Recently, I was asked a provocative question by a young-earth creationist: If I think that the Genesis account of creation is largely symbolic, when does Genesis stop being symbolic and start reporting actual history? Noah? The Tower of Babel? Abraham? Is the whole book a myth? At that moment, I wished—and not for the first time—that the Bible was color-coded into neat sections and had built-in footnotes so we know exactly how to interpret every part. This is not to downplay the power of the Bible’s message or the extraordinary way in which sixty-six ancient books speak in unison of God’s love for his creation. But there are parts of God’s word that defy our efforts to plumb their depths. Simply put, they are difficult to understand. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are a prime example; populated by epic narratives that tell the story of the beginning of all things and set the stage for the calling of God’s people.
No matter what we conclude about these chapters, certainly they come from a time and culture far removed from ours, with vastly different ways of communicating about the beginnings of all things. But to what extent are these chapters speaking of real, historical events? Christian scholars disagree—and this is reflected in Zondervan’s newly released book Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible's Earliest Chapters, part of their Counterpoints series in which top scholars present their cases and respond to each other’s presentations (readers may remember we extensively reviewed a previous book containing three views on the historicity of Adam). In this new book, three Old Testament scholars wrestle with whether the stories in Genesis 1-11 should be interpreted differently than the rest of the Genesis, and to what extent the stories reflect factually accurate history.
The three contributors to this volume are Drs. James K. Hoffmeier, Gordon J. Wenham, and Kenton L. Sparks (full bios at the bottom of the post). Spoiler alert: All three scholars, even though they have massive disagreements about how to understand the Bible’s authoritative message, all firmly agree that these early chapters of Genesis are not fiction, and two out of the three are uncomfortable with the word history as well. In fact, they urge us in unison to develop our interpretive imagination beyond the confining limits of modern categories and see these important and mysterious biblical texts with fresh eyes.
The excerpts I have chosen purposely highlight these scholars’ attempts to disentangle the interpretation of Genesis from the restrictive boundaries too often placed upon it. Today’s selections all center on the question of “myth.” This word is frequently thrown around in debates about science and the Scriptures, but is it a helpful word to use to describe the stories of early Genesis?
Hoffmeier (from essay titled, “Genesis 1-11 as History and Theology”):
Thus myth, in the technical sense, is concerned with ultimate realities, not fiction. Even though preserved in the form of stories or epic poems, myths are not fantasy...Myth is a type of literature that does not necessarily look like historiography. It could be written in poetic form and may employ symbolic language, and yet, myth can be considered writing about real events. A classic example of this is the flood story, for which we not only have the biblical Hebrew report, but also a number of different Mesopotamian flood traditions [...] Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that while Genesis 1-11 uses mythic language, that such language does not necessarily make its contents fiction.
Wenham (from essay titled, “Genesis 1-11 as Protohistory”):
In everyday usage, “myth” usually characterizes a belief as false or misleading. And this is not how the first authors or hearers of these stories would have viewed them: they would doubtless have held them in similar respect to our era’s respect for modern cosmologies or other scientific theories. For these reasons, it is prudent to avoid the term “myth” in describing the genre of Gen 1–11. . .
Sparks (from essay titled, “Genesis 1-11 as Ancient Historiography”):
Modern readers are quick to assume that “myth” is, in the nature of the case, opposed to “science” and “history,” but there is evidence that ancient authors did not think like this...So while he needn’t assume in every case that ancient myth writers envisioned a one-to-one correspondence between myth and fact, neither can we presume that they didn’t.
As we have seen, all three scholars agree that “myth”—in the modern understanding of the word—is not a helpful or appropriate label for the early chapters of Genesis. But even if the narratives are not wholly fiction, to what extent were the writer(s) of Genesis intending to communicate factually accurate history? That is the subject of tomorrow’s excerpts. Finally, on Wednesday, the series will conclude with each scholar’s thoughts on whether the authority of the Scriptures demands that historical intent match historical reality.