by Thandazani Mhlanga | 12 May 2023 |
Interpretation preexisted canonization. What we have in our Bibles is evidence of a long and complex history of editions, redactions, and interpretations. The question is never whether one interprets the Scriptures or not—everyone does—but how or by what means do you do so?
Because meaning-making is an ongoing process, change in how we interpret our faith stories is inevitable. Such progressive revelation is amply demonstrated by our Adventist pioneers’ journey on the way to the church we have today.
Hermeneutics is the fancy word folks often use to describe the branch of knowledge that deals with the interpretation of the Bible. We use several hermeneutical lenses, some more favored than others. These lenses roughly divide into two categories: text-centered (e.g., source & text criticism and the historical-critical method) and reader-centered (e.g., feminist or post-colonial) interpretive approaches. In short, whenever you engage the scriptures, you use an interpretive system to understand the text.
But there remains one interpretive approach that has not enjoyed prime time in our hermeneutical arsenal: folklore.
What comes to your mind when you hear the term “folklore”? Legends, epics, folktales, myths, proverbs, riddles? For most of us, the Bible is objective truth and doesn’t belong on that list. After all, all scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), and God is not a man, that He should lie (Numbers 23:19).
But the Bible is rich in folklore. The biblical text, especially the Old Testament, was composed by, and primarily for, individuals who existed in folkloristically rich cultures. Unlike our modern worldview, subjective truth was not seen negatively in these societies. Instead, the positive aspects of the subjectivity of truth were a primary obsession—the book of Proverbs being a case in point.
Folklore is communicative and thus it was a favored means for engaging complex existential issues for the ancients. They explored the subjectivity of life and truth through several and, at times, seemingly contradicting poems, proverbs, riddles
Of these, my favorite is stories.
The thing about stories
When it comes to stories, how a story is told is as important as why the story is told. Understanding the foundational assumptions and issues of concern behind any given story doesn’t diminish the text, but illuminates it. So incorporating a folkloristic hermeneutical approach to biblical stories teases out why a given story was told, thus enriching our appreciation of the text by bringing to light assumptions and concerns behind it.
Let’s explore the early parts of Genesis within their folkloristic context. Understanding Genesis 1-9, which covers creation to the flood, in its folkloristic context requires reading it alongside other ancient creation to flood narratives, such as the Enuma Elish and the epic of Atrahasis. These are Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian epics of the great floods sent by the gods to destroy human life.
The epic of Atrahasis
The seven higher (Anunna) gods burdened the lesser (Igigi) gods with too much work. The Igigi had to dig out canals, clear channels, dig out the Tigris and the Euphrates, etc. The work was long and hard, so they decided to rebel. Before the great rebellion battle between the gods, they settled on a peaceful resolution: humankind would be created to bear the load of the gods. Thus, Aw-ilu, the God behind the rebellion, was slaughtered, his flesh and blood mixed with clay, and humans were created.
Over time, humans increased in number, and their noise was intolerable to the gods. The gods collectively decided to destroy them with a great flood. But one of the gods, Enki, warned Atrahasis of the impending doom through a dream.
Atrahasis went on to build an ark to save his family and several animals. The gods were unhappy with Enki for warning Atrahasis, but when the sacrifices stopped coming to them, and the farmers stopped producing for them, they were happy that Atrahasis had been spared. So, they found ways to help humanity grow in numbers, though wanting to keep their numbers controlled. Towards this end, they invented childbirth, infant mortality, and celibacy.
Shared Assumptions and Concerns
The epic of Atrahasis and Genesis 1-9 share underlying assumptions. Instead of nit-picking minute narrative differences, which can happen with cultural contextualization, consider the ideological foundations that anchor the stories and how they enlighten our theological understandings. Here are a few commonalities:
- Concepts concerning the divine: The stories are, with one voice, confirming (a) the existence of the gods and (b) the idea of a battle among them. This suggests that a “great controversy” existed in folklore before it did in prophetic narrative.
- Concept of the created: The stories confirm that the gods created the known world, rivers, trees, mountains, humankind, etc. The narratives’ collective primary concern is who the creator was, not when or how the process happened. Both narratives also suggest that human makeup is uniquely earthly and divine. (Understanding this could have helped curb the bloody Christological debates of early Christianity.) And it also parallels the biblical teaching (Genesis 1:26) that humans were created in the image and likeness of the deity.
- Concept of a relational tension between the creators and the created: This tension is the reason behind the rebellion, forced labor, forced eviction from the garden, the flood, the vow not to control humans by killing them, etc. Understanding this aids our understanding of ancient religious practice, particularly the notion of offering sacrifices to appease the gods. It also highlights that “Why do bad things happen?” is a question that humanity has struggled with for a long time.
Creating human relationships
Genesis has two narratives detailing the creation of human beings. In Genesis 1, Elohim creates humankind as equals (Genesis 1:27), and in that narrative, the term “adam” refers to both male and female human beings.
In Genesis 2, however, Yahweh’s creation of humanity displays hierarchy. Adam (the male being) is created first and given a job (Genesis 2:15); then, the female is made from “a part of the male’s side” (Genesis 2:21) to be his helper/companion.
Lillith is a female figure found both in ancient Mesopotamian texts and Jewish mythologies.
According to a Jewish text called the Alphabet of Ben Sira, Lillith was Adam’s first wife. Some have argued that she was the “female Adam” in the Genesis 1 creation narrative.
The marital relationship between the male Adam and Lillith fell apart when Lillith insisted on sexual equality. Lillith responded to this marital crisis by doing the unthinkable: she uttered God’s name and consequently flew away and was estranged from her husband. She refused all reconciliatory efforts made by God, the angels, and her husband; instead, she opted to kill the progeny of Adam unless an amulet was made to protect them: a red thread tied to the baby’s wrist and the boy babies circumcised.
In yet another text (Zahor 19b), Lillith is said to be the mother of demons, birthing them by stealing seeds that men pass during nocturnal emissions. The text then warns that
In every place where a man sleeps alone in a house, she visits him, grabs him, attaches herself to him, and has her desire from him and bears from him. And she also afflicts him with sickness, and he knows it not.
Shared Assumptions and Concerns
Though at first glance Lilith appears unrelated to Genesis, her story is in fact a folkloristic addendum to those first chapters of Genesis, highlighting the text’s underlying culture, assumptions, and concerns, such as human sexuality, hierarchy among the sexes, and infant mortality.
We know from stories like Lilith and the narratives and laws of the Hebrew Bible that ancient Jews flavored and shaped their society more in line with the second creation story. Meanwhile other ancient cultures, like that observed at Çatalhöyük, appeared to have sought an equal-gendered community, more in line with that shown in Genesis 1.
Interestingly, the compilers of Genesis 1 and 2 in the Hebrew tradition placed these contrasting stories side by side. We can study these passages in light of the aforementioned Akkadian/Babylonian folkloric traditions to understand what the Hebrew compilers wanted to tell us about their convictions, interpretive traditions, and societies by how they shared these two somewhat-contrasting stories with us.
Incorporating folklore into our hermeneutical approach can unearth deep spiritual treasures. Unfortunately, doing so is often met with skepticism, fear, and rejection by those who dogmatically hold their own interpretive systems—usually dictated by a simplistic view of inspiration—as the gold standard.
But let’s not reject folkloristic interpretive approaches without trying and testing them, and seeing how they can enlighten our understanding of Scripture.
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker, and author who is currently studying ancient Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have three girls who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.