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Allegory in the Torah

 

There was a time that I was an avid reader of every book I could find on the concordance between Biblical creation and modern science.  If there was a lecture about science and creation not far from my home, I was there. I also read popular books on physics to better understand the Big Bang, that one-time event that brought energy and matter into the universe, as well as other related topics such the structure of the atom.

I do not recall any one particular event that made me rethink my stance.  Most likely it was a gradual process as I began appreciating that modern science and the Biblical creation accounts were approaching the same happening, the creation of the universe, from very different perspectives - and the Biblical perspective was far from being a scientific one.  

There are many contradictions between the Torah’s creation account and modern science. Modern science recognizes no “firmament between the waters” above our atmosphere (Genesis 1:6). The sun, moon, and earth are part of the Milky Way galaxy, and the sun was formed before the earth and not after as related in the Bible (1:16). The Bible relates that plants were brought into existence early in creation, on day 3 (1:11). But plants cannot exist without the rays of the sun for photosynthesis, and the sun was not created until day 4. Plants also propagate within an ecosystem involving fertilization by insects and animals, and these were not created until day 5 (1:25). 

The first man described in the Bible was also created considerably later than recognized by modern science. According to the Bible, Adam came into being in 3,750 BCE.  But Homo sapiens first appeared in the fossil record about 70,000 years ago.3 More primitive homo species, such as Neanderthal man, existed from about 1½ million years ago, although they disappeared when homo sapiens came on the scene. Why this happened we do not know. About 40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens became more intelligent and would have been similar in all respects to modern man. He could have engaged in a conversation about any topic in ethics, for example, the roots of evil. Also at this time, he began spreading over the globe. 12,000 years ago, he had crossed the Bering Straits from Europe into North and then South America.  Thus, well before Adam and Eve came on the scene, there were humans in the Americas for thousands of years. 

Noah’s flood is also difficult to accept literally. Flood layers have been found in the Tigris and Euphrates basins in archeological surveys, but a flood that reached as high as the peaks of the mountains of Armenia would have flooded the entire Near East. Of such a flood there is no archeological evidence.

There is only one way to accept these stories – and this is as allegory.  

The Torah does not try to obscure the allegorical nature of these early stories. In fact, it clearly points it out. Consider the following Biblical description of the Garden of Eden:

A river issues forth from Eden to water the garden and from there it is divided and becomes four headwaters. The name of the first is Pishon, the one that encircles the whole land of Chavilah, where the gold is. The gold of that land is good; bdellium is there and the shohar stone. The name of the second river is Gichon, the one that encircles the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Chidekel, the one that flows towards the east of Ashur; and the fourth one is the Euphrates.” (Genesis 2:10-14)

For us moderns, this geographical description of the Garden of Eden is puzzling. But someone living at the time of the Bible would have known immediately where these four rivers were and would have been well aware that not all of them join up.

The river “Chidekel” is usually identified with the Tigris, which was known in Mesopotamia as “Idiglat”1 and this river does indeed join the “Euphrates” near the Persian Gulf.  However, this is nowhere near “the land of Cush.” The “land of Chavila” is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible as being where Ishmael’s progeny lived, and this is far from Mesopotamia (“They dwelt from Chavila to Shur – which is near Egypt – towards Assyria.” Genesis 25:18).2 Mesopotamia was, and still is, poorly endowed with mineral wealth, but the upper reaches of the Nile were well known for their “gold”, and “Pishon” and “Gichon” may well be two tributaries of the Nile in southern Egypt.

 

What the Bible is doing here is describing a fictitious place in which the most desirable water and mineral resources of the known world were combined together to create a sublimely fertile and rich paradise.

 

The 19th century Biblical commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, after proposing the unlikely notion that these rivers joined together underground, explains as follows:

 “Four districts seem to be named which, each in its way, yielded the richest of products. All the riches and all the abundance which lay separately in these lands were found together in Paradise.”3

 

The villainous walking-talking snake in the Garden of Eden story is also difficult to accept other than allegorically. Medieval Jewish commentators have in the main been bound to a literal understanding of this snake, as well as to the entirety of the Garden of Eden story (and we will discuss shortly why this is so), but most have been prepared to accept that the serpent represents evil. However, a snake with understandable speech, that had limbs enabling it to walk, and that could at a moment’s notice be transformed into the crawling snake we recognize today has to be an allegorical representation of some aspect of evil. What this is precisely we will need to discover. 

In the Jewish tradition, Adam is regarded as being “adam harishon” “the first man”. But the Bible never actually calls him this.  Cain after killing Abel complains to God that “whoever meets me will kill me” (Genesis 4:4:14). But whom is he talking about?  According to the Bible there are only four people left on earth – Adam, Eve and Cain himself?  More likely, therefore, is that the Torah is not denying that there are other people around and these four people are allegorical character sketches about four individuals at a certain time in history – namely the time that man ceased to be a hunter-gatherer and became an agriculturalist.

This would also explain why the names of the characters in these early stories have allegorical overtones. The name Adam probably means red, or ruddy from the word adom, although it could also come from the word “adama”, meaning ground. The Hebrew for Eve is Chava, and the Bible explains that this is because she is “the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). Cain, or Kayin in Hebrew, means one who acquires or creates, from the Hebrew word liknot (Genesis 4:1). Abel comes from the word hevel, which means nothingness, vanity or a breath of wind (Genesis 4:2). These are not names that parents would normally call their babes by. They are symbolic.

Noah’s ark as a functional boat also stretches the imagination. It cannot be that all living things would fit into an ark measuring 470 feet in length, 78 feet in width, and 47 feet in height (300 x 50 x 30 cubits), only about the size of 1½ football fields (Genesis 6:15).  Most zoos in the world are much bigger than this and contain only a miniscule sampling of the earth’s moving population. The ark would also have had to contain a year’s worth of food for all these animals. But the reality is that people in the ancient world would have found this tale as incredulous as we do. However, unlike today, they were familiar with these types of allegorical accounts. The popular Gilgamesh myth, for example, which similarly concerns an ark and a flood, was also not intended to be taken literally.

One can certainly argue that God is omnipotent and can bring about any unnatural event that He wishes.  Nevertheless, it is not the Bible’s way to break the natural course of nature. (The talking  ass in the Bila’am story is an exception and will be discussed in due course).  It is far more likely, therefore, that the Torah that these early stories are allegorical.

One might say that for an orthodox Jew like myself to label these stories allegoric is no more than apologetics, a way of preserving belief in the truth of the Torah in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  I cannot deny that in the depths of my consciousness there may be an element of this.  But this is not the reason I have adopted an allegorical approach to understanding these stories. Rather, it is because these allegories probe the relationships between God, humanity, and the Jewish people, and have opened up for me new vistas in ethics and philosophy in ways that no other ancient, or even modern texts, could have done.

Admittedly, there are many Jewish commentators who view these stories is as historical and therefore factual accounts. History has no meaning.  One might see a repetition of certain patterns over a span of history and it is often possible to learn from these patterns. But that is it.  However, if a story is allegoric, then it must have meaning since this was its intent. An allegory without a readily discernable message is a failed allegory.  Hence, if the early stories in the Torah are allegoric, then a huge section of Genesis should be pregnant with meaning.  And I think it is. 

The more I examined these early stories in Genesis, the more messages began appearing from the text. Many of the stories contained multiple messages, such as the Binding of Isaac account which is a polemic against child sacrifice, a treatise on what it means to fear God, the nature of Jewish animal sacrifice versus pagan animal sacrifice, and even more than this. Admittedly, some are time related. The Torah is an eternal document, but it was also written at a specific time in history. If the Torah had failed to capture the imagination of the people for whom it was written, it would have been dead on arrival, and would not have been successfully transmitted to generations thereafter. 

But how can we know what people thought 3,500 years ago? In many instances the Torah tells us.  But we also know from other sources, and in particular through Mesopotamian myth. Myths about pagan gods were told in story form and transmitted orally. But some were written down and stored in ancient libraries, and collections of these stories have been found written on cuneiform tablets during archeological excavations. Between the lines of these myths one can learn a lot about the beliefs of the people who lived at that time, and also their concerns.

Given all the evidence in favor of allegory, why did the Jewish sages of the First and Second Temple period, as well as the majority of medieval commentators, feel compelled to interpret these stories literally? 

 

The issue is that once one adopts an allegorical approach to the early stories of Genesis, the boundary between allegory and history in the stories that follow becomes very blurred. In other words, where does allegory stop and history take over?

 

Was there an historic Abraham, for example, or was he an allegoric invention of the Torah? And if he was an imagined person, what are we to make of the promises made to him by God, as well as to his son Isaac and grandson Jacob?  What validity do promises have if they are given to imaginary people? And what about Moses? Is he also fictitious? And if so, is there any historical basis to the Exodus and the subsequent settling of the Land of Canaan? 

I, for one, cannot accept allegorical forefathers and an allegorical Moses.  I take it as a matter of faith that the promises made to our forefathers were real and that the Exodus happened just as the Bible says it happened. By the time of Abraham, history had taken over from allegory.  

 

I cannot exclude that Cain and Abel were fictitious people. However, the descendants of Seth, the third child of Adam, are Noah and eventually Abraham, and these have to be real people. Nevertheless, matters may not be quite as simple as this.

Almost nothing is extraneous in the Torah.  All the stories in the Torah have a point to them. Many of them are also written with a highly formalized construct. It is frequently possible, for example, to divide them into two halves, and points of concern mentioned in the first half in order A1, B1, C1 etc. are resolved in the second half in order A2, B2, C2 etc. Correspondence can be identified by the use of similar words, phrases or themes. A few stories have a chiastic structure with the order A1, B1, C1 etc. in the first half being mirrored in the second half with the order C2, B2, A2.

But real life is not like this. Our lives are not full of messages, and issues in our lives are never resolved in such a formalized immediate and stylized way. Does this not mean then that in the end we have to admit that there is much that is allegorical about the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their families?

I would like to suggest a means of resolving this issue. Life in general is random and meaningless. The best one can do is to extract some happiness from this meaninglessness. Many people, perhaps even most, go to their graves having achieved little of value except for raising a family and doing occasional acts of goodness. However, if one puts effort into pursuing a life of meaning and one that is in accord with God’s values, then Heaven will respond to this. Not everything one wants to do in life will be successful, but one should be able to look retrospectively at periods of one’s life and see times of moral achievement because God was lending a helping hand. In this way, God has helped one achieve a life of meaning. The Jewish sages summarize this by saying that “the reward of a mitzvah is another mitzvah”.4

It may also be possible to lead one’s life so in accord with God’s plans for oneself and one’s place in history that meaning and significance become apparent in a very obvious way for certain highlights of one’s life. This functioning is at such a high spiritual level that one has become almost a prophet, or very close to this.  The forefathers were at this level. They experienced visions from God. Jacob experienced periods of prophecy (Genesis 48:19 and 49:1), 

 

In sum, the question as to whether the Torah is history or allegory is not a simple one. Nevertheless, it is possible to postulate certain ideas that are compatible with a traditional belief in the authenticity and truth of the Torah.

  • The Torah did not expect its readers to believe in the improbable. Stories that contain unbelievable matters are almost certainly allegorical, and they need to be probed  for their meaning. 

  • The Bible was not interested in the science of creation, but only the messages that the creation of the universe by a single omnipotent God conveys. The creation stories are told allegorically and in a format that would have been readily understood by its readers 3,500 years ago. It is very possible that the first creation story was written as a polemic against a well-known creation story in the pagan world. This is now dated and not recognized as such by modern readers. Nevertheless, it does not detract from the relevance of these stories and the messages they intended to convey. 

  • God’s promises to the forefathers are a reality, since they were made to real people.

  • By the time of Moses, all events recorded in the Bible are historical. The significance of this history is usually pointed out by the text and it is not usually unnecessary to probe that deeply for subliminal messages that are not readily apparent. However, there are exceptions, such as the story of the attack of Amalek and the story of Bilaam. This is good reason for examining these stories further!

 

References

1. The Planting of the Garden of Eden in A Commentary on the Book of Genesis by Umberto Cassuto, Second paragraph, p121, The Magnes Press, Jerusalem, reprinted 1998

2.  Nachmanides (commentary to Genesis 2:10) considers the Land of Chavila to be to the north and east rather than the south and west of Israel, and therefore dismisses the sentence about Ishmael’s progeny (Genesis 25:8) as being irrelevant to the location of Chavila as described in the second chapter of Genesis. In support of his position is that an individual named Chavila is mentioned twice in Genesis, once as the grandson of Ham and nephew of Mizraim (Genesis 10:7), and also as a sixth generation of Shem and grandson of Ophir (Genesis 10:28). The descendants of Shem dwelt in “the mountain to the East” (Genesis 10:30). The phrase “where the gold is” could identify this particular Chavilah as being in the territory of Ophir, which is mentioned as being a source of gold at the time of King Solomon (Kings I 9:28). On the other hand, Nachmanides does accept the Pishon as being the Nile (commentary to Genesis 3:22), and interprets the confluence of these rivers in a symbolic manner. 

3. The Pentateuch, Translation and Commentary by Samson Raphael Hirsch, commentary to Genesis 2:10-14

4. Mishna Avot 4:2

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