By later books like Exodus, Romans, the Gospels, the New Testament letters by Paul and others if these books are to be taken symbolically? I really need a good answer to this, please.
- We can look at the other older Mesopotamian faiths and see the similarities between them and understand the paradigm that Moses and the other writers would have had.
2 we can see the biblical patterns played out again and again. The same numbers, names in Hebrew tied to their fate, and so on. Something that lets you know there must be artistic elements.
Concepts and words borrowed from other older religions. Tannin for example is a word where another faiths antagonist, a sea serpent, was used as the word for for a sea serpent. But Semitic and Sumerian languages were different.
The same God used the same spirit to guide all the writers of the Bible and yet we have 40 distinct styles. They use a multitude of artistic techniques including writing as prose, poetry, and hyperbolic histories.
It’s not supported by historical documents.
It’s not supported by scientific evidence.
Yeah, you’re misunderstanding me. I know that these chapters are most likely symbolic in nature. I’m not denying or arguing against that. I am simply asking a question. The later references to these chapters seemingly as literal confuse and confound me and I am looking for a good answer or multiple good answers that make sense.
That’s one of my favourite topics! Rather than write an essay, I’ve quoted below some of what I’ve already said about some of the verses that often come up. If you’d like to drill down to a specific text or follow up about anything in these posts, let me know.
Creation used to establish Sabbath (Exodus 20:11 and 31:17):
Paul’s use of Adam (Romans 5; 1 Corinthians 15):
Jesus’ use of Adam (Matthew 19:4–5; Mark 10:6):
Thank you so very much. This kind of thing is what i’m looking for. I’m in a transition phase from fundamentalism into finding out what the Bible actually seems to say. It’s a very hard thing to go through and is a journey filled with confusion and doubt but it’s probably happening for a reason.
Take care, brother. You’ll be okay.
Does anyone have a good answer to Genesis 1-11 seemingly being referred to literally?
None of the references to Genesis 1-11 require an absolutely literal understanding of the text. Quite the contrary, a few references require a symbolic treatment of some elements of the text, like the serpent or the tree of knowledge. So this argument only works with a completely metaphorical treatment of the Genesis text and the claim that there is nothing historical about what is told in Genesis at all. However, many many people here consider Genesis to be mostly historical.
To be sure, the results of scientific inquiry give us very good cause to reject the claim that the human species began with a pair of golems created by magic from dust and bone. But science cannot exclude the possibility Adam and Eve were real historical people, and the Bible doesn’t even agree with the idea of these being the sole genetic progenitors of the species. Genesis 4:14 tells a story of an earth which is already filled with people and the most natural and realistic reading of Genesis 6 most consistent with the rest of the Bible sees this as an explanation that Cain and Seth married daughters from all those other people out there, and their children were leaders in human civilization.
One easy way to reconcile most of the problems is to realize that we are not just a biological species but that the most important inheritance for our humanity is not DNA but an inheritance of ideas which came directly from God via Adam and Eve – a memetic inheritance in addition to the genetic one. Thus in our bodies via a genetic inheritance, we are the children of the apes and bretheren of all the other living organisms on the planet, a product of evolution. But in our minds via a memetic inheritance, we are the children of God.
What makes you (or others here) think that the first part of Genesis is merely symbolic? Isn’t it a potentially false dichotomy that the stories are either true/history or purely figurative/symbolic? It seems that there are many different types of interpretations out there, and different people feel comfortable with different interpretations.
Couldn’t the creation story be a true event in history (i.e. God created the heavens and the earth and Adam and Eve were a real historical couple), but some of the language used to to describe those historical events is metaphorical and not scientific?
Couldn’t the stories about the patriarchs have really happened in history, but also have deeper symbolic meaning?
As I read Genesis, the thought that Adam and Eve and the patriarchs experienced God through their actual life events makes the stories and the lessons taught through them even more powerful.
Yes, that has been a helpful interpretation for me.
We want to have our cake and eat it. Well I did. A half baked cake if that: I had a side bet on Eden in parallel with full on evolution. It was a holding a pattern until I was in the Musée d’Angoulême only 10 years ago at the age of 55, after 40 years of devolving fundamentalism, and was overwhelmed by the sufficiency of paleontology, as exemplified in the Charente, to demonstrate man’s ancient, purely evolved descent, lineage.
I do see us yearning up to God yearning down in Genesis, that’s C6th BCE Jewish Persia, or is it God yearning back to Himself through us? But there is no connection with pre-history whatsoever.
Why should any ancient culture’s stories about how and when the world (and humanity) began be given preference over others? Each culture usually imagined humanity arising in a region near where they and their ancestors already lived. Early Israelite stories were no different in that respect, though they also show traces of knowledge of earlier stories in their region of the world, stories told by earlier ancient Near Eastern cultures with their own story tellers.
Every culture imagines they are central & hence the first humans in Mesopotamian lore were imagined to have arisen within known lands of Mesopotamia or somewhere within their mythical view of the world’s geography.
Apologists have not demonstrated that the story of Eden features the true history of humanity. At best it may reflect earlier tales told by Sumerians and Babylonians whose cultures grew up in that region of the world, and who naturally assumed humanity spread forth from their region, their provinces, etc. Every people has attributed to itself some imaginary origin, yet none has approached the true one.
To quote Voltaire in his philosophical dictionary entry on “Adam”:
So much has been said and so much written concerning Adam, his wife, the pre-Adamites, etc., and the rabbis have put forth so many idle stories respecting Adam, and it is so dull to repeat what others have said before, that I shall here hazard a new idea, or one, at least, which is not to found in any ancient author, father of the church, preacher, theologian, critic, or scholar with whom I am acquainted. I mean the profound secrecy with respect to Adam which was observed throughout the habitable earth, Palestine only excepted, until the time when the Jewish books began to be known in Alexandria, and were translated into Greek under one of the Ptolemies. Even then they were very little known; for large books were very rare and very dear. Besides, the Jews in Jerusalem were so incensed against those of Alexandria, loaded them with so many reproaches for having translated their Bible into a profane tongue, called them so many ill names, and cried so loudly to the Lord, that the Alexandrian Jews concealed their translation as much as possible. It was so secret that no Greek or Roman author speaks of it before the time of the Emperor Aurelian.
The historian Josephus confesses, in his answer to Appian, that the Jews had only recently had any intercourse with other nations: “We inhabit,” says he, “a country distant from the sea; we do not apply ourselves to commerce, nor have we any communications with other peoples. Is it to be wondered at that our nation, dwelling so far from the sea, and affecting never to write, have been so little known?”
Here it will probably be asked how Josephus could say that his nation affected never to write anything, when they had twenty-two canonical books, without reckoning the Targum by Onkelos. But it must be considered that twenty-two small volumes were not much when compared with the multitude of books preserved in the library of Alexandria, half of which were burned in Caesar’s war.
It is certain that the Jews had written and read very little; that they were profoundly ignorant of astronomy, geometry, geography, and physics; that they knew nothing of the history of other nations; and that it was only in Alexandria that they at last began to acquire some learning. Their language was a barbarous mixture of ancient Phoenician and corrupted Chaldee; it was so poor that several moods were wanting in the conjugation of their verbs.
Moreover, as they communicated neither their books nor the titles of them to any foreigner, no one on earth except themselves had ever heard of Adam, or Eve, or Abel, or Cain, or Noah. Abraham alone was, in course of time, known to the Oriental nations; but no ancient people admitted Abraham, or Ibrahim, was the root of the Jewish nation.
Such are the secrets of Providence, that the father and mother of the human race have ever been totally unknown to their descendants; so that the names of Adam and Eve are to be found in no ancient author, either of Greece, of Rome, of Persia, or of Syria, nor even among the Arabs, until near the time of Mohammed. It was God’s pleasure that the origin of the great family of the world should be concealed from all but the smallest and most unfortunate part of that family.
How is it that Adam and Eve have been unknown to all their children? How could it be that neither in Egypt nor in Babylon was any trace - any tradition - of our first parents to be found? Why were they not mentioned by Orpheus, by Linus, or by Thamyris? For if they had said but one word of them, it would undoubtedly have been caught by Hesiod and even more surely by Homer, who speak of everything except the authors of the human race. Clement of Alexandria, who collected so many ancient records, would not have failed to quote any passage in which mention had been made of Adam and Eve. Eusebius, in his Universal History, has examined even the most doubtful testimonies, and would assuredly have made the most of the smallest allusion, or appearance of an allusion, to our first parents. It is, then, established that they were always utterly unknown to the nations.
We do not see the name of Noah or of Adam in any of the ancient dynasties of Egypt; they are not to be found among the Chaldeans; in a word, the whole earth has been silent respecting them. It must be owned that such a silence is unparalleled. Every people has attributed to itself some imaginary origin, yet none has approached the true one. We cannot comprehend how the father of all nations has so long been unknown, while in the natural course of things his name should have been carried from mouth to mouth to the farthest corners of the earth.
Let us humble ourselves to the decrees of that Providence which has permitted so astonishing an oblivion. All was mysterious and concealed in the nation guided by God Himself, which prepared the way for Christianity, and was the wild olive on which the fruitful one has been grafted. That the names of the authors of mankind should be unknown to mankind is a mystery of the highest order.
I will venture to affirm that it has required a miracle thus to shut the eyes and ears of all nations - to destroy every monument, every memorial of their first father. What would Caesar, Antony, Crassus, Pompey, Cicero, Marcellus, or Metellus have thought, if a poor Jew, while selling them balm, had said, “We all descend from one father, named Adam.” All the Roman senate would have cried, “Show us our genealogical tree.” Then the Jew would have displayed his ten generations, down to the time of Noah, and the secret of the universal deluge. The senate would have asked him how many persons were in the ark to feed all the animals for ten whole months, and during the following year in which no food would be produced? The peddler would have said, "We were eight - Noah and his wife, their three sons, Shem, Ham, and Jauphet, and their wives. All this family descended in a direct line from Adam.
Cicero, would, doubtless, have inquired for the great monuments, the indisputable testimonies which Noah and his children had left of our common father. “After the deluge,” he would have said, “the whole world would have resounded with the names of Adam and Noah, one the father, the other the restorer of every race. These names would have been in every mouth as soon as men could speak, on every parchment as soon as they could write, on the door of every house as soon as they could build, on every temple, on every statue. You mean to tell us that you knew so great a secret, yet concealed it from us?” The Jew would have answered: “It is because we are pure and you are impure.” The Roman senate would have laughed and the Jew would have been whipped. So much are men attached to their prejudices!
Moving from Voltaire’s words above to those of a Catholic priest, theologian and scientist:
So long as people believed, as St. Paul himself did, in one week of creation and a past of 4,000 years—so long as people thought the stars were satellites of the earth and that animals were there to serve man—there was no difficulty in believing that a single man could have ruined everything, and that another man had saved everything.
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Fall, Redemption, and Geocentrism,” Christianity and Evolution
There is, of course, much more to Chardin’s theology than the statement above. Suffice to say it was unique for its day and he did not shy from raising disturbing questions and pondering unorthodox answers.
Theologians of course have ways of interpreting matters such that maybe Jesus and his followers were fine with believing Old Testament stories more or less literally. Such were the stories and language of their day, the understanding at that time. But the meaning of such stories is not to be taken literally today, nor does it need to be. At least that is what some theologians suggest. Though discovering the meaning for us today concerning each specific event and person mentioned in such ancient tales may prove elusive. Or, as the light hearted columnist Dave Barry wrote:
All that God wants us to do is clearly revealed in the Bible… and the Talmud and the Koran and the Book of Mormon and the works of L. Ron Hubbard. These holy writings tell us what God want us to do, often in the form of revealing anecdotes…The problem is that many of us don’t have the vaguest idea what these anecdotes reveal.
—Dave Barry, “At the Risk of Being Smitten”
Gunkel, an Old Testament scholar, pointed out that early Israelite authors made up names for people or things in Genesis 1-11 that were sometimes based on words that simply sounded like words from nearby cultures rather than etymological knowledge of a word’s true origin, or they invented names simply to fit what went on in the tale being told. Adam is basically a name like mud man, man of the earth, to fit the myth that he was made of animated earth. The name Eve was invented for the mother of all living, and her story involves being born from Adam’s side which reflects an earlier Sumerian myth in which the pun is obvious. In that earlier tale she who gives life and lady of the rib are indeed a pun in the Sumerian tongue. Gunkel writes about other such cases:
Genesis 2-11 makes sense as Semitic history beginning about 7,000 years ago. It makes no sense as human history. This YouTube channel should answer most questions. goo.gl/HBr882
Weren’t Semites human?
If we read a history book about the early Vikings no one would take it as the beginning of humanity, but in the case of the Adamites/Semites unfortunately early Christian coverts such as the Romans and Greeks had no way to know Jewish history wasn’t their history too. Thus the mistake took root that persists to this day that Genesis is about the beginning of the entire human race.
We need to take into account that even the NT writers may have taken OT stories in a literal manner because that was the extent of knowledge at the time. Jesus Himself sometimes implied He did not know everything about the future. His own knowldge as a human was limited to what He needed to know and do in obedience to the Father. Paul used concepts of the world common to the belief systems of Jews and Greeks.
It was not until later in history after the scriptures were written that greater knowldege of actual worlds beyond the earth has become known. The church had to face the fact on a bigger universe in which physically the earth is not the center of things even if it is a special focal point for divine activity and life.
So I don’t have a problem even with Jesus and Paul talking about Adam and Eve or Noah as apparently real people.
It is special in that it has people. Like everywhere else that does.
Well, all Chinese are human but not all humans are Chinese. Genesis is history. If you are Arab or Jewish it is likely your history. The “mistake” is that the translation assumes Genesis history is about the beginnings of the entire human race that has 6 million years under its belt whereas the covenant couple came on the scene roughly 7 thousand years ago judging by the text itself and the history of the ancient Near East. My book is Historical Genesis from Adam to Abraham in case you’re interested.
A few thoughts:
“The Bible” comprises a wide variety of types of literature, from a wide variety of sources, across many centuries and interacting with many cultures.
We do this collection of scriptures a dis-service if we flatten it out into one monolithic, undifferentiated mere “glob” of writing. (We also do it a dis-service if we snip it up into an index-card set of isolated, disconnected, verses; but that is another story.)
It can be helpful to stop calling it “the Bible”. Really. Seriously. That term subliminally flattens out this multi-coloured, diverse collection into a single, undifferentiated glob, and subconsciously distances it from the cultures and times which influenced the telling, recording and editing of the various components of different writings.
Similarly to how Jesus of Nazareth was the eternal, infinite “Word of God” made incarnate in a very specific, limited place at a very specific, limited time, so it can be helpful to see the various scriptures as “the word of God” also as incarnated within specific places at specific times. Both Jesus (as Word) and scripture (as word) are shaped by their specific place and time, yet carry eternal value which extend to us in our specific (and very different) place and time.
Almost all ancient cultures have some sort of “why are we here?” and “how did we get here?” background. Think of Greek mythology, Roman mythology, Scandinavian mythology, Aboriginal Australian myth; first nation American accounts. And particularly, in scriptural context, think of Sumerian and Babylonian mythology.
All these look back to immediate family history, then deeper back into group/tribal history, then deeper still into tribal legend, then back yet further, lost in the mists of time, into some sort of “mythology of the gods”. Out of, and through, those mists emerges explanation for the present, both as a sort of “human/our history” but also as a sort of “what-we-see science”.
So how does all that apply to the diverse collection of scripture that came together over an extended period, from about 3,000 years ago to 2,000 years ago?
It is helpful to see the creation of the Hebrew scriptures (what the Christian church would later call the “Old Testament”) against that all that backdrop.
There’s a lot to take on board there. Pause. Go through the bullet points above and reflect on how the freshly emerging components of scripture, in their own day, might play along with, and fight in reaction against, that backdrop.
In particular, as you read the grand sweep of Genesis, note how those opening chapters (up to and including Noah) act in a sort of “mythology” style of writing, then take a grand turning into a more “historical” style of writing as Abraham, the first of the patriarchs, emerges from the mists. It is impossible to miss this stylistic turning! (By the way, there is also a major stylistic turning between the first creation story (seven days) and the second (Adam and Eve). Let that difference stand; don’t let it get squashed out of the way.)
Note how Abraham emerges from the lands of Sumeria and Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq/Syria) and how the progress ends up with the catastrophic exile of the people into this same geographical area. That is, the beginning (Abraham) and almost-terminal end (Babylonian Exile) are located in the same region, against the continuing polytheistic backdrop of Sumeria and Babylonia.
It is helpful to see the Jewish people as defining and assembling and shaping their scriptures (i.e. the collection we Christians now called “the Old Testament”) as a defiant statement of identity in one God (and his promised land) against the background of Babylonian polytheistic culture into which they had been exiled and held captive. (A few “postscript”-like items also record later events as the fragmentary remnants of the population returned, bruised, battered and shaken, to the land, and rebuilt their temple.)
Genesis 1-11 simultaneously adopts some of the formats of the surrounding culture while reacting strongly against other aspects. It is interesting to try to see what it accepts and what if defiantly rejects. (But those details are far too much for this post, which I had intended, and failed, to keep brief.)
I hope that helps.
Your cognitive bias is showing ; )