Genesis 1, due to the multiplicity of themes and ideas, is the denser chapter in the Bible and it is also the most influential story in the history of human literature, having shaped the world view of our global modern society.
Genesis 1 introduces the novel and original idea of time as a linear sequence: differently from all other creation stories, with its first three words ‘In the Beginning’establishes a beginning point in time that is to be followed by a causal and linear succession of events.
Creation (or the “filling” of the world) has a narrative that develops trough a definite and limited time of six days. Differently for many other creation accounts, time is not circular but linear, as in a chronicle of subsequent events.
It introduces also the three most fundamental differences that constitute the peculiarity of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic worldview:
- God, the creator, is different, a separated individual entity, from the universe that he had created;
- the whole of creation is created singularly in different times and all creatures are therefore not only different from the creator but indeed also different from each other;
- “good” is the concept inset at the very act of the creation and it is arguably different from its opposite (‘[...] and God saw that the light was good.’) 1.
God, the creator, is depicted here as the supreme technocrat: he employs the procedural method of trial and error - as any scientist would also employ - and after seeing that one particular creation is good, then, and only then, he proceed to create further parts of the universe. The creation is made out of un-descriptive formless void, waters, land and biological mass used as soulless basic material to the purpose of culminating the work of God with the creation of humankind ‘in the image of God’ 2 - thus sharing some divine attribute with the creator - to which nature is given to be used for humankind own advance and to progress to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ 3. Genesis 1, far from being just a creation narrative, is in itself a concentrated Theological and Philosophical treaty.
The power and the importance of this set of basilar ideas cannot be remarked emphatically enough, as it is the set of pillars on which all present western thought bases its construction, considering irrespectively its religious, mundane or scientific aspects. Its importance cannot be stressed enough and it should be quite self-explanatory to anyone sharing our culture. Sadly, being too apparent, such an evident influence is nearly universally overlooked.
As very remarkable as the substance of thoughts of the Chapter subject of this present article, it is none the less its literary form, based on a hieratical style employing a peculiar Chiastic structure called palistrophe (i.e. linking together the first three days of the creation and the following three days as well). Genesis’s style transmits to the reader solemnity and indisputable authority, but, nevertheless, makes difficult if not impossible for a standard modern reader to take for literal the narrative of the first 6 days of the world, as it is depicted, without falling in some sort of cognitive dissonance.
Surprisingly, the above mentioned cognitive dissonance is a major concern not only in regards of the layman, but also examining the attitude of biblical scholars, particularly when they have to categorise the Genesis into a specific a literary genre.
In facts we can argue, taking as example of it one of the most respected biblical scholars, Wenham, that exemplifies well the commonly accepted scholarly position in Theology, 4 that finding a categorising definition for the book of Genesis is indeed a major problem for the scholars, to the extent that they resorts to the use of the foreign German term Urgeschichtle 5 in order to avoid for the narrative of the Genesis (and also more generally the whole of the Pentateuch) to be included within the category of Myth.
The above mentioned stance, in the present article taking Professor Wenham to make an example of it, is to me very puzzling for more than one reason.
First of all, Wenham defines a myth using a quotation from the Concise Oxford Dictionary 6, which in scholarly terms has no authority or reliance whatsoever. With this widely shared escamotage, Welhan uses the most restrictive and less scholarly meaning that it would be possible to be gathered anywhere, in order to examine the meaning of a word from a scholarly point of view, thus committing what, in my opinion, is a very blatant fallacy.
Furthermore, with this trick, he manages with the most careless attitude to completely by-pass and ignore at least 70 years of history of comparative mythology, anthropology and psychology.
Some 77 years before Wenham’s work, Bronislaw Malinowski wrote:
"Studied alive, myth [. . .] is not an explanation in satisfaction of a scientific interest, but a narrative resurrection of a primeval reality, told in satisfaction of deep religious wants, moral cravings, social submissions, assertions, even practical requirements. Myth fulfills in primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man. Myth is thus a vital ingredient of human civilization; it is not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force; it is not an intellectual explanation or an artistic imagery, but a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom. [. . .]. These stories [. ..] are to the natives a statement of a primeval, greater, and more relevant reality, by which the present life, facts and activities of mankind are determined, the knowledge of which supplies man with the motive for ritual and moral actions, as well as with indications as to how to perform them. 7
Malinowski’s view of myth is, as we can appreciate from the above excerpt, far more articulated than the definition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary and is widely recognised by scholars of many disciplines all around the world. It is also perfectly pertinent to what we can read in the Biblical Genesis.
In 1963 Mircea Eliade wrote:
For the past fifty years at least, Western scholars have approached the study of myth from a viewpoint markedly different from, let us say, that of the nineteenth century. Unlike their predecessors, who treated myth in the usual meaning of the word, that is, as "fable," "invention," "fiction," they have accepted it as it was understood in archaic societies, where, on the contrary, "myth" means a "true story" and, beyond that, a story that is a most precious possession because it is sacred, exemplary, significant. This new semantic value given the term "myth" makes its use in contemporary parlance somewhat equivocal. Today, that is, the word is employed both in the sense of "fiction" or "illusion" and in that familiar especially to ethnologists, sociologists, and historians of religions, the sense of "sacred tradition, primordial revelation, exemplary model. 8
After creating his straw man Wenham proceeds to burn it:
If the only reason for calling Genesis 1-11 a myth is because God is present in the story, one would have to call the whole Bible a myth, which few would wish to do. 9
Apart for the ludicrous idea that you cannot call something in a way or another because “few would wish to do” it, it misses entirely the point, comparing what are surely two different genres: epic myth and creation myth.
What Wenham reports as a quotation from Rogerson (that the Israelites were not expecting to experience the world in Genesis terms and nevertheless regarded its narrative as ‘factually true’) 10 is showing us precisely that a myth is understood by the people that are employing it as:
[...] a complex of stories – some no doubt fact, and some fantasy- which, for various reasons, human beings regards as demonstrations of the inner meaning of the universe and of human life. 11
So I do not feel that I could possibly agree with Wenham that necessarily if the Big Bang story is true, being this story difficult to understand and believe, also Genesis should be regarded as true 9, because they could with good reason be regarded both as myths and true at the same time, having their place not in Protohistory, as Wenham is suggesting, but instead in Metahistory. In other words they are beyond the realm of truth or falsehood, using images as metaphors to allow Man to make sense of a world that is beyond literal description and therefore bordering with the ineffable.
As Wenham points out 10 it is not apparent that the narrative of the Genesis had been originated from transcriptions of earlier oriental stories. More than the similarity with other Mesopotamian origin accounts is the dissimilarity both in tone and in theological interpretation to be its truly remarkable feature.
Biblical Genesis is not only a creation myth but also the account of the Falling of Man. Whereas in other accounts the creation is already faulted, in the Biblical account the Creation is at first perfect in itself and there is no presage of the Disaster (or to better say the various disasters) to come.
As correctly Wenham points out, Genesis it has no faith in progress and salvation would consist in the restoration of a perfect beginning, in line with the belief in a Golden Age that periodically resurfaced in the history of western thought and that demonstrates the persistence and the importance of Genesis in all the subsequent history of our culture.
- 1. The Bible NRSV, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995, Genesis, 1.4
- 2. ibid. Genesis, 1.27
- 3. ibid. Genesis, 1.28
- 4. Wenham, G., Exploring the Old Testament: The Pentateuch, London, SPCK, 2003
- 5. ibid. Chapter 2 page 15
- 6. ibid. page 13
- 7. B. Malinowski. Myth in Primitive Psychology. 1926, Magic, Science and Religion. New York: 1955: pp. 101, 108.
- 8. Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality New York Harper & Row, 1963: p.1
- 9. a. b. ibid. page 14
- 10. a. b. ibid. page 15
- 11. Alan Watts, Myth and Ritual in Christianity, Thames and Hudson, 1954, page 7