Are Bible Stories Really True?
At this time of the year, we re-read the early chapters of Genesis with their fantastic tales of creation and early humanity struggling to cope with life and divine authority. And every year, I revisit the issue of whether one should take these stories literally. Ultimately, I believe one should take these stories very seriously if not literally, and must understand their underlying message.
It is not just me, but the Talmud and major traditional commentators who grapple with these kinds of questions about fact vs. fiction. And there are those who find different ways of reconciling all of this to their satisfaction.
The literalist simply closes his or her mind to the problems. It is holy writ, and that is that. Emunah Peshutah, simple faith, is much valued in certain circles. Most humans are not philosophers or rational thinkers. Not everyone wants to be challenged. And it is possible to find fault with almost any theory if one is inclined to. Dinosaur bones might have been planted by God to test our faith. Carbon testing is unreliable. Evolution lacks some missing links.
Yet the Talmud recognizes what appear to be contradictions. Thirty-seven times it says, “The Torah does not follow normal chronology.” God speaks to humans in dreams and visions, which are notoriously unreliable. Humans mishear or misunderstand Divine messages. Animals talk too, but we don’t know in what language and whether this too was a vision or dream. We use language differently ourselves all the time. Instructions are given in very specific language: “Don’t touch the fire.” But we convey ideas and traditions and messages through language that contains narratives, stories, and even myths. These are conveyed and modified by human language and human recounting. Each generation does so in its own way.
One of the most problematic references concerning our right to challenge and inquire is in the Mishna Hagigah: “Whoever looks into what is above or below, inside or behind, and anyone who does not respect the Divinity, might just as well not be born.”
That response is not very different to how God answers Moses when he asks what God’s name is: “I am what I am.” I can’t be described in normal rational terminology: I am different. Not matter. Not like human beings. You can encounter Me, imagine Me, and reach out to Me, but you can’t describe Me the way you would a human being.
We can approach God rationally or mystically — two very different channels, depending on our personal references.
There are certain types of questions that the ordinary mind cannot answer or even fathom. When I see great mathematicians or physics professors lecture with complicated formulas, I am completely lost. I have no idea what they are talking about. I never understood Stephen Hawking at all, however many times I tried.
I take the Mishna in Hagigah to be saying that there are some kinds of questions that the ordinary person cannot ever answer. And if he or she tries too hard to fathom the unfathomable, they will be wasting their time. In the meantime, one has to face the daily challenge of living a moral and good life. Most people should focus on going forward. Leave the scientists to try to work out how the world or we humans started, or what outer space is and how to get there. I am knowledgeable in my areas of specialization and interests. I try to study and read and think as widely as possible. But I know my limitations. And I also know that my priority is to focus on my behavior towards others.
This is why the issue of what the Bible is trying to tell me boils down to the same as any other religious culture does: How to cope with life and bring a spiritual dimension into it. To see where I have come from, where I belong, and whom I want to identify with. And to use all this to help me go forward and not backwards.
The common thread of all the Bible stories is really very simple: We are here on earth. We don’t know precisely how it came about or where it is going. We know this world is made up of the material, the geological, the animal and human, and the ecosystem. It runs according to its own rules. The rules are there to help us, not crush our spirits. Nothing and no one is perfect. Superman cannot solve every single human problem all at the same time. That is not how our world works.
But the Bible tells us how earlier humans tried to deal with issues — some successfully, others not. It provides a template to develop skills, to find the right way to behave. And it adds experiences and ideas into the mix from which we will choose the ingredients that help us most. Words and ideas have their place, but actions count. The Bible as the first Monotheistic Document, whatever its origins, offers a vision, a structure, and a framework that we can either use or abuse.
I cannot pretend to know the mind of God (I distrust those who do). But when I want to know how to behave, I start with the Bible and see where it takes me. The snake distracts me. The Bible guides me.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.