The Bible and Myth (and Dr. Enns)
Well, I had a very gracious email from Pete Enns down at Westminster Seminary. I should admit we are less far apart than my previous post may have made out. Pete rightly clarifies that in Inspiration and Incarnation he does argue that Bible takes on the mythologies of neighboring cultures. I did not mean to suggest that we differed on this point. We agree that there is a struggle, and that Bible is able to use Near Eastern mythic language as a tool in this struggle.
Still, Pete does insist that Bible retains mythic ways of speaking and, indeed, mythic categories too! So Pete and I both agree that Bible co-opts mythic images and terms for its own purpose. (I would hold that that purpose centers on expressing covenantal themes and rather profound hopes about where the covenant is taking both Israel and the world around Israel.) However, I continue to part ways with Pete. I want to insist that Bible is not constrained by mythic categories.
In short, I strongly resist the idea that the Bible's witness really became incarnate through the mythic categories of its contemporary cultural milieu. Rather, against the constraints of mythic categories, Bible understands the saving acts of God to have a non-repeating, once-for-all character. For biblical Israel, the structure of reality was first and foremost linear and historical in character and not mythical and timeless. In biblical theology, real history--fixed historical events and a singular covenantal enactment with God--made Israel what it was.
The mythic categories of the ancient Near East were hardly adequate to convey the true nature of the biblical God. This God is above the fray of the booming "multiverse" of mythic imagination, where immanent supernatural forces controlled fertility, death, storms, and most everything else. The biblical God is not immanent in the forces of the world and nature, and Bible combats such belief as idolatrous. (Better: There is an early and ongoing struggle with such belief, that becomes clearer over time. Childs uses the term "struggle," and I think that captures what went on.)
And Bible does not make this point from within the genre of myth, but uses what Gunkel called "saga" and what Frank Cross called "epic" to convey the story of God with humanity. To tell its story, Genesis uses the same sort of brief concise narrative that families use to tell old stories about great grandma. (Saga is not history in our sense of the word, but neither is it myth. It is a genre that takes story and time seriously.)
This literary move emphasizes the centrality of historical thinking in biblical Israel. Alan F. Segal recently wrote something rather profound along these lines: "The events happening in the marketplaces and courts of Israel were meant to be just as important... as the [so-called events of] mythic time." (I've altered this quote a little, because Segal, like Enns, still makes a little too much room for myth in the earliest parts of Genesis.)
When confronted with claims that the world really is a multiverse of immanent supernatural forces, Bible gets combative and mounts a struggle. The chaos serpent is reduced to a talking snake in Eden, who played no role in the drama of creation (Genesis 3:1). Alternatively, Leviathan is a mere sea creature (Genesis 1:21). In either case, he has lost his power to overwhelm the human psyche. When the King of Tyre claims to be one of the heavenly cherubim, he is soundly put in his place (Ezekiel 28:2, 19). When Assyria claims to be the mighty cosmic-tree of world myth, it is pictured chopped down like any tree of Lebanon (Ezekiel 31:12).
More on this soon. To be continued...