Category Archives: Torah

Understanding Genesis

Understanding Genesis Front Cover

A few days ago I posted about Bereishit and Science. A very good on the topic is Understanding Genesis by Nahum Sarna (1966). I highly recommend reading it.

You can read the first chapter of the book, which deals with the beginning of Bereishit till Noach, here.

Next week I hope to upload the chapter on Noach.


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Bereishit and Science

It’s that time of year again. Tonight is Simchat Torah when we finish reading the Torah and restart again from Bereishit.

As a religious Jew, how does one reconcile the seeming contradictions between the Bereishit narrative and science?

A lot has been written on this and I am not going to be adding anything new to this discussion, but I hope this post will still be interesting for those that read it.

The first issue that needs to be addressed is the conflict between religion in general and science. In my opinion, there is no conflict between the two. Religion deals with God, how a person should act, with the ultimate purpose of life and living a meaningful life. Science deals with describing the physical world. Religion’s goal is not to explain the physical world and the goal of science  is not to tell us how to live a meaningful life. This is not an attack on science, this is merely the reality of the situation. The fact that mathematics doesn’t tell me how to live a meaningful life is not a problem with mathematics, it’s just not what mathematics is about. And the same is true about science in general.

Science can help us make decisions. It can help clarify the situation. Science produces medicine and it produces bombs. How we use those and whether we use them for good or for bad are not scientific questions. Good, bad, morality, meaning, God, etc. are not things science can address. This is not a flaw in science. It’s just the reality of the situation and it’s a mistake when people think that science can deal with these questions.

A person may come to the conclusion that life is pointless, that there is no ultimate meaning, that good and bad are an illusion or that God doesn’t exist, but none of these are scientific claims. Science may have played a hand in determining these beliefs and that is not at all unreasonable, but ultimately, these questions are not questions that science can address.

Lastly, if a religion goes and makes scientific claims, then of course there can be a conflict. Now religion has entered the scientific world and science can have something to say about the claim.

And this brings us onto the topic of Bereishit and science. I do believe that there is a conflict here. The Torah does make claims that definitely at first sight, do not fit with science. For example, a simple reading of the Torah would suggest the world is almost six thousand years old. Science claims that it is 13.7 billion years old. Here we have a contradiction. How old is the universe? Can the contradiction be resolved?

A number of different approaches have been taken. Some will claim science is wrong, but I don’t think this approach can be taken seriously. (Not that the science of today will be the same as the science of tomorrow. Things will definitely change. Science is not set in stone, but science will never reach the conclusion that the world is 6000 years old as opposed to many billions of years old, for example).

Another approach is to claim that science and Torah are saying the same thing and if you think there’s a contradiction, you just don’t know how to read the Torah properly. I don’t like this approach either. Not because it is fundamentally flawed, but because the reality is that Bereishit and Noach just don’t fit well with modern science without extremely forced readings. (Claiming that a day means a long period of time is not a stretch. Dealing with evolution in general isn’t a problem either. The Torah doesn’t talk about it and it doesn’t have to. But this approach still falls short of explaining away all the contradictions. When we get down to the details things really don’t fit so well, IMO. For example, the problem of the “rakiya”, the ordering of the six days – there were no plants before the Sun existed, but according to Bereishit there were).

Others will claim that Bereishit and Noach are supposed to be read allegorically. This may be true for parts of the creation narrative, but even using this approach, I don’t think this can be used to explain all the contradictions.

In my opinion, the best approach is to take a step back and ask what the purpose of the Torah is and to think about who it was given to. The Torah is a book that teaches man how to live a religious life, a Godly life, a moral life. Informing man of exactly how  the world came to be is not what the Torah’s primary aim. Some of the most important lessons we learn from Bereishit are that God created the world, there is one God and not a multitude of gods, God cares about the world, the world has a purpose, the world is good, that man has a purpose, man is created in the image of God, man is expected to do good, that man is rewarded and punished for his actions, what the day of Shabbat signifies, etc.

When compared to other Ancient Near Eastern literature of the time, some of these ideas are extremely novel and extremely important to teach the Israelites. For example, that God created the sun or the sea and that they have no power of their own is an idea that was a chiddush (novelty) in the Ancient Near East. Due to the success of the Torah, it is difficult to find polytheists nowadays (at least in the Western world). This, in large part, is due to the success of the Torah’s impact on mankind and it is something we often forget.

One of the major problems with the approach that the Torah is teaching us science in the first chapters of Bereishit is that if this is indeed so, nobody has understood Bereishit properly for the last three thousand or so years. And even more than that, now that we apparently do “understand” Bereishit properly, with the help of modern science, we don’t need Bereishit anymore, since we have modern science textbooks to teach us what Bereishit teaches us.

I understand that there are reasons that one might not like this approach, but I personally find it to be the best and most intellectually honest approach.

I think another issue that has to be thought about in relation to this topic is exactly what is meant by the word of God. At the very least, the word of God has reached us through the mouth or pen of man.

If you want to read more about this topic, I recommend the following books:

The Challenge Of Creation by Rabbi Natan Slifkin

Understanding Genesis by Nahum Sarna (you can read the first chapter which deals with the first chapters of Bereishit till Noach here).

Genesis And Jewish Thought by Chaim Navon (also available in book form)

This is also a good resource page with a YouTube video:

I might write a bit more about this topic in the next week.

Simchat Torah Sameach!


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The Motif of the Abandoned Hero

This post isn’t related to the general theme of the blog (the miracle of the Jewish people), but we start reading Sefer Shemot (the book of Exodus) this week in the weekly Torah reading and I found it hard to find information about this topic online, so I’m posting it here.

This is taken from Nahum Sarna’s Exploring Exodus (pages 29-31):

The account of Moses as told in the Exodus has often been compared to a well-known class of legends that has as its subject the birth of a national hero and in which the motif of the abandoned child repeatedly recurs. These legends concern both mythology and folklore. Heracles (Hercules) was abandoned by his mother Alcmene; Oedipus, who became king of Thebes, was exposed on a mountain; Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, were put in a chest and cast into the Tiber; Cyrus, founder of the Persian Empire, was ordered by his royal grandfather to be left to die on a mountain. The examples could be multiplied; the motif appears in quite unrelated cultures. What has most attracted the attention of Biblical scholars is the Mesopotamian version known today as “The Legend of Sargon.” He was the third-millenium B.C.E. king who established the first Semitic dynasty based at the city of Akkad, and who founded the first of the great empires of the world. This text purports to be Sargon’s autobiographical account in which he ascribes to himself a mysterious origin, according to the preserved portion of the inscription. More likely it was the work of later scribes. The relevant section of the text reads as follows:

Sargon, the mighty king, king of Agade, am I.
My mother was a high priestess, my father I knew not.
The brother(s) of my father loved the hills.
My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates.
My mother, the high priestess, conceived; in secret she bore me.
She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid.
She cast me into the river which rose not over me.
The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water.
Akki, the drawer of water, lifted me out as he dipped his ewer.
Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me.
Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener.
While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me her love,
And for four and … years I exercised kingship.

The supposed close affinities between this folkloristic composition and our Exodus narrative are fanciful. In fact, the story of Moses’ birth departs from the “The Legend of Sargon” and from the genre in general in so many significant respects that one must almost gets the impression of a conscious attempt on the part of the biblical narrator to dissociate this narrative from the features otherwise characteristic of the foundling hero motif.

In the first place, Sargon is exposed to the river because he is the unwanted child of an illicit relationship. His mother belongs to a class of priestesses that is supposed to live in chastity, and is forbidden to bear children. She therefore needs to conceal the birth and to dispose of the baby as quickly as possible in order to avoid the shame and disgrace that would be her lot should her offense be uncovered. Moses, by contrast, is the legitimate offspring of a lawful marriage, and his mother tries to keep him as long as possible. She places him by the river as an act of desperation, and this she does with tender loving care – such is the force of the Hebrew word sim, “to place,” used of her action, as opposed to the verb hishlikh, “to abandon,” used by the pharoah. She takes every precaution to ensure his safety and to keep track of his fate.

Another striking distinction lies in the identity of the one who chances upon the foundling. In Exodus the discoverer is a princess, whereas in the Sargon folktale, and generally in this genre of literature, the finder is a person of low social status, or even an animal. Furthermore, the origin of the child is usually unknown, and only later in life is it revealed through detection or recognition on the part of a third person. In Moses’ case there is no identity problem. Even the princess recognizes at once that this is a child of Hebrew origin. There there is the fact that in the story of Moses it is his own mother who nurses him, a circumstance quite alien to the foundling type of story. Finally, attention must be paid to the function of the Sargon and similar legends. Usually the child is the son of distinguished parents, often royalty, and when he ultimately achieves rank and honour it constitutes recognition and confirmation of his true and rightfully deserved status. Not so in the Exodus account. Here the parents of Moses are ordinary folk, albeit Levites, and the son stakes out no claim for himself. The narrative does not serve the political, as it does in the case of Sargon, of legitimating the usurper who has no royal genealogy. Sargon’s name, in fact, in Akkadian is sharru-ken, which means “the king is legitimate,” that is, “the legitimate king.”

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The Creation Myths and Deluge Epics

There are many similarities between the first chapters of the book of Genesis and other writings from the Ancient Near East.

Examples are the Mesopotamian creation myth Enuma Elish which has similarities to the first chapter of Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh which tells of a flood story, very similar to the flood that happened to Noah in Genesis.

To read the full text of Enuma Elish in english see here.

To read the full text of Gilgamesh epic see here.

On the one hand, the similarities between the Mesopotamian texts and Genesis pose many problems for religious Jews, but on the other hand, it reveals another aspect of the Jewish miracle.

Comparing the texts we see how far advanced the Israelites were compared to their neighbours. The Israelites believed in monotheism. Everybody else believed in polytheism. It is truly amazing that among all the pagan nations, a people would arise that believed in a single God. Not only that, the Hebrew believed that there was an order to nature and that God was in control and created the rules of nature. The other peoples of the world saw no order to nature, but merely the chaos produced by many gods with different personalities. The Hebrews believed in a just and moral God. No such belief is present in the other cultures of the Ancient Near East. There are other amazing differences that point to the specialness of the Israelites. I leave them to you to find (or see the reading list below).

Today the Mesopotamian texts seem laughable. Nobody would read them nowadays, other than for the purpose of studying the history of man and how he used to think about the world. This isn’t the case with the Bible. It is a book that has stood the test of time. It is the most read book of all time. It has been read by so many different types of people throughout the world and it continues to be printed by the millions to this day. Christianity and Islam are both outgrowths of Judaism and that is something like half the population of the planet. My point is that whether one agrees with the teachings of the Bible or not, everybody would agree that much of its teachings are still very relevant till today. Polytheism is a crazy belief, but the belief in the God of the Bible is still a valid belief till this day – whether or not you agree with such a belief.

I am not attempting to “prove” the truth of the Bible. I also realise the many problems the Genesis narratives cause for modern man. How is one to reconcile 14 billion year old universe with the 6000 year old universe which Genesis speaks of? How is one to reconcile the scientific understanding of the development of the universe with that told in Genesis? These are difficult questions and I personally believe they cannot be reconciled and would only say in defence of the Bible that it is not a scientific or historical text. It is a book that teaches man how to live a Godly life. Genesis and the Bible as whole teaches man theological truths.

All I am trying to argue is that the Israelites were extremely advanced in their beliefs. So advanced that one may describe it as miraculous or amazing. I expect even an Atheist to agree with me on this point.

So in the very serious questions we find on traditional Judaism that we find in these texts, we also find another, astounding miracle of Jewish history. The Jewish people truly seems to be a special people on a very important mission.

If the similarities between these texts and the Bible bother you, read the Rationalist Judaism blog post “Dealing with the Deluge“. I recommend reading Nahum Sarna, Understand Genesis and Umberto Cassuto, From Adam to Noah. (I haven’t read all the books/articles on the reading list, I’m sure they all shed some light on the topic). Rav Kook and R Nadel also have very important points to make. A central one being that the Torah is not a history book or a science text book, but a book that teaches man how to be a Godly and ethical person.

In the future I intend to write a more detailed post on this topic.

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