An Orthodox Jewish approach to reading Genesis Chapter 1

An Orthodox Jewish approach to reading Genesis Chapter 1 October 10, 2018

This past Saturday, Jews around the world once again began the yearly cycle of reading a portion from the Torah each week in the synagogue. We start with Genesis and make our way until the end of Deuteronomy, which takes the whole year. Last week’s Biblical portion was from the beginning of the book of Genesis, and contains the (in)famous narrative of the creation of the world in its very first chapter.

Much ink has been spilled on this topic in recent years, and I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here. Suffice it to say that within Judaism, traditional rabbis have been reading the Genesis creation narrative non-literally since the Middle Ages. Perhaps most famous among them is Maimonides, Jewish philosopher par excellence, who addressed this topic in his magnum opus, the Guide to the Perplexed (II:30). His view of the matter is paraphrased well by Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel, a 15th century Jewish sage. Here’s what he said:

“The Rambam (the Hebrew term for Maimonides) believed that there were not separate creative acts on six days, but rather everything was created on one day, in a single instant. In the work of Creation, there is mention of “six days” to indicate the different levels of created beings according to their natural hierarchy; not that there were actual days, and nor that there was a chronological sequence to that which was created in the acts of Genesis… This is the view of the Rambam which he considered as one of the major secrets of the Creation…”
(Translation taken from here: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2016/09/the-rambam-and-rav-on-allegory-in.html)

To be sure, plenty of other traditional Jewish thinkers past and present have disagreed with this view, and have insisted on reading the Genesis account literally, both in terms of its time span and in terms of its description of the order of creation. However, Maimonides is so hugely influential and respected as an authoritative Jewish scholar that his view can’t really be rejected out of hand within Judaism, unlike evangelical Christians who would do exactly that!

The question is, though, where do we go from there? Great, we can read Genesis non-literally. But doing so creates other problems: why would God write a text that needs to be read non-literally, and that on its surface is in contradiction with modern science? Sounds pretty counter-intuitive…

Put differently, lots of people shrug off the contradictions between the Genesis and modern science by saying “the Bible isn’t meant to be a physics textbook.” Fair enough. But as long as God is the author, shouldn’t His book at least not get the physics wrong?

Below, I want to post a snippet from a much longer article by Rabbi Shubert Spero, entitled The Biblical Stories of Creation, Garden of Eden and the Flood: History or Metaphor? (Tradition Magazine 1999, which addresses this question. Here’s what he says:

“Assuming that the Author knew precisely how the entire cosmos—the meta-galaxies, the galaxies, the Milky Way, the solar system, the planet Earth and all the different life-forms—all emerged out of the Big Bang and was able to describe it in correct mathematical and scientific terms, in what language was He to express this to people in a pre-scientific age? Obviously, He could not tell it all nor use terms that were not intelligible to them. On the other hand, what was written had to be of such a nature that later generations, coming after the advent of science, would not think themselves misled as they read the biblical account. The Torah intended the story of Creation to be taken literally but with one reservation: that it be understood that the terms had “stretchability,” i.e., that while all of the nouns would retain their common-sense meanings, in the event that future scientific discovery should broaden our knowledge of such phenomena as light, time, water, sun, stars, heavens, firmament (rakia), we should be prepared to “stretch” their primary meanings to cover and include these new phenomena, with the overall account remaining essentially “true.”

I don’t think Rabbi Spero’s harmonizing approach will convince extremists on either side of the Genesis question. But to those in the middle, it can offer some clarity and solace. Of course, Genesis read simply and literally doesn’t reflect what actually happened. But this is also clearly a poetic account, written with an eye towards inspiring awe rather than reporting facts. Discussions of sub atomic particles, anti matter, and dark energy would have been incomprehensible to ancient readers. Instead, God chose to write a poetic account that would be intelligible and inspiring to pre-scientific people but could also remain scientifically accurate in broad strokes to us moderns.

As an example of what I mean, here’s a link to a Christian scientist who wrote out a chart that compares the order of creation in Genesis to the current scientific chronology of the universe’s beginning. If we interpret just a few words here and there less literally, the Bible’s account roughly matches what the best current science says actually happened.
Take a look here:
https://evo2.org/genesis1/

To reiterate, I fully agree that the purpose of the Genesis creation isn’t to teach scientific facts. But I also have to believe that it does not incidentally teach unscientific falsehoods. After all, as the Talmud says (Yoma 68b), the seal of God is truth.

This a pretty controversial idea on all sides—for bible scholars and scientists alike. Let me know what you think and where you fall on the spectrum between literalist and allegorical readings in the comments below.

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  • Christine

    “I had heard one passage after another in the Old Testament figuratively explained. These passages had been death to me when I took them literally, but once I had heard them explained in their spiritual meaning I began to blame myself for my despair.” Augustine, Confessions 5.13-14, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961, 107-08).

  • TinnyWhistler

    From the link:
    “Notice that the wording in the Bible says the land produced vegetation. It does not rule out an evolutionary process.”

    I’ll hang onto that, thanks!

  • Michael Weiner

    Thanks for that wonderful quote. Does Augustine go on to explain what each verse in Genesis means in its allegorical interpretation?

  • Christine

    Thanks for opening that can of worms! Augustine wrote several times about the story of creation and attempted both allegorical and literal interpretations in different commentaries. In the quote above he was actually referring to his conversion (he was a pagan) by Ambrose, whose allegorical approach he favored at the time. Perhaps his most lasting contribution is toward the acceptance of multiple interpretations and his ideas about the boundaries of faith and science (stay in your swim lane!).

    The Galileo debacle notwithstanding, Catholics have a long history of recognizing that science and faith can coexist, modernly with Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, and more recent statements by John Paul II and Francis. See, for example:
    https://www.timesofisrael.com/were-popes-evolution-remarks-a-break-from-catholic-teaching/