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.