The Genre of Genesis 2-3

Earlier we saw Fr. Brian Harrison’s complaint about the genre of the first few chapters of Genesis. Theologians think that a literal historical interpretation would say things that are false; consequently they conclude that the account in Genesis is not a literal historical account, in order to avoid saying that the account is false. But they do not have independent evidence for this, according to him.

Darwin Catholic addresses Fr. Brian Harrison’s essay:

This leads to my second major problem with Fr. Harrison’s analysis: His “invisible” literary style doesn’t seem to me to be terribly illusive but rather the product of an overly modern approach to literature. Genesis 1-3 are, I would say, myth. Fr. Harrison rejects this idea because he seems to have in his head a definition of myth something along the lines of “a false and silly belief that people used to have when they didn’t know any better”. Certainly, that is what all too many modern people mean by “myth”. However, I would say that those people are quite wrong in their assessment.

Although he’s talking about a slightly different genre, I would recommend Tolkein’s “On Fairy Stories” as a good discussion of true mythology, but I will attempt to cover some of the same ground with fewer words.

When I say “myth” I do not mean a “just so” story like such as Kipling wrong [wrote?]. Nor do I mean a superstition or false belief. True mythology is un-authored, going back so far in a culture that it is well known and available in many versions, not the product of any one author. It deals with serious questions about the world and human nature in a form that is not necessarily literally, historically true, because it deals with questions too old and basic for anyone to know the truth of in a historical fashion. In his recent First Things essay, Cardinal Schonborn pointed out the philosophical dangers of accepting the idea that to know a thing’s material/historical origin is to know its essence and meaning. (For example, the idea that if human beings evolved from lower life forms, that this tells us something deeper about human nature and humanity’s place in the divine plan, or lack thereof.) Mythology contains an implicit understanding of this distinction, in that it accepts that it may not accurately describe a thing’s historical or material origins while attempting to explain its essence.

So, for example, the Greek myth of Pandora’s box was not (I would argue) thought to be literally or historically true by the ancient Greeks. Giving the question due thought, one would not imagine that war, pestilence, greed, hate, envy, etc. were physical creatures trapped in a box, that a specific woman named Pandora released upon the world. Rather, the myth of Pandora’s Box attempted to address the origin of evil in the world (and man’s culpability in that origin) at a level more essential than the historical.

I would say that this is right, generally speaking, both about myth in general and about the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, although with some qualifications.

In general in ancient cultures many stories were handed down from the distant past in the way suggested here, “un-authored, going back so far in a culture that it is well known and available in many versions, not the product of any one author.” And as Darwin Catholic says, these stories are not historical accounts. Apart from the content, human memory is simply not transmitted that well. However, the question of whether people believed the accounts is a bit more complicated than he suggests. Basically his argument that if you “give the question due thought,” you would not conclude that the evils of humanity could be something trapped in a physical box, and consequently that the Greeks could not have thought the story of Pandora’s box was literally or historically true.

This is an overly optimistic assessment of the relationship between human thought and the truth. I agree that someone who gave the question due thought, in other words, the kind of thought appropriate to determining the truth of the matter, he would not think that such evils could have been once trapped in a physical box. And I agree that it follows that many Greeks, such as many philosophers and many ordinary thoughtful people, must not have believed that such accounts were literally and historically true. The problem is that there almost certainly were many people who simply never gave the question this kind of thought.

As Darwin Catholic points out, the origin of the story was lost to time. The first author was unknown. But this also means that the first intention of the story was unknown, and people could suppose, at least as one possibility, that it might have been intended in a literal and historical way. And again, people might simply fail to consider what kind of literature it might be. And things that happened in the distant past ordinarily have no concrete effects on my life in the present, and consequently the issue is remote from the senses. Thus people’s reasons for their belief about it may have little to do with knowing the truth. Thus the fact that one would not accept it literally after giving the issue due thought, is not a strong argument that people did not accept it literally. It is perfectly possible that many people would have said, at least in effect, “Of course I believe that Pandora’s box really existed. That is what Greeks believe.”

So many people may have taken such accounts literally, and many people may not have even considered the question. But the question of what the account really means, is either a question about what was meant by the author who composed the concrete version of the story, or a question about the reasonable way to understand such accounts. The author who composed the concrete version knew full well that he was inserting details that he was taking from his own imagination, and consequently unless he intended to deceive, he knew that it was not a literal historical account. And in any case the reasonable way to understand such accounts would be as Darwin Catholic suggests, namely as an attempt to understand the deep essence of things, without attempting to give a literal historical account of them.

Thus, while Darwin Catholic may not be entirely right about what people believed, he is right about the meaning of such accounts.

I would say that opening chapter of Genesis is more a philosophical account, but I agree that Darwin Catholic’s account applies to the account of the creation and fall in the following chapters.

The story in Genesis appears to be related to other stories from the ancient world. For example, the Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI) contains this story:

Then Utnapishtim spoke unto Gilgamesh (and said): “Gilgamesh, thou didst come here weary; thou didst labour and row. What now shall I give thee, that thou mayest return to thy country? I will reveal unto thee, Gilgamesh, a mystery of the gods I will announce unto thee. There is a plant resembling buckthorn; its thorn stings like that of a bramble. When thy hands can reach that plant, then thy hands will hold that which gives life everlasting.”

When Gilgamesh had heard this he opened the sluices that the sweet water might carry him into the deep; he bound heavy stones to his feet, which dragged him down to the sea floor, and thus he found the plant. Then he grasped the prickly plant. He removed from his feet the heavy stones, and the sea carried him and threw him down to on the shore.

And Gilgamesh said unto Urshanabi, the ferryman: “Urshanabi, this plant is a plant of great marvel; and by it a man may attain renewed vigour. I will take it to Uruk the strong-walled, I will give it to the old men to eat. Its name shall be ‘Even an old man will be rejuvenated!’ I will eat of this and return (again) to the vigour of my youth.”

At twenty double-leagues they then took a meal: and at thirty double-leagues they took a rest. And Gilgamesh saw a well wherein was cool water; he stepped into it and bathed in the water. A serpent smelled the sweetness of the plant and darted out; he took the plant away, and as he turned back to the well, he sloughed his skin. And after this Gilgamesh sat down and wept.

In this account a serpent steals the plant that would have given everlasting life. While this is  not exactly what happened in Genesis, it is somewhat similar. Nor can we suppose that it is a mere accidental resemblance, since the story contains other things which are evidently related to the book of Genesis, such as this story from the beginning of the same tablet:

Gilgamesh said to him, to Utnapishtim, the distant: “I gaze upon thee (in amazement), O Utnapishtim! Thy appearance has not changed, like unto me thou art also. And thy nature itself has not changed, like unto me thou art also, though thou hast departed this life. But my heart has still to struggle against all that no longer lies upon thee. Tell me, How didst thou come to dwell (here) and obtain eternal life among the gods?”

Utnapishtim then said unto Gilgamesh: “I will reveal unto thee, O Gilgamesh, the mysterious story, and the mystery of the gods I will tell thee. The city of Shuruppak, a city which, as thou knowest, is situated on the bank of the river Euphrates. That city was very old, as were the gods within it. Even the great gods, as many as there were, decided to bring about a deluge: their father, Anu; their counsellor, the warrior Enlil; their leader, Ninurta; their champion, the god Ennugi.

“On the fifth day I set in place her exterior; it was an acre in area; its sides were ten gar high; ten gar also was the extent of its deck; I added a front-roof to it and closed it in. I built it in six stories, thus making seven floors in all; the interior of each I divided again into nine partitions. Beaks for water within I cut out. I selected a punting-pole and added all that was necessary. Three šar of pitch I smeared on its outside; three šar of asphalt I used for the inside (so as to make it water-tight). Three šar of oil the men carried, carrying it in vessels. One šar of oil I kept out and used it for sacrifices, while the other twošar the boatman stowed away. I slaughtered oxen; I killed lambs day by day. Jugs of beer, of oil, and of sweet wine, like river water (i.e., freely) I gave the workmen to make a feast like that of the New-Year’s Day. To the god Shamash my hands brought oil. The ship was completed. Launching it was heavy work, and I added tackling above and below, and after all was finished, the ship sank in the water to two thirds of its height.

“With all that I possessed I filled it; with all the silver I had I filled it; with all the gold I had I filled it; with living creatures of every kind I filled it. Then I embarked also all my family and my relatives, cattle of the field, beasts of the field, and the uprighteous people—all them I embarked. A time had Shamash appointed, (namely): ‘When the rulers of darkness send at eventide a destructive rain, then enter into the ship and shut its door.’ This very sign came to pass, and the rulers of darkness sent a destructive rain at eventide. I saw the approach of the storm, and I was afraid to witness the storm; I entered the ship and shut the door.

“I entrusted the guidance of the ship to Puzur-Amurri, the boatman, and also the great house, and the contents thereof. As soon as early dawn appeared, there rose up from the horizon a black cloud, within which the weather god (Adad) thundered, and the heralds Shullat and Hanish went before across mountain and plain. The gods of the abyss arose. Nergal, the great, tore loose the dams of the deep. There went Ninurta and he caused the banks to overflow; the Anunnaki lifted on high (their) torches, and with the brightness thereof they illuminated the universe. The storm brought on by Adad swept even up to the heavens and all light was turned into darkness as Adad shattered the land like a pot.

“It blew with violence one whole day, submerging the mountains. Like an onslaught in battle it rushed in on the people. Nor could brother look after brother. Nor were recognised the people from heaven. The gods even were afraid of the storm; they retreated and took refuge in the heaven of Anu. There the gods crouched down like dogs; on the inclosure of heaven they sat cowering.

“Then Ishtar cried out like a woman in travail and the lady of the gods lamented with a loud voice, (saying): ‘The world of old has been turned back into clay, because I assented to this evil in the assembly of the gods. Alas! that when I assented to this evil in the council of the gods, I was for the destruction of my own people. What I have created, where is it? Like the spawn of fish it fills the sea.’ The gods wailed with her over the Anunnaki. The gods were bowed down, and sat there weeping. Their lips were pressed together (in fear and in terror).

“Six days and nights the wind blew, and storm and tempest overwhelmed the country. When the seventh day drew nigh the tempest, the storm, the battle which they had waged like a great host began to moderate. The sea quieted down; hurricane and storm ceased. I looked out upon the sea and raised loud my voice, but all mankind had turned back into clay. Likewise the surrounding sea became as flat as a roof-top.

“I opened the air-hole and light fell upon my cheek. Dumbfounded I sank backward and sat weeping, while over my cheek flowed the tears. I looked in every direction, and behold, all was sea. I looked in vain for land, but twelve leagues distant there rose (out of the water) a strip of land. To Mount Niṣir the ship drifted. On Mount Niṣir the boat stuck fast and it did not slip away. The first day, the second day, Mount Niṣir held the ship fast, and did not let it slip away. The third day, the fourth day, Mount Niṣir held the ship fast, and did not let it slip away. The fifth day, the sixth day, Mount Niṣir held the ship, fast, and did not let it slip away. When the seventh day drew nigh I sent out a dove, and let her go. The dove flew hither and thither, but as there was no resting-place for her, she returned. Then I sent out a swallow, and let her go. The swallow flew hither and thither, but as there was no resting-place for her she also returned. Then I sent out a raven, and let her go. The raven flew away and saw the abatement of the waters. She settled down to feed, went away, and returned no more.

“Then I let everything go out unto the four winds, and I offered a sacrifice. I poured out a libation upon the peak of the mountain. I placed the censers seven and seven, and poured into them calamus, cedar-wood, and sweet incense. The gods smelt the savour; yea, the gods smelt the sweet savour; the gods gathered like flies around the sacrificer. But when now the lady of the gods (Ishtar) drew nigh, she lifted up the necklace with precious jewels which Anu had made according to her wish (and said):

“‘Ye gods here! by my lapis lazuli necklace, not will I forget. These days will I remember, never will I forget (them). Let the gods come to the offering; but Enlil shall not come to the offering, since rashly he caused the flood-storm, and handed over my people unto destruction.’

This story is related to the account of the flood in the book of Genesis. This is not only true in a general sense, but also with respect to various details such as the dove released afterwards to determine whether or not the flood had sufficiently subsided.

This is evidence in favor of the position that Genesis provides an account of this nature, namely a story that is “well known and available in many versions,” as Darwin Catholic puts it. The fact that the tree of life and the tree of knowledge appear to be assumed to be familiar is an indication of the same thing. This is true even though there are other possible explanations which would attempt to maintain the literal truth of the account in Genesis, such as the claim that all other accounts are either derived from the account in Genesis, or from objective facts that Genesis narrates.

Likewise, the story in Genesis is idealized. Adam and Eve are placed in a perfect world where there is no death and work is not laborious. They are vegetarian, and it appears that the animals can talk. This detail in particular more strongly suggests that the account is not a historical one, since although there are many who accept most of these idealizations (such as those at Answers in Genesis) it is unlikely that anyone believes that it is an objective historical truth that animals used to be able to talk. All of this is also evidence that it is a story, even if one with a meaning about reality.

Causal considerations are evidence for the same thing. Given the weakness of human memory, there is simply no way for a person to give a historical account of such things. Without something like divine dictation, the author of the text could not have written a literal historical account because he could not have possessed one. And the text does not read as one would expect a text dictated by God to read, since it contains many things suggestive of the particular human circumstances of the author (e.g. the assumption that various things are familiar to the reader and that others are not, in a way that might reflect the situation of the original readers, but not our situation.)

And despite Fr. Harrison’s rejection of this kind of argument, any evidence that the things narrated in Genesis did not literally happen in that fashion, is evidence that Genesis is not the kind of account that requires this, even if it is also evidence for the theory that Genesis is a literal account, but a false one.

The main arguments for the position that the account is a literal historical one are that most Christians throughout history have believed this, and that the Catholic Church has made various statements supporting this interpretation, such as this one from the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1909:

Question I: Whether the various exegetical systems which have been proposed to exclude the literal historical sense of the three first chapters of the Book of Genesis, and have been defended by the pretense of science, are sustained by a solid foundation? — Reply: In the negative.

Question II: Whether, when the nature and historical form of the Book of Genesis does not oppose, because of the peculiar connections of the three first chapters with each other and with the following chapters, because of the manifold testimony of the Old and New Testaments; because of the almost unanimous opinion of the Holy Fathers, and because of the traditional sense which, transmitted from the Israelite people, the Church always held, it can be taught that the three aforesaid chapters of Genesis do not contain the stories of events which really happened, that is, which correspond with objective reality and historical truth; but are either accounts celebrated in fable drawn from the mythologies and cosmogonies of ancient peoples and adapted by a holy writer to monotheistic doctrine, after expurgating any error of polytheism; or allegories and symbols, devoid of a basis of objective reality, set forth under the guise of history to inculcate religious and philosophical truths; or, finally, legends, historical in part and fictitious in part, composed freely for the instruction and edification of souls? — Reply: In the negative to both parts.

Question III: Whether in particular the literal and historical sense can be called into question, where it is a matter of facts related in the same chapters, which pertain to the foundation of the Christian religion; for example, among others, the creation of all things wrought by God in the beginning of time; the special creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the first man; the oneness of the human race; the original happiness of our first parents in the state of justice, integrity, and immortality; the command given to man by God to prove his obedience; the transgression of the divine command through the devil’s persuasion under the guise of a serpent; the casting of our first parents out of that first state of innocence; and also the promise of a future restorer? — Reply: In the negative.

I agree that most Christians throughout history have believed that Genesis contained a literal historical account of the creation and fall, even though Fr. Harrison may exaggerate the uniformity on this issue. Likewise, the magisterial statements with which he is concerned, particularly this one from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, do support the position that the account in question is a literal historical one. These things are indeed evidence for the position that Genesis is such an account.


7 thoughts on “The Genre of Genesis 2-3

  1. […] The creationists however have correctly perceived that the original mortality of other animals would be evidence for the original mortality of man. It would be more likely that other animals would have died, given that man was going to die as well, than given that he was not going to die, and this means that animal death is evidence for human death. The creationists are probably also correct to suppose that the story of the fall, considered as a story, implies the original absence of both animal and human death, although this is not explicitly stated. They are mistaken, however, to suppose that Genesis is intended literally. […]


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