New Genesis Series: Is it History or Myth?

Nearly every culture has a creation story. Most of them are myth-laden fairy tales, but they make good reading. In Greek mythology, there was nothing but chaos in the beginning, until somehow, the earth (Gaia) emerged and gave birth to the Sky. They made a bunch of babies (six male Titans and six female Titans). One of them was named Cronus and he fathered Zeus. Cronus had a bizarre habit of eating his children, but Zeus managed to escape his dad’s late night cravings. Most of us are familiar with the story from that point on. Meanwhile, the Cherokee nation believed that the earth existed as a floating island, held by four cords and surrounded by salt water. This island had been created by a water beetle, who scooped up enough mud from the ocean floor to form an island.

Modern day creation fairy tales are almost as interesting. In the 2012 film Prometheus, a crew of scientists, archeologists and adventurers travel to a distant planet to discover the origins of humanity, but encounter the threat of creatures from the Alien franchise. Ask any Sci-fi geek and they’ll tell you that these monsters are capable of bringing about a mass extinction event to the human race. Bad news for these adventurers, good news for Alien fans! Having discovered that human life on earth was created by advanced humanoids called the Engineers, David (an android) asks the lone survivor Elizabeth Shaw (possibly a Christian), if she continued to hold to her beliefs:

Shaw: Where’s my cross?

David: The pouch in my utility belt. Even after all this, you still believe, don’t you?

Shaw: (ignoring the question) You said you could understand the navigation. Use their maps.

David: Yes, of course. Once we get to one of their other ships, finding a path to Earth should be relatively straightforward.

Shaw: I don’t want to go back to where we came from. I want to go where they came from. You think you can do that David?

David: Yes, I believe I can. May I ask what you hope to achieve by going there?

Shaw: They created us, then tried to kill us. They changed their minds. I deserve to know why.

Prometheus teases with answers about our origins, but leaves the question of where the Engineers came from and why they should want to destroy us open for a sequel. Atheists and Agnostics need a story like Prometheus because science, by itself, does not have enough explanatory power to explain the origins of humanity and the universe. They need Engineers and science, in place of God, to explain how we got here. My best guess is that modern tales like Prometheus are popular because they put forward a creation story that makes no moral claims on our life. Remember the candor of Aldous Huxley, the author of a Brave New World, regarding his reasons for dismissing a theistic worldview (one with meaning):

I had motive for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none,        and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves. … For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.

The problem for many non-Christians when it comes to believing the Genesis creation story is not that it lacks explanatory power, but that it posits a God who cares about what we do in the bedroom and with whom we do it. At least Huxley was honest. How brave of you, Aldous!

Enter Genesis. How should we read it? Like other creation stories, Genesis seeks to explain our origins and provides a foundational worldview, but unlike the ahistorical accounts of the Greeks and Cherokees, the author of Genesis expects us to read it as theological history (i.e. real events and real people from a God-centered point of view). A real God spoke the world into existence, created a real man and woman and these two were tricked into real cosmic treason, plunging the world into death and ruin. How do we know that the writer expects us to read these elements in Genesis in a historical context?

The best internal evidence for this is the frequent use of the Hebrew word toledot (lit. generations). It can be translated account or generations and appears 11X throughout the book. Here are a few examples:

  • The beginning of the book: “This is the account (toledot) of the heavens and the earth when they were created” (2:4)
  • Deeper into the book: “This is the account (toledot) of Terah (11:27)
  • Near the end of the book: “This is the account (toledot) of Jacob” (37:2)

What am I getting at here? The use of the word toledot to refer to real people and real events in the later parts of Genesis strongly suggests that the author expects us to read the early chapters as history as well. Moses intended for us to read the account of creation and the fall of Adam and Eve as history, not myth and not poetry (though, like any good story, it does has poetry in it). Any reading of Genesis that ignores this is reading against the grain.

A Few Implications: What is God’s Spirit Saying to Me?
The implications of reading Genesis 1-3 as theological history are weighty and many. We didn’t take the time to explore the text, but here are a few ideas that emerge:

Implication #1: The God who made everything out of nothing has a big heart for people. He formed and filled the land for man’s good (i.e. a place where we could flourish in relationship with Him). The word good (Hebrew tob) is used 7X in the first chapter, 5X in Genesis 2 and 3X in Genesis 3. The care and creativity that God puts into the land so that we can thrive says something about how God feels about us. He is especially fond of His imagers.

Implication #2: Only God can determine what is good for us. He made us and knows what is best for us. The great test in the garden was over this very issue: Would Adam and Eve trust that God knew what was good for them (i.e. not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) or could people have the good without God? Note the contrast in the story between “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” (1:31) and “When the women saw that the tree was good for food…” (3:6). The lesson of the story is clear, you cannot be good and experience the good without God. If you want to experience the good life, you’re going to have to trust God.

Implication #3: God holds us responsible for our choices. Dostoyevsky is right, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” Genesis teaches us that we are more than mammals and that God expects us to behave as imagers and not animals. It tells us that morality is not a social-construct, but instead flows from the Word of God. Taken as a whole, chapters 1-3 tell us that God is the compassionate Judge of sinners who displays His righteousness by punishing sin and His mercy by covering our shame and providing a substitute for sin (3:21). If this all sounds familiar (i.e. the good news about Jesus Christ), then you’re reading the text with the grain of God’s Big Story.

In the next episode, we’ll wrestle with the importance of reading Genesis within its context, instead of treating it like a science text book. More could be said and argued. Some of my friends will need more convincing about the explanatory power of Genesis to explain human origins. If that’s you, please check out Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith and The Case for the Creator. Others will want to plunge deeper into Genesis itself and there are a ton of great commentaries on the market for that. Please let me know if I can point you in the right direction. Stay tuned for more!