This is the first of a twenty-three part series on the Bible. The general theme is that the Bible is for the most part in the vanguard of those who want to secularize history. That means that the authors of the Old Testament, and even of the New, are interested in dispensing with mythology, reducing the number of supernatural interventions in history, and moving the center of religious concern away from magical moments to moral questions.
The creation story in “Genesis” is a far more modern thing than it is usually credited with being It is a kind of philosophical presentation and so very different from mythology in which, as Ovid, that great student of mythology, noted, there are always biological transformations of things even while the gods remain subject to the forces of nature and the raging of human passions. Narcissus becomes his image but only symbolically, and not all narcissists become their images, which is what happens in a fable. The creation story is best explained as a fable, which is a story that explain a set of circumstances that do not seem to be created but which somehow were at a point in time and have become part of nature. Tigers have stripes and the Red Man got baked right, neither too much or too little.. Fables suggest that there is a history for what seems natural, a sometimes serious, sometimes fey attempt to make explicable what seems not to need explanation or else to make explicable something which seems paradoxical: how something could come into existence when it already had to be there.
A good example of a fable is the council called by Athena to settle whether Orestes should be punished for having murdered his mother at the behest of his sister. He is found innocent by a newer set of gods who no longer hold that his tie to his mother is stronger than is his tie to his father. But the invocation of such a council already posits that there is an abstract principle of justice which can replace the previous substantive idea of justice. Justice itself is a non-historical concept. The replacement of one by another is an historical act rather than the invention of a new idea of what justice, in general, is. So the council acts as a story of what would happen if a new concept of justice were to enacted like a new law when it is law itself that is being substituted for “the law” of revenge that is not really a law at all. Nuremberg did the same thing. It invented the idea of crimes against humanity and applied it to those brought to the dock even though this was an ex post facto prosecution made to seem like a “normal” prosecution. In general, a creation story is a story that finds the beginning of a structure, whether of social life, of nature, or of metaphysics, into a distinct set of events, and so into a story. What is eternal started at some point. That is true of Pandora’s box as well as of Athena’s justice.
The Biblical creation story is a creation story like any other creation story in that all creation stories are fables that explain how the ordinary world and universe came to be rather than explain how some particular trait of people or animals or some special quirk of nature came to be. The Big Bang Theory is a creation story that explains how things such as matter came to be when before the theory most people would not have thought it necessary to explain the cause of matter, as if it had not always been here. The Big Bang Theory is most easily identifiable as a fable because it leads people to query whether there would be a recognizable universe at all if the weights of the original particles in space had been slightly different. But that is a fanciful question, like asking if we could invent a social anthropology that could have produced a world without slavery. What matters is that what gets produced is the universe and the social structure we in fact have. Darwin, for his part, provides a creation story that rivals the Genesis creation story because it also deals with the creation of people. Darwin makes the story fresh and intriguing because there are multiple moments or a continuous creation rather than just a few moments of creation and those moments involve the conflict of species for survival. That is very different from a story that happens in a brief period of time or is the result of the inspiration of the creator. Darwin was troubled precisely because his story was so fresh, so un-Biblical.
The creation story in “Genesis” is a fable based on legend rather than myth in that, like John Henry or Paul Bunyan, but unlike Medusa, its protagonist has an exaggerated power of the sort available to anyone, rather than a special power given by biology to some superhero or supervillain. God is such a legendary figure. He is an exaggerated craftsman. He steps back at the end of each day’s labors to inspect his handiwork, which is to say that they are fabrications that did not have to be there except that His efforts brought them into being. He rests on the Seventh Day as if He needed a vacation from his labors. There is no hint that His labors were involved biological mutations. Indeed, the closest he comes to that is when He makes Eve out of Adam’s rib, which seems a mechanical operation. Eve did not grow out of Adam’s rib but was made out of it.
By the time the creation story in “Genesis” is compiled, the Hebrews had taken dispensing with magic to a new level. God does intervene but it is His act rather than His intention that is important. The Greek gods are subject to the laws of nature even if they have special powers and even if they are identified with the forces of nature such as time and the sea, and even if they are also subject to the usual motives of human psychology such as jealousy and pride. The Hebrew God, for his part, interferes with the world only occasionally and for reasons of His own which might not be clear to people even when He explains Himself, which He does not usually do. He does not explain to anyone why He bothered to create the world in the first place. He does not explain to Noah why he has decided to destroy mankind at just this time rather than at another time when there was also wickedness. Moreover, God interferes progressively less often and his interventions are events rather than based on passions known to you and me, even if he sometimes seems to us to be angry or confused.
The Hebrews take these moments, these momentous events, as declarations of commitment. Each stage of the Jewish dispensation is marked by some particular story which moves God to make a new declamation. We need not consider whether His declamations differ from the narrower rule-making other gods engage in except that His interjections are far less magical in that He invokes the very human relation of obligation rather than an interference in natural law, whether human or physical. It is a new law in that there is a new setting of human relationships, which occurs when the Hebrews are freed from their slavery in Egypt even though most were probably not pleased with the idea or, even more likely, as in the case of Noah, God merely ordering a do-over. Very rare is God stopping the sun from setting so that Joshua can win a battle.
There is no substratum of natural forces taken for granted, such as the idea that the world sits on the back of a turtle. What is created on each day of creation does not evolve or transmute from what has been created on a previous day. Each day is a separate creation, God intervening again to do something that He has in mind, which is to create order out of the primitive void or chaos. He could have stopped at any time, left the world void of all life, or without humans.
God is guided, if by anything, by the logical idea that what comes after does not make sense without what has come before. Each subsequent day is a more specialized form of creation, one closer to the idea of God Himself. So the first problem is to separate darkness from light, and only then do you have to separate the vault of the heavens from the vault of the earth, and only then does it make sense to separate land from sea so that the land can then be populated with animals and the sea with fish.
So the succession of creations constitutes a kind of scientific theory in that it posits what of the natural world is logically prerequisite for another feature of the natural world. Animals can’t precede the division between night and day and the division between the heavens and the earth has to precede the division between night and day. This is abstract thinking of a high order in that it requires being able to discern what is more general and what is more particular about a set of very fundamental entities and so coming up with the sequence in which they must have originated because it would make no sense for the sequence to have happened any other way. This is not an historical argument but a metaphysical one, a form of reasoning that does not afterwards much concern the authors of the Old Testament.
God steps back, as it were, after each creation to note that it is good, which is to say that he is satisfied with what has been accomplished, God now ready to move on to the next task to fill the blank slate of the void with the next level of detail. He is thinking about what, if anything, to do next. He has noted his handiwork rather than observed a process of influence He has set in motion, which is what the Greek gods do in “The Iliad”. He has decided that each stage, each act of creation, was well done, which means it is an artifact that lasts beyond the moment of creation or is just what happens to be the next event in the story. What is story like rather than theoretical is that It is an open question whether God had to move on through all six days of Creation, so as to include the invention of people, or whether he stopped too soon, and would have needed only a few more days to create a world without disease or want. But that idea did not occur to the people who composed the stories that later became included in the Bible until later, when in the generations before Noah there were people who lived to long ages, while the discovery of poverty as a problem has to wait until the age of the prophets.
Hans Jonas provides the key idea for explaining how different the Genesis creation story is when he explains how human consciousness moves from primitive to modern thinking. He defines the primitive consciousness as one that sees nature as everywhere fecund. The question that thence arises for human consciousness out of the existential condition of living in the tropics or in temperate zones is not the modern question of why things live, how the living emerges from dead minerals and inanimate forces, but the question of how things can ever be truly and finally dead in that everywhere there is an abundance of life and dead objects are quickly replaced by new living things, many of which seem to grow out of recently dead things while, at the same time, our memories, which can leap from one time to another, populate our thoughts with people who are recently dead or even long dead. It is therefore no surprise that life is taken as “natural”, as the given, and that what is problematic, what needs explanation, is how death can enter the fecund world, a question largely to be answered by saying that death only seems to enter the world when, in fact, we go on to other lives, The world is a cycle of rebirth and regeneration rather than of irreversible actions that spell true death, which would mean the absence of a re-beginning or a restoration, which is what always seems to happen in nature.
The secular world, on the other hand, is one in which it is necessary to explain how anything can live. Nature is broken down into inanimate forces and objects. Things have no will but are passively subject to natural laws, which means that modern man, whose imagination is full of planets seen as pebbles, must explain how anything could possibly live, how life can emerge from and be sustained within the dead world of physics. The lives of people are not ruled by the whims of the gods but by the often conflicting intentions of people who must interact with one another to survive and therefore, we know since Aristotle, have to accommodate one another and create social bodies that serve some common interest. Reason, which is the language whereby people interact with one another because only through reason are people likely to agree on the objective basis for negotiation and compromise, replaces biology as the basis for how things happen. The absence of biological impulses can be seen in those tribes which adopt some version of a monotheistic rather than a polytheistic religion. Theirs is a religion of a single abstracted spirit rather than a religion of a multiplicity of spirits each of which is the spirit of the particular kind of thing they are. Monotheistic like religions are adopted by people who live in arid rather than fecund areas.
Edward Tylor, the Nineteenth Century anthropologist who was the father of the evolutionary study of myth, shares this same view though he is more concerned than Jonas is with the kind of narratives provided rather than what it is to experience a mythic universe. According to Tylor, every living thing has its own spirit of life and so every living thing can be identified with that spirit. The spirit is not a metaphor or a name for the biological creature; rather, it is what is alive within the solid biological creature with which one is faced. In this light, Tylor’s explanation of primitive religion makes a good deal of sense, his metaphors well chosen rather than, as is usually thought, hollow cliches brought to bear for want of anything better. Tylor’s explanation of transmigration of souls and spirits is plausible because it alludes to what must be explained and to which transmigration bears a close resemblance: how it is that character traits are passed on within families, since there are striking similarities; how alike are the tempers of beasts and men; how it is that there seems to be a great chain of of being in which each animal and person has its appointed place and function.
Tylor has a deep appreciation of what is important about myths. They are not ideas per se but narrative constructions which serve as explanations by telling how things happen. There are general rules to apply to a whole set of stories and so even though one can speak of primitive beliefs, as if they were beliefs in the modern sense of propositions, it is more important to concentrate on how people or spirits do things to other spirits or things. The world is made up of actors rather than objects and what is decided by these actors are the narratives which fill up the world; the world is not made up of the propositions which describe and generalize these narratives.
And so we are left with the creation story as it is, caught navigating between the world of myth, legend and fable, and coming out on the side of telling a story straight, no turtles all the way down, but rather a sequence of activities that make sense as a sequence and that providing a kind of explanation of the universe without appeals to biological transformations or the politics of the gods, which would only beg the question of how the order of things was created, and which is why the creation story is so sublime, whether or not it is true.