Finding multiple truths in Biblical myths
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.
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.
“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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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
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on January 31, 2016.
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