The opening chapters of How to Read Genesis by Tremper Longman III are pretty good. So when I got to chapter four, titled “Myth or History? Genesis and the Enuma Elish” I was excited. I had just recently engaged an unbeliever on the question of whether the biblical stories — or at least the supernatural ones — were myth or history, and I have also long been intrigued by the contrasts between Genesis and Enuma Elish. I was looking forward to seeing Longman’s take on it.
I’m sorry to say that I was sorely disappointed. Longman writes:
Today as I read Genesis 1-2 my thoughts go to high school biology and physics. How does the biblical depiction of creation relate to the big bang theory and evolution?
No doubt, Genesis 1-2 has bearing on our evaluation of these modern scientific accounts of cosmic and human origins. But a moment’s thought will jar us into remembering that this comparison would not have occurred to ancient authors and readers. It is certain that the biblical account of creation was not written to counter Charles Darwin or Stephen Hawking, but it was written in the light of rival descriptions of creation. And thanks to the discoveries of archaeologists and language experts over the past couple of centuries, we have in hand at least some of those ideas that would have competed for the hearts and minds of ancient Israelites.
Longman goes on to describe a sampling of the myths, Egyptian and Mesopotamian, that Genesis was undoubtedly written to fight against — and he excels at selecting examples that show the similarities and contrasts. However, in his closing appraisal, he says something truly disappointing (emphasis added):
Did the creation of Adam literally take place the way it is narrated, or is the story of Adam’s creation shaped to teach us things about the nature of humanity? Did God really use the dust of the ground to form Adam’s body and blow his breath into it? If so, then we should probably see the Mesopotamian account as a perversion of a fundamental truth preserved accurately in the biblical tradition.
More likely, however, is the idea that Genesis has taken the Near Eastern tradition and then substituted God’s breath for either divine spit or blood. This communicates both the truth that humans are creatures connected to the earth and beings who have a special relationship with God, for it was God who created humanity.
About that “or” in the first paragraph: why should it be one or the other? And granting the false dilemma, by what mysterious alchemy does the option Longman espouses become more likely? Put more baldly, what makes it less likely that Genesis 1-2 is sober history, told just the way it happened? I’m not really sure how Longman would answer that question, but my best guess is that his answer is in the first two paragraphs I quoted. Genesis wasn’t meant to answer Darwin and Hocking, Longman suggests. It’s not really about that, you see. Which leads us to the question: What is it really about? The answer, for Longman, is that it’s about certain key ideas of human dignity and relationship to God. The details about dust, the breath of God, and so on are dispensible, so long as the ideas are retained. (See James Jordan’s critique of the inherent gnosticism in this sort of thinking.)
In addition to the gnosticism problem Jordan points out, there are two additional problems with this. First, while it’s quite unlikely that Moses was thinking, “Take that, Darwin!” when he set pen to papyrus, it will turn out that by refuting Enuma Elish, Genesis also refutes Darwin, because Darwinism, at bottom, is nothing but Enuma Elish baptized in post-Enlightenment balloon juice. Anyone with Longman’s literary expertise ought to see this very clearly. Enuma Elish says the world as we know it today was born in an orgy of chaos, sex, and death, and these three forces are the engine from which all life springs. Darwin explains that the various species arise from a combination of random mutation (chaos) and natural selection (sex and death). The big difference is that Darwin said it in a way that post-Enlightenment man wouldn’t laugh at. Hawking likewise has nothing to add that Enuma Elish hasn’t already offered to the world, only to have Genesis soundly refute it.
Second, although Longman seems to understand the relationship of literary story to core ideas, he completely misses the even more important relationship between historical story and those same ideas. It’s true: the Genesis story, as told, does express human dignity and purpose, place the responsibility for conflict with man, and so on. What Longman misses, however, is that those ideas, if they’re really true, depend on some story for their truth. Man doesn’t just happen to enjoy a special relationship with God, or just happen to be responsible for sin and death in the world. Those things aren’t “just there”; they are true for a reason. Something happened to make those things true. And if that something is not the Genesis account, in all its details, then it would have to be some other, equally compelling story.
There are two critical questions here. First, why shouldn’t the Genesis account be a historically accurate account of what really happened and as a result also a lesson in certain key truths about God, man, and nature? This is clearly how it presents itself, and how the other biblical authors take it.
Second, Longman wants to make out the Genesis account as an allegory of sorts, a literary vehicle designed to convey certain critical truths without being, itself, literally true. How could he possibly know this? Or at a lesser level of certainty, what is it that seems to make it “more likely”?
Longman gives no satisfying answer to either question. He actually seems to prefer to say that he has no story, and therefore no real basis whatsoever for believing these key truths; he just knows they’re true, and that the Bible teaches them through fully reliable stories that nobody should take literally. Laughable as it sounds when said clearly and out loud, this does actually have advantages. Since he has cut his ideas of human dignity, depravity, and relationship with God off from any sort of concrete claims about the real world, Longman never has to worry that anyone might disprove them.
Of course, in that case, the real question is why anyone should believe them.