Imagine a space alien landing on earth and reading the headline of an article that I saw posted on Facebook earlier this week. “Texas: 14-Year Old Virgin Falls Pregnant After Flu Shot.” Our alien visitor, reading this article in an official sounding publication called World News Daily Report, might take it as accurate news reporting rather than satire. A bit of digging would hopefully lead the alien to the truth.
One of the most important aspects that a reader must understand about what he or she is reading is its genre. Usually, we understand genre inherently without needing to spend any time consciously considering the type of literature that we are reading.
If I open the front section of the newspaper, I know that I am reading current events articles about something going on right now in the world. If I open up a book written by John Grisham, I know that I am probably reading a fictional novel that is in the sub-genre of legal thriller. We run into trouble with genre sometimes online with fake news articles that are forwarded or posted on Facebook. If I peruse an article published by the Onion, for example, hopefully I know that I am reading satire. Otherwise, I could get into trouble.
Generally speaking, our brains know how to classify the various kinds of writing that we encounter on a daily basis. We do this by comparing what we read to what is already familiar.
When we read literature from far away places and long ago times, however, we are at a similar, if not even a greater, disadvantage as our alien friend.
In high school, I had opportunity to read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as well as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. To properly understand these masterpieces, it is essential to be aware of their genre. In the case of Thucydides, his book is one of the earliest examples of historical writing. A political philosopher and general, he writes of the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BCE. He takes great effort to stick to facts, and his explanations do not include maneuverings and interventions by the gods in human affairs. Someone who wants to learn about military history, or study that time period, must read this classic first-hand description.
In contrast, Homer’s telling of the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus are not historical accounts. Rather, human beings are mere tools manipulated by the gods in their grand feuds and struggles. The Iliad and The Odyssey are epic poems containing myth and legend. One should not read them to find out “what happened,” but one should look to them to understand the beliefs and values of Ancient Greece, to understand something about the human condition, as well as enjoy two of the most beautiful epic poems ever written.
Which author’s works are more “true” – Thucydides are Homer? It is an absurd question. Both are true, but in different ways. Understanding genre is essential for knowing this.
The same is true when we read our Sacred Texts. Today, we begin our annual cycle of weekly Torah reading and study. Parashat Bereishit – the beginning. The beginning of what? Let’s leave that question aside for now and say simply that it is the beginning of the Torah.
So let’s talk about genre. Our Bible, the Tanakh, is a huge, composite book composed over a span of about one thousand years by many people, with different life experiences, values, and concerns. Within the Bible, and within the Torah specifically, there are many genres and sub-genres represented. Let us name a few:
Law codes. History. Legend. Satire. Prophecy. Poetry. Prayer. Theology. Wisdom literature. Mythology. Propaganda.
If we are going to begin to understand our Bible, we have got to make an effort to understand what kind of literature it is that we are reading.
As our Sacred Scripture, we consider the text to be universal and timeless. That does not mean that we can ignore the central questions about what the text is, or that we can ignore the cultural context in which it first appeared.
The first three chapters of the Torah tell the story of creation. How does the Torah itself want us to read these stories? How would someone living in the land of Israel nearly three thousand years ago have understood them?
A close reading of these three chapters reveals inconsistencies. Chapter one through chapter two, verse 4a seems to tell one version of the creation story. Chapter two, verse 4b through chapter three tells a different version. The language in each version is different. The character of God, as well as the nature of humanity and order of creation are also contradictory. God even has a different name in these two narrativez.
Version one tells the story of six days of creation. It is highly structured and organized. God, referred to as Elohim, creates each element of the world at a specific time. Human beings are created last, in the image of God, both male and female. Then God rests on the seventh day.
In version two, God, referred to as Adonai Elohim, creates a man named Adam and then places him in the Garden of Eden. Eventually, after lonely Adam cannot find a suitable companion amongst the animals, God removes one of Adam’s ribs and makes a woman. Then, we read the story of the woman, the snake, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The story results in humans being banished from the Garden of Eden and being forced to wander the earth, earning their living and bearing children through hard work and struggle.
Our interpretive tradition is typically uncomfortable with contradictions in the Sacred Text. So it tries to find ways to settle those contradictions. To explain what, on the surface, seems like alternative versions of creation, it describes the events in the Garden of Eden described in chapters two and three as all taking place on the sixth day. But these explanations ignore many of the details.
In the twenty first century, many of us get stuck on what seems, on the surface, to be an incompatibility between Torah and science. We are trained to be skeptical readers, to question the historical accuracy of what we hear, and to demand evidence and facts before we accept a proposition.
This comes up a lot for children, sometimes as early as second or third grade. How do we respond to our kids when they say to us: “I don’t think that ever happened,” which sometimes leads to “I don’t want to be Jewish”?
First of all, I have no argument with someone who says that the Earth cannot have been created in six days. I agree. By the way, I do have an argument with someone who tries to fit the latest scientific theories of evolution or the Big Bang into the words of the Torah. The Torah is not a science book. We should not be tempted to turn it into one.
Just because it did not happen that way does not mean it is not true. An answer, I believe, comes down to understanding the concept of genre.
This is not simply a postmodern approach to our Sacred Texts. Although they used different terms, some of our greatest scholars understood the importance of recognizing genre and accepting the limitations of what the text is able to tell us.
The great thirteenth century Spanish Rabbi, Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides, was a great Torah scholar, philosopher, legalist, and kabbalist. He wrote a commentary on the Torah. In his opening comment, he explains that the process of creation is a deep mystery that cannot be understood from the verses, and it can only be known through the oral tradition going back to Moses, who received it from God on Mt. Sinai. Then he adds that those who know it are obligated to keep it secret.
Nachmanides goes on to explain that all of the descriptions of creation: day one, day two etc., as well as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the accounts of the generations leading up to the flood, the Tower of Babel, and so on – none of these events can actually be understood from the verses in the Torah. Basically, he is saying that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are not reporting historical facts.
What, therefore, is the Torah’s purpose in describing the six days of creation? Nachmanides offers the same answer as Rashi, which is based on a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 1:2). According to the midrash, the Torah’s description of creation establishes the entire earth as belonging to God, its Creator. Thus, God has the authority to grant land to one people, and then subsequently take it away and give it to another.
In reading Nachmanides’ commentary, we need to understand that he himself is writing in a particular time and place, with his own unique perspectives, assumptions, and interests. His worldview does not necessarily align with our own, seven hundred years later.
What we call “science” today was not familiar to Nachmanides. He did not know about the Big Bang Theory, evolution, or radio carbon dating. We can only speculate how he would have reacted to those concepts, and how that knowledge might have affected his commentaries. As someone who studied medicine and philosophy, he might have been open to science. On the other hand, he opposed the extreme rationalism of Maimonides that downplayed the Torah’s descriptions of miracles by explaining them as metaphors, and he was a practicing kabbalist who accepted many of our tradition’s supernatural stories as historically true.
I find it reassuring to know that Nachmanides acknowledged that the Torah’s account of Creation is not science. For him, the purpose is theological and political. It justifies Israel’s claim to the land of Israel and counters charges by other nations that the Jews stole it unjustly. (Sound familiar?)
While the secrets of how God actually created the universe are known to some, that knowledge is in the realm of mysticism, and is not intended for popular dissemination. The concepts are either too esoteric, or difficult, or perhaps even dangerous to share with the general public, and so the Torah tells us nothing about how creation historically took place.
So let us take a step back and look at these stories with new eyes. Or rather, let us try to look at them through the eyes of an Israelite nearly three thousand years ago.
What is the genre? Both stories speak about origins. The origin of the earth and the seas, the sun, moon, and stars, plants and trees, sea and land animals, birds, insects, and humans.
In today’s terms, what would we call a text that speaks about the origins of these things? We would call it science. So there is an inclination when we read the Torah to think that we are reading a scientific, historical account of how the world and life came into existence.
But that is an incorrect reading. In science, when there are contradictions in the evidence, it generally means that there is something wrong with the theory. The problem with reading the Torah as science or even history is that the text is not internally consistent, and it is often not consistent with what we know from extrenal sources. As science, and often as history, the Bible is terrible literature.
But the Torah is neither a science nor a history book. Science and history, as we know them, did not even exist when the Torah was written. That is the wrong genre.
A better term to describe these stories is “myth.” Confusingly, “myth” has two main definitions which are diametrically opposed to one another.
For decades, a book has been published every few years called Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. I do not bring it up to talk about politics, but to illustrate how, colloquially, the word “myth” means the opposite of facts. If something is a myth, it is not true, and might even be a deliberate lie.
But that is not the definition of myth that is used by anthropologists and sociologists. Quite the opposite, a myth conveys something that is of ultimate truth, even if it is not historically accurate. One classicist writes that myth is “a traditional tale with […] reference to something of collective importance.” (Walter Burkett, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual, as quoted in Marc Zvi Bressler, How to Read the Jewish Bible, p. 39.) Myths reveal the core beliefs of a people and help to explain the human condition. Most cultures have a creation myth that explains how the world came into existence and how human beings fit into that existence.
Both of the Torah’s creation narratives fit that definition, although they convey different messages.
The first version is about God’s taming of the forces of chaos and evil. In systematic fashion, God pushes aside the already-existing primordial waters to separate earth from sky, and land from water. Each creative act of order is declared to be “good,” with humans, the final creation, described by God as “very good.” Holding the forces of chaos at bay has been God’s preoccupation ever since. The narrative ends with God observing Shabbat on the seventh day.
The second story has a different focus. It is a far more anthropocentric story. God first creates Adam and then makes the Garden of Eden, introducing plants and animals to serve the human. As an origin story, it tells of the loss of human immortality and the gaining of sexual knowledge. It describes the roles of men and women vis a vis each other in the ancient world. It explains why it is so hard to earn a living, and why childbirth is so painful and dangerous. Then, and now, these are some of the central aspects of human existence.
So while God did not create the earth in six days, and while two people named Adam and Eve never walked around naked in the Garden of Eden, each of these creation stories is true in a profound way. Understanding how they are true makes them relevant and alive for us.
As we begin a new year of Torah study, let us come to these texts with open eyes and open hearts, with the presumption that Torah has something profound to teach us. It is our task, through engaging with Torah, to discover what it is.