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How Do We Find Meaning in Biblical Myth?

This week's question comes from Gery who writes, "I can tell that some of the stories in the book of Genesis are myths. . . . I also know that all myths have some truth in them, but their purpose is to convey a message. I cannot find the message that these stories are trying to teach me." He goes on to ask how to go about finding the meaning in these stories.

To begin with, we need to deal with the concept of myth in scripture. For many of our readers the possibility of the Bible incorporating myth will be disturbing. However, it is important that we understand how others view scripture, if for no other reason so we can articulate what we ourselves believe.

For many, the Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God. This means that everything in the Bible is literally true and God not only inspired it, but essentially dictated it. God created the earth in six days, Methuselah lived 969 literal years, the whole earth was flooded, and Jesus went without eating for forty days.

For others, the Bible is a great work of literature and has some historical basis. This means that men wrote the Bible over thousands of years and it reflects the stories and histories of the Israelites as written through biased eyes. David was the great king of Israel way-back-when, Jerusalem was conquered by the evil Babylonians, and Jesus was a revered teacher.

Then there's the in-between folks. The Bible is an inspired work that reflects truths about God and God's relationship with creation through the use of story, history, and myth. The creation stories teach us about God's relationship with creation, Methuselah lived a long but wasted life, and Jesus demonstrated God's love for humanity.

It's this last view we find in question. If the Bible contains myths, how do we learn what God wants us to learn through the stories?

First, we must remember that as we read scripture, we must keep in mind the overall truths presented in the Bible. The two great commandments are to love God supremely and to love one another. As Jesus said, "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22.40). Indeed, the whole of the Bible seems to be an explanation of these two commands. Most of the biblical stories are examples of how to love God, or how not to love God. How to love one another, or how not to love one another. And some of the stories teach us why we should love and serve God.

But there are deeper truths than simply these in many of the biblical stories. To discover these, we must live with the stories, pray over them, and ponder them in our hearts. For example, The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). The story goes like this: everyone spoke the same language and cooperated together well. The someone got the idea to build a great city with a tower so they could make a name for themselves and wouldn't be scattered all over the earth. God sees what they're doing and decides to confound their language so that there are many languages and they will not be able to act as one. The result is the people stop building the city and relocate all over the earth according to the languages they speak.

The story itself is an etiology, that is, a story told to answer a question of origin. The Tower of Babel is the story that answers the questions of how people came to speak different languages and how it is people live all around the earth. But the purpose of the story isn't necessarily the meaning of the story. And the meaning will change from person to person, and situation to situation. The Tower of Babel might mean to one person that vanity (the desire to make a name for oneself) is to be avoided. To another the story may speak to the fear of leaving home (it's okay to be "scattered" all over the earth). Still another may find comfort and hope in the notion that God loves diversity. In other words, meaning comes from where we are in life.

So, how does Gery find meaning in the stories of the Bible? Listen to your heart. Ponder the story, read and re-read it. What is the story saying to you and your life? So long as the answers you get are consistent with loving God and loving each other, then you can be assured you have discovered good and legitimate meanings.

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