Demythologization of Nature?

Here’s an excerpt from a recent Q&A from William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith site:

2. If evolution is true, then why didn’t God write Genesis differently? It seems to me that the answer to this question must be that the purpose of Genesis is not to teach science. Rather its purpose is theological; it demythologizes the pagan creation myths of Israel’s neighbors, so that the sun, moon, and stars are no longer deities but just things God made, like the plants and animals. It is the demythologization of nature and an assertion of God’s sovereignty.

I’ve heard this demythologization claim made dozens of times but have never taken the time to look into it. I’m interested to hear what some of my more OT inclined readers think about this particular interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. I have some doubts. It seems to me that when the Torah wants to challenge the beliefs/practices of the surrounding culture(s) it does so in a pretty straightforward way. This seems a bit cryptic for that purpose. But I’ll have to think about it more and read some of the better arguments in favor of this interpretation. Your turn.



15 thoughts on “Demythologization of Nature?

  1. I’m definitely not an OT guy, but the following quotation from Nahum Sarna seems applicable here.

    “Genesis is but a prologue to the historical drama that unfolds itself in the ensuing pages of the Bible. It proclaims, loudly and unambiguously, the absolute subordination of all creation to the supreme Creator who thus can make use of the forces of nature to fulfill His mighty deeds in history. It asserts unequivocally that the basic truth of all history is that the work is under the undivided and inescapable sovereignty of God. In brief, unlike Enuma Elish in Babylon, the Genesis Creation narrative is primarily the record of the event which inaugurated this historical process, and which ensures that there is a divine purpose behind creation that works itself out on the human scene.”
    – Understanding Genesis by Nahum Sarna

  2. For my part, I’d start by challenging the question at the beginning. Why do we need to assume evolution in the first place as opposed to taking the Genesis account as written? Seems to me any approach that grants evolution has to operate with a severe handicap right off the bat in an apologetics encounter.

    In passing, and on the subject, I’m about halfway through a cool little booklet about 5 former evolutionist scientists who’ve abandoned the theory in favor of a literal Genesis. It’s available online here.

  3. If we conclude that demythologization is the primary purpose of the first chapters of Genesis, then we would loose wealth of what it can say to us, for instance, the order in which the creative act is arranged or the specific details that are actually mentioned. While demythologization seems to be implicit in what the writer wants to communicate, there seems to be something more to it.

  4. One of my profs a couple of years ago argued that the creation accounts in Genesis were polemics against other regional theologies (I think). He didn’t get into the particulars, but I’m almost sure he had some notes on it. I emailed him shortly thereafter but never got a response. I may try again.

  5. I was raised in a CHristian home and was an organist in several different denominational churches including Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and a large Southern Batist Church. I consider myself a Christian, have learned Greek and Hebrew in order to read the scriptures as they were written, but I do believe firmly in evolution. Recently I had a weekend visitor in my home who is Baptist and he said that I could not be a Christian and also believe in evolution. What a strange judgement to make, especially in view of Matthew 7:1. He seemed unfazed that I thought he was making a serious judgement against me. Some Christians seem to be very closed minded when they meet up with someone who has different beliefs than they have.

  6. I agree with you however as I thought about it more I thought it’s possible the creation story is from a source that wasn’t necessarily straightforward in what it was trying to say or is from a genre that doesn’t automatically come out and say in straightforward language that its purpose is to demythologize nature.

    If it were from one author or a genre that was know for being straightforward in what it wanted to say I would agree.

  7. Nick,

    It is significant that the sun and moon are never named; they are called lights. One probable reason is that Shapsu and Yarihu were deities in the NW Semitic world.

    I don’t believe that the only reason that Genesis 1-2 were written the way they are is a polemic, but it is one of the reasons. Another reason is outlined in Walton’s book Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology.


  8. I might add, there are probably more reasons than the two I listed above, but one that is definitely not a reason is to instruct 21st century Christians on science…


  9. I think it’s clear that there are references which compare with ANE mythology (although I also think these are often exaggerated and forced to fit together at times when they clearly don’t). Thus, it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s intentionally shaped against such myths. At the same time, I see nothing in the text itself either in its words or form that necessitates such an interpretation. It’s not as though the order or story truly parallels any particular ANE myth that you would say this is a retelling of one of those myths.

    Honestly, I’ve always assumed that more is going on. On the assumption of the truth of these narratives, we could see the ANE myths as an idolization of the real story, with the Genesis telling refocusing the story in actuality. It’s the idea of John Oswalt’s The Bible Among Myths, and even though he could have argued his case better, and “the guild” doesn’t like his overtly supernaturalistic and Christian assumptions, I think there’s something to it. In fact, I might re-read it to refresh my thinking on it.

  10. Nick: Thanks for the quotation! I agree with it completely.

    Tom: I hear ya. The question is only a problem for Christians who believe in evolution. I’d answer by saying, “Well, evolution isn’t true, so why would we expect or desire for God to have inspired something different?” But the Christian evolutionist is asking completely different questions of the text than me or you. Thanks for the link!

    Varughese: That’s similar to my take. I think if demythologization is there, it’s secondary. Had it been the primary goal of the author (whom I believe to have been Moses [inspired by God of course]) then I can see a number of ways to do the same thing more effectively.

    Jason: Keep me posted.

    Laurence: That’s a shame. I think that Christians can believe in evolution, I’m just not sure why they would. But I’ve always taken the position that even if true, evolution is still the work of God.

    Bryan: I’m with you, and my view on the Mosaic authorship of the Torah/Pentateuch is what led to my thoughts on this initially. I read the answer to the question and thought about how straightforward Moses is in his polemic in Exodus and Deuteronomy about the idols of the nations and wondered why he’d be any less straightforward here if that was his intended aim. I’m not opposed to something going on behind the scenes but I’m not sure the answer’s as cut and dry as WLC stated above.

    James: I still have to get Walton’s book, and I have to get my copy of The Lost World of Genesis One back from a friend! And AMEN to your second comment!

    Kyle: Sounds like the position that Justin Martyr took in claiming that Satan counterfeited the truth whenever pagan concepts similar to Christianity were brought up. I’ll have to read Oswalt. All I remember is a really negative review of the book from Art Boulet a few years ago. I never bothered to check it out after that.

  11. Most of the reviews were positive, but it undercuts a lot of Enns presuppositions, and Art (whose blog I used to love) was Enns primary online defender back then…

  12. Nick: I’ve often wondered what your take on the composition of the Pentateuch is. Pretty conservative by my standards – not that I place a huge amount of importance on that.

  13. Nick:
    Why would a Christian not want to believe in evolution?

    You believe Moses was to sole author of the Pentateuch? Not prior or later sources? Why?

  14. I think if you look at various ancient Near Eastern creation accounts, there almost seems to be an option of mythologizing or not (not all of them do and certainly Enuma elish is an anomaly among ANE texts that depict the creation event). Of course, it depends upon what one means by “demythologizing.” I’m taking that to mean that nature is not personified. Genesis 1 wouldn’t mythologize in the sense of Enuma elish simply because its message is to communicate God’s complete and unchallenged sovereignty over all things (contributing to the message of the entire book). So creation would not be set among a combat with other personified beings, nor would it be in a monotheistic context. So the “polemic” that presents the sun and moon as mere astral bodies rather than deities seems to really be in service of the larger message concerning God’s sovereignty over chaos. So I guess we can say it’s polemical in terms of not personifying nature into various entities, but that would be expected in its context. I think you’re right to say that this is secondary and serves the greater purpose, however, of conveying God’s sovereignty in Genesis 1 (what I call the “view from above”) as opposed to our perception of God within our experience of a chaotic world that pictures Him as battling it out with personal beings, i.e., the serpent and humans (what I call the “view from below”) seen throughout the book.

  15. Kyle: True…

    Benjamin: Yeah, I’m a traditionalist on more things than I’m not.

    Bryan: Cuz it ain’t true. ;-)

    And I think Joshua probably wrote the end of Deuteronomy so Moses wasn’t entirely alone. It’s also possible that Moses compiled earlier sources in the early parts of Genesis, but I’d still credit him as the author. As for why, well, Jesus (according to the NT authors) attribute Mosaic authorship to the Torah/Pentateuch, so that’s good enough for me.

    Hodge: Great thoughts. I think you touched on something important when saying that it can be taken as polemical in the sense that it’s not doing what other creation stories do, but then we’d expect the text to do exactly what it’s doing given it’s context. That’s pretty much why I’m thinking that the intention isn’t primarily demythologization, as if Moses is self-consciously trying to refute other creation stories.

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