Several times in Genesis, God pronounces judgement and punishment on humanity, and some of those punishments seem rather strange, and some of them seem to outweigh the wrongs that were done. What's going on when God judges people? And are the accounts in Genesis 1 ~ 11 mythical? The two questions are kind of related. (Genesis 1 ~ 11)
Questions about judgment and genre
What do you mean Genesis 1-11 is mythical?
Why present truths this way?
How we misunderstand what God's “judgment” is
What does it mean for God to pronounce judgment
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Throughout the Bible, we read God smiting people for their sins and shortcomings. Why is God so full of judgment and punishment? And is Genesis—specifically, its first 11 chapters—mythical?
Yes, the two questions are sort of connected, so let’s explore both in this episode.
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Welcome to "What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our seventh episode of the second season, "Why does God punish? And is Genesis mythical? Genesis as story of stories.”
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Before we continue our exploration of Genesis, I think we need to first deal with two questions; we touched on both of them before in this series, but, we should consider them more in-depth.
First is that God pronounces judgment upon humanity many, many times in the Bible, and brings down punishment, either in the form of large-scale catastrophes, or suffering that is passed down through generations. In Genesis, an example of the former is the Great Flood that wipes out every living, breathing thing on land; an example of the latter is God’s punishment on the first human couple for eating from the forbidden Tree, which we explored in our previous episode.
Why though? For horrific and terrible wrongdoings, punishments make sense, but the sheer scale of some punishments in the Bible seem to outweigh the wrongs that were done; and sometimes, the punishment seems strange and non-sequitur, at least at first glance, like the ground becoming cursed because of what Adam did, so that it produces thorns and thistles—what’s that about? For those of you who listened to the previous episode, you should be able to more or less understand why the cursed ground was the punishment for Adam. And that is the first clue to understanding this whole thing—as we’ll see by the end of this episode.
But, let’s move over to the second question. Is Genesis—specifically, its first 11 chapters—mythical? How we answer this question will give us another clue.
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Biblical scholars call the first eleven chapters of Genesis, “primeval history.” This includes the Creation of the Cosmos, the creation of humanity, the Garden of Eden, the Fall, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel. And most scholars do not view these accounts as historical—they say these accounts belong rather to a particular literary genre: myth. They will immediately emphasize though that the word, “myth,” here does not mean it’s false; it means that these are the foundational stories that people tell about the world and themselves. That is, these accounts are stories that set up our most core beliefs—about reality, about how the world is structured, and about who we are.
Except even that definition isn’t helpful for most of us. That’s because what we are interested in is this: are these stories… true? It’s obvious that Genesis tells stories, and that these stories are about some of the most significant beliefs in Christianity; but, are they true? And if they’re true, in what sense? Now, we know what it is for literal, historical accounts to be true, and we know what it is for scientific accounts to be true, but according to these scholars, the “primeval history” of Genesis is neither. A scientific account or a historical account is true if what it reports is what quote, “really” happened in the past; but, if the first 11 chapters in Genesis is not historical, how can these accounts be true?
I suspect that, that was what was behind a question someone asked me once in a talk I gave about science and Christianity—specifically regarding the creation of humanity. He asked, “So, is Adam not a historical person?” And that made me pause. In one sense, “Adam” represents all of humanity—again, “humanity” in the Bible is not Homo Sapiens, but Homo Divinus, who relate to God and represent God to each other and to the rest of Creation—and “Adam” represents every one of us. But, in another sense, “Adam” is the first individual who is Homo Divinus. So, I said something like, “well, obviously, there has to be a first person who was the image of God, so, yes, Adam is a historical person.”
This sort of dual answer is how we need to understand the “primeval history” of Genesis. It is both every story and the first story about things.
To explain what I mean though, I’m going to have to do a bit of a detour, and draw upon an understanding of myth and stories that is held by a psychologist, Jordan Peterson—well, there are other similar positions, but his is the version I’m using. “Myth,” for Peterson, is the abstracted, crystallization of important stories—all the stories that guide your life. So, what does he mean by that?
Here’s an example. Say, you become inspired by a person you know; you admire what she does and how she lives; she’s your hero. So, as a child you might’ve pretended to be her when you played. You might’ve imitated her action in school, maybe by standing up for your friends. Eventually, you become able to coherently tell her full story, once you sufficiently develop your skill in speaking. You might even, after a while, become able to explain what makes her a hero—from what she did, what she experienced, and so on, in that story about her.
But, then someone tells you about another inspiring person—another hero. He’s very different; he has a different personality, different strengths, a different job. But, you recognize that he’s a hero too. Then, you hear a story of another hero. Then another, and another, and another. They are all stories about people doing heroic things, but they are all very different. Some are real; some are fictional. One was an explorer, another was a firefighter, or a teacher, or a doctor, or a soldier, or a starship captain, or a wizard, and so on. But, why are all these stories, stories of a hero? Why do you recognize all of them as such? Well, perhaps all these stories share some common principles or definition of a hero: some virtues they all have, or something common to what they experienced, or what they do.
But, there’s something else to consider. Some stories are better than others; some tell us what being a hero is, more clearly, more thoroughly, and more insightfully, than the others. Then, there is the best story—a story of a hero that is like all of these stories combined, and then distilled into one profound narrative; it’s still a story, with particular characters and events, but it embodies everything important that we tell in any story about heroes. They’re the kind where you find that it’s very hard to add anything more to the story—it wouldn’t give any further insight to what a hero is—and it’s very hard to take anything out—that’d take away something really important about what it is to be a hero.
A mythical story is that kind of story—it’s the crystallization of every story about a certain topic into a single, baseline story. And the topics that mythical narratives explore, tend to be ones that enable us to understand our world and ourselves. And the “primeval history” of Genesis is composed of such stories; each narrative is about a key topic about our world and our lives. It is about what—or who—reality is; it is about what constitutes every possible world, and how every world comes into being; it is about what humanity is; it is about our relation to reality, and what distorts it; it is about hatred and murder; it is about civilization and tyranny; it is about wide-scale destruction brought upon humanity due to their evils; it is about the fate of human hegemony and power.
Now, each of these topics can have many, many different stories attached to it; so, think about the topic of hatred and murder—there are countless examples of how this occurs in history, and we can examine numerous factors and motivations that go into each case. But, the story of Cain and Abel—which we will begin exploring next episode—is the story that sums up all of them. It describes, narratively, every murder—or, most of them; but, because it does so, it is also about the first murder. ( In that sense, mythical stories are archetypal stories, to borrow a Jungian term )
This should connect to what I’ve been presenting in the previous episodes about Genesis. The creation of “Adam” and their lives in Eden describes all of humanity, or what we could’ve been; but, that’s why it is also about the first humans. Their Fall from eating from the forbidden Tree describes what happened to them, but it is also what happens to every human being—how we become alienated from God, from reality, and from each other. And I’ve also said that the account of Creation in Genesis is true for those in the Stone Age, those in biblical times, us in our modern age, and even the E.T.s flying around in their UFOs. That’s because even though Genesis is based on the cosmology of ancient Middle-Eastern civilizations, what it sets forth within that particular cultural framework is something that is true beyond that cosmology—something that is true for our modern cosmology, and will still be true even when our current scientific understanding becomes as outdated as the one in the stone ages. Because it is a story that can encompass every story we have told, and will tell about how the cosmos—any cosmos—comes to be.
So, what the primeval history of Genesis—the first 11 chapters—tells us, are true in that sense. And if you haven’t listened to the previous episodes on Genesis yet, keep that in mind and check them out.
All this, however, raises two questions—well, at least two questions, since there can be other questions too, but I’m not covering those.
First is, why tell these kind of narratives? I mean, if God indeed speaks through the Bible—whichever way you think that happens—why not just describe what, quote, “really” happened in the past? For example, why not describe the first historical murder, exactly as it happened? Why not just describe the first humans in their natural habitat, like a kind of nature or historical documentary? Why not give us a scientific account of how the Cosmos came to be? Why this genre—with all these imagery, and symbolism, and motifs, and so on? Simply put, if God is speaking through the Bible, wouldn’t God just tell us straight, so to speak—and give us the strictly historical, or scientific account of first events?
And the answer is, no. And the reason is this; Genesis is presenting something that’s far more significant than mere reports of past events. Our past is important to us because they guide our present and future; our memory, for example, is used primarily for dealing what we’re experiencing now. And this is especially so for the “primeval history” of Genesis, because its narratives compose the very framework through which Christianity has understood reality, the world, and humanity, for all of its history. And that means, these narratives describe something far more than some isolated incidents that happened in a distant past; they’re describing what has been happening in all of history until now, including the first time it happened.
But, there’s a second question, which is this: why tell narratives? I mean, if what Genesis is trying to set forth are these larger truths—about how to understand our world beyond just single, past events—then, why not just present something like a… philosophical treatise? Why, for example, tell a story about hatred and murder, rather than a reflection and an explanation of what motives, thinking, and mindset lead to every murder? After all, isn’t that what this series has been doing in the episodes about Genesis so far, by explaining the kinds of “larger” truths these narratives are teaching us? Why not just do that to begin with?
And the answer is, because what we experience are stories; what we experience are things that happen, rather than some principles or truths underlying how they happen. So, the explanation of the kind that I present are abstract; they enable us to understand what we experience in our lives—I mean hopefully, it does—but it is not the experience itself. I could explain, for example, that when we distrust God that speaks, we disengage from reality, become fearful of our vulnerabilities, and begin to suspect any set back or hardship in our lives as attacks by hostile Reality. But, those are explanations. What we experience are concrete happenings— specific moments when you become distrustful of engaging reality in good faith, because of very specific set-backs or limitations in your life, or that time when you became suspicious of actual people, and so on. So say, when you suspect that God is deceiving you, and respond by eating from a forbidden tree.
There are principles that govern how things happen; but stories tell what happens when these principles unfold and play out in real life. And a story that sums up how this unfolds every time is the kind of stories that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are presenting us. And that… brings us back to the question of what is happening in Genesis when God pronounces judgment on people.
[ pendulum ]
So, let me sum up what I’ve been saying so far in this way. The primeval history in Genesis describes how reality… unfolds itself—for lack of better words. Or, to put it differently, these narratives describe not merely what happened, in isolated past events, but what happens throughout all of history—how reality unfolds every time something similar happens. So, for example, it describes not just what happened when the first humans fell away from God, but what happens every time a human being falls away. The particular imagery and story-telling depends on the particular cultural framework to which God’s message is accommodates—check the first two episodes of this Season about the idea of accommodation.
But, all this raises an interesting point. Because if that’s what Genesis is describing, what God speaks as pronouncement of judgment in these narratives is part of how reality unfolds in times like that—and that’s a very different understanding of what a judgment from God is supposed to be about.
Let me explain the difference with this question. Say, we fail at properly addressing the current climate crisis, and climate catastrophes fall upon our world. Is that a… judgment from God? And many people would say no, and some for good reasons. Climate catastrophes would disproportionately affect the poorest peoples and nations, who are arguably the least responsible—not to mention all the different species of life that will be affected by it! So, wouldn’t it be unfair and cruel for God to inflict such large-scale punishment? And perhaps most important of all, such catastrophes are simply natural consequences of what we’ve done, based on how our physical world and its weather system works; God does not need to intervene to bring about these catastrophes. What happens is simply how… reality unfolds.
There is a reason why the very first episode of this series—Season 1, episode 1— was about making this one assertion: God is not simply an all-powerful entity in our world; if we were to use non-religious word for God, it would be “Reality.” That’s because everything we say of “reality” today, is what those who believed in God, once said of God. And the series began with this, because it addresses what I believe lies at the root of many of our misconceptions about God today.
And in this case, the misconception it led to is this. There’s a strong tendency to think about “judgment” from God in the following way. There’s a world and how it normally works, including the consequences of our actions; then, there’s God, who is an additional entity, who adds further—and perhaps arbitrary—punishments in forms of disasters, or curses. If we destroy our environment, which causes storms, draughts, and heatwaves, that’s just how the world works—how reality is; but what God does is something else—something personal.
However, there is no such dividing line. God is reality; or in the words I repeatedly said in the previous episodes—all of reality is God speaking. Now, I’ve said that “reality is like a speech,” but that’s actually getting it backward; our speech is like reality. And that’s why all the laws of nature that our science discovers describes reality—which is, again, God speaking; that’s why all of history we can describe is God speaking; that’s why what happens all around us, how reality unfolds in our lives, is God speaking. And that means the consequences of man-made climate change, is also God speaking. But, does that mean that we should regard, say, the indiscriminate destruction of life and property caused by climate change, as God personally punishing us? And again, the answer is no. It’s actually the opposite.
Now, I’m going to say something that will sound strange, but is true; one thing that modern naturalistic—and dare I say, atheistic?—outlook can teach those of us who believe in God today, is that there is an impersonality to what God speaks. How can this be? Haven’t I been saying that the main point of contention between those who believe in God and those who do not, is that Reality is personal—that Reality is “who,” rather than a “what”? Well, yes. But, not everything God speaks is personally about us, and for us; we explored that in this very season, in episode 3, on “What is the purpose of it all?” In the Genesis account of Creation, God speaks forth a world with structures and purpose that isn’t about us, even though we were created to live in that world—and bless it, which we’re often failing to do.
What this means is there are ways that reality unfolds that won’t play favoritism for our sake. Reality unfolds the way it unfolds, period, and that is what God speaks. And even in our very human, legal system, this impersonality is part of justice—we call it “impartiality. That’s why statues of Lady Justice is blindfolded in the West, because the Law is applied the same, for everyone impersonally. Now, we may complain that God could have structured our universe to our favor, so that we can, say, belch out CO2 into the air with impunity, but, that’s a different issue—and considering that according to modern science, many different parameters to the physical laws are so closely interconnected, that even slight changes would make this universe lifeless, that complaint may be missing a mark.
But, for now, we want to return to the original question; what is God doing then, when God is pronouncing judgment upon humanity at various points in Genesis? And I want to emphasize that I’m only dealing with the examples from the primeval history of Genesis; there will be cases in the Bible where God seems to inflict punishment personally to individuals or people for their wrong doings. But, we won’t get to that until quite later in the Bible, so we’ll leave those aside.
God may be speaking impersonally in how Reality unfolds, but when God speaks forth judgment upon humanity—say, when Cain kills Abel, or when the first human couple eats from the forbidden Tree, God is speaking personally to them in response. So, what is happening there? Here’s an example.
Say, you got drunk, and attempted planking on the edge of a light, unstable table to show off. And because of your weight, the table flipped over and you did a face plant on the floor—yes, it’s complex, but strangely plausible scenario! Now, Reality is God speaking, and that includes various laws and forces of nature involved in this event. So, the law of gravity, which is what made the table flip over, and had you to do faceplant, and the laws regarding electromagnetism, which is involved in the composition and the hardness of the floor respective to your face—both are God speaking. And if you had friends who were laughing at you and recorded you on their phone and uploaded it on Youtube for the entire world and posterity to mock you… their psychological motivation, is also how reality unfolds.
However, God is not speaking the law of gravity or electromagnetism, or workings of the human mind, just so that you will do a faceplant from the table or have you get mocked by your friend. And God won’t stop speaking those laws, that is, make it not work, just so that you won’t do a faceplant. So, in a sense, what happens to you, is what God speaks, impersonally, with the ample participation from you.
But, God can speak personally to you regarding what unfolds. Now, remember what we explored in the tenth and its extension episodes in the first season, about what it means for God to speak to us. God may be speaking, as perhaps a voice within you, or a quiet thought at the back of your head that speaks the truth; likely, it was what you also knew to be true—that it’s a bad idea to get drunk, and do a plank on the edge of a table that’s likely to get flipped over. Yet, you ignored it. Then, reality unfolded the way it does, and you did a faceplant, and your friends recorded it and uploaded it. Now, if you can still hear this voice of God as you fell, I would translate what it would be conveying to you, in the following manner.
And let me do it in the literary KJV style of God’s pronouncement in Genesis.
“Behold, now! I will have you fall prostrate before your friends. Plunge you shall from your perch atop the table, and you will taste blood in your lips. And you will bear the mark of mockery in perpetuity before your fellows, and shalt strangers shake their heads at you. For you have done this, in defiance of what I spoke to you, and what I declared shalt be for gravity.”
Yes, this is meant to be humorous, but only because the circumstance is silly. But, when God pronounces judgement and punishment upon humanity for matters that are far graver in the first chapters of Genesis, this is what God is doing. God is declaring how reality unfolds, and will unfold as consequence of what human beings have done. That is God’s judgement upon humanity.
This is what God was speaking, when God spoke to the first human couple, after they ate the fruit of their distrust of God, of reality, and each other; this is what God was speaking when Cain grew resentful of his brother and murdered him; this is what God was speaking, when human civilization becomes so corrupt and violent that everything unravels. And the message of Genesis is, this is what God still speaks whenever we are doing the same thing.
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So, please join me next time as we consider what God may be speaking, as we explore what happened to humanity after their Fall, and their severance from God… on our enmity to Life, and the story of Cain and Abel.
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