Genesis As Allegory

Recognizing the deeper meaning of the text.

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To Saadia and Maimonides, belief in the truth of the Bible does not require a denial of science ("reason," "logic") when the two seem to conflict. These philosophers imply that questions of science should be left to scientists and scientific method. In fact, Maimonides quotes a passage in the Talmud in which Jewish scholars abandoned an astronomical theory of their own in favor of a theory of gentile scholars (Pesahim 94b).

Maimonides approved of their action, saying that "speculative matters everyone treats according to the results of his own study, and everyone accepts that which appears to him established by proof" (Guide, II, 8). To him, clearly, Science is a matter of speculation and is not the field in which the Bible seeks to be decisive.

Delving More Deeply

In more recent times Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook held that scientific ideas which seem to conflict with the Torah need not necessarily be opposed, but can serve as stimuli to delve more deeply into the Torah and discover more profound meaning in it.

The approach of these thinkers is one that Fritz Rothschild has described as a guiding principle of Jewish biblical exegesis:

"The view that the Bible contains God's message to man has led to ever new interpretations, since it constantly forced believing readers of the Bible to reconcile the words of the sacred text with whatever they held to be true on the basis of their own experience, the canons of logic, contemporary science, and their moral insights.... The traditionalist will always feel called upon to interpret the text so that it reflects not ancient error but the highest standards of trustworthy knowledge and insight of his own time." (Rothschild, "Truth and Metaphor in the Bible")

This approach urges us to probe more deeply into the biblical accounts of creation and to search for the intention of the Bible's compilers in presenting these accounts. By compilers I mean those who gathered all the sources and books together and produced the Bible in the form in which it was canonized in classical Judaism. In critical terms these are the redactors of the Bible; in Franz Rosenzweig's terms, rabboteinu (our rabbis).

Conflicting Accounts of Creation

Whatever the intention of the individual accounts of creation may have been, it is clear from the Bible as a whole that its compilers were not overly concerned with the details of the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. They incorporated several accounts of creation in the Bible even though no two accounts agree in detail with Genesis 1 or with each other. Genesis 1 describes the creation of the world in six days. The second account of creation is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2).

Several other accounts are found in poetic form in Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Genesis 1 says that man was the last living creature created; Genesis 2 says that he was the first. Genesis 1 speaks of the prehistoric waters in purely naturalistic terms and says that God merely commanded them to gather in a single spot so that dry land could appear.

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Dr. Jeffrey Tigay

Dr. Jeffrey Tigay is A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.