Should We Take Creation Stories in Genesis Literally?

Finding multiple truths in Biblical myths

garden-of-eden-fall-of-man

What purpose did creation stories in Genesis serve? Were they Biblical myths? Pictured here is The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man (c. 1617) by Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder.

Were the creation stories in Genesis meant to be taken literally?

Maybe not, says Biblical scholar Shawna Dolansky in her Biblical Views column “The Multiple Truths of Myths” in the January/February 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Our world is very different from the world in which the Biblical authors lived over 2,000 years ago. The ancient world did not have Google, Wikipedia and smartphones—access to information on human history and scientific achievements developed over millennia at the touch of their fingertips.

Many scholars believe that the ancient Israelites had creation stories that were told and retold; these stories eventually reached the Biblical authors, who wrote them down in Genesis and other books of the Bible. Creation stories in Genesis were etiological, Shawna Dolansky and other Biblical scholars argue.1 That is, the creation stories in Genesis served to provide answers to why the world was the way it was, such as why people wear clothes and why women experience pain during childbirth.
 


 
In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s earliest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham.
 


 
Creation stories in Genesis were among the many myths that were told in the ancient Near East. Today we may think of myths as beliefs that are not true, but as a literary genre, myths “are stories that convey and reinforce aspects of a culture’s worldview: many truths,” writes Dolansky. So to call something a myth—in this sense—does not necessarily imply that it is not true.

Scholars argue that Biblical myths arose within the context of other ancient Near Eastern myths that sought to explain the creation of the world. Alongside Biblical myths were Mesopotamian myths in which, depending on the account, the creator was Enlil, Mami or Marduk. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the creator of the world was Atum in one creation story and Ptah in another.

shawna-dolansky

Shawna Dolansky

“Like other ancient peoples, the Israelites told multiple creation stories,” writes Shawna Dolansky in her Biblical Views column. “The Bible gives us three (and who knows how many others were recounted but not preserved?). Genesis 1 differs from Genesis 2–3, and both diverge from a third version alluded to elsewhere in the Bible, a myth of the primordial battle between God and the forces of chaos known as Leviathan (e.g., Psalm 74), Rahab (Psalm 89) or the dragon (Isaiah 27; 51). This battle that preceded creation has the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish as its closest analogue. In Enuma Elish, the god Marduk defeats the chaotic waters in the form of the dragon Tiamat and recycles her corpse to create the earth.”

In what other ways do Biblical myths parallel ancient Near Eastern myths? What can we learn about the world in which the ancient Israelites lived through the creation stories in Genesis? Learn more by reading the full Biblical Views column “The Multiple Truths of Myths” by Shawna Dolansky in the January/February 2016 issue of BAR.

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BAS Library Members: Read the full Biblical Views column “The Multiple Truths of Myths” by Shawna Dolansky in the January/February 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on January 31, 2016.
 


 

Notes:

1. For example, see Ziony Zevit, “Was Eve Made from Adam’s Rib—or His Baculum?” BAR, September/October 2015; Mary Joan Winn Leith, “ReViews: Restoring Nudity,” BAR, May/June 2014.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Adam and Eve Story: Eve Came From Where?

The Creation of Woman in the Bible

What Does the Bible Say About Infertility?

How the Serpent Became Satan by Shawna Dolansky

Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone? by Richard Elliott Friedman
From the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review

The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet
 


 

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  • Michael says

    It is instructive to study the words of Christ in the gospels regarding the Torah in general and Genesis in particular. I recently did such a study and found 54 references to the Torah in the gospels mostly in the words of Christ. My study made at least 12 points abundantly clear.
    1. He believed that the Torah was written by Moses.
    2. He believed that the Torah was inspired by God.
    3. He believed that the Torah was inerrant.
    4. He believed that the Torah was literal history.
    5. He believed that the Torah had theological authority.
    6. He believed that the Adam and Eve existed at the beginning of creation.
    7. He believed that Abel was slain near the beginning of creation.
    8. He believed that Satan had been deceiving mankind since the beginning of creation.
    9. He identified himself as the Lord of the Sabbath.(derived from a literal 6 day creation)
    10. He identified himself as the “I Am that I Am” that spoke directly to Moses.
    11. He identified himself at the Shepherd of Israel.
    12. He identified himself as the Stone (rock) of Israel.

    So as a Christian, if one thinks of Genesis as a mere myth derived from ancient pagan sources, one is in direct disagreement with Jesus Christ. One has to believe that Jesus was wrong, or misled, or just a “child of his time”, which I think seriously reflects on his claim of divinity. And for me personally, with all due respect, if there is choice to believe Jesus’ words, or the words of modern scholars, I know who I am going to believe.

    So to deny

  • Denise the Great says

    The Near East thought in terms of function, not materialistically. The Creation story should be read in a functional sense, not a material sense. Think of creating light as creating a period of light (that is distinquished from a period of darkness) and that is named “day”. In this way, what was created on day one was TIME. The remaining days in the Creation story make much more sense with this understanding.

  • John says

    J.T. says: “Day 1: God separated light from darkness. Scientifically that means the creation of stars and galaxies”
    This is not correct……..Genesis 1:1 says that in the beginning (whenever that was),
    God created the heavens and the earth.
    The earth could have been in existence for millions of years, before day 1 of the creation, when God turned His attention to the earth to make it habitable………and these creative days were each thousands of years in length.

  • J.T. says

    While the texts are written in rather broad strokes, they do agree with scientists for the most part. The trick is to realize that a day is defined as the complete rotation of a planet upon its axis, but in the beginning there was nothing, so there was no way to measure a day.

    Day 1: God separated light from darkness. Scientifically that means the creation of stars and galaxies.

    Day 2: God separated the heavens and earth. Creation of planets, comets, etc., et al.

    Day 3: God separated the land from water. Next in planetary evolution would be when icy comets struck the Earth delivering water.

    Etc. Even the animals being created before humans.

    The thing to remember is that both creation stories in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis should be considered to be the highlights, rather like the sports section of the newspaper or evening news, rather than giving every detail, like watching those same sports live and in person.

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