Genesis and Zeus

Genesis 1 to 11 makes a fascinating introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Astonishingly, millions regard this as a historical account (i) of the creation of the universe (at 12 noon on Sunday, October 23rd, 4004BC); (ii) of the ‘fabrication’ of the first humans; and (iii) of events eventually leading to the birth of Israel. I say “astonishingly”, because that would’ve been the reaction of the editors of these originally unconnected stories, which they’d collected and assembled, using their literary skills, to simulate a ‘chronological’ narrative. Unashamedly, and rightly so, they’d done some borrowing from the well known myths and legends of surrounding peoples in Canaan, Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Their intention wasn’t to publish a history ‘text book’, but to pen the opening pages of a colourful and dramatic ‘national epic’, which began at a time when there was no one to record what actually happened. Historical facts were beside the point. What mattered were facts of human experience; thoughts and feelings; perceptions and interpretations of events, real or imagined, in a search for individual and collective identity, meaning, value and purpose. Through no choice their own, people found ourselves living for a short time, with nothing certain except the inevitability of eventual death. In my view, it’s out of such fundamental, existential awareness that Genesis 1 to 11 arises, and sets against the unpromising gloom of primordial darkness, a sudden enlivening blaze of optimistic light.

It doesn’t tell us anything about God, which is no surprise since the nature and functioning of a transcendent deity lie beyond the reach of any human words unless, rather than pretending to be factual, they are understood as metaphorical, taking the shape, as in these chapters, of symbol and myth, these age-old vehicles for the expression of truths too deep to be directly and validly described. 

Taken literally, these chapters would describe a God who is an unpredictable conjunction of complete opposites. At one moment, he is but a distant, imperious, unchallengeable voice, heard but unseen, like the Olympian Zeus who’s made visible as a flash of blinding lightning, or heard as a peal of deafening thunder. But at another moment, again like Zeus, he can take human shape, drop down for a visit, a meal and a tête-à-tête. According to his mood, or whether or not events pleased him, Zeus could be a charming and generous companion. or a vengeful and deadly enemy. So with God who, on the one hand can insist that we all be given rest from work on one day in every seven but, on the other hand, can destroy us all, men, women and children, in a sudden, merciless, worldwide deluge. (Zeus, of course, also impregnated virgins who gave birth to divine offspring). 

As has been pointed out, myth is someone else’s religion, but not ours. Supernatural happenings we’d reject in other people’s stories, we accept, and defend, in our own. There was a day, presumably, when it became possible, and desirable, for humans to scale the heights of Mount Olympus. What did they find? An empty, uninhabited summit. I like to think that there was a philosopher at hand to declare that ‘Zeus is dead!’, to general consternation and impassioned rebuttal. In our own day, we’ve scaled the heights of the cosmos, and discovered the inconceivably vast emptiness separating the unknown billions of colossal galaxies and, as the philosopher Nietzsche proclaimed, the ‘old God’, of the little biblical three-decker universe, ‘is dead’. 

Should we consign Genesis 1 to 11 to the dust bin? No! That’s not where we’ve consigned the contemporaneous Greek myths. No less a luminary than Stephen Fry has recently published three splendidly readable volumes – “Mythos: the Greek Myths Retold”; “Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures”; and “Troy(Penguin). All these grand old, timeless tales, biblical and otherwise, tell us so much about ourselves, for we have imagined the gods in our own image, and projected the best and worst of ourselves onto them. In what they say and do, and in how they relate to each other and to the world in general, there is therefore so much to inspire us, and to warn us, if our minds and hearts are as open as they ought to be.  

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