A post on Dr. James McGrath’s blog, Exploring Our Matrix, has had me thinking about the Genesis myths and its relation to reality. The post is a quote from Rev. Joseph Phelps that reads as follows, “What kind of childish literalism reads the anthropomorphic language of Genesis and concludes that the Bible can only be read as a historical rendering of the origins of the universe?”
The people who wrote Genesis must have been aware that they were taking the accounts of other mythologies and modifying them for their own religious ideology. That raises a question of “How literally did they take what they wrote?” Never the less, it does express concepts about the origin of the world that they probably thought were valid. Some of its features may well have been understood literally by them, for instance, that the top of the sky was a solid dome and above it was a sea of water. While dismissed even by young earth creationists, at that time, that was a reasonable guess about how the world was constructed.
Regarding its anthropomorphism, this is mostly a product of the J account of creation in chapter two, but even the P account in chapter one presents a god with a human perspective, most evident when he makes humans in the likeness of himself and his council of spirits. This reflects the time and place of Genesis’ composition, where myths of cosmic origins were reimagined using language established by the first humans. These humans describe the time before their ancestors as a mythic Dreamtime where the laws of the current world did not apply, and who could not imagine agencies at work other than the ones they knew- animals and humans.
Compare this with later philosophical cosmologies such as in Daoism, where the creation comes about by the action of abstract ideas and forces or our own modern cosmogonies that are populated by mathematically defined fundamental forces and particles. But is there any truth in this theory of the beginning in Genesis? I think the writers for the most part were wrong, but at its beginning, they assert that in the beginning, their was a god and their was a shapeless dark void.
There is something to this conception of the beginning that is intriguing. It imagines that before creation, there existed in a timeless prior state- a shapeless form that would be the source of all shaped forms. It was essentially a ball of potential things that had no property until acted on by the god, who in this account is the source of all possible forms, yet is independent of the material they find expression in. Our own cosmos might be described this way in its state before the big bang, existing within a state beyond the ability of science to describe was the “material” from which all things are composed, and the laws of physics that establish what forms can be.