Genesis is Not An Etiological Myth
Secular academicians approach the subject of religion as they do every other subject – secularly. Religions, by which I mean belief in supernatural entities of any kind, are treated as sociological and psychological primitive ways of understanding a scary world ruled by a myriad of natural threats to man’s continued existence.
This treatment of religion allows the secular academicians to lump all beliefs in the supernatural under one all-encompassing naturalistic umbrella. Whatever any religious person wrote about the origin of any natural phenomenon, consequently, must be understood to be incorrect.
Academicians, unsurprisingly, don’t exempt the Bible from their understanding of religious beliefs as poor attempts at explaining the world and man’s place in it. Rather, force-fitting its content to their assumptions about all beliefs about the supernatural, they interpret the content of Scripture according to categories proper only to mythological beliefs.
Anthropomorphic propositions concerning the acts of God (e.g “the Lord looks down from heaven”) are interpreted literalistically. Prophecy is treated as a form of social commentary written after the occurrence of what is being prophesied. Likewise, narratives teaching about the origin of any thing are interpreted to be etiological myths, scientifically ignorant stories whose primary or sole purpose is to explain some natural phenomenon.
Thus, Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is seen as nothing more than the mythology of the Jews, complete with etiological myths about, among other things, the origin of language.
God & Adam
Although I knew that this was the case when I purchased Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction, it never crossed my mind to ask: Will this little intro to linguistics attack the inerrancy of the Scriptures? So I was taken by surprise when I read that the Biblical authors fallaciously believed that “words are names for pre-existing categories” and that “the naming by Adam [in Gen. 2:19] explained the origin of language, as a way of labeling things around us.”
I wasn’t surprised simply by the existence of such comments, I was also surprised at how the author could fail to read the first chapter of Genesis, wherein language first appears not as a way of naming things in the world but as God’s way of bringing the world into existence. As it is written:
God said, “Let there be Light,” and there was light. (Gen 1:3)
Biblically, language does not first appear with Adam. Rather, language is God’s eternal possession.
Adam’s use of language is the first human articulation of language, moreover, but it is not the first articulation of human language. Human language is, again, first spoken by God in Gen 1:28-30. There we read:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.”
And it was so.
God’s use of language is distinct from man’s use of language, but it is there in the opening chapter of Genesis. God possesses language eternally. He creates all things by means of his language/word. He names what his word has created. He creates man, a creature who reflects his image primarily by means of human language.
The book of Genesis does not explain the origin of language. Rather, the book of Genesis explains how humans came to possess languages (in Adam’s creation story, as well as in the Tower of Babel narrative). That, however, is a different animal altogether (pun intended).
As I’ve already mentioned, the world’s way of engaging in any subject is, in a word, worldly. Where one begins, presuppositionally, will determine where he will end up. In the foregoing example, the assumption that religion is a survival-driven, pre-scientific, ignorant way of explaining natural phenomena led the author of Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction to view the Scriptures as mythological, and Gen 2:19 as etiological myth.
The Christian presupposition that the Bible is the Word of God leads us to conclude that language proper has no origination in time, but is eternal. It also leads us to conclude that concepts pre-exist our articulation of them, for we, like Adam, speak only because God has made us in his image. Man acquires language; God eternally possesses it. Man speaks in relation to an already spoken word (i.e. the entirety of the cosmos); God brings the entirety of the cosmos into being by his speaking.
The worldly assumption, moreover, that universal concepts do not pre-exist language leads to moral, epistemological, and religious relativism. Whereas the Christian presupposition that universal concepts do in fact, and must, pre-exist human languages reminds us that we are, therefore, able to go into the world and preach the Gospel to all men.