Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Understanding Genesis

Understanding Genesis  2013

            Many years ago, more than I want to admit, I was a child in 3rd grade who went to a very religious day school and I had a friend who was not religious. We must have been very philosophical kids and I still remember him asking me how I could understand the seven days of creation when everyone knows the world took millions of years to form. What philosophers- we didn’t even know the world was round or flat-but we discussed when the world was created.
  The question then remains today- How do we understand Genesis, Bereshit, today, in light of the scientific evidence we have unearthed? In truth though, the question is,” What did the Bible mean when it spoke of creation?”

            It is very paradoxical. Creation, you see is done twice.

      We first have chapter 1, the Bereshit story we think we know-six days, going from heavens and earth to man and woman created together, all done by divine word, and ending with Shabbat, meaning perfection. Every thing is perfect.

      But no one pays attention to chapter 2. First earth, then heaven, then  primordial mist-- then Adam- from the dirt of the ground-- then the plants and animals--then the rules of the Garden- then names for the animals-- and only after that-- is woman created. And only then is Adam happy. And then they fight, and he’s not happy any more. Nothing is perfect.

      Clearly, we have two very different traditions of creation, and many of these references are very obscure and veiled. The contradictions and problems herein have perplexed many for centuries and anyone who has studied archaeology, or geology, or the biological sciences is very much aware of the problems if we read this literally.

But here is the rub. For Christian fundamentalists, for
example, the Bible is to be taken literally, and therefore, science must be twisted to fit the Bible- hence the famous Scopes Monkey Trial or the insistence in teaching “ Creationism” as a science. Catholics, by the way, don’t have a problem with this. It’s a Protestant problem.

      But, for us Jews, one of the distinguishing marks is always- that we have more than one way to skin a cat, or read a book.

      I, for one, am increasingly convinced that someone who is trained and raised as a Jew, can never read a single sentence.

      Give a Jew, and educated Jew, one who has studied even a little Talmud, even in translation, a sentence to read, and you will see that he will not understand it. He or she will immediately begin to ask questions and drive you up a wall. " What does this word mean? What is this period for? But I understand it this way." So too, with Torah.

             It is no wonder then, that Rashi, in his opening comments points out:
ain mukdam u meuchar bamikra--

       There is no first and no last in the Bible- things are not written in their ordinary sequence. Just because the Torah says on the first day, heavens and earth, and on the second day dry land, does not mean that that is what the Torah had in mind.

       Neither, as he points out, is Bereshit meant to be a historical account of creation, for , as he points out, historical accounts open with the word" Berishonah" and never the word" Bereshit".

      Anyway, as a good Jew, Rashi answers the unasked question-- Why begin the Torah in the beginning? The Torah really begins with the first laws given, about Pesah, with the Exodus. Who cares about creation, or the flood, or even Abraham, Isaac-- A Jew only cares about what is expected of him or her to do.

      Rashi is a good Zionist—and his answer is" We have the creation of the world-- only to prove that we have a right to the land of Israel. If God creates the world, then he has the right to give us Israel. It’s the time of the Crusades, and Christians and Moslems are fighting over who rules Eretz Yisrael, and Rashi  wants to remind his grandchildren, for whom he wrote his notes, who it really belongs to..

That's how a Jew reads- a Jew reads to prove his point.

      Now, what about ourselves-- how do we, today , try to read Genesis and Noah and all these accounts-- we want to go deeper. We want to know--why was the Torah written as it was--what was the Torah trying to say in the first place?

      To do that, we have to put ourselves in the place of our ancestors 4000 years ago, before the time of Abraham, and think as they thought.

      What was creation for our ancestors before Moses, before Abraham, before Torah:

      This is what they wrote about creation in ancient Egypt, where Moses grew up as a Prince: The primeval waters were inhabited by eight weird creatures, four frogs, and four snakes, male and female. You go from there.

      Abraham , who had a good training in Mesopotamia, in Ur Casdim ( today’s Iraq),  grew up with this account of Creation: there is chaos, then primordial creatures, then the gods, who have children, then war between the gods and the primeval monsters. The gods know the secrets of magic, use it to kill the monsters, then create the earth out of the body of the monster and finally, to cap off all creation: From his blood they formed mankind. Ea, the headgod, then imposed toil on man, and set the gods free! That’s what Abraham would have learned in school.

      You see that gods don't create the universe- the universe created the gods. gods are born, they make love and war, have children, and age, like everyone else. They need people to work and offer sacrifices so they can eat and they can be free!

      The Greeks, who gave us philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, didn’t have any better story of creation. First chaos, then a goddess and a giant python who together lay an egg, out of which tumbled the stars , moon, then the titans, then the gods, who made war on each other, cheated, Lied, stole, betrayed, perverted, and so forth. Every crime this ancient philosophical people saw in themselves, they could blame on their gods. 

 You understand from this, in the ancient world, that man made god in his own image-petty, quarrelsome, fragile, someone man could blame for his own misery. Now, contrast this with the creation, in the first chapter--God does it all, alone, in a structured system and pattern. God creates the world-not the world creates God

God plans and designs, he does nothing by chance. God needs no magic, no tools , no weapons  God uses no violence God doesn't have sex, is not male or female, is not born, does not  die, eats no food. There is no demon, no evil in God's universe.God is universal, not bound to any place.Man  and women, male and female alike, is God's special creation, not God's slave.

Even as we go to the second chapter, which is more poetic and mythical in its language, man is fashioned with the breath of God in him, and woman is given to man as a gift. True, there is a serpent, but unlike the serpent of the ancient myths who is a divine demon, here, he is just a foil for human frailty, and Adam and Eve have become Godlike in the only sense that it counts in the Bible—in the capacity to choose good and evil. The pagans are children, excusing their actions on their parents; Biblical Adam and Eve are mature adults, accepting responsibility.

God is not capricious or whimsical, and life is not precarious-These are the intentions and purposes of the Torah. We get back to the Beginning-- the Torah is not here to be a history book--nor is it a book for the scientist or historian. It is a book of ethics, morality, a book of values. What happened 5774 years ago, plus or minus a few billions, is irrelevant. What people did, 5774 years ago, and still do today-- only that is relevant. That is the purpose of the Torah., 

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