Is Genesis just ancient Jewish mythology?

Continuing the discussion from Origins of the Genesis stories:

I think my question is similar, but I didn’t want to hijack the thread. I just want to ask should Genesis just be taken as ancient Jewish mythology or is it something more? Am I missing something important?

I was thinking about it for some time. Plus I also feel very culturally distant to the people and the events of Genesis (and the Old Testament in general). I know that people naturally like to relate to protagonists in stories, but I have a harder time appreciating Genesis than the Four Gospels and the other books of the New Testament.


What does it mean to you that writing is mythological or has mythological elements? As theologian Hermann Gunkel wrote around a century ago:

A child, indeed, unable to distinguish between reality and poetry, loses something when it is told that its dearest stories are “not true.” But the modern theologian should be further developed. The evangelical churches and their chosen representatives would do well not to dispute the fact that Genesis contains legends—as has been done too frequently—but to recognize that the knowledge of this fact is the indispensable condition to an historical understanding of Genesis. This knowledge is already too widely diffused among those trained in historical study ever again to be suppressed. It will surely spread among the masses of our people, for the process is irresistible. Shall not we Evangelicals take care that it be presented to them in the right spirit?- The Legends Of Genesis, pp. 11-12.

Is it okay that Genesis contains what Gunkel called “legends?” It certainly means that we should not interpret it like most Christians today, but the way that the Genesis text used this common genre/elements of literature in relation to others of the ANE is what is particularly important.

It just came to my mind. Recently, a young friend excitedly told me about the lost remains of Noah’s ark, which my relatives believe in too, but I do not think it once existed literally and historically. I also do not see Adam and Eve as literal-historical figures. However, I keep these beliefs to myself to not provoke consternation from most of my friends and family.

I wonder if the stories in Genesis should be read as parables that teach something important.

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I would somewhat agree with you in the terms of mythology as in religious story but not mythology as in something that is fake. We need to understand Genesis 1-2 as literary stories that tell about how Yahweh created the universe and how humans are made in His Image.

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My position would be to say “more” … but not in the way you expected.

I think one of the weaknesses of Genesis is that it appears to reveal an “aesthetic” that the Temple Priests would not have encountered until they met the Persians!

  1. Almost all the ancient cultures the Egyptians knew about had an admiration and sense of awe about snakes and so-called serpents. The whole notion of making a snake the author of or instigator of sin is very much a Persian one. The Zoroastrian priests taught that killing snakes each day was a “good deed”.

  2. The split gender “theme” of Adam and Eve is also a topic with great affinity with Persian mythology; they were the ones to influence the Greeks with the idea that the first humans were dual-gendered creatures.

  3. The Persians, and the Indo-European tribes encountered as Scythians, were quite prone to treating the priesthood as a special caste. So this notion that the Levites were the priests… and ONLY the Levites were the priests would have been something perfectly consistent with the Persian hegemony that the Jews lived under for 200 years. The Persians had their “Magi” of the Median culture, and the Hindu (Indo-Europeans who had a strong influence on Persians) had their Brahmans.

  4. The book Esther is most striking because it describes an attempt to wipe out a group of outsiders… namely the Jews… which at the last moment became a different group being slaughtered. It just so happens, Herodotus (who lived amongst the Persians) tells the story of the “Magaphonia”, which can be roughly translated as “The Slaughter of the Magi”. The priests tried to take over the government early in Persia’s existence as an empire, which triggered not only a day of bloodshed against all Magi… but also an annual holiday that celebrated the defeat of the Magi… upon which sensible Magi stayed in doors in order to avoid inciting a riot.

  5. But perhaps the most interesting point of contact between the Jewish Priests and Persian culture comes unexpectedly in the book of Exodus! I know we were talking about Genesis, but it helps to explain the reason for even suspecting Persian influence if we can show credible Persian influence in other books.

What could be more modern that the use of cannabis? The Scythians became quite well known for their tents where hemp was burned and the men inside “communed” with whatever they thought they found in the clouds of burning incense.

In the Old Testament, we find the use of the term “Qanabesm”, and more frequently the abbreviation of that term, “Besem”. Strong and Hebrew treats the word as two words: Strongs H1314 = Besem; Strong’s H7070 = Qaneh.

In Exodus 30:23, we read "Take thou also unto thee principal spices, (besem/H1314) of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet (besem/H1314) cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of [qaneh-besem] sweet (Besem/H1314)) calamus (Qaneh/H7070) two hundred and fifty shekels…

Ezekiel, which was written during Persian rule, refers to Qaneh/H7070 as an incense or spice 12 times. The only other book to use the term so frequently in the same sense is Exodus, where the “spice” is introduced!

The book of Songs uses the term “basam” as a reference to “sweet smell” or “spice”. Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon refers to it as an “odorous shrub, like the balsam tree”.

Genesis uses the term “Bsmt” six times (pronounced Basmath or Bashemath) as the feminine form of “Bsm”, meaning “spice”, and is a woman’s name.

Perhaps one of the most unintentionally amusing parts of Exodus is Exodus 40:34-35 -
“Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.”

Moses and his brother (and others?) were in a smoke-filled Tent… and apparently threw too much “Qanabesem” onto the fire! The “Glory of the Lord” was overwhelming them, and they had to exit the tent to catch their breath!

I think myth just means a story so old it was told a long time before the specialization of human activities into law, history, religion, science, and entertainment – and so it is all of these things at the same time and saying different things to different people in all these different ways. I think the same is true of other myths like King Arthur. The fact that they are myths doesn’t mean there was no such persons and instead of subtracting from the meaning and value of the stories I think it makes them even more so.

Both history and parable teach important things, so the real question is what do you learn from it, and whether it is history or parable doesn’t matter anywhere near as much. Personally, I think myth blurs the line between the history and parable, for a story that is told that often and that long a time has become like the life-blood of human history itself.

Think about how human memory works. Do we really remember things as they happened? Or do we just remember what we have repeatedly told ourselves about what happened. And is history really knowable as anything different from that?

And yet Genesis is in the minds and background of most of the people in those Gospels as well as the writers. So perhaps it is a question of how deep you want to dig into their thinking.


What kinds of texts/tablets/manuscripts are you referring to in this post? I never actually hear anyone talk about Persian influence explicitly.

@Pevaquark, good question!

I am not so familiar with Persian traditions that I can identify exact references to standard Persian writings. Some information comes from Herodotus, who lived amongst the Persians. For example, Herotodus provides good detail on who the Magi were, as an ethnic caste of priests within the greater Persian sphere of influence. It was the defeat of the Persian forces by the Greeks that unleashed the Magi upon the rest of the world… because they became increasingly unemployed as Greek religion and ritual supplanted the old Zoroastrian reliance upon the works of the Magi.

But that would be the ideal end product.

My relative comfort levels with various topics:

  1. Scythian connection to cannabis use is rather notorious; less well known is that unless they are specifically Hunnish, Scythians are part of the Indo-European “Old Persian” language matrix.

  2. Zoroastrian “satan-izing” snakes is hardly known at all, but I am confident that this is the correct understanding of the matter. Certainly the dual-nature of the Universe (Good vs. Evil) is the celebrated aspect of Zoroastrianism.

  3. I forgot to mention “angels”, which is also one of the well known aspects of Zoroastrianism. It is commonly proposed that Enochian Judaism received angel mythology from Persia and conveyed it to the rest of Judaism… and to Christianity. The only defense against this scenario is the usual Evangelical apologetic that the Zoroastrians got it from the Jews. The latter idea is pretty far-fetched.

  4. Persians, and perhaps even their neighbors in the ancient culture of Elam (who were neighbors of Assyria and Babylon), appear to have a strong interest in afterlife continuing on in the sky, rather than in the realm of the Abzu which was more common to the Sumerians and even to the Greeks.

  5. The Medes, especially the tribe of Magi from that ethnic group, were notorious for wearing trousers. The closest thing to a garment that is known in the ancient world appears to be the under-garments described for priestly use in the book of Exodus. These garments appear to be “shorts”… and distinctly different from the usual loin cloths and other “wraps” or awkwardlly named “girdles” mentioned by all the other cultures, from Assyria, Hittites, Greeks, and Egyptians.

  6. The storage of bones in ossuaries was a short-lived practice in Palestine; it appears to be a practice influenced by the Persian sensibility to not contaminate the earth by rotting flesh.

  7. There’s also a Persian interest in Chariots pulled by White Horses, but I do not have enough of the specifics to offer anything very confidently.

  8. Finally, it is usually assumed that the use of ashes in mourning is an age-old practice throughout the middle east. However, closer examination may well prove that the use of ashes in mourning only BECAME a nearly universal practice through the vast occupation of the middle east by Persian civilization. I am actively engaged in research on this specific topic.

Offer that the Eden story reflects the transition from hunting & gathering to farming. It’s a deep memory of the agricultural revolution.

HGs have to know what plants are edible vs poisonous. Hence the two trees, one good for food the other poisonous.

Knowledge of good and bad => fall to farming, one of the curses, having to work the ground.

Farming is based on breeding, “carrot & stick”, promoting desirable characteristics and culling undesirable. It’s humans playing God with plants and animals.

All succinctly captured in the few words of the Eden story.

Genesis 2-3 attribute the knowledge of the “carrot & stick” principle to hostile supernatural intervention on earth.

Genesis 6, and the relevant portion of the book of Enoch, attribute all of the knowledge of civilization (based on farming) to the fallen “sons of God” watcher demons.

The OT, specifically the J source, takes a dim view of agriculture and farming civilizations which arose therefrom

Also the ANE appears to be one of the areas where plants were first domesticated.

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The ANE is the cradle of agriculture and of civilization

The J source may attribute all of the knowledge required for those cultural innovations to hostile supernatural intervention

The ANE is one of the cradles of agriculture. Rice began to be cultivated in China at about the same time and of course they had their own beginnings of civilization. Agriculture may have been a response to the Younger Dryas climate change. Wikipedia has a nice article at

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I have certainly heard this sort of thing before and I see it as the end result of trying to read Genesis like a science text and employing metaphor in order to do so. The result is even less meaningful that the creationist use of excessive literalism to turn it all into a walt disney comic for children. Hearing this must very gratifying to them, propping up their “slippery slope” arguments against accepting the idea that there is any metaphor and symbolism in the story.

The bible unambiguously presents itself as a history textbook describing allegedly real events, many supernaturally influenced

the agricultural Revolution and rise of farming civilization in the ancient near East were real historical events.

Plausibly dim memories of those momentus happenings. Appear in Genesis 2. And 3.

Yes, very true. I do not think China is. Within the scope of the biblical narrative. Yet your words are of course, true. Other cradles of Agriculture cropped up in central and Southern America as well.

I would think that the Bible only applies to those cradles of farming and their ensuing civilizations by analogy?

What an interesting concept of understanding Genesis 1-11. Never heard it in this way before and find interesting. I can totally see how one can come to this conclusion.

I’m sure that anything within the EC/critical hermeneutical schools of thought can be seen as a “slippery slope”. I’m sure many of the conservative professors at my Bible college I use to go to will probably see me as a compromising theological liberal XD. I’m sure they would flip out if I were to bring out that Genesis 1 and 2 are different creation accounts.

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The ‘Jews’ did not begin to exist until the first rewriting of the OT, after the exile in Babylon. They were Hebrews who followed Moses out of Egypt, not a single race, but a shared belief. The books of Moses were written down by a Prophet God, known as the Yahwehist. The books had nothing to do with tradition or mythology, but revelation.

Unfortunately for us today, these books were rewritten twice and the original no longer exists. The closest relative to the original was part to the Ionian culture, because they too were Hebrews.

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Except the Bible represents the ANE as being the only source of civilization.

So the Bible and Enoch are incorrect? Or are you saying that only in the ANE did civilization depend on demons? Actually not sure what it is exactly you are trying to say.

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Our pattern recognition is a facility that varies considerably between individuals, from those who find an ink blot test incomprehensible, to the work of the scientist finding mathematical patterns in nature, to those who see flowers and bunny rabbits in the clouds to others who find themselves surrounded by conspiracies. In the past, I have suggested that this may be one measurable difference between religious and non religious people that the the former may tend more towards the latter over-active end of the spectrum. Clearly this is a valuable human ability but how shall we discern between finding patterns which are really there and those which our minds are simply imposing on random data?

Well how much substance is this hunter-gatherer versus agrarian hypothesis actually founded upon? No more than the sparsely explained rejection of Cain’s offering in Genesis 4? – very slim justification indeed. But do we have any reason to think that the difference of the content of the offerings of Cain and Abel are anything but coincidental in the story? No. A better hypothesis might be that this story was concocted simply to justify the use of animal offerings in Jewish religious practice. That at least parallels the way the creation story supports the observance of the Sabbath.

But this “dimly remembered change to a farming civilization” has got to be the most unlikely explanation I ever heard. Far more likely is that this is simply an excuse to prop up an attitude of superiority for their historical nomadic and herding lifestyle over the neighboring farming communities (and the usual fertility gods and pagan festivals that tended to go with them), and I am not going for that kind of explanation of the Cain and Abel story either. IN FACT, you could easily take the opposite message from this story that the nomads are cursed compared to the farmers.

I would look for the explanation of what God did in what God actually said to Cain. “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” What I see in this, is God seeking to change this habit we have from Adam and Eve of blaming others when things go wrong rather than examining ourselves and asking how we can do better. And in this you can see that my principle interest is in the spiritual message of the text, for even the historical intent of Genesis is clearly subservient to a religious/spiritual (life lesson, or some might say “psychological”) purpose after all.

Exactly! There is a big difference between the treatment of a few elements of the story like the talking snake as symbolic and the treatment of the whole story as nothing but metaphor, for that flies in the face of the clearly historical intent of Genesis.

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You have to remember the curses from Genesis, 3 also. In the garden of Eden people lived like Hunter gatherers. Gathering fruit. From trees and plants.

After the fall, one of the curses was that Adam would have to work the ground. That’s a clear description of farming. The Bible unambiguously associates the fall with farming.