Some Bible detractors will say that this or that part of the Bible is “just a story.” In the last month, I heard two different church leaders use the same phrase in their defense of the historic Adam saying that Genesis 1-3 can’t be “just a story.”
We can’t do much about the detractors, but I want to steer Christians from adopting the idea behind the phrase “just a story.”
The original audience of every narrative in the Bible would be very puzzled by this use of the word “just.” It would be inconceivable to use it before the words “a story,” until after the Enlightenment–when we had severely limited what we believed was worth to sit in the category called Truth.
Our post-Enlightenment worldview equates truth with factual information, and we believe that the best way to transmit factual information is in simple and exact language and that plain, literal human language is the best way to describe history and human experience. From this perspective, the pejorative “just” is makes sense.
But the writers of the Bible had a very different view of truth and story. They were more interested in relationships than factual information. The Ancient Hebrew faith is about a relationship with a transcendent God, so they communicate relational truths in narratives. What’s the best way to get at the truth about your father, tell stories about him or offer a list of factual information. In order to get at complex truths, we often will use the tools of poetic language, which is full of metaphor and other figures of speech. Truth was something that we experienced through story because the truth in story transcended mere information. Until 500 years ago.
In the first chapters of Genesis, the original audience would have heard stories that directly challenged the dominant narratives of the ancient world. The Egyptian and Babylonian stories make it clear that mankind is nothing more than a slave whose sole purpose is to serve the gods, and their representative, the priest-king/pharaoh. The Adam story told it’s original audience that human beings are created in the image of the One God. In the stories of Egypt and Babylon, women were even lower than men, but the first chapter of the Bible presents the radical idea that both Man and Woman bore the image of the creator. Think about the significance of this–here is a document that is thousands of years old which proclaims that male and female are of equal value. Given the context of the creation stories in the ancient world, these are radical truths.
The Adam story tells the original audience that the material world matters to the One God and that he created it for humanity. Consistent with the value attributed to human beings by the creator God, Adam and his offspring are given the task of being stewards of this newly created world. In a shocking turn, Adam even names the animals; in the other ancient stories, naming was something that only gods could do.
There’s are many more truths we learn from these first chapters of Genesis. We learn that God wants a relationship with the people He created. We learn that human beings are moral beings with a strong tendency to choose Evil and that we are responsible for our choices. We are presented the truth that we need divine action in order to live our life as it was intended to be lived. How, deep down, we want to live it. We are taught that the Creator God loves us enough to accomplish this life on our behalf. It’s not crystal clear from Genesis how this will be accomplished, but we do learn that it will be by the actions of another human being who will defeat death and evil.
- All human life is valuable.
- Male and female are of equal value.
- Human beings have been honoured with very important tasks.
- The Natural world is very important.
- We have moral choices and are responsible for them.
- We usually choose evil.
- This isn’t the way the world was supposed to be.
- The Creator of the vast Cosmos loves us and wants a relationship with us.
- It is only by the actions of this God that our relationships with Him, each other and the natural world will be restored.
- This restoration will be by the actions of another human being.
These are some of the truths of the story of Adam and Eve. These are the truths that its shocked original audience would have heard. The author of these stories didn’t write them so that his listeners simply know this information; his intention was that they experience these truths at the level of their identity and live them out in their lives. I don’t think this purpose changes now that that 21st century Christians are reading the stories.
Whatever it is we do find in the first chapters of the Bible, we do not find “just” a story.