Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Parshat Bereshit

Shattering Ancient Creation Myths

The ancient world had many myths about the creation of the world and the power of the gods. The children of Israel leaving Egypt, were well versed in these myths. Therefore the the first few chapters of the Book of Bereshit deal with shattering those myths. The new nation had to discard those myths. Here's a few of many examples of Torah attempts to shatter those myths:

Myth 1 - There is a pantheon of gods

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ - בראשית א:א
In the beginning God created the universe - Genesis 1:1 .

There is no pantheon of gods, only one God.

Myth 2 - The gods struggled with each other and with other powers in order to create the universe

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים... - שם ג
"God said..." (or "God willed...") - ibid 3

There was no epic struggle between different gods or powers. God's creation was effortless and unopposed.

Myth 3 - Nature is a force that needs to be worshipped so that it continues to generate its produce.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים תַּדְשֵׁא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי לְמִינו, אֲשֶׁר זַרְעו בוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ וַיְהִי כֵן - שם י"א
God said: 'Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.' And it was so. - ibid 11

God alone has bestowed the earth with generative powers. Nature reproduces soley on account of God's will. God, and not fertility cults, must be worshipped in order for this cycle to continue. On the same realm, the sun, another creation of God, was created on the fourth day after the vegetation, to shatter the myth that it is the source of life.

Myth 4 - Ancient Kings are desecendents of gods and have dominion over other humans - note the name: Tutenkhamen (an Egyptian Pharaoh) - it means "in the image of Amun (an ancient Egyptian God".

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ - שם כ"ז
God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him - ibid 27

This radical concept taught that all humans are in the image of God - all are equal regardless of status. No human has the right to subdue or harm another - doing so would be an affront to God.

Other shattered myths include:

  • The Serpent - Partially because it sheds its skin, the ancients venerated it as a symbol of health and longevity; and its unblinking eys and its sudden venomous bite, gave it a demonic dread. Yet it was merely, "... the shrewdest of the wild creatures that the Lord had created" (ibid 3:i), and so undeserving of any worship.
  • Evil - believed to be a metaphysical primordial creation, existing on its own to destroy all the good the gods had done; was caused by human action. Calamity and hardship was not the result of a haphazard power that did evil in accordance with its own will, but due to the immoral actions of humanity.

Thereby, the purpose of the first few chapters of Sefer Bereshit are not necessarily to teach us the history of creation, but are in order to bring the world of ethical montheism to a humanity steeped in unethical polytheism.

5 Comments:

Blogger Smadar said...

Really insightful, and spiritually uplifting. Your words remind how our ancient pasts continue to replenish our present and future.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Kibi said...

Welcome to blog-world!

10:02 AM  
Blogger smoo said...

It’s an ALLEGORY serving to teach us a lesson. It is not a scientific document. Its message is to combat creation mythologies of other religions where cosmic battles are fought and the victor creates the world. Other creation myths begin similarly with chaos and then a great battle ensures. The reader of Genesis is primed to hear such a tale with the preface that the universe was a void. But then a very different story emerges. Here the unity of God is espoused and from that unity levels of differentiation occurred (He said differentiation was explained in his book so I can't elaborate on this).

The specific mention of Tanin on a later day of creation is a direct challenge to those who believe that Tanin (one of the cosmic sea creatures) was one of the gods involved in the battles before creation. Here the Torah says, God created everything in the universe even the likes of Tanin. The theological lessons of Genesis are in no way minimized by its lack of scientific authenticity precisely because it isn't meant to be a blueprint of actual creation.

For more on R. Slifkin's take on this see my post at http://shmuzings.blogspot.com/2006/09/zoo-torah.html

11:06 PM  
Anonymous Hebrew Student said...

I totally agree with your post. If you believe in what is written in the Hebrew Bible, you cannot believe in false gods, other ideas of how the world began in other religions, or a pantheon of gods or a trinity. I believe the Hebrew text of Bereshit is true, and ideas that oppose it are false.

11:52 PM  
Blogger smoo said...

Hebrew,
Here are some ma'areh mekomot for the idea of allegory in the Bible.

Guide for the Perplexed, Introduction:
"Now, on the one hand, the subject of Creation is very important, but on the other hand, our ability to understand these concepts is very limited. Therefore, God described these profound concepts, which His Divine wisdom found necessary to communicate to us, using allegories, metaphors, and imagery."

Guide 2:29 "The account of creation given in Scripture is not, as is generally believed, intended to be literal in all its parts."

Ralbag, Milchamos Hashem, p.98 "If the literal sense of the Torah differs from reason, it is necessary to interpret those passages in accordance with the demands of reason.

Abarbanel in his commentary to Genesis p.85 (standard ed) cites Rambam, Ralbag, true position of Ibn Ezra that Eden is allegorical. YEt Abarbanel is against allegorization as it will lead to the (Aristotelian) view of Kadmoot Ha-olam as opposed to the Torah view of Chiddush Ha-olam (ex nihilo).

See Rav Saadiah Gaon,Emunos VeDayos Book VII (basically understand the Bible as literal except in 4 situations: our observation by our senses negate the literal meaning, or by use of reason and 2 others)

Rashba seems to object to allegorizing but a close look at his words show that he is reacting to the rationalists who want to undermine observance of the commandments by claiming only philosophical knowledge was all that mattered..." (Slifkin, 111)

Hirsch wrote The Educational Value of Judaism, in Collected Writings, vol. VII, p.265 "Judaism is not frightened even by the hundreds of thousands and millions of years which the geological theory of the earth's development bandies...Our Rabbis...discuss (Midrash Rabbah 9; Talmud Chagigah 16a) the possibilities that earlier worlds were brought into existence and subsequently destroyed...They are willing to live with any theory that did not reject the basic truth that "every beginning is from God."

The resistance to reinterpretation is multifactorial: many authorities are unaware of the above opinions as well as the overwhelming scientific evidence. Many have a black and white outlook such that the Torah is 100% perfect or they will lose their faith. Also they fear change will lead to destabilization. (Slifkin, The Challenge of Creation, p.132)

SUM: For something to have eternal truths it need not be conveyed by literal ones.

2:08 AM  

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