I'll leave my response as the first comment.
1. Premodern peopleIf you want to know what a premodern person looks like, don't suppose that fundamentalists constitute a contemporary case study. Paradoxically, fundamentalists (whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish) are a product of modernity.
In The Battle For God (there's a good review here), Karen Armstrong argues that fundamentalism arose in reaction to modernity. Two inferences follow:
- Fundamentalists of the contemporary sort did not exist when the Bible was written.
- Contemporary fundamentalists are thoroughly modernist in their mindset.
If you want to know what a premodern person looks like, natives (Indians) provide a better example. I'm sure that Indians have been co-opted by modernity in many respects. But insofar as they have preserved their ancestral way of life, they also preserve elements of a premodern worldview.
In native communities, we see a mindset starkly different than that of fundamentalism. The difference is, Indians understand the literary genre, myth. Of course "myth" is our label, not theirs; they would perhaps speak of "our traditions" or "the wisdom of the elders". Regardless, Indians "get" myth in a way that fundamentalists manifestly do not.
For example, each Indian community has its own creation myth, often giving primordial animals a pivotal role. No one seems troubled by the fact that the tale circulated in one region contradicts the tale circulated in another region. No one asks whether Earth was "really" made from foam or mud, or whether the trickster is "really" a coyote or a raven. And no one feels compelled to take up arms to slay the infidel. It's all good seems to be the general attitude: because Indians relate to the stories as myth.
Even if the stories can't be taken literally, they have value because of the worldview they inculcate. They tell Indians how to relate to their world (e.g., respect Mother Earth; always give something back to her when you take something). They tell Indians what their place in the world is (man is not the focal point of creation, but just one of Mother Earth's inhabitants). And the stories inculcate not only a mindset but also a way of life. The stories look backward, and the way of life involves preserving the practices of the past.
If you told an Indian that her traditions have no value because they are not science or history, she would tell you that you have a queer value system.
2. Genesis 1-11 as mythContemporary Indian communities have many traits in common with the ancestral Israelites. The following examples come to mind:
- communitarian (not individualist) orientation;
- tribal organization;
- ruled by elders;
- focus on ownership of land as crucial to survival and community identity;
- traditional wisdom and mores expressed in narrative (not propositional) form.
- traditions passed down orally. (Indian communities still rely on the oral transmission of their most important traditions, even today.)
- the way of life involved preserving the practices of the past. (In Israel, the prophets introduced a future-oriented perspective. Even then, the prophets continued to point Israel back to its origins in the Exodus.)
For example, scholars believe that there are two variant accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2. Both accounts insist that humankind is the focal point of creation. Genesis 1 makes the point by recounting that humans were created last — the crowning jewel of creation. Genesis 2 makes the point by recounting that humans were created first — thus taking precedence over everything else:
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
When no bush of the field was yet in the land [or "yet in the earth"] and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land … then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground….
(Genesis 2:4-7a, English Standard Version)
Note that there is only one "day" of creation, not seven (per Genesis 1). And human beings were created before there was any vegetation (contra Genesis 1, in which vegetation was created on day three and human beings on day seven).
Sceptics might suppose that the editor of Genesis was sloppy, and didn't notice the hopeless contradiction between the above text and Genesis 1. This is a constant temptation: to suppose that "primitive" peoples lacked intellectual sophistication. More likely, the editor considered that he had two creation stories which approached the topic from two different vantage points, and he was loathe to lose either of them. The presence of variant details (was it "really" a coyote, or was it a raven?) was simply immaterial.
Fundamentalists betray a modernist mindset when they insist that the variant details Can too! be reconciled, and they set out to devise convoluted explanations to prove it.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis constitute Israel's prehistory. The narratives were told and retold (or re-enacted, as a kind of dramatic performance) in communal settings. Each performance would vary in small details, reflecting the individual storyteller's personality and artistry. This process went on generation after generation, until the stories were crafted into the (stylized) forms they now take. Only then were they compiled and shaped into a continuous narrative by an anonymous editor. (Moses? It's unlikely, since Moses was a man of action, not a man of letters; but in any event it doesn't matter — it's beside the point.)
Everything in the first eleven chapters of Genesis is myth, pure and simple. The traditions are nonetheless invaluable to people of faith.
3. Myth and history elsewhere in the BibleWhat of the later chapters of Genesis, plus the rest of the Pentateuch and the later historical books? Here the division between myth and not-myth is not so straightforward.
The general picture — oral tradition, re-enacted with variant details over countless generations — still applies. Thus even the historical traditions that have come down to us are highly stylized.
And even when the oral traditions were set down in writing, it was only a sort of first edition. The editorial process continued unabated. Scholars maintain that the traditions were re-edited at critical junctures to keep them current in new historical circumstances. This process continued until the exile in Babylon, during which the Hebrew scriptures evidently took their final form.
Did Abraham even exist? Did the Exodus happen? Did Elijah defeat the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel? The only access we have to these events is through Israel's stylized traditions. We certainly don't have enough data to convince a "scientific" historian, because science always begins from a position of scepticism. Historians do not concede the benefit of the doubt.
In some cases, the appeal to myth continues to serve us very well, even in ostensibly historical settings. For example, the Akedah — the binding of Isaac. When God commanded Abraham to slay Isaac, Abraham was ready to obey. He didn't even pause to plead for Isaac's life, as he had for Lot's family when God resolved to destroy Sodom.
If we regard the story as history, it is morally repugnant. But what if we regard it as myth — a kind of morality play? We can then distance ourselves from a literal application: Obedience to God must be absolute, even if God asks you to murder your own child. We can instead focus attention on the moral progress which the story brought about: The descendants of Abraham learned from this narrative that child sacrifice is contrary to God's will.
ConclusionI hate to leave the reader hanging at this point. There's at least one crucial question that I haven't addressed: What method shall we use to interpret premodern traditions in a (post)modern era? I could share a series of hermeneutical principles in response to that question, but the post is already too long.
At least I have made the following points:
- Fundamentalists are modernist in their mindset;
- Ancient Israel probably regarded its traditions approximately the way that contemporary Indians regard their traditions;
- The process of oral transmission has distanced the texts from the actual historical events, and cast them in a highly stylized form;
- Therefore the biblical traditions cannot be interpreted literally, like a lab report or newsreel footage;
- But the traditions are still invaluable to people of faith: even if they are entirely (Genesis 1-11) or partially (Genesis 12-50) mythological in nature.
Whether or not people find my perspective persuasive, I wanted to make the point that there is a "third way" on offer. This "third way" avoids the dichotomy that is usually represented in debates over religion: a literal reading of scripture (on the one hand) and a repudiation of scripture (on the other).
In my view, fundamentalists and sceptics both misunderstand the Bible because they apply a modernist mindset to it.
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