Are Genesis Stories Myth...
or Are They Truths so Deep That Mere Words Aren't Enough
Anyone who tries to interpret Scripture as though it was written using mythopoetic formulation is very likely to misinterpret Genesis. All too often, exegetes try to apply modern-day myth as the basis upon which to interpret what it meant when Moses (circa 1480 BC) wrote Genesis.
Mythopoeia formulation did not even come into existence until the Hellenistic Greek period (circa 300 BC to 300 AD) — eleven centuries after Moses’ wrote Genesis. It is not valid to try to use a linguistic style that did not even exist at the time of Genesis’ human author. This same Hellenistic period is when the meaning of myth began to change to one of mere story-telling employing poetic language. Having no relation to non-fiction literature. In fact, some have called mythopoeia as the language of fake/artificial myth. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is an example of mythopoetic formulation [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mythopoeia]. So, what does an expert on Hebrew linguistics in Moses’ day have to say about myth?
Bernard F. Batto has his PhD in Linguistics. He is a Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePauw University. He specializes in the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible within its ancient Near Eastern cultural and historical context. He has served as Old Testament book review editor and as associate editor for The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Batto tells us that ancient Hebrew myth in Moses’ time was used to convey paradigmatic shifts in understanding, usually during the time of origins.
The linguistic tool used to describe a paradigmatic shift in understanding in Moses’ time is called paradigmatic substitution. The differing linguistics between the different periods of history is why it is not accurate to describe the writings of Genesis as metaphor. The narratives in Genesis are not metaphor. The importance of interpreting myth in Ancient Hebrew Old Testament times is this: Genesis is written in mythical language — but not as a metaphorical story. If one interprets it as a metaphorical story, they will fail to correctly interpret Genesis.
John Paul II on Myth
J. Brian Bransfield explains Pope John Paul II's understanding of myth thusly:
Early in his analysis of the creation accounts, John Paul gives prolonged attention to their style. The accounts are not simply the artifact of an early attempt of religion to monopolize what we think. He acknowledges that the accounts are myth, but not in the rationalist sense of a fable. It is crucial to understand the significance of Genesis as a myth in the traditional sense of myth: a myth is not the same as a fable or fairy tale that tells a story to convey a true notion [emphasis SML]. Henri de Lubac, the French Jesuit scholar, writes, “On the other hand, fabula (tale, fable) (μνθος [myth]), in the singular, does not always indicate that it is a question of a false story, of events that did not happen Rather, myth in the classical sense tells a truth about the human person through an event that is so true it cannot fit under a microscope. The rationalist emphasis of the nineteenth century attempted to relegate myth to fantasy. The stories of the past were branded as not true, made up, false—fantastic tales with no truth in them. As a category of human expression, however, myth is deeper.The Genesis accounts are the classic myth: the accounts are in a sense “more than true” [a paradigmatic shift in understanding — SML]; they convey a truth too dense to fit in a fact. Myth is not about fiction or the unreal, but the more than real. In fact, in light of the truth about man contained in the myth, the modern approach to the human person and marriage is unveiled as the fabrication. Rather than read as fantastic, out-of-date stories, the first chapters of Genesis must be understood as prophetic history extending into the “dateless past” of an anteroom of history, “a region beyond memory,” whose reality is nonetheless accessible. The author of the first book of the Bible is expressing a truth about man that has a different consistency from a mere series of factual notes.John Paul points out that “the rationalism of the nineteenth century” regarded myth as a “product of the imagination or what is irrational He then goes on to describe the classical sense of myth as discovering “the structure of reality that is inaccessible to rational and empirical investigation.”
The importance of interpreting myth in Old Testament times is the mythical language, not the story. John Paul II in his Wednesday Audiences that collectively form his Theology of the Body, dissects the mythical language employed by Moses to arrive at the historicity/truth behind the Genesis account. In his talk titled “Original Unity of Man and Woman,” he writes:
He continues:This profundity has a[n] especially subjective nature and is therefore, in a certain sense, psychological. The second chapter of Genesis constitutes, in a certain manner, the most ancient description and record of man's self-knowledge. Together with the third chapter it is the first testimony of human conscience. A reflection in depth on this text - through the whole archaic form of the narrative, which manifests its primitive mythical character - provides us in nucleo with nearly all the elements of the analysis of man, to which modern, and especially contemporary philosophical anthropology is sensitive.
The following example involving the creation of Eve from Adam, illustrates the hermeneutics of myth. In section 3 of the above-mentioned talk, JP II writes:Following the contemporary philosophy of religion and that of language, it can be said that the language in question is a mythical one. In this case, the term “myth” does not designate a fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing a deeper content [i.e., paradigmatic shift — SML]. Without any difficulty we discover that content, under the layer of the ancient narrative. It is really marvellous [sic] as regards the qualities and the condensation of the truths contained in it.
Corporality and sexuality are not completely identified. In its normal constitution, the human body bears within it the signs of sex and is male or female by its nature. However, the fact that man is a “body” belongs to the structure of the personal subject more deeply than the fact that in his somatic constitution he is also male or female. Therefore, the meaning of “original solitude,” which can be referred simply to “man,” is substantially prior to the meaning of original unity. The latter is based on masculinity and femininity, as if on two different “incarnations,” that is, on two ways of “being a body” of the same human being created “in the image of God” (Gn 1:27).Following the Yahwist text, in which the creation of woman was described separately (Gn 2:21-22), we must have before our eyes, at the same time, that “image of God” of the first narrative of creation. In language and in style, the second narrative keeps all the characteristics of the Yahwist text. The way of narrating agrees with the way of thinking and expressing oneself of the period to which the text belongs. …So, God-Yahweh says: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gn 2:18). At the same time the man confirms his own solitude (cf. Gn 2:20). Next we read: “So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman” (Gn 2:21-22). Considering the specific language, first it must be recognized that in the Genesis account, that sleep in which the man is immersed - thanks to God-Yahweh — in preparation for the new creative act, gives us food for thought.Against the background of contemporary mentality, accustomed — through analysis of the subconscious — to connecting sexual contents with the world of dreams, that sleep may bring forth a particular association. However, the Bible narrative seems to go beyond the dimension of man's subconscious. If we admit, moreover, a significant difference of vocabulary [between the different semantics of the pre- and post-Hellenistic mythical language — SML], we can conclude that the man ('adam) falls into that ‘sleep’ in order to wake up ‘male’ and ‘female [emphasis mine]. In Genesis 2:23, we come across the distinction 'is-'issah [male and female – JP II] for the first time.”
Restated, the very purpose that man (Adam) sleeps, is so that when he wakes up, he’s two … Adam and Eve. In other words, the mythical language used to explain the creation of our first parents shows us the historicity and truth of Genesis.
A modern-day example of mythical (paradigmatic shift) language as it would have occurred in Moses’ time is this: When trying to identify the very beginning of the creation of the universe (the paradigmatic shift in our understanding), it was given the description — The Big Bang. This is a wonderful example of using mythical language to describe the paradigmatic shift in our understanding of a scientific truth (or so we believe). This wording employs paradigmatic substitution to convey the larger scientific truth that most people could not understand in any significant detail.
Two Examples in Genesis of the above mythical language:
1. There would be no words that Moses could use to describe a potential quantum/heavenly state in which God dwelled on earth, and in which Adam and Eve existed prior to the Fall of Man. Thus, God inspired Moses to use Ancient Hebrew mythic language. In modern terminology, paradigmatic substitution. In this case, the Garden of Eden. While the “Garden” could represent a state which is incomprehensible to early man, the organic materials described in the Garden could very well be both literalistic and literal; and,2. The understanding of what dust means in Scripture would require knowledge of three sciences: biology, chemistry, and geology. There would be no words in Hebrew that Moses could use that would have been adequate to describe the scientific knowledge necessary to understand that we are organic dust/salt. Yet, that understanding would be required in order to literally describe this primordial event. Thus, the need for mythical language to describe the paradigmatic shift in understanding God was conveying to the Hebrews, as well as to subsequent populations. So, the paradigmatic substitution, “dust of the earth” would be both literally and literalistically accurate (DNA is geologically defined dust and chemically defined salt), but using the one science, i.e., geology, that all people could understand, regardless of scientific knowledge.
To sum up, let’s read what Mark Shea, President of Ignatius Press, had to say. He wrote, “How can Genesis use figurative language [all emphasis SML], but still affirm a primeval event? It can do it because mythic language is precisely the best way to affirm such an event, [to describe] an upheaval … mythic language is truer language than newspaper language, because it brings us to the heart of what happened.”
We have now partially laid the groundwork upon which to understand the Tree of Life in Genesis. To complete that task, we must also understand Scripture references to the Glory, Face, and Backside of God.
 Bernard F. Batto, "Myth in the Hebrew Bible". In obo in Biblical Studies, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195393361/obo-9780195393361-0125.xml, February 24, 2021 (accessed August 10 2021).
 Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 134.”
 John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, 138, no. 4, cf. p. 157.
 Simon Tugwell, The Beatitudes: Soundings in the Christian Tradition (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1980), 49.
 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places (Boston: Beacon, 1994), 57, 143.
 John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, 138, no. 4].
 J. Brian Bransfield, The Human Person: According to John Paul II (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2010), 54–55.
 Pope Saint John Paul II, “Original Unity of Man and Woman,” The Redemption of the Body and Sacramentality of Marriage (Theology of the Body), This electronic format prepared as a courtesy by The Catholic Primer.
Electronic Edition © Copyright 2006 – The Catholic Primer, p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 22.
 Mark Shea, “Does Evolutionary Science Disprove the Faith?,” National Catholic Register, https://www.ncregister.com/blog/does-evolutionary-science-disprove-the-faith, September 14, 2011 (accessed August 10 2021).