Genesis: The Polemic

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Thursday, September 12, 2019 1 comments

by Steve Risner

Continuing our detailed look at how one would be inclined to read the book of Genesis, especially the first 11 chapters (although there is no known break between those chapters and the other 39) we're going to look at a variation of the poetry claim. One of the popular things Christians will say these days about Genesis when they don't want to accept it for what it says is something like this: “The creation account in Genesis is an allegorical poem and polemic mythology.”

This is actually a direct quote from someone who believes in this manner. I've made a fairly good case, in my opinion, in several of my writings that Genesis cannot be read as poetry or simply as poetry. Truly, even if it is poetry (although it shows no resemblance to Hebrew poetry and would be a one of kind writing if it was to be taken as poetry), it doesn't change the historical nature of the text. This is much like a song about your day today doesn't mean the events described aren't true just because it rhymes. I have, up until now, not written or mentioned much about the polemic idea.

What does “polemic” mean? It's defined this way: a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something. So, the idea here is that Genesis (just the creation account, really) is written as a response to other religious groups in the area. There are several reasons why this idea is terribly unsupported and actually makes no logical sense. Let me explain.

People who think this way, that the creation account is a response to neighboring mythologies, will often say something like this: “I believe what the Bible says, I just don't believe what you say the Bible says.”

This is such an odd thing to say to a Biblical creationist because a Biblical creationist's whole belief system on origins in general is based on the text itself. We believe it says what it says. I and other Biblical creationists believe the Bible means exactly what it says as it's written. Those supporting the polemic idea (or any other variety of ideas that dismiss Genesis as allegory or myth or something other than what it clearly was written as) have a skewed idea and think that the Hebrews would have recognized Genesis as poetic (even though it's not) and would have understood that Genesis is merely a response to neighboring religious beliefs they thought were false.

Conrad Hyers, former Professor of Comparative Mythology and the History of Religions at Gustavus Adolphus College and contributor for BioLogos (a theistic evolution website), wrote:
“It becomes clearer what Genesis 1 is undertaking and accomplishing: a radical and sweeping affirmation of monotheism vis-à-vis polytheism, syncretism [merging of religious beliefs] and idolatry. Each day of creation takes on two principal categories of divinity in the pantheons of the day, and declares that these are not gods at all, but creatures—creations of the one true God who is the only one, without a second or third. Each day dismisses an additional cluster of deities, arranged in a cosmological and symmetrical order."

I'm not sure why this would mean that the historical account isn't true if, in fact, this idea is correct. However, one of the obvious issues with this is that the Hebrews would have been unlikely to be very familiar with foreign idolatrous peoples beyond Egypt. They had just spent 400 years in Egypt (unless, of course and conveniently, we're going to say this isn't true either). The only gods they'd be familiar with were those in Egypt, most likely. I actually like the idea that the Genesis narrative shows how the creations/creatures God created cannot be gods at all since He doesn't share His magnificence with any other and He made them from nothing. But this doesn't take away from the fact that the narrative is exactly that—a narrative.

Hyers is considered theologically to be a liberal and was known to hold other ideas that we now know are debunked. This idea of the polemic is no different. One of his major errors is his starting point that Genesis was written far later than it actually was. He believed Genesis was written in the 5th century BC, which flies in the face of most Biblical scholars and certainly would mean Moses didn't write/compile it. He's literally 1000 years too late on this which completely discredits his entire idea. Again, if the people in question were unaware of the other cultures' beliefs, why would they write another myth to counter them, especially if they only knew of Egyptian myths? Answer: they wouldn't.

Although it seems quite clear that the text could be used as a polemic—a response to any culture that doesn't recognize the One True God—there is no justification from the text itself that this was the intent of the writing. Some may argue that the structure points to this, but we'll get into why that doesn't hold water either in my next writing. But first, let's entertain what I feel is a very serious problem for this entire idea if we hold that Genesis is nothing more than a response to neighboring idolatrous peoples.

If the facts presented in the narrative aren't true, then they mean nothing—literally. Essentially, what someone supporting this view is saying is the Jews invented a new mythology—a made up story of how great their God is—but it's not actually true. So, these other idolatrous people could argue that the polemic is just as false as theirs. Do you see how that works? This argument is the Jews invented a replacement myth of fanciful thinking to be better than the other myths of the locals. So who's to say the Jews' myth is right and the others' are wrong?

If the narrative is true, however, now you've got something. This is why the narrative can certainly throw down any false god you want to bring to the table. This only works if the narrative is true. If it's not a factual account of what took place, what good is it? But to suggest a response to other religions was the sole purpose of the writing is laughable and a huge stretch. This is especially true if the writing was done prior to the 5th century BC. This is one reason the entire idea of the polemic intent of Genesis is irrational. It just doesn't hold up. Said another way, it would make no sense to write a response to pagan myths by writing another myth. This is illogical at best and makes the Judeo-Christian belief system no different than ancient pagan belief systems. A response to false teaching should be true teaching, right? Genesis puts down paganism because it's true, not because it's another mythology to replace pagan mythologies.

It seems like this idea puts far too much weight on the man/men who actually penned the works in question rather than putting the majority of the influence on the God who inspired it. In reality, we're talking about a communication from the mind of God to mankind. But this idea of the polemic makes it seem, to me anyway, that the idea is that the Hebrews (or the Jews depending on if you believe the erroneous time frame mentioned above) wanted to directly combat foreign gods with this writing. Again, it's fine to think it does this since it, by its nature, casts down all false gods, but to suggest it was the purpose is preposterous and unsupported.

Next time, we're going to go over the alleged similarities in the creation days, how they're “paired” and why there are few similarities if we actually understand the details. And, again, even if there are similarities (the argument is, then, that this is parallelism and marks the text as poetic) what does that prove? That the narrative is a myth? Or is it more likely that it supports that the narrative is telling us that God had purpose and meaning in how He organized the creation of everything that is? Although that question puts the argument to rest, it doesn't even need to be asked since the creation days aren't near as neatly “paired” as those suggesting the polemic mythology and poetic allegory want them to be. Stay tuned, and thank you for reading and sharing.

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Charlie said...

I can add that if Genesis was a polemic (or can be used as such) against Babylonian myths, then it should ALSO be used as a polemic against Evolutionary myths as those who make the claim that it is a polemic...believe Evolution. As usual, the claims only show one fact about these people: their own unbelief and their attempt to hide it behind academia. Needless to say, they fail at hiding their unbelief and they fail at any form of quality academic research in the process.