Genesis As Allegory

Recognizing the deeper meaning of the text.

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But in poetic passages the ancient waters are personified as rebellious sea monsters which threatened to swamp the dry land, until God subdued them and created the seashore as a boundary which they were prohibited from crossing.

The most notable difference between Genesis and all the other accounts is that none of the others mentions the idea that the world was created in six days. This idea--which is the centerpiece of the whole creationist movement--was apparently not considered important enough in the Bible to be repeated in other accounts of creation. 

The fact that so many differing accounts were all accepted in the Bible shows that its compilers were not concerned about these details. They undoubtedly assumed that the differences could be reconciled, but they left this task to the ingenuity of exegetes. This virtually assured that different reconciliations would be proposed and some of the passages would have to be interpreted non-literally.

What the Bible as a whole insists on is not these details, but only what the stories have in common. In other words, these stories are regarded as poetic statements of certain basic truths, not as literally scientific accounts of how the universe developed.

The Divine Plan

What matters in Judaism are the concepts shared by all these stories: that the world was created by God, that He planned it carefully and designed it to be hospitable to man. These are the very conclusions to which astronomy now points. The other details of the biblical accounts should not be taken literally, but metaphorically or poetically.

To give just one example: the six days of creation culminating in the Sabbath on the seventh day symbolize how God guided the development of the world stage by stage according to a well-thought-out plan. The process is described as taking place over a period of seven days because seven was regarded in the ancient world as the number of perfection and seven days were regarded as the ideal length of a process. The unit of "seven days" is more a statement about the perfection of the process than a chronological statistic.

Thus a literal reading of the Bible, on which "creation science" implicitly insists, misses the point of the Bible itself, which seems uninterested in literal interpretation. Like poetry and certain kinds of prose, which sometimes speak in metaphors and symbols, the Bible as a whole does not intend these stories to be taken literally.

Literalism is not only misleading but is also a disservice to the cause of the Bible itself. It forces the Bible to compete as science, and in such a competition it cannot win. In a scientific age such as ours the Bible will never be accepted as science by educated people.

What is more, attempting to secure acceptance for it as science is hardly worthwhile, for this would divert attention away from the Bible's religious message to details which from a religious point of view are trivial.

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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.