The Bible begins with a story – but what does that tell us? There are stories, and there are stories! If your grandmother begins, ‘once upon a time, there lived…’ you know what to expect. Or if she begins, ‘when your great grandmother was a little girl…’ you also know what to expect. Both are stories – but so different! One provides a fairy tale with a princess and a magic spell, the other gives you a treasured family narrative of growing up in a different time. But if she begins, ‘A long time ago in far away land…’ you aren’t quite sure what kind of story this is. It’s somewhere in the middle. Is it real, is it true? We don’t usually interrupt to ask, ‘when exactly? Which land was it?’ We innately know that those things aren’t what’s important in this kind of story.
That’s exactly how the story of the Bible begins – long ago in a distant land. ‘Now the earth was without form and empty, and darkness was over the face of the deep.’ Wow, what an opening.* It goes on to tell us of a man named ‘man’ (Adam = man), a tree of knowledge, a devious serpent, a tower to heaven, and a worldwide flood. It seems like one kind of story… but wrapped within are births, deaths, family trees (and a terrible murder), farming, building, marriage, tending animals – things we all recognise. So what kind of story is it? It’s all mixed up. Exactly.
Genesis 1-11 is a unique type of literature. We don’t understand it because it doesn’t exist today, but it was well-known among every ancient civilization. It isn’t fairytale, it isn’t history. Scholars call it mytho-history. If the word ‘myth’ concerns you, William Golding wrote, ‘I don’t like the word ‘allegorical’ – the word I really like is mythic, and people always think that means ‘full of lies’, whereas of course what it really means is ‘full of truth’ which cannot be told in any other way but a story.’
A people’s mytho-history was an attempt to connect themselves (often via kings or great leaders) to a distant and heroic past. Where did we come from? In doing so, it tried to account for creation, morality, God (or gods), heroes, people movements, cities, and language – and usually a flood narrative. A compressed ‘story of humanity’ in relation to God. Sound familiar?
*‘In the beginning, God…’ is more like the title. The next line opens the story.