A reader puzzles about Genesis 1-11

He writes:

I’ve got sort of a followup question to the one somebody asked you about Abraham in a recent NCR article of yours. It’s about how to read Genesis 1-11. I’ve heard that Catholics tend to read those chapters as containing figurative language, and I noticed that one commenter in the article said that Catholics take them as allegorical. I’ve been increasingly struggling with how to read those chapters myself recently, and I was wondering if you could help me.

I’ll give it a whack, though I’m not a bible scholar.  Just so you are forewarned.

In the case of Creation and of Adam and Eve, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what it means to read them as containing figurative language.

The Creation account affirms that God made the universe and everything in it, living and not living, though not in a way that attempting to force it into a literal interpretation would indicate. I agree with this, and I believe that the literary framework of the Creation account indicates that this is how it’s meant to be read.

We’re on the same page so far.

Ditto for the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall. The story tells us that God made man in His image, initially in a state of sinlessness, but that under Satan’s influence, man disobeyed Him and fell from grace. To say that the story is figurative means that the Fall is a real historical event that really happened to the first man God made in His image, but that the particular trappings of the story aren’t literal. Again, I believe there’s internal evidence in the story that this was meant to be the case, such as the way that it refers to “the” serpent instead of “a” serpent, and from the way that the serpent talks. And the Messianic prophecy at the end of the story undoubtedly uses figurative language. Obviously, Satan didn’t literally strike Christ’s heel like a serpent, and Christ didn’t literally crush Satan’s head as if he were a serpent. It figuratively predicts Christ’s total defeat of Satan by suffering and dying on the cross.

Yep.  I agree.

But after that, I’m just not sure what it means to say that Genesis 1-11 should be seen as using figurative language.

I don’t know that the Church says much about Genesis 1-11 using figurative language.  The passage in the Catechism is only addressing the story of the fall in Genesis 3:

CCC 390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

That’s not to say that Gen 1-11 doesn’t use figurative language (though I think “figurative” is a misleading term for moderns since we tend to hear “fictional” when categories like “fiction” and “history” are not present to the minds of ancient writers as they are to ours in telling origin stories.  It’s vital that we learn to ask the right questions of the text and I’m not confident many moderns (including myself) know how to do that with reliability.  But we are certain we know what the ancient writer was getting at and so tend to come to hasty and wrong conclusions.

For instance, what does it mean in the case of Cain and Abel? That they weren’t really an animal keeper and vegetable grower respectively? That they weren’t really the direct sons of the first pair of humans in God’s image? That they didn’t exist at all? And in the latter case, how can the story be true with figurative language rather than just false?

I seen nothing in Catholic teaching requiring to accept the historicity or non-historicity of Cain and Abel.  My own inclination is to suspect there is a historical backdrop to the story (and to most of the stories of the patriarchs).  But I’m also aware that the Hebraic concept of corporate personality also exerts influence on the way this story is told.  What I mean is this: consider another patriarch less notable these days:

Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. (Genesis 4:20-22)

Notice how the sacred writer thinks here:  He is not asserting a direct genetic parentage, as though every tent dweller on earth is the physical descendant of Jabal, every musician on earth is a direct physical descendant of Jubal, and every person skilled in metallurgy is a direct physical descendant of Tubal-cain.  But these patriarchs are seen as the adoptive archetypes and fathers of all those who do these things.  Similarly, Cain and Abel (whatever the historical background to the story) become the archetypal father of farmers and shepherds and the mutual hostility between them.  I don’t think we have to choose between a historical background and the layers of meaning the story tellers impart to the tale.  The whole point of the four senses of Scripture is that Cain and Abel can have a literal sense and more than literal senses too.  And these can extend far beyond the hostility of farmers and shepherds to a recapitulation of the fall.  Indeed, major movements of Genesis 1-11 can best be understood, in my view, as a retelling of the Fall story again and again.  Genesis is, after all, the prelude to the *main* story of ancient Israel: the story of the Exodus.  And in that story too, God brings a new creation out of water (the waters of the Red Sea), establishes a race of priest kings, and is confronted by an act of rebellion (the Golden Calf) that radically damages their communion with him and results in massive ripples of destruction that echo down the ages.

And then there’s the Flood. Does figurative language merely mean that it was a local event? That it wasn’t universal to all of mankind but only that which Noah knew? That there was no flood, no Noah, no ark, no animals, and no Shem, Ham, and Japheth? And again, in that case, how can we say that the story was figuratively true rather than just false? And how do we understand Jesus when he refers to his Second Coming as being “as in the days of Noah” and Peter when he refers to the Flood as proof of God’s judgement? And are there any internal aspects to the story that indicate how it should be read?

The Church’s basic rule of thumb in reading scripture is to be read first—but not solely—for the literal sense: that is, what is the author trying to say, the way he is trying to say it, and what is incidental to the assertion.  As the Catechism puts it, ““All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” (CCC 116).  At the bare minimum, I think the author is asserting there was some kind of flood that wiped out what he would call “the world”.  We are not in any way obliged to think that means “the globe”.  Depending on how ancient this tradition is and how small the human race was, a world-destroying flood and a local one can be one and the same.  Certainly we know there were some epic floods in antiquity.  Also, I’m not persuaded that the author of Genesis is interested in trying to argue that, say, the ancestors of the Sioux or Chinese were obliterated.  He seems to me to have in view a very small geographic area and is interested only in the fortunes of the people in that area.  I could be wrong, of course, and I submit my opinions to wiser heads than mine.  But primarily what seems to interest the author of Genesis is the story of the covenant family.  So, again, I have no problem with a historical background to figure like Shem, Ham, and Japheth.  But I’m skeptical that the question “Is this historical?” would have been intelligible to the author of Genesis. The story is too loaded with meaning for him to merely be a newpaper account.  I would call it “super-historical” rather than unhistorical: a kernel of something that actually occurred, but also lensed through the memory of whole people and seen in light of their experience of God (recall that it’s all written down after the Exodus).

And finally, the Tower Of Babel. Does saying that it uses figurative language mean that there was no tower, no confusion of languages, etc? And again, how do we distinguish figurative from false, and what internal aspects to the story are there to indicate how we should see it?

Here, I think there is obviously a historical background: the ziggurats of Babylon.  But again, the question of newspaper accuracy is not present to the mind of the sacred writer.  With the Tower of Babel there is a whole theological background the sacred author is communicating.  Note, for instance, the genealogies leading up to the story.  The purpose of a genealogy in Genesis is to act like a sort of zoom lens: the genealogy tells you where the story is going to go and who it is going to follow.  In the case of the sons of Noah, something utterly unique happens: the story is going to follow the firstborn son rather than some younger son. That’s different, because typically in the Old Testament, God winds up chosing some younger son for his blessing, a thumb in the eye of primogeniture and a reminder that God is sovereign and not bound by tribal traditions.  However, in the extremely rare case of Shem, the blessing remains on the oldest son.  So the sacred author signals this by giving the genealogy and placing Shem last rather than first, because that’s where the story is going to go since Abraham is a descendant of Shem.

Now “Shem” means “Name”.  That’s why God is called “HaShem” (the Name) rather than Yahweh in Jewish piety.  You use a respectful euphemism rather than simply blurt the Holy Name out loud.  Names are massively significant in scripture and in this case part of what is being communicated here is that the covenant blessing passed down to the human family from Adam through Noah resides with Shem.  That matters because the Hamites (envious sons of Ham) who build the Tower of Babel inaugurate the process in language that is loaded with theological significance: “Come, let us make a ***name*** for ourselves.” In other words, the Tower of Babel is an act of human pride and rebellion (the Fall replayed yet again), and charged with much more significance than merely the fact that big towers were, in fact, built in Mesopotamia.  The literal sense and the theological meanings are deeply fused in such a narrative.  It’s not “figurative” in the sense of “fictional”.  But neither is it intended to be modern history either.  The biblical author has different fish to fry than meeting our modern canons for writing history.

I’ve been struggling with these issues for a long time, but it’s sort of coming to a head for me as I have just had a son, and I wonder what I should teach him. I don’t want to feel like I’m lying to him if I tell him that such things as the Flood happened, but I also can’t get over the discomfort of feeling that teaching a part of Scripture, as apparently understood by Jesus himself, could be a lie, as it seems to make God a liar. I just don’t know how to deal with this. Any help you can give me would be deeply appreciated.

You can take it to the bank that Jesus is neither deluded nor a liar.  However, “approaching the traditions of Israel by some other route the the rules of modern historiography” is not the same as lying.

I hope that helps.