Genesis As Allegory

Recognizing the deeper meaning of the text.

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Reprinted with permission from Conservative Judaism Journal.

In showing that the Universe had a beginning, science has come closer to the teachings of the Bible than ever before. Nevertheless, there is still a considerable distance between current scientific thought and the details of the biblical account of creation.

According to the latter, the physical world and the many species of living things were created essentially as we know them less than six thousand years ago over a period of seven days. Astronomy, geology, biology, and related sciences indicate that the process was a gradual one that took billions of years. 

Earlier geological strata of the earth's surface show the different stages through which the earth passed and approximately how long they lasted, while fossils and remains of extinct species such as dinosaurs show that the different species of living creatures evolved slowly from a common ancestor.

These conclusions are denied by adherents of a doctrine known as "scientific creationism," who are campaigning to require that any public school which teaches evolution must also teach what they call "creation science" as a scientifically respectable alternative to evolution.

The feverish concern of the "scientific creationists" to protect a literal reading of the story in Genesis 1 reflects a conviction that devotion to the Bible requires one to interpret its words--particularly Genesis--literally and to accept it in its literal sense.

But, as Steven Katz notes..., "In Jewish religious thought Genesis is not regarded as meant for a literal reading, and Jewish tradition has not usually read it so." In fact, as we shall argue below, even the compilers of the Bible do not seem to have been concerned with a literal reading of the text. They were prepared to have at least parts of it read non-literally.

Sensible Interpretation

In the Middle Ages, Saadia Gaon argued that a biblical passage should not be interpreted literally if that made a passage mean something contrary to the senses or reason (or, as we would say, science; Emunot ve-Deot, chapter 7). Maimonides applied this principle to theories about creation. He held that if the eternity of the universe (what we would call the Steady State theory) could be proven by logic (science) then the biblical passages speaking about creation at a point in time could and should be interpreted figuratively in a way that is compatible with the eternity of the universe.

It is only because the eternity of the universe has not been proven that he interpreted the verses about creation at a point in time literally (Guide, II, 25), but he still insisted that the creation story as a whole was written metaphorically (Book I, Introduction).

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Dr. Jeffrey Tigay

Dr. Jeffrey Tigay is A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.