Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Myth of Genesis

I have frequently argued that as Jesus often lectured in the form of parables, we are to take these examples as a caution not to read the Bible too literally; just as Jesus surely was not discussing an actual fig tree, a real house built on sand, or recounting the true story of a traveller assaulted by bandits, the lessons and truths of ancient Scripture are more important than whether the tales are historically accurate.

Of all the books of the Bible, Genesis by far has the greatest number of legends that could politely be described as "far-fetched" by the skeptical: the six-day account of Creation, Noah managing to get exactly two of every species of animal in the world on his ark, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, even a talking snake. I recently discovered that my view that the value of Genesis lies not in its veracity but in deeper meanings that have to be searched out was shared by an eminent theologian: no less of an expert than St. Paul himself.

Genesis also contains a fair share of stories which are not so fantastical, such as the the tale of the patriarch Abram and his handmaid Hagar. Abram was an old man and his wife Sarai was barren; Abram had no heir. Sarai gave Hagar to Abram that she might conceive; she did, and her son was named Ishmael. Later, after a visit from an angel of the Lord, Sarai (now renamed Sarah) conceived a son by Abram (now renamed Abraham), Isaac.

It's a straightforward story, asking of us only to accept that an old woman could become pregnant, a leap of faith so small it's more like a hop. But even this everyday story has implications greater than the sum of its literal narrative.

In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul wrote of this very episode, "Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants." (Galatians 4:24) He went on to explain, "Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now."

Sarai and Abram succombed to worldly (aka secular) wisdom, which concerns itself with material wealth and issues of inheritance and self-preservation, and took matters into their own hands instead of trusting in the Lord. The result was illegitimate; strong and powerful, and the father of a great nation, yes, but "the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son." Isaac, on the other hand, was the fruit of God's promise, a gift given in exchange for correctly answering the question, "Is anything impossible for the Lord?"

The lesson is not to be fooled by the outward appearances of success and the semblance of pragmatism promoted by conventional thinking, but rather to trust that your spiritual life contains the greater truths. If Paul tells us that even this comparatively banal segment of Scripture must be parsed in this way, then how much more complex are the great stories of Creation, etc.?

The myth of Genesis is not that it explains the unexplainable with legends; it's that it must be read literally.


Jess said...

You really should teach in a wider forum. You're very good at this!

Luke the Heathen said...

Following your link I found, as expected, that:

"The baby was not conceived naturally, but is the combination of an egg from the woman's 26-year-old niece, Veenarani Mahapatra, and the sperm of Veenarani's husband."

I do find it a pretty big leap of faith to believe that a post-menopausal woman in biblical times could suddenly become fertile again. How old was Sarah?Some sort of trickery may have ensued so that she could have a child.

The skeptical heathen in me believes that is was really Abrahams' idea, not Sarah to have Hagar given to him do that he can have an heir (I find this imperative more believable coming from the male parent) and that Sarah, seeing that the first child born (albeit from her handmaid) could be a threat to her side of the family's inheritance, conveniently "comes up" with a child just in time for everyone to proclaim that because Isaac was "born from the spirit" his right to inheritance trumps that of Ishmael a "slave woman's son" even though Ishmael was born first.

This spiritual heirarchy of sorts seems to favor the rich over the poor, and affirms that agreements made with lowly slave woman cannot be trusted. Not necessarily the lessen most Christians would find. But then, I am not a biblical scholar, so I could be overstepping my bounds. :)

Just something to think about.

Andy said...

Luke, thanks for your insightful comments. One of the important things to admit about the Bible, especially Genesis, is that it's full of people doing bad things -- even "good" people like Abraham, Noah and David. That doesn't mean God approved. In this particular instance, using Paul's analysis, I don't think it matters whether the idea was Abram's or Sarai's; what's important is that they took their own counsel and didn't look to God for guidance in that matter. Allegorically speaking, the point is that Isaac was born of faith, and is therefore superior. In this case, "Isaac" is not an actual human that is in someway superior to Ishmael, but rather the fruits of a faithful life as opposed to the product of secular conniving. It's not about the physical inheritance of earthly riches, but our spiritual inheritance.