Understanding Biblical Genres: Myth

I’m starting this series on understanding Biblical genres with what is most certainly the most controversial category: Myth. To many people of faith today, even the hint that the Bible could contain ‘myth’ is tantamount to the worst kind of unbelief and disrespect for the text. But that concern is based on a faulty understanding of what we mean when call something ‘myth.’ So today I’m going to start by clarifying what myth is and then look at which parts of the Bible fit within this literary genre.

The reason why myth is so controversial is that somewhere along the way, in our popular usage, myth became opposed to fact. So when something gets called a myth, we hear it as a claim that it is ‘untrue’ or ‘unhistorical’; but that’s not what it means. Myths are the foundational stories upon which cultures are built; they explain why the world and society are are they are. They are similar to legends in their explanatory aim, but are bigger: a legend might explain why a certain pillar of salt looks a bit like a woman, but a myth explains reality itself. Thought of in this way, far from ‘relegating’ all of the Bible into the category of myth, talking about mythic stories in the Bible actually elevates specific stories to this genre. These are the biggest stories that have the most meaning; they are the narrative hooks onto which the rest of reality is hung.

While others will certainly disagree, I see four major myths in the Bible, three in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament:

  • The Exodus
  • Deuteronomy
  • Creation
  • ‘The Christ Event’ (i.e., the story of Jesus)

These are the four big stories of the Bible for Christians. Without any of these four stories, the Bible would not have coherence and vast swaths of it would make no sense.

First, is the Exodus. It is the story of how the Hebrews were freed by God from abuse and slavery in Egypt under the God-appointed leadership of Moses. This is a myth because it is the story around which Israelite identity grew and was constellated. It wasn’t just one story among many, but was the story for how this rather rag-tag, obscure people among the many similar peoples of the Ancient Near East (ANE) came to understand themselves as God’s special people. And it left a lasting mark on the community’s ethics and relationship to their land. For example, we see echoes of the Exodus story in the Law of Moses: they were a people in perpetual slavery, and the Law makes provision for both the fair treatment of slaves, and their manumisison in Jubilee years; and they were a people who had been abused as foreigners in Egypt, and the Law insisted on the fair treatment of resident aliens. And of course, we have the idea of the land covenant which similarly comes from the Exodus story, a connection between the Hebrew/Israelite/Judahite/Jewish people and the Promised Land which remains very strong to this day. For Christians, the Exodus remains an important founding myth, as the story of Jesus was deliberately cast as a recapitulation, reinterpretation, and renewal of the Exodus. Jesus’ very name is just the Greek version of Joshua, the man who led the Hebrews into the Promised Land after Moses’ death; Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River, which formed the boundary of the Promised Land, and the quintessential Christian ceremony, the Eucharist, is a reworking of the Passover meal, the ceremonial remembrance of the Exodus.

Closely related to the Exodus, but worth comment on its own is Deuteronomy — not the Law itself but a particular orientation towards the Law that focuses on monolatry (the worship of one God only), the prohibition of idols, and the centralization of worship in Jerusalem, associated with a series of blessings and curses. This qualifies as a myth because it provided the whole editorial perspective of the books of Deuteronomy, Joshes, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings We’ll talk a lot more about this in a couple of weeks when we look at the genre of Biblical History, but for now what’s important is to see how this particular interpretation of the Law became the lens for how later Biblical writers and editors, especially during and in the aftermath of the Exile, came to explain their nation’s history, including the disaster of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the forced exile of its governing class.

Third, there is the Creation story — or, rather, the three creation stories, in Genesis 1-3 and Psalm 104. I’ve left these third because, while they certainly fit the category of myth because they seek to explain how the world is as it is, it would seem they had far less of an impact on the development of Israelite/Jewish identity and belief than the first two myths mentioned today did. For example, the character name Adam is only mentioned once in the Hebrew Bible after his story ends in Genesis 5, and that was a simple reference in a genealogy. Adam and Eve and the garden was to have a far greater impact on Christian belief than on Judaism. Creation also makes sense placed after the Exodus and Deuteronomy because because these stories show significant influence of Babylonian creation stories and it’s generally accepted that they did not take their current form until the Exile. But, approaching these stories as myth, what do they say? As my theology professor put it, the point of the Creation stories in the Old Testament is Who, Why, and How, not What and When. In Genesis 1 we have the gorgeous story of God speaking the kosmos into existence. It is creation by separation: light from dark, water from land, day from night, and so on. And, the creation, including ‘the firmament’ (’dome of the sky’ in later translations) and ‘sea monsters’, is good. I mention those two aspects of creation because they seem to be strange inclusions — until one realizes that they, in their guises as the gods Tiamat and Lotan, are two of the primary characters in Babylonian creation mythology. But whereas in Mesopotamia, the world was created from primordial chaotic waters as an accidental consequences of combat between the gods, in Genesis 1 the point is that one God created everything, those ‘gods’ included, with intention; moreover, humanity is created in accordance with God’s image — again, this is no accident as it is in the Mesopotamian stories. So it’s not at all that the Biblical story copied Babylonian myth but that it creatively retells is through the lens of nascent Jewish monotheism and its greater humanism than its ANE counterparts. (It’s actually a remarkably smart and insightful piece of theology!)

The second Creation story, from Genesis 2-3, is also heavily mythological in its attempt to explain such things as gender difference, social order, why agriculture is so hard and childbirth so dangerous. By the time of the New Testament, it was also understood to explain the origin of sin, but again, this does not seem to have been a big part of the story’s signification until long after it was written, and has never been a major concern in Judaism. This story also shows Mesopotamian influence, from both the Enuma Elish and Atra-Hasis epic, such as paradise being a garden watered by a spring, and humanity as a mud-creature created to serve god and having stewardship over other creatures.

The third, often forgotten Creation story in the Old Testament is in Psalm 104, an exuberant hymn of praise for God’s action in creation. It shares a similar theological perspective as Genesis 1 — note the particularly winking comment about God creating Leviathan (aka Lotan) to “play” or “sport” in the sea. But where in Genesis 1 creation is spoken rather calmly into existence, Psalm 104 retains a bit more of the conflict of other ANE creation mythology, and envisions a primordial battle between God and chaos, with God riding on storm clouds like a warrior on a chariot (104.3; indeed, in times when the prohibition against idols was not enforced, this was a very common way the Israelite God was depicted — which is a bit ironic since it was also a major part of the iconography of Israel’s God’s great rival, Ba’al). This divine warrior figure “rebukes” the waters, routing them and causing them to flee (104.7). But in the aftermath of the battle, the psalm goes on to describe God’s fulsome, providential care for all the animals in creation.

So then, all three iterations of the biblical creation myth intentionally reinterpret other ANE creation mythology to make important theological points: Namely, that creation is not an accident, but rather everything is created with God’s intention behind it, and that humanity too was purposefully created to bear God’s image and likeness in the world.

Finally, there is the Christian myth. the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is mythic not only in its engaging in common mythological tropes, such as gods becoming human, descents to the underworld, and dying and rising gods, but also in the way it shapes (or at least is intended to shape) all of Christian life. As Christians, the whole story of Jesus is to form our consciousness, orientation towards the world, and behaviour. As Paul famously put it, we are to “let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus” — a mind that:

did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Philippians 2.5-8)

But, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Romans 6.8; cf. 2 Timothy 2.11, Colossians 2.12). For Christians, the story of Jesus is to become our story, motivating and explaining our present lifestyle, framing our successes, failures, and suffering, and defining our hopeful expectation for the future. Thus, Christians talk about being “incarnational” and “resurrectional”, “carrying our cross,” and “sharing in the sufferings of Christ.” We become by grace all that he is by nature. This is mythic language par excellence.

Again, notice how none of this discussion about understanding certain parts of the Bible in terms of myth in any way undermines the importance of those stories. Nor does it say anything about their historicity. Just as we saw last Spring when we talked about narrative criticism of the Bible, this approach simply takes the texts on their own terms and allows them to function as they are intended to function. And, with these mythic stories, they function as the quintessential stories of our tradition, shaping and interpreting everything around them.

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