Monday, April 12, 2010

Genesis as Historical Parable

We've had a number of conversations here about the interpretation of Genesis.  Do we take it as history?  As science?  Should we read it literally or metaphorically?  The conversation becomes complex and conflicted, because how we answer the question has implications for other questions.  If we take Genesis as an explicitly historical text, especially chapters 1-11, which seem to have a mythical sense to them, then what do we make of the scientific evidence that challenges these assertions?

One way of handling the creation stories is to see them as a "historical parable."  This is the suggestion of Dr. John Goldingay, Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary.   Fuller is evangelical, but it is not fundamentalist.  Having earned two degrees from Fuller, I can vouch for the fact that its biblical faculty would not take Genesis 1-3 as straightforward history.  So, what does he mean by this?   He writes in his new commentary on Genesis -- written for a lay audience -- Genesis for Everyone, vol. 1 (WJK, 2010):

To describe Genesis 1 as a creation "myth" is misleading.  One reason is that the word myth is used in many different ways; it's a confusing word.  But another reason is that calling something a myth is usually an insult, because it implies it is untrue.  I would rather call Genesis 1 a parable.  Describing it as the cosmos's "line of descent" hints at something like that; the expression usually refers to a list of a person's descendants.  It is a term that points to an account of the world's creation.  It is a metaphor.

So, if it's metaphor, what does that mean for us?  He continues:

God did not design Genesis 1 to tell us what a camera would have caught if it had been present to film creation.  Faulting it for failing to do so misses the point, and defending it to show that it does do so also misses the point.  We have no need to try to show that science is wrong and that actually the world was created in six days, just a few thousand years ago.  Equally we have no need to try to conform the "facts" of Genesis with science, for instance, by suggesting that a "day" in Genesis need not mean twenty-four hours but could cover a longer period.  When we do that, we obscure the story's own point in picturing God doing a week's work and then having a day off.  We have no need to try to prove that evolution is untrue or alternatively to try to show that Genesis can be reconciled with it.  All this means focusing on concerns other than the concerns God had in inspiring the story.  (pp. 27-28). 
I appreciate this idea of parable.  It does have a stronger sense to it than does myth, which as Goldingay points out, has negative connotations.  It also allows us to stay away from harmonizing tactics that lack credibility.  Finally, it seeks to take the creation story on its own terms as a remembrance of God's act of creation.  

10 comments:

Steve said...

I don't believe that substituting parable for myth helps anything. Parable is a poor choice because Genesis 1-11 is not parabolic. It is myth, classically understood.

Here's how Borg put it in The God We Never New: "Religious myths or sacred myths are stories about the relationship between the two worlds—the sacred and the world of our ordinary experience. In short, a myth is a story about God and us. As such, myths can be both true and powerful, even though they are symbolic narratives and not straightforward historical reports. Though not literally true, they can be really true; though not factually true, they can be actually true."

There is no definition of parable that would encompass Genesis 1-11. Let's recall that the purpose of a parable is to turn our understanding of the way things are upside down. Parables are revolutionary in their effect. Goldingay seems to distance himself from the term rather quickly by turning parable into metaphor, another wrong move. Rather than substitute a useless word for one deemed possibly offensive, let's redeem the perfectly useful and appropriate word, myth, and teach our congregations a valuable interpretive lesson. Falling back on meek substitutes like parable only further distances ourselves from the biblical worldview.

On the other hand, I only quibble with the suitability of parable and metaphor. Everything else quoted in this article I totally affirm.

Anonymous said...

The God We Never (K)New

Freudian slip Steve?

Jesus sure thought parables were useful. They can also turn things right-side up to a modern human.

By the way, speaking of new media. We're putting a Special Olympics DVD together for a bowling fundraiser. Sure looks good, and by big-time amateurs too. David Mc

John said...

I rather like to think of Scripture as true. Perhaps not on the literal plane, but on a more complex level, one that requires meditative effort to discern. If it appears untrue on the level one is apprehending it, then one must go back an dig deeper for the truth that is assuredly there to be found.

And when we find that truth we will see that it upholds the goodness of creation, the compassion of God, and ultimately calls me to actively participate in God's healing ministry.

The real risk of using the terms 'myth' or 'metaphor' and 'parable' is that they all risk trivializing the story in the minds of those who are looking for a reason not pay heed. Instead the descriptors must underscore the transcendent Truth which are inherent in the story, not the culturally limited or otherwise ephemeral notions resting on the surface of the story.

For example, I ask myself why did God preserve this story for 3,000 years? It surely wasn't to tell me that water at one time covered the entire globe - it didn't, though it no doubt did cover the whole Mesopotamian world. Perhaps it was to tell me that those who survive a catastrophe bear a great responsibility, and a need to embrace the God who rode out the storm with them and who continues to stand with them in as they put the pieces of their world back together again from the detritus of the storm.

John

Gary said...

If the earth is billions of years old and humans evoved from other forms of life, then the Bible is a fairy tale unworthy of being taken seriously.

If God didn't create the universe in six days, then we have to conclude that Exodus 20:11 is a myth, which means that the Ten Commandments are a myth, or parable if you prefer.

We also must conclude that Jesus was without credibility because he supported the Mosaic law(myth/parable) and believed that God created people "from the beginning of the creation"(Mark 10:6), not millions of years later, as evolution insists.

John said...

Gary,

Setting what I think aside for the moment, let me offer a hypothetical and a question: What if the Bible were a myth and a fairy tale - but one which God inspired to be written and read for all time as the definitive pronouncement of God's revelation to humanity?

Would it still be "unworthy of being taken seriously" Would Jesus and his teachings lack all credibility?

John

Gary said...

John,

Given your hypothetical, how could anyone know that it(Bible) was inspired by God? How could you be sure you understood it(Bible) correctly? How would we know for sure that Jesus said anything, or even ever existed?

David Mc said...

Even without John's hypothetical, I don't think we can't know for sure. That's why faith is so noble.

Anonymous said...

God made me do a double negative! What a being!

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia.

Please find a completely different Understanding of the purpose of "creation" stories via this reference.

www.dabase.org/creamyth.htm

Plus remember too that there are hundreds (even thousands) of "creation" stories from ever known culture---all of which are now our common inheritance.

Plus a unique Understanding of the "Garden of Eden" and the Spiritual significance of trees too.

www.dabase.org/tfrbkgil.htm

www.fearnomorezoo.org/trees/tree_fundamental.php

Dan said...

I like a lot of what Goldingay has to say here. I think his first point is important: We don't expect Genesis to act as a camera, but we do need to know that it's presenting an accurate account. I'm comfortable with the extended period of creation (day-age, I guess) as long as there's a literal Adam and Eve, literally crafted by God and brought to life by Him. Without these, where does the need for Christ come in?