I must begin by apologizing for such a long post. There is a small treat at the end… but no skipping ahead (I will know if you do).
Most Christians are frightened when anyone uses the category of myth for a model of interpreting the Scriptures. I can relate to this to some regards, but this fear largely stems from our lack of understanding of how the Bible interacts with ancient myths.
The Bible never just takes these myths without theological comment and alteration, but it does engage with them. This means that we would be well served in Biblical interpretation to look at some of these ancient myths and compare them. In doing so, details from the text emerge that would otherwise be missed.
For instance, the Enuma Elish is an ancient Babylonian creation myth. It was written – before or around the 17th century B.C – in Akkadian, the oldest known written language. By comparison, Genesis was written either around the 13th century B.C. or the 6th century B.C. (depending on who you talk to). The Enuma Elish was quite popular throughout Babylon’s history. More importantly, the Israelites in captivity would have been familiar with it as it was the religion of their surrounding culture. It is very likely that the author of Genesis (1:1-2:4a) drew much of the creation account out of the Babylonian myth, though not without significant change.
As far as similarities go, the most important one is that the order of creation is exactly the same in both accounts (though it is greatly shortened in the Genesis account).
In the similarities, we realize that the texts interact. But it is the differences that bring out the interpretive significance. First, Genesis is monotheistic whereas the Enuma Elish is polytheistic. Second, in the Enuma Elish, creation is the result of cosmic war between the gods, whereas in Genesis, creation is created by God’s words and is orderly and good (this is important for any true doctrine of creation and for stewardship). And finally, in the Enuma Elish, humans are created as slaves to the gods and therefore the masses of poor slaves are devalued (which is how these ancient cultures kept their servants in willing subordination). In Genesis, humans are created in the image of God and are called good. Work was also created good, and rest is to be given on the Sabbath.
Similarly, the Genesis (2:4b-25) creation account of creation draws much from the Atrahasis Epic. The similarities and differences between these are basically the same as those between the Enuma Elish and Genesis.
All of these comparisons and interactions should help us to realize that polemic edge in of the Genesis creation account.
There are also several other myths that the Bible engages. The story of a great flood is far from unique to the Bible. There are literally dozens (perhaps hundreds) of tales of a great flood in ancient literature from across the centuries and the globe. Several of these are from the Near East, but they are also found scattered throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. A lot of people see as confirmation of the historic event of the flood; I tend to think the intentions say more about who we are and who our God is.
The most significant of these are the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of Atrahasis, and the Genesis account. These are the oldest stories and share the most in common. The similarities between these are undeniable. Each myth has a hero who is told of the coming flood by a god. The hero builds a boat – using the exact same materials – in order to house all the animals in the world. Each hero sends forth a bird to look for dry land. Each hero offers sacrifices to the god who he worships.
The main difference between the flood narratives is the reason for the flood. In both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the story of Atrahasis, the gods decide to send the floods because humanity has become too noisy and the gods get headaches, thus, they decide to wipe out mankind… a rational choice. In Genesis, the flood is sent because of the sinfulness of man. The post-flood story of Genesis is therefore one of rebirth and grace for the whole creation (it is significant that God’s covenant is with the earth, not just humans).
Even the story of Moses’ birth is echoed in other ancient myths of a heroes’ miraculous birth. (But I will stop now for the sake of length.)
It is important to keep in mind that myth doesn’t mean untrue (though it may mean non-factual). Many scholars (and cultures) believe that myths are the deepest of all truths. Indeed, myths shape how we think and how we live. Myths have an ability to become a deep part of us in a way that dispassionate history never could. Just think of the American myth of progress. Though this is quite clearly false, it is so engrained in people that, even when they realize it is false, they have a hard time distancing how they think and live from this internalized myth.
It is indeed proper that our religion is founded on a myth that tells us who we are and who God is.
This doesn’t call into question the historicity of our religion, but it is important we don’t dismiss this category of myth because it is scary to us. We must learn to live within the myth.
As promised, here is the treat. (p.s. I leave for Kenya on Sunday!)