Tower of Babel

What shall we make of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babel and all those ancient stories in Genesis? Where did Cain get his wife if Adam and Eve were the first two people? Who are the “Nephilim–the sons of God who mated with the daughters of Man–who were ‘heroes in the land’?” (Gen 6.4)

The first twelve books of Genesis are generally accounted by Biblical scholars to be ‘mythological’. In other words, these are ancient stories which the Hebrews adopted and adapted from the surrounding pagan culture from which they came. “The Hebrews” it is argued “were a particularly literal people so they placed these characters and stories within real places as historical figures. In fact, they never existed. It was all made up.

Fundamentalists, on the other hand, insist that these stories are all to be understood literally and historically. They search for the true location of the Garden of Eden, set out on expeditions to find the archeological remains of Noah’s Ark, Place the Tower of Babel in ancient Babylon and so forth.

My own view is somewhere in between. I believe the stories of the first twelve chapters of Genesis are ‘legends’ that work on us in the same way myth does. A ‘legend’ according to my definition, is a story based in real events and historical people which has developed and grown through time, and has been woven into later cultural and literary forms. An example of a ‘legend’ therefore is the story of King Arthur. Most people believe Arthur was some sort of Celtic chieftain during the time so the Roman occupation of Britain. But try going on a search for Camelot. You’ll end up with several different intriguing claims. In fact, no one knows who Arthur was, but over the years we have made countless stories, poems, paintings, films and novels about him.

Likewise, I believe that the characters of the first twelve chapters of Genesis are legendary characters. They really existed and their stories really happened, but the account we have is probably altered in detail, exagerrated here, condensed there as the culture adapted. Did the Hebrews adopt some existing stories? Perhaps, but they were probably already part of their shared heritage.

Finally, we say that these stories are locked in the mists of pre-history. We just don’t know where and when and exactly how these events took place. I believe it is therefore a good and solid Catholic position to allow for the legendary development of these ancient stories, while still asserting that they have their basis in real people and real historical events. I think we must do so, because under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they are presented to us as historical events. The writers of the Old Testament are careful to include the geneologies of  Adam and Noah and their descendents and to splice them into the geneology of Abraham. They want us, therefore, to take away from the stories the understanding that these were the real ancestors of the Hebrew people.

Things become more accurately wedded to the known historical events in Genesis 12 with the call of Abram. At this point we can begin to connect the stories with real places. They have discovered an ancient city called Ur in Iraq–where Abram would have come from. While all the details are not in place, we can begin, with archeology and textual criticism to connect the events of the Old Testament with the surrounding cultures and events of history.

Why does it matter if the first twelve chapters of Genesis are recounting historical events or not? It matters because the whole rest of the Old Testament record is clearly a presentation of God’s interaction in history–God’s interaction in the history of the Hebrew people, and this historical interaction lays the foundation for the ultimate historical interaction by God with his people–the incarnation of his Son.

What do I mean when I say that these stories ‘act on us as myth does’? Myth connects with the deeper parts of our shared consciousness within our humanity. Great stories of mythical heroes who go on a quest, interactions with gods and goddesses, all the great stories of the world engage us at a deep level and we connect with the events and drama in a ceremonial and symbolic way using a language that is deeper than words and explications. The stories of the beginning of  Genesis do as well, with the exception that these are not fanciful stories as the pagan myths are, but stories based in real events.

This prepares the way for the ‘myth that really happened’ in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of the Lord.