finding places for the sun, moon and stars. Then, after a golden age, they create dwarves and humans. The myth also has an elaborate description of the future end of the world when the gods fight and lose their battle with their enemies.
  • The Mayan creation myths from Central America tell of the gods deciding to create a species that looked like them and so preserve the gods’ legacy. Attempts to make humans from mud and wood were unsuccessful, but humans made from maize, their staple and sacred food, were successful.

Other myths and legends

  • Some Egyptians myths told of the birth of the king as a divine child, and so legitimised the king’s rule.
  • Irish mythology tells of war between two groups of gods, one representing the functions of human society such as kingship, crafts and war, and the other representing chaos and wild nature. While most stories are mythical, perhaps using the gods to explain the dual good-evil nature of human society, some stories try to tell an epic story of Irish history and may have some limited historical basis.
  • Maori (New Zealand) and Polynesian myths explain the origin of gods, the creation of the universe, and various natural phenomena such as the weather, stars and moon, animals and plants. In addition, each “Māori social group had its own body of traditional belief which validated its claims to the territory it occupied, gave authority to those of high rank ….”

Ancient Near East (ANE) creation myths

The earliest known ANE creation myths are Sumerian, and date from about 2,400 BCE. Several different myths have been found in fragmentary form, and tell of the life of the gods and the eventual creation of humans and bringing order into the earth so that people and animals can live comfortably – this even extends to the creation of sluice gates for irrigation in one version of the story. In the later (about 1,600 BCE) Sumerian Eridu Genesis, we see the same themes, but also the kingship comes down from heaven.

The Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish also dates from around 1,600 BCE and has been found almost complete. The story begins with chaotic water forming the first god and goddess, who give birth to the remaining gods. It tells of fighting among the gods, and the creation of the heavens and earth from the remains of the losers. Eventually humans are created to serve the gods. In versions of the myth found in different locations, different gods are pre-eminent (the full version we have names Marduk, god of Babylon, as supreme), leading scholars to conclude that one of the main purposes of the myth was to show why the local god is superior to others. It appears that Enuma Elish was recited as part of a New Year religious ritual.

Ancient Near East flood myths

The development of ANE flood stories can be traced in a similar manner, from the earlier stories of the Sumerian king Atrahasis, recorded in an Akkadian epic dated about 1,700 BCE, but almost certainly developed from older stories. This version begins with a creation myth, then continues with the story of a great flood. It appears that the Atrahasis story forms the basis for a flood story in the slightly later Eridu Genesis, and in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Like Atrahasis, Gilgamesh was an ancient Sumerian king, and the Gilgamesh epic tells of his many adventures. It originally had no flood story, but some time in the second century BCE, a flood story was apparently added, in which Gilgamesh hears the story of the hero Utnapishtim who survived a great flood sent by the gods to punish and kill the human race. But the gods tell Utnapishtim to build a wooden boat for his family and field animals. The boat eventually comes to rest on a mountain, he releases several birds to test if the world is dry enough to leave the boat, offers a sacrifice to the gods and life goes on.

Biblical creation and flood stories

It seems that almost all peoples have had their creation and other myths which explain their place in the world. The Genesis stories seem to serve somewhat similar purposes, and have many similarities with other ANE myths.

Scholars find similarities between the various Sumerian and Babylonian creation myths, especially Enuma Elish and the account in Genesis, including:

  • Both stories describe order coming out of chaos rather than creation out of nothing.
  • In both stories, there is light before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars.
  • Both stories describe the division of the waters above and below, with a barrier holding back the upper waters.
  • The creation sequence is similar, including the division of waters, dry land, lights, and humanity, all followed by God or the gods resting.

But there are also many dissimilarities, principally that in Genesis God creates on his own, with just a few words, and without the fighting among many gods that characterises other ANE creation myths. And in Genesis, Adam and Eve are created to rule over the creation, whereas in Enuma Elish, humans are created to be slaves of the gods.

The similarities between the Noah story and Atrahasis and Gilgamesh are somewhat greater: the Genesis story has all the features I described above in Gilgamesh. It appears that there may have been a great flood in Mesopotamia around 2,900 BCE, or a series of local floods, which may have had disastrous impacts. The stories all explain how a disastrous flood was sent by God or the gods as a punishment and a sign of their displeasure.

So the Genesis stories seem to serve some similar functions to many myths around the world. They describe the origin of the earth and how God relates to people. They “explain” some features of the world, such as why the snake has no legs and why there is pain in work and childbirth. They show how Israel’s God is supreme over all other gods, and how Israel is God’s chosen people.

Is Genesis 1-11 a myth?

1. Are the stories copies?

Scholars say the Genesis stories are not copies of Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh, even though Genesis was probably written later. But it seems likely that all three accounts were adapted from earlier Mesopotamian stories. They explain some key events in similar ways, but the differences are important.

2. Could all the stories reflect a common historical reality?

It is quite possible that the flood stories have some basis in history, but the details of those stories and the whole range of creation stories seem to defy scientific and historical truth.

Some christians argue that Adam and Eve must be historical, because Paul refers to Adam as if he was historical. But that is one of the features of myth. Whether a myth has a historical basis or not, those whose culture or beliefs are illuminated by the myth generally talk of it in ways that sound like it really happened, because it is so important to them. But the truths a myth expresses are not necessarily historical, but deeper than a mere report of events.

3. Could God use adaptations of ancient myths to reveal truth?

I can’t think of anything in the Bible that states that God can’t use myth, nor that every story in the Old Testament is literal history.

For millennia, Jews and Christians have assumed that the stories in Genesis 1-11 were historical, and it didn’t seem to do them any harm. But there seems to be no reason why God couldn’t reveal truth through myth – Jesus used parables, and the Song of Songs is a love poem, so why not myth? Of course the truths revealed may not be historical or scientific, but more important information that give meaning to life and show something of God’s character. (Sometimes our scientific age leads us to forget that there are other forms of truth than can be discovered by science.)

In fact, it seems as if this is the way God has chosen to act in the world. Rather than impose himself on the world in an obvious manner, God seems to have chosen to reveal himself gradually – first through myth and later through history; first through building on the ethics and beliefs of the Ancient Near East, but gradually modified through the prophets, Jesus and the apostles. As CS Lewis said, this tells us something about God.

Accepting Genesis 1-11 as ‘God’s myth’

I remember it was a defining moment. As a young christian, I had been taught, more implicitly than explicitly, that Genesis 1-11 was historical and evolution was a crazy scientific theory. I accepted this because who could believe that an eye, or a human, could evolve?

But one day I was reading Genesis, and I just “saw” that it was a folk tale, just like other folk tales I had read, like how the zebra got its stripes and the like. It was very clear to me. And so for several decades I remained agnostic about human origins, unable to accept either Genesis or evolution as factual. And it didn’t harm my christian faith one bit – in fact it helped me because I could slide right past those interminable creation vs evolution arguments and focus on things I thought were more important. And so I just didn’t read or think about it much.

It was only when I began this website that I found I couldn’t sidestep the question any longer. I prayed for God’s guidance, I recalled things CS Lewis wrote, I searched out some thoughtful authors like Denis Lamoureux and Peter Enns and thoughtful websites like BioLogos, until I came to the view I have presented here.

So now I can happily read Genesis as an aetiological myth that was the beginning of God’s revelation to the Israelites, and which can still speak to me today. Of course taking this view creates some questions just as it answers others, but I think these questions have good answers.

How do you see it?


Photo: Chaos Monster and Sun God Wikipedia

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