This week Jews in synagogues around the world will begin again reading the Hebrew Bible from the beginning of the book of Genesis to finish the five books of Moses in 52 weeks hence. Reading the biblical story of creation is on one hand enlightening in its stark contrast to many ancient accounts of the creation in which random forces or jealous gods battle each other, rather than an intelligent and merciful creator and lawgiver making the world for a purpose. On the other hand for us who live in a post-enlightenment age of science the biblical account of creation can feel downright childish. What’s a Jew to do?
I am comforted when I reflect on the history of Jewish thought and biblical commentary which has for millennia has allowed much room to see the biblical account of creation as metaphor. I will offer two classic quotes from the most well known of the traditional Jewish biblical commentators both of whom lived over 1000 years ago. These classical Jewish understandings of the Biblical creation story, which hold that the Bible tells us only “Who” did the creating, but tells us nothing about the “how” of creation, stand I think in contrast to, and as a breath of fresh air from, the current either/or creationism/science debates.
The first is Rash”I (Rabbi Shlomo Isaac of Worms, France 1040CE-1105CE) who claims that the bible’s creation story is incorrect since it describes God as having separated the waters before their creation and contains various other inconsistencies. In addition he claims the function of the bible is in no way to describe the story of the world’s creation or for that matter any other story of the characters in genesis: “The bible should have begun not from where it does in describing the creation of the world, but from the first commandment given to the Jewish people as a nation upon leaving Egypt.
Why then does the bible begin from the creation of the world? Only to tell us that it is God who created the world, should peoples in the future accuse the Jewish nation of taking the land of Israel, they will know it is God that created the world and gave the various lands to whom He saw fit (Rash”I, 1:1).
Nachmonides, perhaps the second most well known of the Jewish biblical commentators argues that we do need the story of the creation so that we can know it is God who made the universe, but says Nachamonides, from the story as it is described in Genesis we can discern nothing about the creation. The actual story of creation, says Nachmonides, was told only to Moses. Those few who know it do not say, and those say do not know it.