Can God speak through myth?


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today we continue our discussion of Peter Enns’ excellent book, Inspiration and Incarnation, as part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. 

As we move to Chapter 2—“The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature”—I am struck afresh with just how perfect this book fits with our theme. In it, Enns focuses on three specific problems/questions raised by the modern study of the Old Testament and uses those specific problems/questions to engage in a broader conversation about the nature of Scripture. According to Enns, many evangelicals have assumed a defensive posture when it comes to confronting the linguistic, historical, and archeological evidence that shows the Bible to be “firmly situated in the ancient world in which it was produced,”  for fear that such “situatedness” detracts from its divine nature. Rather than ignoring or lamenting the evidence, Enns suggests we allow it to teach us something about how the Bible ought to be read and interpreted. “The problems many of us feel regarding the Bible may have less to do with the Bible itself and more to do with our own preconceptions,” he writes. “I have found again and again that listening to how the Bible itself behaves and suspending preconceived notions (as much as that is possible) about how we think the Bible to behave is refreshing, creative, exciting and spiritually rewarding.” (p. 15)

Last week, we discussed Enns’ incarnational analogy— in which he posits that just as Jesus assumed the language, culture, and life of a first-century Jewish teacher, so the Bible belonged in the ancient worlds that produced it. “It was not an abstract, otherworldly book, dropped out of heaven,” Enns writes. “It was connected to and therefore spoke to those ancient cultures.”  

This week, with Chapter 2, we get an up close look at the ancient world that produced the Bible, particularly the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature shaped much of its content. 

A Reality Check

Enns first highlights the impact of Akkadian Literature, which likely predates the biblical text and which includes creation and flood accounts remarkably similar to those we find in the Bible. (If, like me, you had a mini faith crisis in Intro to Ancient Literature after reading Enuma Elish or Gilgabmesh, you will know exactly what he’s talking about.) He also notes the similarities between The Code of Hammurabi and the laws found in Exodus, between Hittite suzerainty treaties and Deuteronomy, and between the Egyptian instructions of Amenemope and the book of Proverbs. He then points to archeological finds such as the Tel Dan inscription and the Siloam Tunnel Inscription to highlight the likely historicity of King David and Israel’s monarchs as well as similarities in how ancient people reported historical events.  I won’t get into detail here, but I strongly encourage those unfamiliar with ANE texts to study this chapter, which will serve as something of a reality check regarding the context in which the Bible was written and the worldview it shares with the sacred texts of other ANE cultures. 

These similarities raise some important questions: Does the Bible report historical fact, or is it just a bunch of stories culled from other ancient cultures? What does it mean for other cultures to have an influence on the Bible that we believe is revealed by God? If the Bible is a “culturally conditioned” product, what relevance does it have today? Can we really say that the Bible is unique? Can really say it is the word of God? 

“The problem...is that showing how at home the Bible is in the ancient world makes it look less special in some respects—less unique,” writes Enns.  “What can we say about the uniqueness of the Bible when, in so many areas, it bears striking similarities to the beliefs and practices of other nations?” (p. 32)  According to Enns: 

“The newfound evidence for the cultural settings of the Bible led many to conclude that the Bible is essentially defined by these cultural factors. The ‘context of Scripture’ became the primary determining factor in defining what the Bible is...The conservatives’ reaction was also problematic in that it implicitly assumed what their opponents also assumed: the Bible, being the word of God, ought to be historically accurate in all its details (since God would not lie or make errors) and unique its own setting (since God’s word is revealed, which implies a specific type of uniqueness)...Conservatives have tended to employ a strategy of selective engagement, embracing evidence that seems to support their assumptions...but retreating from evidence that seems to undercut these assumptions.” (47)

In the midst of all this, “the doctrinal implications of the Bible being so much a part of its ancient contexts are still not being addressed as much as they should,” says Enns. He proposes a new way forward, beyond the liberal/conservative divide that involves adjusting our expectations about how the Bible should behave. 

Enns proceeds to do just that by helping the reader adjust his/her expectations regarding: 1) the creation and flood accounts, 2) customs laws, and proverbs, and 3) monarchy. 

Genesis and Myth 

Today I want to focus on the creation and flood accounts, because they provide perhaps the best (and most controversial?) example of what it means to adjust one’s expectations when it comes to reading Scripture, a critical part of learning to the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. 

As Enns notes in the book, it’s become almost impossible to discuss Genesis as myth without making people angry, as the word “myth,” in everyday use, has come to mean something other than a literary genre. The distinction between myth and history, says Enns, “presupposes—without stating explicitly—that what is historical, in a modern sense of the word, is more real, of more value, more like something God would do, than myth. So, the argument goes, if Genesis is myth, then it is not ‘of God.’” 

Enns clarifies the fact that myth is an ancient, pre-modern, pre-scientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories. He then raises the question: “Why is it that God can’t use the category we call myth to speak to ancient Israelites?” 

He writes:

“The reason the opening chapters of Genesis look so much like the literature of ancient Mesopotamia is that the worldview categories of the ancient Near East were ubiquitous and normative at the time. Of course, different cultures had different myths, but the point is that they all had them...What makes Genesis different from its ancient Near Eastern counterparts is that it begins to make the point to Abraham and his seed that the God they are bound to, the God who called them into existence, is different from the gods around them...The biblical worldview described in Genesis is an Ancient Near Eastern one. But the ordering of the world (e.g., the separation of water from land) did not result from a morbid conflict within a dysfunction divine family, as we read in Enuma Elish. It was simply this amazing God who spoke.” (p. 53, 54-55) 

In other words, the author is making a theological point, not a scientific or historical one.  

Enns reminds the reader that the worldview described in Genesis is a decidedly ANE one, portraying the earth as a flat disk supported by pillars, with water above and below, and a solid, fixed firmament. This is how Abraham would have understood the universe, how the writer of  Genesis would have understood the universe, and how the first storytellers, readers, and listeners of Scripture would have understood the universe. It is therefore coutnerproductie to try and impose our own advanced (and yet, in the grand scheme of things, still limited) assumptions regarding cosmology onto the text. 

To me, this is the money quote: 

“We do not protect the Bible or render it more believable to modern people by trying to demonstrate that it is consistent with modern science....It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis to expect it to answer questions generated by a  modern worldview, such as whether the days were literal or figurative, or whether the days of creation can be lined up with modern science, or whether the flood was local or universal. The question that Genesis is prepared to answer is whether Yahweh, the God of Israel, is worthy of worship. And that point is made not by allowing ancient Israelites to catch a glimpse of a spherical earth or a heliocentric universe. It is wholly incomprehensible to think that thousands of years ago God would have felt constrained to speak in a way that would be meaningful only to Westerners several thousand years later. To do so borders on modern, Western arrogance.”  (p. 55) 

Concludes Enns, “this is what it means for God to speak at a certain time and place—he enters their world. He speaks and acts in ways that makes sense to them. This is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people –he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are. The phrase word of God does not imply disconnectedness to its environment.” 

And again we are reminded of Christ—the fullest and most complete revelation of God—who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but humbled himself and became like us. If God is willing to put on human flesh in order to communicate to us, why wouldn’t he be willing to speak human languages—complete with human literary devices and human words and human cosmological assumptions—to communicate? 

I find this freeing...

In college I was trained to fight against this view of Scripture with every fiber of my being, and yet, when I began seeking a more intellectually honest faith, it was this view of Scripture that finally released me from gripping fear and doubt. 

I had been asking questions that the Bible didn’t answer. I had been forcing onto it my own modern, Western assumptions. I had been trying to explain away every possible contradiction, every historical or scientific "problem," in order to force the Bible into my own predetermined paradigm. I believed that in order for the Bible to be God’s word it had to conform to my ideals of historical and scientific proofs. It was a bit like demanding that Jesus be fully human without getting thirsty, or without sleeping, or without assuming a language and ethnicity and gender. 

And when the Bible didn’t perform as I expected it to perform, I nearly lost my faith. 

This is why I am so thankful for scholars and like Enns who have helped me confront my own prejudices and learn to love the Bible for what it is, not what I want it to be. (Thanks, Pete!) 

Next week we will discuss this a bit further, with some additional examples....

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So, what do you think? Have you had to confront the similarities between the Bible and other ANE texts? What is your reaction when Genesis is described as “myth”?

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