11. Genesis 3 generally

I.  continued

B. Breaking the Covenant of Creation (Genesis 3:1-19)

1.  Introducing the Characters

I discussed the historicity of chapter 1 but left that consideration aside when I discussed chapter 2. At this point then, as we prepare to consider chapter 3 and the Fall, I want to re-open the question of the historical nature of these events. Were there in fact a real Adam and Eve, first parents of the human race? And did the events in this chapter actually occur, or is this a mythical retelling of something cosmic?

I believe that the answer to the second question should be: both. In our culture we are accustomed to thinking of myth as being the antithesis of historical narrative, but the two are not really mutually exclusive (as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien have argued). A myth is not necessarily a fiction, and there are good reasons to understand chapter 3 as portraying actual people and actual events, but portraying them in a mythical way. The mythical form has at least two characteristics which distinguish it from an historical narrative: first, a mythical narrative is under no obligation to be complete in any sense; and second, a mythical narrative is under no obligation to give any accounting for super-natural events.  An historical narrative will typically try to account for new characters as they are introduced, and will usually try to give some explanation for super-natural events, acknowledging their unusual character and giving some reason for believing them nonetheless.

Who is this guy, who are his parents, what country did he come from, and why did he end up in this story? These are all questions that an historical narrative could be expected to address. In historical narrative, when unusual events are finally simply attributed to God as beyond natural explanation, there is at least an admission that the event does need some faith for believing it. An historical narrative is fully aware of the boundary between the natural and the super-natural, between normal experience and the transcendent, and seeks to assure the reader that, though the occurrence is hardly believable, it nonetheless did happen.

The mythical narrative, on the other hand, gives no quarter to unbelief, makes no distinction between the ordinary and the extra-ordinary, and does not bother introducing its characters unless it is necessary to do so for the sake of the story. In a mythical narrative, the focus is on the event, which is assumed to be of supreme and cosmic significance. Characters are brought in as needed and there is no obligation to account for them because it is the event that is important. The line between natural and super-natural simply disappears. If a snake begins to talk in a mythical narrative, why, then it begins to talk and you are on your own; you must take it or leave it because no explanation will be given.

By these two criteria, then, Genesis 3 is a mythical narrative from the first word. The serpent appears from nowhere, acting in a most super-natural fashion, with no introduction and no accounting for his origin or his ability to speak. In fact, though there may be hints later in the Scripture, no definitive answer is ever given to where the devil came from. The origin of the Tempter, and therefore the origin of evil, is left blank. All we are really told in this chapter about the beginning of evil is that evil did not originate with the human race. Evil is like an infection which was spread to us from the outside. Who got it first or how he got it remains a mystery. The grim but important fact for us is that we got it.

On the other hand, myth is not the same as fiction. To call Genesis 3 a myth, which I do, is not to say that Adam and Eve had no actual existence. On the contrary there are very good reasons to believe that Adam and Eve actually existed, not as metaphors for the beginning of the human race, but as two flesh and blood individuals who went on to become parents of the rest of us in the ordinary way.

A myth does not attempt to explain the events it portrays in ordinary terms.  Rather, the events that it portrays are meant to explain of some other larger question of deep and abiding significance. It is very clear that the purpose of Genesis 3 is to explain how we got to the desperate condition we are in considering the perfect condition we started with. If God is so good and powerful, and the creation was so pleasing to Him, why is there so much pain and evil all around us now? This is a question which, to my mind, is at the center of the Biblical revelation and is one piece of the evidence that convinces me the Bible is a genuine revelation.

Some use the “problem of evil” as proof that Christianity must be false, but they forget it is the Bible that invented the problem of evil, that rubbed our noses in it until we had to notice it was a problem. The Bible poses the dilemma of good and evil deliberately in such an extreme way that it virtually seals off all possible answers: the Creator is absolutely good in Himself; the Creator is the absolute origin of all that exists and has absolute power over it; and the creation was absolutely good from the beginning with no hint of pain, suffering, evil, no taint of death whatsoever. And yet now the creation has become seriously corrupted, and the picture it paints of this corruption is so relentlessly grim as to silence all suspicion that the Bible is trying to gloss over anything that doesn’t fit with its main theme of the goodness of God. How then can such evil exist at all with such a good and all-powerful Creator? Yet the Bible insists on maintaining these two seemingly incompatible axioms: the goodness and power of God and the total corruption of nature. Scripture emphasizes these two themes as if it were trying to make us notice the apparent contradictions. It is so vivid that it seems to argue against itself, all the while insisting that if we are patient and willing to trust a complete answer can be given eventually. Such a plot would be inexplicable in a merely human book.

Hence when we find a myth in the Bible it follows that it must be a biblical myth; that is, it must be a myth that explains, or starts to explain, its conundrum in its own biblical terms. The Bible, as we read from Genesis up to the gospels, relentlessly places God in an historical context. In any pagan myth, it is the remoteness of the event in time and place that lends the mythical tone to the narrative, and that makes the blurring of the boundary between natural and super-natural more palatable. But the Bible does not allow any boundary between natural and super-natural, period. One of the over-riding themes in the biblical narrative is that the super-natural is always immediately at hand, always threatening to break through, and when the super-natural does invade it is very matter of fact and frequently cloaked in natural camouflage.

Rather than using the remoteness of time and place to make the mythical super-natural element more “believer friendly”, the Bible tries to minimize that remoteness. Though Eden is lost to us geographically, some of the nearby rivers still exist and are still familiar to the general reader. And though the Fall did indeed happen in the remote past, you can see how we are linked to it by a series of ancestors that are named and whose foibles are occasionally remarked on. To think of the Fall as fiction runs counter to the whole character of Scripture.

Hence we see the myth gradually drifting into ordinary historical narrative. The central hero and heroine of the myth descend from paradise to be mere people who have children in the ordinary way, and these children fight in the ordinary way and end up as the first criminal and crime victim in the ordinary way. As the myth concludes, the resulting narrative is so depressingly ordinary, so thoroughly a narrative, as to leave no question that the myth is seamlessly and continuously joined with the history, a single fabric. Adam and Eve, who played such a larger-than-life role in ruining the universe, come down from their exalted status as the Original Myth and now carry on with such ordinary lives over their next millennium that there is nothing much of interest to say about them.

Another reason for rejecting the account of the Fall as being fictional is that myths were never intended as fiction. That our culture regards myth as equivalent to fairy tale is partly prejudice. The ancients invented many myths but they did not understand themselves as telling mere stories. The ancient myths were explanations, they were accounts that were meant to be taken seriously in a world in which “factual” could mean quite extraordinary things in remote times and remote places.

The myth was always remote in time or space, and the remoteness was to help account for the strangeness of the events it portrayed. But mythical events were meant to be taken as real events in remote time and space that explained real events in the present time and place. In this sense, mythology was the ancient equivalent of science: the myths were the theories that gave the reasons for the things in our daily experience. They were as serious as science is today. We are, naturally, prejudiced in favor of science as the preferable means of explaining the nature of reality, but the question is not whether myth is better than science or not. The point  is that myths served in the ancient world as an explanation and were not meant a fiction. Nor was the account of the Fall intended to be taken as a fiction; to take it as fiction (without some other just cause)  is merely to express our cultural biases.

But weren’t the other myths of the ancients actually not historically true? Probably not, though some of them, such as the stories of the Trojan War, have turned out to have a surprising amount of historical content when the opportunity to check them finally occurred. But whether the pagan myths are historical or not is irrelevant to the issue here. The question is: what was the intent of the biblical myth? Did the author (the Holy Spirit, I assume, but some other ancient people if you wish) intend to say that the events were merely fiction, mere metaphors telling us cosmic truths in a purely symbolic way? Not if He were telling a myth to ancient people in the way of the ancients.

But if the Holy Spirit were revealing an historical event, why would He have chosen to couch it in a myth?  For one thing, because the story was too big for a narrative. There was too much background for a straightforward story. It was a story that would require a great deal of telling to make it coherent if it were told as a simple narrative. The background of the serpent, at the very least, would demand some accounting for and that would open another story that must surely be cosmic in scale. No, the story of the Fall from Eden, by its nature, required the mythical form, not because it was fiction but because a background narrative would have only added an enormous amount of confusing and irrelevant detail. Sure we would all like to know where the serpent came from, how he became evil, and why he came to Eden in the first place, but knowing such things would only take our focus off the important facts of the event: that we are in these dire straits despite the absolute goodness and power of the Creator and the absolute goodness of the creation.

Finally, Adam and Eve should be understood as real people because covenants are not made with fictional characters; God does not enter into covenants with symbols or metaphors. If Adam and Eve were not two individual and real people, my own direct ancestors in the ordinary biological sense, then the whole point of the covenant vanishes. If there was no actual Adam or Eve then there was no actual covenant and the transition from good to evil is left as unexplained as ever, a myth that  draws attention to a question and then utterly fails to explain what it forces us to confront. For the Covenant is essential to the story. The Fall makes sense only from the viewpoint of the Covenant. Why was the choice made by a single man and a single woman of such universal weight that the Bible portrays it as killing the whole universe? The answer rests entirely on the Covenant. Without the Covenant Adam was just a man acting as he saw fit and there is no reason why his choice should have anything to do with me or you.

We might as well finish the discussion of the origin and motivation of Satan as much as possible now. Disregarding the mythical mode of the passage, modern sensibilities compel us to ask who Satan was and where he came from. How can we believe in the literal existence of such a creature? Why would he bother to come to Eden with the intent of spoiling it all? These are questions that cannot be answered because the Scripture never gives more than a hint at the answers. One tradition was that Satan had been the highest of the angels, so glorious that he became proud and thought that he could himself be god. His attempted coup led to a war and in the ensuing war between the angels and the fallen angels who joined him, his forces were driven out of heaven, wherever that is. Part of Satan’s strategy then became to take this bit of ground, the world we live in, as his base of operations, and us as his prisoners and his food supply.

There is nothing intrinsically unbelievable about this story. It is common to argue among the intelligentsia about the existence of extra-terrestrials and about the existence of other universes. It is not considered intrinsically unbelievable that other whole systems of nature might exist. On the contrary, it is popular in some circles to believe in such things. And here in the Bible we have a possible candidate for just such a one of these extra-terrestrials to examine. Satan is very clearly portrayed as a creature who is not of flesh and blood, not of matter in the ordinary sense, a creature who is not a part of our visible universe at all but part of a different system of existence governed by other physical laws, which for lack of any better term we call “spiritual”. If one admits the possible existence of extra-terrestrials and of other universes, then one must admit the possible existence of spirits, of angels, of demons. The very materialist skeptical scientists, say Isaac Asimov as an example, who argue for the existence of other life in the universe are simultaneously making belief in the devils and angels more respectable, whether they intend to or not (and clearly Asimov didn’t).

As to the serpent’s motivation in the temptation, that is equally blank. One tradition from the early church taught that when God created humanity and appointed us as head over creation, He was including the angelic realm under our dominion (this might imply that the angelic realm is connected to this creation somehow rather than being an entirely different one). The tradition goes that Satan was jealous of the glorious position given to the human race and resentful of being placed in the service of such pathetic creatures. It was his jealousy and pride that led to his fall, for by this account he was second only to God in the glory of his nature, though still a mere creature.

It is as good an explanation as any. If other such creatures may exist then there is simply no way to exclude any theory regarding our relationship to them as intrinsically impossible. Our ignorance is just too great. The Scripture offers one of the few coherent possible ancient accounts of what our connection may be to such creatures. To merely dismiss the biblical account as unbelievable is simply prejudice. There may be reasons I do not know to doubt the account. Some, as their basic axiom, simply do not believe the Bible as a reliable record regardless. But given a basic belief in the possibility of revelation and the basic belief that there may be aliens in our very strange universe, there is no compelling reason to disbelieve the historicity of the Fall.

2 Comments on “11. Genesis 3 generally”

  1. arkvet Says:

    Hello Carroll,
    I am a fish out of water in this community: a non-blogger / non-writer. I ask grace and gentle correction for any gaffs or breaches of etiquette. I found your site rather by accident two weeks ago via Google search for “mythical elements in Genesis.” It may please you to know that this post was on the first or second page of results (although more recent searches using the same method didn’t yield the same results.) I was impressed and moved by your thoughtful, methodical, and respectful handling of scripture, so I kept reading. As I read, naturally, questions arose. Your gracious responses to other commenters, both positive and negative, emboldened me to create this account and introduce myself. Hopefully, when time permits, I might get some questions answered.
    Thank you for making your book available online.
    -Kevin


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