We need to understand the difference between fact and truth if we are going to understand our Bible. To illustrate the difference, here is a fun example, if you will indulge me.
One day a hare was bragging about how fast he could run. He bragged and bragged and even laughed at the tortoise, who was so slow. The tortoise stretched out his long neck and challenged the hare to a race, which, of course, made the hare laugh.
“My, my, what a joke!” thought the hare.
“A race, indeed, a race. Oh! what fun! My, my! a race, of course, Mr. Tortoise, we shall race!” said the hare.
The forest animals met and mapped out the course. The race began, and the hare, being such a swift runner, soon left the tortoise far behind. About halfway through the course, it occurred to the hare that he had plenty of time to beat the slow trodden tortoise.
“Oh, my!” thought the hare, “I have plenty of time to play in the meadow here.”
And so he did.
After the hare finished playing, he decided that he had time to take a little nap.
“I have plenty of time to beat that tortoise,” he thought. And he cuddle up against a tree and dozed.
The tortoise, in the meantime, continued to plod on, albeit, ever so slowly. He never stopped, but took one good step after another.
The hare finally woke from his nap. “Time to get going,” he thought. And off he went faster than he had ever run before! He dashed as quickly as anyone ever could up to the finish line, where he met the tortoise, who was patiently awaiting his arrival.
What is our first reaction to this story?
Is it, “Wait a second… animals can’t talk!”
Or maybe, “I don’t believe that a rabbit and a turtle ever actually had a race.”
These responses are rare because we understand the story is not intending to be factual, but instead is concerned with telling a truth about our world.
Hard work and perseverance wins the race.
Is it possible to apply the same reasoning to our biblical texts? I don’t see why we couldn’t.
Let us look at our story of the fall of man in Genesis 3.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Is our response, “OMG snakes can’t talk! This is hogwash!”
Most of us recognize that this story is telling us a truth about ourselves and our God. The factual details are irrelevant. We almost do this interpretive work automatically because somewhere within us we recognize the power and function of myth, even if we don’t understand it fully.
The idea of something as mythical has recently become conflated with falsehood. We need to rescue the true meaning and function of myth from this popular unpopularity. A myth is described in Webster’s Dictionary as “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.”
In the case of Genesis 3, the “natural or social phenomenon” in question is the reason for suffering in our world. We rightly understand that the cause of suffering is the breaking of shalom, or the separation of ourselves from God and from each other. This myth doesn’t tell us that our God is a lie, but instead helps us understand the underlying truth of our existence and our relationship to God and to each other.
We need to recapture the power of the myth. With it, we can unlock our imagination and engage in real community with an understanding of what is at stake. We can move beyond getting stuck at the talking snake, or any other incidental detail which hinders us from seeing Truth presented in our texts. We can stop arguing about whether something is historically verifiable and get on with trying to understand what the text is saying to us. Not that facts don’t matter, but that they might be of lesser importance.
What other stories from our various religious teachings utilize the power of myth?