I love mythology. Like religion, it speaks in the language of “as if.” It is the human story, telling us who we are, where we fit in, our purpose. And our ability to create stories and engage others in them is our unique human capability, the one thing that sets us apart from all other animals. Myth, expressing intuited wisdom, embodies fundamental truths.
Science arrives at truth through a different process and presents the results of the process differently from story. We could say that science and story are like different means of locomotion, all taking us to the same place, but in different ways. Embracing one and ignoring or diminishing the significance of the other risks losing the opportunity for deeper understanding.
Does the relationship story of biblical myth anticipate science?
Today, some mathematicians think the universe may be conscious. Is this what the ancients intuited when they spoke of Elohim (Biblical Hebrew translated “G-d” — or literally “gods”)? Or any of the many other names used biblically and by spiritual seekers over the centuries to refer to an essential unity of all being?
Scientists point out: “The elaborate universe we observe today – dazzling in its richness, diversity and complexity – didn’t spring into being ready-made. Rather, it emerged gradually, over billions of years, through a long succession of self-organising and self-complexifying processes.”
The ancients also intuited that creation is a process that involves organization and creates greater complexity as it continues to unfold. In the biblical story, each stage of G-d’s process of creation involves separating or differentiating (הבדל). G-d separates night from day, dry land from water. As G-d separates and organizes, the world becomes increasingly complex and diverse.
At the same time, the biblical story makes it clear that this unfolding diversity emerges from (and perhaps within) a single source, G-d.
Then there’s this from Neil deGrasse Tyson: ”Every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the Big Bang and to the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars that exploded more than five billion years ago…stardust brought to life…” The universe had a beginning. We are made of the same substance as it. We are everything, and everything is us.
Unfolding diversity and complexity in unity sets the stage for a story of relationship.
The biblical relationship story happens in the context of unfolding diversity and complexity
But what about the biblical text’s assertion that creation occurred in six days with a seventh day for rest? Science tells us creation “emerged gradually, over billions of years.”
When we approach the text as a story, we recognize that creating in six days and resting on the seventh is a narrative technique. The number seven recurs throughout the biblical text. Stories are structured with seven narrative units, certain words appear seven times in a narrative sequence, holidays and life cycle events like circumcision are presented in seven-plus-one formulations. Seven days serves a narrative purpose. That becomes even more clear when we look at the deeper structure of the first creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:4a:
Day 1: Light, separated light from dark (Gen. 1:3-5)
Day 4: Two great lights, one dominates day, one night (Gen. 1:15-19
Day 2: Expanse, sky, separates waters above from waters below (Gen. 1:6-8)
Day 5: Birds, fish emerge from waters below – fish fill the seas, birds the sky (Gen. 1:20-23)
Day 3: Dry land, earth, emerges when waters are gathered into seas (Gen. 1:9-11)
Day 6: Land animals, including humans (Gen. 1:24-31)
Day 7: G-d rests and blesses the 7th day (Gen. 2:1-4a)
How does the Bible tell its story? Deep structure…
There is a lot that could be said here about creation including that it is clearly visualized as a process of organizing, separating, and increasing complexity. But my main point is the careful organization of the narrative itself, the story. Three environments created on Days 1-3. Those environments filled on Days 4-6. Then a day of rest to regenerate and appreciate the results of six days of creative activity.
I’ll leave the extended meaning of this to your own creative imagination. What I’m highlighting is that stories convey truth and meaning differently than science. As story, the biblical text conveys its meaning through literary devices like structure, carefully chosen vocabulary, imagery, allusion, simile. It tells a story of diversity unfolding from and living within unity.
Inside the narrative structure anthropomorphism points to relationship
And this brings me to anthropomorphism in the Hebrew Bible. Anthropomorphisms describe non-human entities in human terms. They are like similes in that they compare one thing to another. Unlike similes, anthropomorphisms don’t explicitly announce that they are comparing one thing to another. They simply and directly assign human qualities to non-human entities.
Recognizing human qualities, qualities we ourselves possess, in “the other,” whoever or “whatever” that other may be, is what allows relationship. How can there be a relationship where there is absolutely no commonality? If a being is wholly other from us, or appears to us as wholly other, we cannot relate to that being.
At the same time that we need to see ourselves in the other in order to experience relationship, we need difference, diversity. The biblical creation myth points to both in its story.
A relationship story: G-d, non-human animals, the earth itself
The biblical story tells us that G-d is wholly other from G-d’s creation, that G-d is beyond our comprehension. Paradoxically, it tells us we can have a relationship with G-d. One of the ways this story affirms the latter is through anthropomorphisms that imagine qualities G-d shares with created beings.
The biblical story also uses anthropomorphism to tell us we are like our fellow creatures in significant ways. A snake that stands upright, strategizes, manipulates and speaks is so much more than “mere folklore,” to be dismissed. So is a talking donkey that “sees” better than a seer and has a sense of justice. These are stories bearing important truths, the truth of relationship.
Finally, the biblical story speaks of the land with anthropomorphisms. Acting as God’s agent, the land “vomits” out those who live on it if they fail to care for the vulnerable in society. It can be called to witness in a trial. It nurtures and it punishes. In this way, we are drawn into a relationship not only to G-d, not only to our fellow creatures, but to the land and air and water that offers a habitat for us all. (Gen. 1:1-2:4a).
The simple but amazing idea is that the glorious diversity of an unfolding universe of being emerges from, lives within, and participates in a unity. Whether we “believe” or “disbelieve” it doesn’t change anything except our own way of being in the world. It simply is.
Recognizing our commonality, our unity in diversity
We all know that G-d doesn’t literally and physically walk in the garden in the heat of the day. We also know that snakes don’t speak in Hebrew or any other human language and that land doesn’t “vomit” out those who live on it if they fail to care for the vulnerable in society. It doesn’t act as a witness in a trial. The biblical “author,” whether it was G-d or a human being or a group of human beings knew those things as well as we do.
But the Hebrew Bible brings us an eternal truth, one that science now tells us through its own process: there is an essential unity behind, before, and within the diversity of creation. This unity IS creation. Our beautiful diversity combined with our unity of being, our commonality, is what allows relationship, the kind of relationship that happens when you recognize some part of yourself in the other.
Anthropomorphism is a shorthand way of recognizing commonality in the midst of the vast diversity of being. It is the combination of diversity and shared traits that makes a space in which human beings can be in a relationship with G-d, with nonhuman animals, with the heavens and the earth, with everything that is. Even in this profusion of diversity, there is the potential to glimpse ourselves in the other.
What a profound idea that is! Where might we be in our history on this planet if the primary objective of our lives, our reason for being, were to cultivate an awareness of our relationship to everything that is, to nurture it, and to serve those relationships lovingly?
One thought on “A relationship story: biblical myth-making”
Beautiful Torah. Toddah.