What is Genesis?

Turns out slacktivist and I share a pet peeve:

I want to mention a pet peeve of mine — a phrase frequently employed by Al Mohler and other proponents of creation-ism. It’s a phrase that bothers me as a lover of the Bible and of stories and of words.

That phrase is “the creation account” or “the creation account in Genesis.”

The book of Genesis offers no such account. It provides a creation story — more than one, in fact, the first 11 chapters are nothing but origin stories. But it most decidedly does not provide an account of creation.

An account is testimony, witnesses telling what they have seen. …

When I point this out — that the story in Genesis 1 is not an “account” — the creation-ists get upset with me, as though I were attacking the book of Genesis. But I’m not attacking it, I’m defending it. Genesis 1 does not itself claim to be an account. It does not present itself as such and it does not willingly comply with those who would treat it as such. To read the story as it is, in the way that it presents itself, cannot be an attack. It’s far more hostile to the text to declare, with no basis from the text itself, that it must be read as something it does not and cannot claim to be.

Alas that even some people who aren’t creationists, people who reject creationism for many good reasons, nonetheless make this same error.

Comments

  1. #1 Deepak Shetty
    November 24, 2010

    So what then is the purpose of the story (or stories?) – why have them in the first place ? Why aren’t the christians (including the ones who treat it as a story) dropping this from their holy book? What sense does it make to have a fall when there is no adam or eve? What about Moses – story or account? Abraham – story or account ? and what about Jesus – No matter what Luke actually says we know based on when the gospels were written that these are not eyewitness accounts.

  2. #2 Anton Mates
    November 24, 2010

    I don’t think Fred’s complaint about the “account” terminology makes much sense. An account is simply a “description of facts, conditions, or events: report, narrative” (Merriam-Webster) or “an oral or written description of particular events or situations: narrative” (dictionary.com). It doesn’t require witnesses or statements of narrative reliability.

    Creation narratives, theogonies, and other myth texts are commonly referred to as accounts; it’s not just a creationist thing.

    Of course, Fred’s quite correct that Genesis 1 is a very different sort of text from, say, the canonical gospels. Not just because they’re written in a consciously historical style while Genesis 1 is mythic poetry, but also because they were written several hundred years later in a radically different cultural setting. Treating them as a unified document is like smushing together Beowulf and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

  3. #3 Anton Mates
    November 25, 2010

    Deepak,

    Why aren’t the christians (including the ones who treat it as a story) dropping this from their holy book?

    Why would they? Few Christians believe that their holy book’s sole value is as a source of historical info.

    What sense does it make to have a fall when there is no adam or eve?

    Most liberal Christians I’ve encountered consider the Fall story itself to be metaphorical. The literal truth they accept is something like “Humans have the potential to be good, but they’re often bad, and it’s been this way about as long as there have been humans. So we need Jesus.” The logic of that doesn’t particularly require Adam & Eve.

    What about Moses – story or account? Abraham – story or account ?

    Not sure about Abraham, but with Moses there’s certainly evidence that he’s halfway in between–started out as a mythic, semi-divine figure, then got “historicized.”

    and what about Jesus – No matter what Luke actually says we know based on when the gospels were written that these are not eyewitness accounts.

    Luke doesn’t claim to be an eyewitness account. It claims to be based on eyewitness accounts that were handed down to the author’s community. “An orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.”

    But whether or not it’s good or reliable history–and I would say it isn’t–Luke is clearly trying to be history in a way that Genesis 1 is not.

  4. #4 Deepak Shetty
    November 25, 2010

    Anton

    Most liberal Christians I’ve encountered consider the Fall story itself to be metaphorical.

    Perhaps. But a lot of them do believe we are sinners at birth – That needs them to believe in Adam and Eve as more than metaphorical. What is a liberal Christian by the way (is it a matter of what he believes or what he acts on) – What percentage of Christians are liberal- Whats the minimum a Christian must do to be considered liberal? If it merely was a matter of Humans can be bad – then humans who are good dont need Jesus – Do liberal Christians really accept that?

    This whole metaphorical nonsense is misleading. Assume that we didn’t have any scientific proof of the age of the earth or how we got here. How many Christians would be arguing that Genesis is metaphorical when there would be no way to prove that it isn’t literally true? Actually we don’t have to assume since we do know how many people argued Genesis to be metaphorical in olden times.

    Even a cursory reading shows that whether as first person accounts or hearsay or stories , the Bible was meant to be read as true. Parables are explicitly defined as parables.

    Luke is clearly trying to be history in a way that Genesis 1 is not.

    Genesis tries to explain how we got here(which is history of sorts) – It just doesn’t explain how the writer knows – But there clearly isnt any attempt to say “this is an imaginary story (aren’t they all)).
    Every culture / religion has similar stories/accounts. It seems to have been a need of religion.

  5. #5 FUG
    November 25, 2010

    I agree that Genesis may be interpreted at a metaphorical level, that it still serves a worthwhile purpose as such, and that some enthusiastic individuals tend to miss this point.

    However, I think it’s important to acknowledge that, at least historically, Genesis was an account of the birth of the world not only as an allegorical story, but also literally. It encompassed many needs, from the allegorical to the scientific. How we reference and understand The Bible has changed over time with how it remains useful and worthwhile to do so. To answer Shetty: The purpose of Genesis is to read and interpret it, just like any story. And, similar to any other story (whether it claims to be historical or otherwise) there is a mixture of the fictive with the factual.

  6. #6 Deepak Shetty
    November 25, 2010

    I agree that Genesis may be interpreted at a metaphorical level

    As a metaphor for what exactly? See if Genesis is a metaphor , then Adam is too – right? Then what about Adam’s sons Cain/Abel/Seth and so on -They must be metaphors too? But if seth is a metaphor then so is his son Enosh? And so on till you reach Noah and so on till you reach Abraham (and continues on till Jesus)? Where does it stop? Is the entire bible metaphorical? Saying a part of the bible is metaphorical doesnt make sense when you read it since the stories are linked. It doesnt make sense when the Gospels try to point out all the so called prophecies Jesus fulfilled.

    The purpose of Genesis is to read and interpret it, just like any story.

    Sure. But then we appeal for consistency. Why just Genesis. Why is Jesus not just a story?

    And, similar to any other story (whether it claims to be historical or otherwise) there is a mixture of the fictive with the factual.

    What exactly is factual about Genesis (according to your interpretation)?

  7. #7 Anton Mates
    November 26, 2010

    Deepak,

    Perhaps. But a lot of them do believe we are sinners at birth – That needs them to believe in Adam and Eve as more than metaphorical.

    I don’t think that’s true of liberal Christians, or even most moderates. They may believe that we’re born sinful–that is, morally imperfect and prone to do wicked things. (Which seems pretty accurate to me.) But they don’t believe that we already have sinned at birth, or that we inherit the actual guilt of Adam and Eve’s sin.

    What is a liberal Christian by the way (is it a matter of what he believes or what he acts on) – What percentage of Christians are liberal- Whats the minimum a Christian must do to be considered liberal?

    I think Wikipedia is probably a good source to answer that. “The word liberal in liberal Christianity denotes a characteristic willingness to interpret scripture without any preconceived notion of inerrancy of scripture or the correctness of Church dogma.” As the article points out, a liberal Christian need not be politically liberal, though obviously they’re likely to be. They just have to reject the “because the Bible says so” logic of the conservative wing of Christianity.

    As for numbers, according to various Gallup polls,, about half of American Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God but not word-for-word literally true. I’d call that a moderate-to-liberal position. Roughly 10% more consider the Bible to be merely “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man”—which I would say is extremely liberal!

    If it merely was a matter of Humans can be bad – then humans who are good dont need Jesus – Do liberal Christians really accept that?

    If you mean “need to believe in Jesus to get into heaven,” then yeah, by and large liberal Christians do think good humans don’t need Jesus. A slim majority of US Christians agree that you don’t have to be Christian to get into Heaven, and I would think that pretty much all of the liberal Christians are in that group, no? (Of course, liberal Christians probably still credit Jesus with making Heaven in the first place and letting everyone in, but I think that’s different from what you’re asking.)

    Personally, I’ve seen a number of Christian/atheist discussions where the Christian says something along the lines of, “You seem to be a really good person even though you’re not a believer, and I really admire that, but I am not strong enough to be good without help, so I need Jesus.” (Which I find mildly frustrating—I think the Christian is usually selling their own decency short in that case—but whatever.)

    This whole metaphorical nonsense is misleading. Assume that we didn’t have any scientific proof of the age of the earth or how we got here. How many Christians would be arguing that Genesis is metaphorical when there would be no way to prove that it isn’t literally true?

    Probably a lot fewer, but I’m not sure why that’s a problem for the Genesis-is-metaphorical crowd. We do have scientific proof, and that makes Biblical literalism look a lot less reasonable.

    Actually we don’t have to assume since we do know how many people argued Genesis to be metaphorical in olden times.

    I’m not sure we know with any precision, other than that there were a fair number, Origen being probably the most famous.

    Even a cursory reading shows that whether as first person accounts or hearsay or stories , the Bible was meant to be read as true. Parables are explicitly defined as parables.

    They are when Jesus is talking, but they certainly aren’t explicitly defined in the Old Testament. Or if you can tell me how to be sure which bits of Genesis and Jonah and Job and the Psalms are meant as truth and which bits are parable, please do—I’ll steal your ideas, switch departments and get tenure on the spot!

    Seems to me, though, that a cursory reading of Genesis 1-2 shows that it is not meant to be read as literally true. At least, not by whoever redacted those two creation accounts together. They may have been simple Iron Age scribes and farmers in those days, but I’m pretty sure they were smart enough to notice the blatant contradictions between two page-long stories sitting right next to each other.

    Genesis tries to explain how we got here(which is history of sorts) – It just doesn’t explain how the writer knows

    Yeah, but that’s a very big difference. Luke justifies itself in roughly the way a modern history would: it characterizes the author, describes its sources and explains why they’re credible. Genesis 1 just tells the story.

    But there clearly isnt any attempt to say “this is an imaginary story (aren’t they all)).

    Nor is there in, say, Cinderella. Most stories don’t announce themselves as imaginary, whether they’re meant to be read as truth or fiction or

    Every culture / religion has similar stories/accounts. It seems to have been a need of religion.

    More universal than religion, I’d say. Secular philosophies and sciences usually have their own cosmogonies too; everyone needs an origin story.

  8. #8 Deepak Shetty
    November 26, 2010

    and I would think that pretty much all of the liberal Christians are in that group, no?

    No I dont think I agree. I believe you will get different answers based on how you frame the question (e.g. Would an idol worshipper like a hindu get into heaven if he is good but doesnt accept Jesus? Would an atheist get into heaven if he is good but doesn’t accept Jesus). Again the definition of liberal is still open (for e.g. Id say that any Christian who believes in heaven/hell can’t really call himself liberal!) – Your link for you dont have to be Christian doesn’t work by the way.
    And I probably don’t agree with the wikipedia definition – because even YEC’s claim that they are willing to read the Bible without any preconceived notions but that they find the Bible to be inerrant and free of contradiction after they have *carefully studied* it.

    Bible is inspired by God but not word-for-word literally true. I’d call that a moderate-to-liberal position

    Doesn’t it depend on what parts they find not literally true. For e.g. if they find the 10 commandments literally true then I cant see how you can pretend these people are moderates or liberal in any normal sense of the word (not wikipedia’s). A totally non-scientific indicator I have of how liberal a Christian really is, would be whether he/she would object to his/her son/daughter marrying a non-christian solely on the basis of the suitor being non christian. By that measure, I find that liberal Christians don’t really walk their talk(anecdotal, not scientific , I know).

    but I’m not sure why that’s a problem for the Genesis-is-metaphorical crowd.

    Or if you can tell me how to be sure which bits of Genesis and Jonah and Job and the Psalms are meant as truth and which bits are parable, please do—I’ll steal your ideas, switch departments and get tenure on the spot!

    Circumstantial evidence. If the original scribes meant this to be non literal we would have plenty of old evidence that this is what was taught to the followers. Or we would have had the priests carefully pore through the bible and say well clearly this was never meant to be literal. What we do have is that people for a long time read it literally, were taught that it was literal and no significant movement ever claimed that well actually the earlier books were metaphorical till much later when science proved some of it cant literally be true. The books make sense only when read literally (not *true* , but this seems to be the only way to read it). If Genesis is not literal – neither is Adam/Eve. If Adam is not literal neither is Cain/Abel.
    It just doesn’t make sense. It’s like trying to argue that Harry Potter is literal but Voldemort is a metaphor for all evil. Noah’s ark is a metaphor but Noah is real.
    And I really dont get what Genesis is a metaphor for.
    X was a lion in battle is a metaphor where X’s bravery/courage/ferocity is represented as a lion(who is commonly attributed these qualities without the use of the word like to convert it into a simile). Genesis is a metaphor for what? It describes how God created everything and more(which we believe is non literal) – What is it a metaphor for? How God created everything?

    Lets say I worship Newton, He can do no wrong. Then I come across Newton’s corpuscular theory of light , superseded by huygen’s wave theory of light, itself superseded by Einsteins dual nature of light. I have two options here – i can concede that though Newton was brilliant, he was wrong in this case. Or I can say that actually Newtons corpscules are metaphors for Einsteins photon’s. And when Newton actually said that corpuscles have infinitesimally small but non zero mass he actually meant something else – you aren’t supposed to take everything literally. And clearly when I read his work , its obvious it isnt literal – But all these people who read Newton earlier were mistaken.
    But change Newtons corpuscular theory to Genesis and supposedly the above ludicrous example makes sense?

    Luke justifies itself in roughly the way a modern history would: it characterizes the author, describes its sources and explains why they’re credible.

    why then is there so much effort to justify Jesus fulfilling old testament prophecy. If the gospel writers knew that most of the Old testament is metaphorical why go to the effort?
    You can see this in other cultures too. The Ramayana and The Mahabharata are credited authors who are witnesses to the events. But we have folklore about the same characters where there isn’t an explicit eyewitness – just narrations of what goes on in heaven etc.
    Usually Hindus dont suffer from the conflict with science bits , not one of them ever even attempts the argument that the Mahabharata is an account whereas the rest are stories that shouldn’t be taken literally.
    The problem with the Genesis is metaphorical crowd is that they don’t seem to be intellectually honest.
    They can’t even acknowledge the possibility that Genesis may just be wrong , no higher truth, no metaphor , nothing – just the writings of people who didn’t know any better and made up stuff.
    Its worse for people like Josh (who are atheists, I dont know your label) – They don’t find these arguments credible otherwise they would be atleast agnostics – yet and I’d say for political reasons choose to say it’s credible.

    Nor is there in, say, Cinderella. Most stories don’t announce themselves as imaginary,

    But religion does. The places where it doesn’t are meant to be treated as literal. Again you only need to look at other religions like Hinduism to see that the default is literal true. They really do mean that the deities fly in the air , and personify objects like the sun and fire and indeed worship these. The stories make no sense as metaphors.
    You can also see this in the Mahabharata , where Krishna has to fulfill myriad prophecies. It makes no sense to say the prophecies being referred to are metaphors but Krishna is literally true.

  9. #9 FUG
    November 26, 2010

    The reason one would interpret different parts of The Bible differently is because they aren’t really written as a continuous story. The opening is, sure, but there are discontinuities, such as the long list of laws and customs in Leviticus and the genealogy in Numbers. These texts, in specific, suggest that each text is meant to be taken in a different way. Additionally, the texts that make up The Bible were written by different persons, and so I think it plausible to infer that these different authors tried to convey different things.

    To make things clear, though: I must admit that I’d prefer if persons took The Bible, in its entirety, as a book written by men about religious subjects. I don’t think it proves that Jesus was resurrected, for example. As we reject incredulous claims in other ancient historical documents, I agree with your call for consistency.

    The factual aspects of Genesis are in its cosmology. It describes a world encompassed by a dome, over which water rests. Clearly this fact has been falsified today, but it served a cosmological function in the past. I would also extend the allegorical portions, myself — the lessons which one can obtain from Genesis, while they may be rejected by someone, are intended to convey a factual state of affairs about Man and his place in the world in the same way that modern fiction, sans-religion, can bring out factual difficulties. Specifically, I think the story of the fall has a factual element to it as we have witnessed atrocities committed in the name of Knowledge of Good and Evil. To make an analogue, suppose Orwell’s “1984″. This, while fiction, is a commentary on factual things. It’s not a scientific essay, no doubt, but it wouldn’t work as fiction if it didn’t have this factual element to it.

  10. #10 Deepak Shetty
    November 27, 2010

    These texts, in specific, suggest that each text is meant to be taken in a different way.

    All right a thought experiment. If you take away what you know from science – would you make the same statement? (with two caveats – how the books are written should have no bearing on whether they have scientific truths or not and that almost no one took each text in a different way when no scientific truth was available). You can also see this in different cultures – do they treat their origin stories as allegorical or literal?

    I must admit that I’d prefer if persons took The Bible, in its entirety, as a book written by men about religious subjects

    yikes. we don’t disagree – no fun arguing.

    You seem to use the word factual in a different way than it is normally used. For e.g. we wouldn’t say Superman is a mix of fictional and factual parts.

  11. #11 FUG
    November 27, 2010

    I would like to think that I would say the same, since I’m pointing out texts that simply read differently — genealogical records differ from laws differ from stories. As for their scientific truth, I think I agreed with you. The Bible most certainly served, at least in part, a scientific purpose (as long as we accept that a purpose of science is to describe the universe). If I were raised in the “appropriate” (not as in right, but just so that I’d come out in such and such a way) manner I’d probably believe that The Bible was an accurate representation of the world, at least partially so, much in the same way that I believe current scientific theory to be so. This is why I mentioned that the purpose was to read and interpret the stories. The usefulness of The Bible has changed with respect to person, culture, and time, and at this time, given what we know, it seems to be more useful to honestly acknowledge its cosmological aspect, negate it, but realize that the stories are still useful for other purposes.

    On fact and fiction: It may be that I’m using it differently, so apologies if that was just a miscommunication. I find the two difficult to parse in most situations. Superman is fiction, yes (though, similar to fictional stories, he has a pragmatic factual component, in that he represents a value-set). 1+1=2 is factual (and, similar to other indisputable facts, it is argued that this is so because math is a man made tautology). But when it comes to historical analysis, and most interesting problem situations, the mixture of what is vs. what is made up is pretty difficult to pin down in a clean way.

  12. #12 Deepak Shetty
    November 28, 2010

    The usefulness of The Bible has changed with respect to person, culture, and time,..

    This of course is demonstrably true.

    This is why I mentioned that the purpose was to read and interpret the stories.

    This is where the argument lies. Undoubtedly this is what Christians do today. However it does not seem to have been the authors intent(yes I cannot know), nor was it taken this way in earlier times. The only reason the allegorical interpretation occurred was because it was no longer feasible to accept the stories as simple straightforward stories – not because of anything inherently in the stories that made one think hmmm maybe there is something more here. Again you might argue that the apple is allegory and the fall is an allegory. But the entire creation myth, what could it be an allegory for? If the serpent is a stand in for evil, what is God a stand in for?

  13. #13 FUG
    November 28, 2010

    Are you familiar with the Gnostics? I’d say that they show some possible insight into how these stories can be interpreted. But, even more than that, I’d say that it’s mostly irrelevant what this book was used for, at least with respect to reading and interpreting the Bible today (it is, of course, an interesting historical question). I agree that the creation story was meant as cosmology initially. Anything I’ve read pretty much confirms this.

    I’d say firstly that there isn’t a single awesomely best interpretation. There are better and worse ones. I’ll try and give one here. The creation story as an allegory for the birth of consciousness. God, in this sense, is an inevitability that one must grapple with. He creates an unfair world full of pain and suffering. In this sense, God is the universe itself. We are born of stardust, and forced to live in pain by a capricious idiot God that demonstrably worships ignorance. Ignorance is a path to reconciling pain, but it’s a path that perpetuates itself and relies upon a mental rigidity equivalent to natural law, something our minds simply don’t do (but can reach towards). And so we have a symbol of wisdom: Woman and the snake. Encounter the world, reach for the apple, and listen to your wife. But, beware, for the apple is only a symbol, only an end-goal, and even when you taste of this fruit understand that your purpose is still to work, to procreate, to function within a social context. You have no knowledge of good and evil for others. You have only a path for yourself. And, post-ejection from supposed paradise, we see what that path is: Find a function within a social context where you may love, and procreate.

    Now, personally, I find some of the above interpretation to be morally weak (such as the Bible’s call to procreate, and the rigid and misinformed gender roles that the Bible tends to assign). But that is why one doesn’t take the Bible all on its own to make moral decisions. Additionally, the above has very little that is scientific about it. This is why it’s wise to not use the Bible as a scientific document any longer. The Bible remains useful mostly just because people take it seriously and are at least passingly familiar with it (though few read it in depth, and most skip all the morally repugnant stories). It has perpetuated itself within our culture, thereby giving a reference point between persons. Additionally, regardless of where one stands morally, in the United States it has influenced morality whether it’s considered with or without religion. Studying in what way these teachings have influenced our viewpoint is a worthwhile pursuit, as it tends to help give one a more refined perspective.

  14. #14 Anton Mates
    November 28, 2010

    No I dont think I agree. I believe you will get different answers based on how you frame the question (e.g. Would an idol worshipper like a hindu get into heaven if he is good but doesnt accept Jesus? Would an atheist get into heaven if he is good but doesn’t accept Jesus).

    I don’t think that’s really the same question, though. A Christian can agree that some non-Christians go to Heaven–which logically implies that you don’t need Jesus to get in–but still think that Hindus (for instance) are barred from Heaven because they’re particularly wicked in some way. That’s a particularly big possibility with atheists, given their reputation as people who hate God, love, freedom and old ladies.

    Anyways, by the Pew data about 45% of American Christians think Jews can go to Heaven. About 34% think Muslims can, ditto for Hindus. Only 27% think atheists do, but that jumps to 36% if you call them “people of no religious faith,” demonstrating (IMO) the huge negative rep of the word “atheist.”

    All told, 52% of Christians said that at least one of the above religious (or non-religious) groups was eligible for Heaven. (There was a pretty large group of “don’t knows,” too, which probably accounts for another 13% of Christians who agreed that many faiths can get you to Heaven but didn’t accept any of the above groups in particular.)

    Again the definition of liberal is still open (for e.g. Id say that any Christian who believes in heaven/hell can’t really call himself liberal!) – Your link for you dont have to be Christian doesn’t work by the way.

    Oh, sorry. I think Word was messing with the quotes in my HTML. Here:

    Liberal Christianity

    Gallup poll on whether the Bible is literally true

    Pew poll on whether non-Christians can go to heaven

    You’re welcome to define “liberal” however you want, though I don’t personally see what heaven & hell have to do with it. I was just explaining how I define it, and how liberal Christians themselves often do. “Liberal Christian” and “left-wing Christian” and “nice Christian” aren’t equivalent.

    And I probably don’t agree with the wikipedia definition – because even YEC’s claim that they are willing to read the Bible without any preconceived notions but that they find the Bible to be inerrant and free of contradiction after they have *carefully studied* it.

    You misinterpret “preconceived,” I think. Yes, YECs sometimes claim to have started out doubtful of Biblical inerrancy, but that’s part of their conversion narrative and is set firmly in the past. They’re very clear–in fact, it’s a core theological pillar of most conservative Christian churches–that once you’re a proper Christian, you absolutely need that presumption of inerrancy to read the Bible correctly. Liberal Christians don’t accept that.

    Doesn’t it depend on what parts they find not literally true. For e.g. if they find the 10 commandments literally true then I cant see how you can pretend these people are moderates or liberal in any normal sense of the word (not wikipedia’s).

    I don’t know what it would mean to find a commandment literally true. Commandments are not descriptive statements, and have no truth value. Do you mean that they respect the ten commandments, or think that they should be obeyed? If so, I would agree that they’re not “moderates,” since (by the only survey I’ve ever seen on the matter) the majority of Americans openly reject the Sabbath-keeping and honor-thy-parents commandments. But that doesn’t say anything about whether they’re liberal Christians by my definition.

    (And I have no idea what you think the “normal” senses of “liberal” are. The word means totally different things depending on whether you’re talking social policy or economic policy or law, and whether you’re talking about American culture or Australian culture or German culture, and so forth. There’s nothing particularly weird about the fact that it has yet another meaning in the context of Christianity.)

    A totally non-scientific indicator I have of how liberal a Christian really is, would be whether he/she would object to his/her son/daughter marrying a non-christian solely on the basis of the suitor being non christian. By that measure, I find that liberal Christians don’t really walk their talk(anecdotal, not scientific , I know).

    The only available scientific evidence I know on the matter is from this study, which found that the majority of US Christians say they’d approve of their child marrying a Jew or Muslim. (Of course they could be lying or unaware of their own feelings, but so could the ones who say they’d disapprove.) As usual, atheists come out the worst–the majority of Christians say they’d disapprove of their kids marrying an atheist.

    Circumstantial evidence. If the original scribes meant this to be non literal we would have plenty of old evidence that this is what was taught to the followers. Or we would have had the priests carefully pore through the bible and say well clearly this was never meant to be literal.

    Says who? Do nonliteral texts always come with copious warnings that “THIS TEXT IS NOT LITERAL: DO NOT INTERPRET IT THAT WAY”? Are these warnings so common that we could expect to have evidence for them now, even though we know pretty much nothing about Jewish theological instruction in the 4th-5th centuries BCE?

    What we do have is that people for a long time read it literally, were taught that it was literal and no significant movement ever claimed that well actually the earlier books were metaphorical till much later when science proved some of it cant literally be true.

    No, what we have is no data whatsoever on how people interpreted it for approximately 600 years after Genesis 1 and 2 were written. Starting in the 2nd century CE, we start to see claims about how Genesis should be interpreted, including significant claims for metaphorical/allegorical interpretation from both Christian and Jewish sources: Origen, Talmudic writers, and a passel of Gnostics. None of that tells us how the original audience of Genesis read it, though.

    The books make sense only when read literally (not *true* , but this seems to be the only way to read it). If Genesis is not literal – neither is Adam/Eve. If Adam is not literal neither is Cain/Abel. It just doesn’t make sense.

    Well…ok? How many Christians think that Cain and Abel were more literal than Adam and Eve?

    It’s like trying to argue that Harry Potter is literal but Voldemort is a metaphor for all evil. Noah’s ark is a metaphor but Noah is real.

    That’s not terribly uncommon, actually. George Washington literally existed but his cherry-tree story is a moralistic fable. Alexander the Great was real but the Gordian Knot he cut is probably a myth.

    And I really dont get what Genesis is a metaphor for.

    See the Framework Interpretation for one take on it. See Allegorical Interpretations of Genesis for others.

    Note, too, that “literally true” and “metaphorically true” aren’t the only options. If Genesis 1 and/or 2 were religious hymns or votive poetry, or otherwise had ritual significance, then their truth value may have been basically irrelevant. Think of the Enuma Elish, another Mesopotamian creation poem. So far as anyone knows, its main function was to be read at religious ceremonies to keep the gods favoring Babylon. As such, whether its story was true–literally or metaphorically–just wasn’t the point. It was a good story, where “good” is defined as “retelling it helps keep the world from falling apart.”


    But change Newtons corpuscular theory to Genesis and supposedly the above ludicrous example makes sense?

    Um…a lot of things about Genesis wouldn’t make sense if you were talking about Newton’s writings on optics instead. They’re very different texts, no?

    why then is there so much effort to justify Jesus fulfilling old testament prophecy. If the gospel writers knew that most of the Old testament is metaphorical why go to the effort?

    a) Most of the prophecies the gospel writers pointed to are from bits of the OT which everyone agrees are heavily metaphorical, like the Psalms and the Prophets.

    b) Nobody said that the gospel writers knew that most of the Old Testament is metaphorical. Writers of different gospels evidently had widely varying opinions on which bits of the OT were metaphorical or literal, and I don’t think any of the gospel writers knew anything about the OT’s proper interpretation anyway. Their opinions were no more expert than ours–probably less so.

    c) Nobody said that most of the OT is metaphorical. The early chapters of Genesis are hardly “most of the OT.” The rest of it clearly contains some metaphor, some literalness, some ritual texts and so on.

    Usually Hindus dont suffer from the conflict with science bits , not one of them ever even attempts the argument that the Mahabharata is an account whereas the rest are stories that shouldn’t be taken literally.

    Actually, Hindus have quite explicitly argued that the Mahabharata itself contains metaphorical truth but shouldn’t be taken literally. This was the position of Swami Vivekananda, one of the most influential figures in modern Hinduism.

    And most scholars seem to agree that the Vedas are largely poetry, ritual and metaphor. Indeed, the whole concept of kathenotheism–”My god may not be literally supreme, but I’m still going to write and speak of him as if he is for the moment”–is based on the Vedas.

    They can’t even acknowledge the possibility that Genesis may just be wrong , no higher truth, no metaphor , nothing – just the writings of people who didn’t know any better and made up stuff. Its worse for people like Josh (who are atheists, I dont know your label) – They don’t find these arguments credible otherwise they would be atleast agnostics – yet and I’d say for political reasons choose to say it’s credible.

    I’m an atheist. And I have no problem saying that the authors of Genesis were factually ignorant, and that the Bible contains lots of bald fact statements which are simply wrong. Nonetheless, it seems most likely to me that Genesis has some poetic/metaphorical/ritual content. It’s possible that it doesn’t, sure–anything’s possible–but I think the evidence is against that position.

    And no, I don’t find that content terribly compelling on a moral or spiritual or aesthetic level either. I greatly prefer Homer, or Ecclesiastes for that matter. But if liberal Christians do, I don’t think they’re factually or logically wrong to do so.

    Most stories don’t announce themselves as imaginary,
    But religion does. The places where it doesn’t are meant to be treated as literal.

    Slacktivist just disproved that idea rather elegantly.

    You can also see this in the Mahabharata , where Krishna has to fulfill myriad prophecies. It makes no sense to say the prophecies being referred to are metaphors but Krishna is literally true.

    And yet that’s exactly what Vivekananda said. He held that Krishna was probably a mortal king who had really existed, but that most of his behavior in the Mahabharata was an accretion of myth. And he held that the Mahabharata was nonetheless metaphorically true, and an excellent guide to dharma.

  15. #15 Deepak Shetty
    November 29, 2010

    I’d say firstly that there isn’t a single awesomely best interpretation. There are better and worse ones.

    As of today ? Yes Ive already admitted this is demonstrably true. however note that Josh’s original point is that Genesis was never meant to be taken literally because it isn’t written in a particular way – It’s this that is a sticking point (along with its implied militant atheist == fundamentalist religious guy).

  16. #16 Marshall
    November 29, 2010

    The point about Adam&Eve in Genesis is that it anchors a philosophy about how to do family life. It’s a textbook in marital algebra. A worked-out example. It won’t make sense if you don’t understand the notation, which it seems to me many people make a great effort to avoid doing. Is it myth? is it story? is it history? Who cares? The point is, are you interested in living your life this way? If you’re not, there are other ways, you can try onem and see whether it works for you. One reason why you might be interested is that this particular story comes to us as the backbone of a very ancient lineage, still thriving today.

    I continue to think it’s amazing how the Atheists will argue about what makes a Real Christian.

  17. #17 Pierce R. Butler
    November 29, 2010

    Marshall @ # 16: The point about Adam&Eve in Genesis is that it anchors a philosophy about how to do family life.

    A spectacularly dysfunctional family life. A & E screw up everything for their own lineage and the world, forever; their son invents murder; they &/or their children invent incest; and the soap opera of sin has never ceased, nor the bloodthirsty wrath of Big Daddy.

    Wouldn’t, say, a “raised by wolves” mythology have served us as a better set of role models?

  18. #18 Anton Mates
    November 29, 2010

    Wouldn’t, say, a “raised by wolves” mythology have served us as a better set of role models?

    Unlikely. Romulus was raised by wolves, and he wasn’t exactly a paragon of virtue.

    It’s hard to find a family of mythical ancestors who aren’t dicks.

  19. #19 Deepak Shetty
    November 30, 2010

    Marshall
    Whats amazing is that Christians will argue what makes a real Christian.
    Non believers atleast can be objective about it.

  20. #20 Deepak Shetty
    November 30, 2010

    @Anton
    Too much to respond to.
    So just a few things
    a. The argument starts with Josh/slacktivist claiming that Genesis is to be interpreted differently from say Luke (with the implied Jesus bits are literal[or in josh's case say nothing] Genesis is not) and whats more the original genesis writers meant it to be this way , and the original writers knew this and embodied some deep meaning in Genesis which would only be noted by enlightened folks like Josh/Slacktivist – not by militant atheists or religious fundamentalists and not by most of the people in the centuries gone by.
    The main points of Genesis are that God created the universe in some order, He created all life in it in some order, Adam and Eve disobeyed God, Adam and Eve were banished from Eden etc etc. None of these stand up to a its a metaphor/allegory test (God is a metaphor for the universe – in a religious book, really?). Hence whether written in poetic form or not, circumstantially anyway , Genesis seems to have been written by people who believed it’s literally true(they may have been exaggerated myths but the people who wrote them believed just as Luke believed in the truth of what he wrote) , and thats the way it was taken by most people , for many many years till we could actually prove that isn’t literally true. That’s when alternative interpretations became the norm and that’s why the alternate interpretations should be suspect.
    Per Josh and Co, Genesis was written to be non literal – Even if I have not made my case , neither has Josh(or you) – there is no reason to believe this.

    b. I have no problem with people who say that they treat all the books as non literal. The problem is with people who say one book is obviously metaphorical and one is obviously literal. Its worse when a non believer says it – you can understand why a Christian would have that attitude.

    c. With regards to Hinduism – non literalism is not a mainstream view. In any case you’ll note that people who take it non-literally do not make the case that the Ramayana is literal but the Mahabharata is not (or choose your two events).

    d. And finally , your posts are very insightful and thought provoking and my thanks for taking the time.

  21. #21 Marshall
    November 30, 2010

    I don’t know why people would assume that everything in the Bible should be taken as a positive role model. I think any rational person would understand that “kicked out of paradise” is an undesirable consequence. See that blood track on the highway? Don’t drink and drive! Any advice book you ever read starts with a story about good people making bad choices.

    Or did you mean the view of family life rooted in this story is dysfunctional? This tradition has been active for several thousand years; it has “functioned”, whatever else.

    “Raised by Wolves” is what was going on before Adam and Eve/Mankind/We acquired a knowledge of good and evil and became “like God”. There was no sin because there was no moral dimension. Indeed “the soap opera of sin has never ceased”, that is the point. We continue struggle with the desire to do good and the temptation to do evil, and shall likely do forever… with a little help from our friends… and it hurts… but I really don’t think we want to go back to the time when there was no idea of the good, even if the air was cool in the evening.

  22. #22 Pierce R. Butler
    November 30, 2010

    Anton Mates @ # 18 – I didn’t say “raised by wolves” was a good model, just that it would be better than the Genesis story.

    Marshall @ # 21: I don’t know why people would assume that everything in the Bible should be taken as a positive role model.

    Maybe because the people who call it “the good book” keep telling us that.

    This tradition has been active for several thousand years; it has “functioned”, whatever else.

    Both male and female are needed to make babies. Wow, deep, man.

    I really don’t think we want to go back to the time when there was no idea of the good …

    Starting over without the burden of that hideously pathological creation myth sounds like a fine experiment to me. There were all sorts of ideas of “good” well before the barbaric Ibaru tribes tossed their version into the cultural pot; even the feral cats I feed in my back yard seem to have a pretty clear – and quite functional! – version of the concept.

  23. #23 Anton Mates
    December 1, 2010

    Deepak,


    a. The argument starts with Josh/slacktivist claiming that Genesis is to be interpreted differently from say Luke (with the implied Jesus bits are literal[or in josh's case say nothing] Genesis is not) and whats more the original genesis writers meant it to be this way ,

    Just to do some preemptive strawman avoidance, neither Josh nor Slacktivist’s Fred claim that Genesis is entirely nonliteral. (And I know from Fred’s past posts that he doesn’t think it is.) Their claim, rather, was that the primary purpose of Luke is to express and defend certain literal historical claims, while the primary purpose of the Genesis creation narrative is something different.

    and the original writers knew this and embodied some deep meaning in Genesis which would only be noted by enlightened folks like Josh/Slacktivist – not by militant atheists or religious fundamentalists and not by most of the people in the centuries gone by.

    Which is totally shocking, I know. Because fundamentalists and medieval Christians are unsurpassed experts on ancient Hebrew theology.


    None of these stand up to a its a metaphor/allegory test (God is a metaphor for the universe – in a religious book, really?).

    Who said God was a metaphor? And if you want to claim that the others don’t stand up to a “metaphor/allegory test,” you have to actually conduct a test. How do you intend to test whether, say, the Fall or the particular order of creation events is meant literally or symbolically? Heck, even if Fred claimed that God was a metaphor, which he doesn’t, going “Oh, really?” isn’t a counterargument.

    and thats the way it was taken by most people , for many many years till we could actually prove that isn’t literally true.

    That’s the way it was taken by most people who lived 800-2400 years after it was written, people who couldn’t even read it in its original language. Somehow that seems important.


    Per Josh and Co, Genesis was written to be non literal – Even if I have not made my case , neither has Josh(or you) – there is no reason to believe this.

    There are at least two that I find compelling. One, the fact that Genesis directly juxtaposes two creation narratives which are clearly incompatible if meant literally; and two, the fact that other theogonies of similar age and region of origin (e.g., Hesiod’s Theogony and the Enuma Elish) appear to have primarily ritual and poetic significance.

    The problem is with people who say one book is obviously metaphorical and one is obviously literal. Its worse when a non believer says it – you can understand why a Christian would have that attitude.

    So you don’t think any books of the Bible are heavily metaphorical? The Song of Songs? Ezekiel?
    I mean, we’re talking about a collection of texts with dozens of authors, from multiple cultures and religious traditions, writing over a span of at least 600 years. It would be a statistical miracle if various parts of it didn’t mix fact, metaphor and ritual in significantly different proportions.

    c. With regards to Hinduism – non literalism is not a mainstream view.

    It is for American Hindus, certainly. About half of US Hindus think their scriptures are written by men, not gods. And among those who do think their scriptures are the word of God, the majority are non-literalists.

    (And that’s not because US Hindus are actually non-believers or something–almost all of them believe in some sort of God, and a strong majority believe in life after death.

    In any case you’ll note that people who take it non-literally do not make the case that the Ramayana is literal but the Mahabharata is not (or choose your two events).

    Well, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are very similar sorts of texts. I have seen influential people make the case that, say, the Ramayana and Mahabharata are meant literally but much of the Vedas and/or Puranas is not.

    d. And finally , your posts are very insightful and thought provoking and my thanks for taking the time.

    Much appreciated, and ditto.

  24. #24 E-cigarette
    December 6, 2010

    The book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn changed the way I look at a lot of things, including the interpretation of the book of Genesis.

    If you haven’t done so, read it. I’d love to see a post by Josh on it.