Bereishit – Literalism

Before I go any farther, if it isn’t clear already, I’m not a Biblical literalist. There are portions of the Bible that are literal history, more or less as they happened. There are portions of the Bible that are exaggerated or told from a particular point of view for a particular effect. I am not so proud to claim that I can tell which are which, but I believe that the Bible contains both.

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Bereishit – The Creation Stories and the Documentary Hypothesis

With something as big and complex and beautiful as the Bible, it’s difficult to know where to start talking about it. Just jumping in “In the beginning” hardly seems suitable because there is so much that goes into those works, into even the first several verses, that it’s awe-inspiring. And yet to talk about it, to digest it and dissect it in a way does it a disservice. And yet, I sit here with keyboard in hand and try to wrap my head around the best way to begin.

Of the books of the Torah, Genesis may be the most complex. One of the ways that Genesis is complex is through its pattern of repeating stories, or parts of stories, in different ways. This is evident immediately as we are presented with two separate creation stories: one from Genesis 1:1 to the middle of 2:4 and a second one from Genesis 2:4 to 2:24. The first story is the one that we are most familiar: “In the beginning…” (Though of course this is translated in a dozen different ways. The JPS offers the, probably more accurate but less poetic “When God began to create heaven and earth…”) In this story, God creates the universe in six days and rests on the seventh. In verse 1:27, on the sixth day, he created man: “And God created man in His image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In the second story, God creates man again and this is the story that we are familiar: He creates Adam first, Adam needs a companion, Even is created from Adam’s rib, etc. This second story differs from the first not only that man and woman were not created at the same time, but also in other details. For example, man here was created “when no shrub of the field was yet on earth” because “God had not sent rain upon the earth” but in the preceding story that was on the third day, not the sixth.

This is not to nit-pick the Bible, that is not my intention. But I find this duality fascinating and it happens over and over in Genesis: a bit in the Noah story, in the Abraham story, etc.

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Further reading…

I love my local library. While I’m still gearing up for Bereishit (Simchat Torah is October 1), I’ve gone to the library and picked out a few books which I’ll try to read along with. A few of these I actually do own. The links go to Amazon, not because I’m evil, but because you can get the ISBN numbers easily from there if you are interested.

I’ve read bits and pieces of this so far and so I’m looking forward to working my way through the book over the next year. It’s fascinating insights into “women’s” (feminist?) reading of the Bible. Even better, it’s broken down by Torah portion!

I don’t know much about this book, but I’ve been recommended it. I look forward to finding out if it sucks.

Reading about Bill Moyers’ PBS series on Genesis is faster than watching it on DVD. There’s not too much deep reflection here, but I’ve enjoyed reading the various viewpoints that his guests represent and present. Amazingly, they devote several chapters (and two DVDs) just to what amounts to the first weekly portion! I presume it speeds up quite a bit after you get through all of the difficult “Let There Be Light” stuff.

Yes, I actually own this but I can’t say that I understand it completely. Rashi, or rather Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki, is one of the foremost biblical commentators in Judaism. He wrote in 11th century France. Of course, I am reading it and everything else in translation.

Well, that’s enough for now. I need to re-sort my books. The ones I want to read are ALL over the house. (Where is my copy of Genesis Rabbah?)

About – Reading Order

This blog, at least for now, will follow the style of the Jewish Torah reading calendar. For non-Jews, what this means that I will begin reading Genesis shortly before October and complete a full cycle, ending with the close of Deuteronomy, just shy of a week later. This leaves quite a bit of the bible unexplored, obviously. But it also gives just enough time for reflection and consideration of the Bible, something that a more fast-paced reading does not do.

This is not my first time reading the Bible, not by a long shot. I’ve just completing a cycle of weekly Torah portions from this year and so I’m coming into thing, and blogging, not from a perspective of a “newbie” but of someone who is constantly learning something new about a great text.

In the Jewish tradition, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, and the same for both Jews and Christians) is divided into 54 portions, or parashah. As most years do not contain 54 weeks, even in the Jewish lunar calendar, some weeks cover multiple portions. These portions generally cover a few chapters each and do not generally stop on convenient chapter boundaries, but I’m going to trust the early rabbis to know why they picked where they did to stop each week. Each portion is also given a name in Hebrew, generally one of the first unique words of the tex. For example, the first portion is called Bereishit and stretches from Genesis 1:1 to 6:8, from creation to the beginning of the Noah story.

Closely related to the weekly portion, which I may discuss or not, are the haftarah. These are additional readings, usually related to the main reading, but from other portions of the Hebrew Bible. Unlike the parashah, these appear to differ from one religious community to another. For Bereishit, the readings are generally from Isaiah.

Christian communities also have their weekly readings, although these are as diverse as the communities themselves and are not frequently in order. Roman Catholic mass, for example, will generally have one reading from the Old Testament, one from the Psalms (part of the Old Testament, of course), and one from the New Testament. I am looking for a guide to readings from different communities so please let me know if you know about this.

Given the immense ground even these small portions cover each week, it will be quite a challenge to keep up!