Many Christian fundamentalists impose a literal interpretation on Biblical myth, thus missing the larger moral messages and rejecting later scientific discoveries, a mistake most apparent in their reading of the Genesis creation story, as the Rev. Howard Bess explains.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
The important message of the Genesis 1 creation story has been lost in debates about how all things began. In some religious teachings, people have been led to believe that Genesis 1 is about God’s creation of all things out of nothing, an interpretation that transforms this marvelous myth into an inaccurate history report.
To do so misunderstands where the story comes from and why. Genesis 1 touches on the critical topic of beginnings. The word genesis means beginnings and the very first words of Genesis 1 are “in the beginning.”
Understandably, many readers want the passage to answer the critical questions of when and how. But they never find an answer that is satisfactory to a modern inquiring mind and for good reason. The passage is written in the literary form of mythology, which should surprise no one because mythology is one of the earliest forms of communication.
Myths address questions of values and morals – why, not when or how. They are not history and are not to be read to satisfy scientific inquiry. Myths are commentaries about life and are found in every civilization. They are simple to remember, and their roots predate written language.
The roots of the Genesis 1 creation story are easily traced. Abraham – the foundation person of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – was a native of Mesopotamia, the fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in modern-day Iraq. This area produced the earliest known mythologies of the Western world and is the birthplace of written language.
Judaism’s development never escaped the context of Mesopotamian/Babylonian mythology. Indeed, Israelite understandings were worked out against dominant Babylonian mythology, which included the story of the warrior God, Marduk, the civilization’s chief deity although Marduk was not without challenge, which came from Tiamat, the God of chaos.
Marduk fought Tiamat and appeared to be victorious. However, each year Tiamat reappeared to do battle again. The dominant theme in Babylonian mythology was what to do about chaos, not about how things began. In Babylonian thinking, the world was a given.
In the sixth century BCE, a small group of Israelites was forcibly taken to Babylon as slaves. In that context, they were confronted by Marduk, Tiamat and Babylonian mythology. What we read in Genesis 1 is a thoughtful theological response to that myth.
By the time of this Babylonian captivity, Israelites had become monotheistic, meaning their God was the one and only God, but their God, too, was confronted by chaos. In the Israelite myth, God finds a chaotic world without form, void, useless.
But the Genesis 1 creation myth sets aside the idea of a battle to the death between God and chaos. The Israelite God took a different course, the doing of good. Everything that the Israelite God formed and shaped is described as good, including his final creative work, the forming of human beings, which is described as very good.
Thus, Genesis 1 carries an essential truth for Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that those things in life that are useless and even destructive are not to be addressed in the field of battle, but by the doing of good. Centuries later, Jesus clearly taught that we are to overcome evil with good. Becoming a warrior in these great faith traditions is a denial of this essential truth.
Yet, in the Bible, we find two traditions, not one. One of those traditions embraces a warrior God, who is constantly ready to do battle with evil. The other tradition rejects the warrior approach, ignores chaos and pursues the doing of good. The Genesis 1 account was written in the second tradition.
Some Christian believers attempt somehow to embrace both traditions, but face the great dilemma: How can the command of Jesus to love our enemies be harmonized with killing our enemies?
What to do with chaos is another common theme among the great religions of the world. None of the major world religions deny that chaos is a reality of life. Chaos surrounds us all every day. The most common solution that is found is creating order, as God did in the Genesis story.
But it is all too easy to conclude that someone – some nation or some combination of nations – needs to bring order through violent means for the sake of humanity. Every war that has ever been fought has been seen by some as the only way to restore order.
So, wars are fought with the assumption that if life is well-ordered, then peace and happiness will result. However, wars never bring that desired result. They inevitably cause great destruction and leave behind further chaos.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, left us with sound advice: Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, as long as you can. According to the Genesis myth, chaos was God’s opportunity to do good. It can be ours as well.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.