Biblical Beginnings 5: Tales of the Earliest World

It has taken me quite a while to write this post because I’ve been reading a very helpful book, Middle Eastern Mythology by Samuel Henry Hooke (1874–1968). It’s not a big book—less than 200 pages in the Dover paperback edition of 2004—but it is quite dense with information. It is written in a way, however, that is accessible to anyone interested in understanding ancient Near Eastern literature and its influences on the writing and editing of the biblical texts. After summarizing and discussing Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Ugaritic and Hittite mythologies in the first 100 pages, he jumps into an examination of Hebrew myths, several of which comprise most of the first 11 chapters in Genesis.

I do know, from experience, that introducing the word “myth” into any discussion of Genesis 1–11 with some Christians can set up an impromptu debate scenario or ends further dialogue abruptly. Yet, let me suggest three things that hopefully will encourage you to keep engaging with this post.

First, the word “myth” comes from the Greek word μῦθος (muthos), which is found once in the LXX (Sirach 20:19) and five times in the Greek NT, all in the so-called “Pastoral Epistles” (1 Tim 1:4; 4:7; 2 Tim 4:4; Titus 1:14, 16). I appreciate what Edwin M. Good said about myth.

  • Should anyone be offended by the word on the argument that myths are by definition untrue, I should argue the exact opposite. The word comes from a Greek word meaning simply “story” or even, as in drama, “plot.” It is too bad that we have sometimes turned it into something immediately designated false. Myths are the stories taken by their cultures to be in the most important ways true: not necessarily historically or scientifically true, which requires proof of their truth, not literally true perhaps, but true for the culture’s imagination, which is surely more important.”  (Genesis 1–11: Tales of the Earliest World, p. 31).

The first definition in the Oxford Dictionary online of the English word is, “a story from ancient times, especially one that was told to explain natural events or to describe the early history of a people.” It is with this definition in mind that scholars, whom I have read, use the word “myth.”

Second, in all honesty, would you really read the stories of Genesis 1–11 as historical accounts if, instead of reading them as part of a collection of biblical texts, you read them as part of a collection of Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek or Roman texts? I think any one of the following would, all by itself, make it clear that you were reading ancient texts providing non-historical and non-scientific explanations of their worlds:

  • Trees whose fruit could impart eternal life or the knowledge of good and evil.
    • Snakes that could speak to, and deceive, humans.
    • All human beings descended from two humans, even though the couples’ first two children were male, and the younger was murdered by his brother who was then exiled.
    • A world-wide flood that killed all living creatures except seven humans and hundreds of thousands of non-human species which were packed, miraculously, into a wooden craft with the following dimensions: 145 x 24 x 14.5 metres or about 50,500 cubic metres—which is about one-half the size of a modern cruise ship. Not to mention it was built by a 600 year-old man in 6 months with the help of his three sons.

Third, the tales in Genesis 1–11, while not identical to any Mesopotamian, Canaanite or Egyptian myths show obvious signs of familiarity, influence, similarity and difference with respect to those myths, which were in circulation orally and/or in writing at least 1000 years before Genesis was written.

When we ask the question of the stories in Genesis 1–11, “Are they true, historically or scientifically?” we are asking the wrong question. As Hooke notes, “The myth is a product of human imagination arising out of a definite situation and intended to do something. Hence the right question to ask about the myth is not ‘Is it true?’ but ‘What is it intended to do?’ (p. 11). With the Genesis tales, for me, the question is, “What theological understandings were their Israelite creators trying to convey?”

The ancients did not believe, as we moderns do (or, at least, claim), that any explanation that is not factually accurate cannot convey any truth. As I was reminded recently, it is only in the last four to five hundred years that humans have had a sense of historical consciousness.[1] Also the ancients didn’t separate their earthly experiences from their understanding of the realm of the divine. These two realms interacted and impacted each other on a continual basis. Therefore, explaining why things happened in their world had everything to do with what was going on with the gods and vice versa.

The Israelites, who originated the tales as we have them in Genesis 1–11, took stories that were familiar to their intended readers/hearers and by combining and adapting them they provided their unique take on the beginning of the world, why things were the way they were and how their God had worked in all of that. Hooke discusses the following from Genesis 1–11 and how each compares to, and contrasts with, various ancient Near Eastern myths:

  • The two creation stories in chapters 1–2
  • The story of Paradise lost in chapter 3
  • The story of Cain and Abel in chapter 4
  • The story of the Flood in chapters 6–9
  • The story of the tower of Babel in chapters 5, 10–11

As we consider each of these in successive posts, keep foremost in your mind that these are ancient texts, written for an ancient audience. The originators of these stories did not hide historical or scientific information in some kind of ancient cipher that would only be properly interpreted by modern believers more than 2000 years in the future. Nonetheless, I believe they do help us better understand how the Israelites saw their world, their God and their relationship to their God.


[1]If you want to dig into this listen to https://peteenns.com/episode-169-pete-jared-the-bible-the-problem-of-history/