Remythologizing Genesis

A review of Genesis and the Rise of Civilization, by J. Snodgrass.

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There can be little doubt that the first book of our Bibles plays a major role in the North-American culture war and the countless bloody battles raging between fundamentalists and secularists.

 

Both camps keep proclaiming ad nausea that the truth of the Christian faith stands and falls with the scientific accuracy of the Biblical text and as a consequence many American young people see themselves confronted with the choice between embracing a pseudo-science made out of thin air and rejecting their faith in Christ altogether.

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This confrontation is gravely compounded by the very entrenched habit of viewing the Bible as an unified whole, which entails that errors in some parts imply errors everywhere.

 

In such a context, this book of J. Snodgrass, a liberal Biblical scholar, preacher and teacher came out as truly refreshing.

Many decades ago, the late German Protestant scholar Rudolf Bultmann set out to “demythologize” the Bible by exposing elements in the New Testament he viewed as utterly at odds with our modern scientific knowledge and replacing them by existential readings.

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I think it is fair to say that Snodgrass’ agenda in this outstanding groundwork is not to demythologize the text of Genesis but rather to remythologize it, which basically means two things:
– overcoming the Conservative Christian tendency to misinterpret the text for making it look more rational, more scientific or more consistent with other parts of the Bible- surmounting the pervasive disdain of our Western culture against myths and their equation with worthless untruths.

 

In what follows, I want to explain why I think that this book is an extremely useful resource without betraying too much of its content and without concealing my own areas of disagreement.

 

Old Hebrew tales as parables and allegories

 

According to Snodgrass, many of the elements which have always been historically interpreted as supernatural events (such as the devil masquerading as a snake, God driving out two real persons from a wonderful garden, waters covering the whole world…) might very well have been intended to illustrate quite earthly things.

 

He begins by reminding us that unlike what many of my readers were taught in Sunday Schools, the book of Genesis is NOT a coherent document composed by a unique author (usually seen as Moses) but a mosaic work by different writers separated by large time spans and not sharing the same agendas.

He did a nice job explicating the scholarly consensus as to why the flood narrative (which leads a great part of the American population to reject significant portions of our scientific knowledge) is actually made up of two different tales clumsily woven together, as can be well visualized on the following page.

He also pointed out that the differences between Genesis 1 and 2 are best interpreted by conceptions of God at odds with each others.

Genesis 1 was all about affirming Israelite religious identity during the Babylonian exile and challenging the surrounding polytheistic creation myths.

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Genesis 2 and 3 were written much earlier and are generally seen as early Israel’s explanation for its own origin, those of the people around Her and the problem of evil. Many critical scholars think it was written at the time of king Solomon, but Snodgrass call this into question, humorously  writing:

“The question of when and how the Eden stories were formed has been a puzzling one in Biblical scholarship. They are usually said to have
been assembled in the age of Solomon, a thousand years before the common era. But Solomon was a king who valued knowledge, enforced labor, and collected women – why would a story from his court have been so pessimistic about domination? If Solomon had supervised the writing, it would have gone something like this: ‘God made Adam and a thousand Eves, and commanded Adam to enslave the whole world, and kill anyone or anything who got in his way. Which he happily did. The End.”

This is but one of the numerous examples where the author conveys his scholarly thoughts in a remarkably witty way.

 

His intriguing idea is that Genesis 2-3 relates to the emergence of civilization (hence the title of the book) out of a populations of hunters and gatherers, who are themselves the ultimate source of the sacred writing and considered the rise of agriculture as a curse being far worse than only an unwelcome evolution.

He shows how this makes sense of many elements of the text, such as Cain and Abel symbolizing human populations rather than individuals, agriculture going hand in hand with environmental problems and related societal issues, such as a greater subjugation of women which was seen as a curse in Genesis 3, and so on and so forth.

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He then went on offering other interesting historical and natural explanations for the rest of the book of Genesis and other parts of the Hebrew Bible, spending a large amount of time analyzing the stories recounting the life of Abraham as well as those of his children and descendants.

Like the great liberal scholar and movie maker Thom Stark did in his book The Human Faces of God, Snodgrass made it clear that there are different portraits of God found in the Hebrew Bible, and that besides the genocidal imperialistic god of the first part of Joshua, one can also find a God of liberation and revolution at other places.

 

Viewing the Bible as an ancient book among others

 

It is extremely welcome that Snodgrass made an abundant use of the rabbinic Midrash and of Ancient Near Eastern myths throughout the whole book, showing how using the same analysis illuminates many aspects of the Biblical texts.

As I myself argued at other places, I fail to see why books contained within the Protestant Canon have necessarily to be more inspired than books located outside of it, and I am open about God’s actions (including miraculous ones) in extra-Biblical stories as well.

 

The impenetrable shroud of history and speculative assumptions

 

That said, there are some points about which I part company with the author. While I find most of his interpretations quite fascinating, I think they often remain nothing more than speculations: owing to the very few data we dispose about the precise identity of the authors and their motives, there are considerable degrees of uncertainty in any reconstruction one tries to reach.

And it is often possible to interpret the same textual situations in many different ways. While Snodgrass is obviously right that the Biblical writers (like almost everyone at that time) had a much lower of women that modern Westerners, it is debatable whether or not they always likened them to material goods or cattle.
As far as I’m concerned, I find that the Sara of Genesis acted as a pretty emancipated woman, leading several times his husband to comply to her will rather than submitting to him, as (ironically enough) she is described to have done by the authors of Hebrews in the New Testament.

 

Evil and divine hideness

 

One aspect I missed in the book is a wrestling with the problem of evil and divine hideness. Why did God create a world with so much pain, and why did he not inerrantly inspire chosen writers rather than letting them writing down their own fallible theological thoughts?

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I certainly think there are tentative answers to these questions, but they remain the strongest arguments against Christianity, challenging both Conservative and progressive believers at the same time.

I found it great if liberal Christians were to take more time to defend their faith or hope in a good God against such objections, or perhaps honestly and pastorally struggle alongside their readers with these topics.

 

Another problem is that Snodgrass seems to explain human evil purely in terms of psychological and social factors and does not consider a genuinely indeterminate freedom.

 

A worthwhile theologically liberal book

 

These disagreements notwithstanding, I find that Genesis and the Rise of Civilization is really an outstanding scholarly book written for lay persons, and I warmly recommend it to anyone interested in the historical-critical scholarship of the Bible without expecting a patch of easy answers to appease the anguish of his or her soul.

 

 Disclaimer: this book has been granted to me through SpeakEasy so that I might review it impartially. I hereby swear I have striven for objectivity in my entire review.