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.

In the case of the Genesis story, I think of God as the writer. And my favorite writing teacher once told me, “consider your audience”. If I were writing a history of the world that I would be giving to a group of nomadic tribesmen who were to be stuck in the desert for forty more years, I don’t think a literal explanation of the stars and galaxies, big bangs, or evolutionary genetics would be the most useful. After all, it’s not the means but the ends that would have mattered and here God and Moses needed a story to emphasize the importance of unity and shared destiny that the Israelites possessed. This was a group that couldn’t be trusted not to go off and worship another God IMMEDIATELY after spending weeks following a pillar of fire. In other words, maybe not the best bunch for a more scientific story.

In a Christian context, I think of Matthew 23:37-40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the laws and the prophets.” (In other words, the Torah and the Old Testament. He was speaking in a Jewish context here.)

In saying this, Jesus was perhaps paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel, a prominent Jewish thinker of his age who died around 10 CE. There is a very famous story in the Talmud where the rabbi was asked, by an inquisitive but troublemaking gentile, to summarize the Torah. (And, in specific, to teach the Torah while standing on one foot. I don’t remember at the moment whether it was the rabbi or the gentile that needed to stand on one foot for this; it’s not very relevant.) His response:  “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” (This is a great story. You can find a version here:

This to me is their way of saying “don’t sweat the small stuff”. And which bits are to be taken literally and which are not? Absolutely the small stuff.

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