Genesis Myth: God Doing Good

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.”

Michelangelo's painting of the Creation of Adam

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 hdbss@mtaonline.net.

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17 comments on “Genesis Myth: God Doing Good

  1. Hillary on said:

    Yes Rev. Howard Bess — if you are gullible enough to believe in an “after life” ,Heaven and Hell etc.etc you will beilieve almost anything.

    Jesus , God and Religion are the “Greatest Stories Ever Sold”.

    We are just one of the billions of living species on just this planet.

    In fact, our very existance is an accident in the course of the evolution of our universe.

    Religious childlike minds are incapable of seeing basic realities and blinded by what they call faith.

    Your fellow Christian zealot G.W.Bush was so religious he convinced himself & tried to convince the French President on the phone that the Bible Prophesy Gog MayGog had to be fullfilled by the invasion of Iraq which he referred to as a Chrusade.
    http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=haught_29_5

  2. knowbuddhau on said:

    Hey Hillary, you must’ve overlooked this part, in your zealous haste to denounce what you don’t understand:

    ~~~~~~~
    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.
    ~~~~~~~~~~

    Get that? “Not to be read to satisfy scientific inquiry.” That means, it’s art, not science; poetic, not prosaic. You’re making the same mistake as the people who read the Bible as if it were a freakin’ newspaper. I’ll bet you’re a lot of fun to sit next to in a theater.

    Come to think of it, let’;s imagine we’re in a theater right now. There’s the screen, and there’s the content of the story projected onto the screen. You’re just looking at the surface of the lesson encoded in age-old myths. Open your inner eyes.

    For my part, thanks for the comparative mythology, Rev. Bess. I wish more people understood the power of myth as the power that brings into being the world stage on which we’re playing our notorious parts. As Hillary’s comment shows, there’s been a great dumbing down, a reduction of the whole world, not just humans, down to just rickety old Newtonian mechanics. In this worldview, nothing is sacred, it’s all just inert god-forsaken dirt. All manner of horrors are possible for people who don’t recognize the inherent sanctity of life.

    • Hillary on said:

      I wish more people understood the power of myth as the power that brings into being the world stage on which we’re playing our notorious parts.

      knowbuddhau — did you read above how G.W.Bush & Religious myth-believing Americans used lies & deceit to cause over 7,000,000 dead ,crippled , diseased ,orphaned & displaced humans by propagating their Crusade or war on Islam.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7L7VTdzuY7Y

      Yes ,all manner of horrors are possible for people who don’t recognize the inherent sanctity of life , especially those driven by myths & fairy stories like Judeo/Christian neocons .

      • as a former methodist that might as well be considered atheist/agnostic — as a “secular” reader — you’re an embarrassment to “secular” people, hillary. denouncing “lunacy” with the ramblings of a lunatic is no sound defense.

        maybe you should educate yourself on your own beliefs before mindlessly and needlessly assaulting those of others!

  3. Hey, knowbuddhau, your computer works on scientific principles, so stop attacking Newtonian mechanics and go do some good in the world =P Eat this: F = Gm1m2/r^2.

    Joking aside, I appreciate Rev. Bess’s explanation as well.

  4. Robert Hagedorn on said:

    Challenge yourself. Google First Scandal.

  5. Yahuwah created all things, time is not relevant.

  6. chmoore on said:

    Repeating history.

    “The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.”

    …..you know, pretty much like many aspects of modern life.

    “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’ ”

    Now there’s a good idea!

  7. F. G. Sanford on said:

    John 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.

    And, with words, we can create almost anything we want…regardless of whether or not they mirror anything that actually exists in the phyical universe. Deception and lies existed in rudimentary form before the word, in survivalistic terms one might consider natural camouflage. But we are destroying ourselves and eventually, most likely our species, with those words that set us apart, “In thehe beginning”, from animals. Animals generally don’t torture one another…although watching my cat play with a cricket makes me wonder. Words make real animals out of us.

    But I am delighted to hear at least one “Man of the Cloth” try to humanize some of those words that keep us in trouble.

  8. Gregory L Kruse on said:

    During a text study recently, a pastor asserted that the Hebrew word translated as “it was good” in almost all bibles should be translated as “it worked”. This version makes more sense in that nature is obviously a cruel bitch, but a bitch that works. “Good” is a moral term that has an uncomfortable place in the Genesis 1 story, notwithstanding the myth of Babylonian counter-mythology. It has caused confusion in the minds of millions when they consider how a moral God could let horrible things happen in the world God created. The notion of an amoral God is present in later Hebrew scriptures, and is railed against by some prophets, but belief in such a God doesn’t preclude a person’s decision to be moral or to do as much good as one can for as long as one can.

  9. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    Yes Reverend Bess, there is a Santa Clause. “Myths address questions of values and morals – why, not when or how.”
    Everyone has a prejudice or three. It does not come from ideology. It comes out of a deeper psychological need. It is associated with a particular way of thinking by people who are uncomfortable with ambiguity and want quick and firm decisions and are prone to make generalizations about others.
    Quick (intuitive) and firm (convictions) relying on the obvious information and sustained by those who have the same mental defects relying on that group support for value judgments.
    This is mob psychology in action. Such insecure people rely on myths to blame others and deny responsibility.
    Catholicism would have gotten nowhere without the fear factor and the invented authority to forgive the selfish ungenerous obsession of bigotry.

  10. Weak article by Bess. Many claims are made with no solid evidence given. The word genesis is never even used in the book commonly referred to as “Genesis”. Get a bible that shows the original language and you will see for yourself. If one were to translated the first word into English it would be …Shake, the second word would read…. entities and the third …cut down. There you have it…shake entities cut down……. That what it literally says. No mention of any Genesis. Those are the facts.