Thursday, October 27, 2005

parshat Bereishit: Adam and Eve as Metaphor

Some preliminaries: In this post I discuss the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as metaphor. I believe a strong case can be made for the story as metaphor. However, how one comes to the conclusion that it is metaphor is, I believe, important.

A. Motivations

I dislike the notion of coming to the conclusion that the beginning of Bereishit is metaphor purely on the basis of its clash with modern science's Creation Myth. I think this reaction stems from either lack of faith or abundance of faith.

Lack of faith: If there is a clash between currently held scientific theories and that which is described in the Torah, the former must be more correct, and the latter inaccurate as a description of real events. The easiest was to render the Torah's narrative impotent while minimizing chances of being labelled a heretic (or to persuade people who do not wish to listen to or accept heresy) is to claim that the Torah did not really mean it. In this way, one appears to possess the courage to be modern and Orthodox, while really only having the courage to be modern.

Abundance of faith: If there is a clash between science and Torah, both must be 100% correct. Torah I know to be true, but I won't ignore my own eyes, and science is also true. Yet how could they both be true. It must be that I do not understand what the Torah is saying, and that it is to be understood on a deeper level, or else is describing events in a way I do not and perhaps cannot understand, and so I will label the Torah's account as metaphor and leave it at that. Or I will try to find correlations between the Torah's account of creation and that of contemporary science.

I feel that both approaches are in some respect unfair to the text.

This is especially true if the science is wrong, but there have of course been attempts to explain the text on the basis of contemporary science. Two examples: a Ramban-like attempt to explain maaseh Bereishit on the basis of the four elements. And one of my favorites: the spoiling of the manna in Shemot 16:20:

יט וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, אֲלֵהֶם: אִישׁ, אַל-יוֹתֵר מִמֶּנּוּ עַד-בֹּקֶר. 19 And Moses said unto them: 'Let no man leave of it till the morning.'
כ וְלֹא-שָׁמְעוּ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, וַיּוֹתִרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִמֶּנּוּ עַד-בֹּקֶר, וַיָּרֻם תּוֹלָעִים, וַיִּבְאַשׁ; וַיִּקְצֹף עֲלֵהֶם, מֹשֶׁה. 20 Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto Moses; but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and rotted; and Moses was wroth with them.
This verse states that the manna first bred worms and then rotted. For Chazal, their contemporary science held that worms came about via spontaneous generation, and were the result of rotting, so the rotting should come first. Thus, the Mechilta puts forth that this is a mikra mesuras, a verse out of order, and of course the rotting happened before the breeding of worms! Obviously, we would no longer be troubled by the verse being "out of order."

It is unfair to the derasha to leave it at that, and so: It is not so clear that the Mechilta is wrong. I claim no knowledge of the state of science that was contemporary to the ancient Israelites who were the original recipients of this description, but let us say they were advanced to the point that they, too, believed in spontaneous generation of worms from rotting food. One might say that the diversion of the order is highlighting the miraculous nature of the food spoilage - it developed worms even before rotting! Or else, one could claim it is a mikra mesuras. In modern terms, they would not claim the verse is out of order. They would claim that וַיָּרֻם תּוֹלָעִים וַיִּבְאַשׁ is a type of hendiadys, two phrases juxtaposed to convey a single idea. (Think Tohu vaVohu in parshat Bereishit, of which modern scholars claim the same thing.) The order of these two phrases is unimportant and was not chosen to convey any type of chronological precedence of one over the other. (And note, any issues you may have with obeisance to inaccurate contemporary science I would dismiss via an appeal to dibra Torah kilshon benei Adam.)

In general, though, I hope this illustrates why I believe reinterpretations to accomodate contemporary science can be unfair to the text.

The same to motivations can be founds among those who would label an explanation by Chazal as intended as a derasha when it conflicts with scientific or archaeological evidence. Besides being unfair to their interpretation as an entity in and of itself, it is unfair to the very concept of derash. (And being a fan of derash I can find myself taking offense.)

Therefore, I feel that any attempt to label the text metaphorical should be, at least in part, driven by concerns and features which are internal to the text. Such concerns and features are certainly present, and I hope to list some of them.

B. Three Distinct Issues
We should immediately distinguish between the three clashes between Torah and contemporary science:
  1. The Age of the Universe
  2. The Age of the Earth
  3. The Age of Civilization
These are separate issues, and should not be conflated. Now, the title of my post is Adam and Eve as metaphor, and that corresponds with #3, and so I do not intend to discuss #1 or #2 in any great detail, let alone resolve them.

However, to briefly touch on those issues:

The Age of the Universe
Let us say that contemporary science puts the age of the universe at somewhere between 11.2 and 20 billion years. (I'm not up on the latest science, and a few billions here and there don't really matter.) Meanwhile, the Torah dates the beginning of the universe to about 6000 years ago.

Or does it? People who know the science do not necessarily know the intricacies of Hebrew Grammar or of parallel Ancient Creation Myths. Bereishit begins:

א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹקִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
ב וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. 2 Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.
ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר. 3 And God said: 'Let there be light.' And there was light.
Quick quiz: What was created on the first day?
The simplest answer would be: heaven and earth = reality, which contained the earth (eretz), water (mayim), and the deep (tehom). Perhaps we could add to this a mighty wind blowing on the face of the water (ruach elohim, with elohim meaning mighty as it does in other instances). Plus, of course, light.

However, one must ask some questions. בְּרֵאשִׁית is the construct form - what is it attached to? In other words, it should say "the beginning of the creation of X." Otherwise, it should say berishona. (Alternatively, it means bereishit hakol, the beginning of everthing -- and Rashi gives some other examples of omission of words in verses.)

Rashi says as much:
In the beginning of God’s creation ofHeb. בְּרֵאשִית בָּרָא. This verse calls for a midrashic interpretation [because according to its simple interpretation, the vowelization of the word בָּרָא, should be different, as Rashi explains further]


But if you wish to explain it according to its simple meaning, explain it thus: “At the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth, the earth was astonishing with emptiness, and darkness…and God said, ‘Let there be light.’” But Scripture did not come to teach the sequence of the Creation, to say that these came first, for if it came to teach this, it should have written:“At first (בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה) He created the heavens and the earth,” for there is no רֵאשִׁית in Scripture that is not connected to the following word, [i.e., in the construct state]

Furthermore, the vav hachibur rather than vav hahipuch is used in the second verse (ve rather than va), which strongly suggests that the second verse is parenthetical, and describes the state of the world when Creation began.

What this means is that only light was created on the first day. To restate the first three verses: In the beginning of God's creation of heaven and earth, when the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters, God said "Let there be light" and there was light.

In other words, the first day of Creation is not to be described as Creation yesh me`ayin, that is ex nihilo, from nothing, but rather from some primordial matter. Before the first day, there was an eretz (land), a tehom (deep / watery depths), mayim (water), perhaps a mighty wind (ruach elohim) and of course God. Perhaps this earlier existence was also created by God - an interpretation or derash of the first pasuk standing alone would read it as describing God's Creation of that initial state of affairs.

Creation myths of other cultures should also perhaps be taken into account, since they would be known to the ancient Israelite reader. In the Enuma Elish account of creation, Marduk slays the female Tiamat (roughly parallel to tehom, primordial matter mentioned in verse 2) and from her body, creates heaven and earth. Thus, existence and primordial matter before creation.

If so, the creation of the universe did not happen in six days, but could have taken 11.2 to 20 billion years. Attempts to use the theory of relativity to collapse 20 billion years into 6 days is unnecessary and quite possibly against the simple meaning of the text even taken non-metaphorically. Simply put, there is no real conflict - the 20 billion years could have happened before the 6 days of creation.

Now, one might easily object that the fourth day has the creation and establishment of sun, moon and stars, and the stars would thus need to be 6000 years old, or at least about equal to the age of the earth, which it is not. This is really to be taken within a discussion of the Creation account which Genesis does give, but two quick possible answers among many: 1) the judicious application of the pluperfect can have the creation of these taking place before, and only the establishing of their relation with earth described. 2) the Creation of everthing here is Earth centered, and the placing them in the sky for days, nights, seasons, etc. is certainlt Earth-centered. Perhaps

יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי מְאֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם, לְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הַיּוֹם וּבֵין הַלָּיְלָה; וְהָיוּ לְאֹתֹת וּלְמוֹעֲדִים, וּלְיָמִים וְשָׁנִים. 14 And God said: 'Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years;
טו וְהָיוּ לִמְאוֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם, לְהָאִיר עַל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיְהִי-כֵן. 15 and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth.' And it was so.
טז וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-שְׁנֵי הַמְּאֹרֹת הַגְּדֹלִים: אֶת-הַמָּאוֹר הַגָּדֹל, לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַיּוֹם, וְאֶת-הַמָּאוֹר הַקָּטֹן לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַלַּיְלָה, וְאֵת הַכּוֹכָבִים. 16 And God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; and the stars.
יז וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים, בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם, לְהָאִיר, עַל-הָאָרֶץ. 17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
יח וְלִמְשֹׁל, בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה, וּלְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ; וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים, כִּי-טוֹב. 18 and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good.
describes the placement and establishment of the Earth in its orbit, with a "good" proximity to the sun, the creation of the moon, and the setting of Earth's rate and angle of rotation.

And of course, there is the question of what anythinh in the 6-day creation account really means.

The Age of the Earth
Even if taken absolutely literally, there is the question of why tell us these details. Of what use is the order of creation of creeping creatures vs. fish significant to an Israelite, ritually or spiritually? If it is of no significance, why waste all these words. (In part, this is what Rashi attempts to address in his first statement of why start with Genesis rather than the first commandment, though his question encompasses the entire world and Israelite history up to the Exodus.)

As with any cosmogony, the purpose of the relating the Biblical cosmogony, even if entirely true, is to teach something about God's relationship with the world and his creations. (Just as the Enuma Elish account has the creation of man as an attempt to provide for the gods.)

We see god create the natural order, and He could subvert it - this as opposed to other cultures which made all subject to a natural order. We see God create the host of heavenly bodies - sun, moon, and stars, in order to keep time for his creations - and they are thus not things to be worshipped of their own. We see Hashem create the fish - but not just the fish, but also great sea-monsters:

כ וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים--יִשְׁרְצוּ הַמַּיִם, שֶׁרֶץ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה; וְעוֹף יְעוֹפֵף עַל-הָאָרֶץ, עַל-פְּנֵי רְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם. 20 And God said: 'Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.'
כא וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הַתַּנִּינִם הַגְּדֹלִים; וְאֵת כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ הַחַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת אֲשֶׁר שָׁרְצוּ הַמַּיִם לְמִינֵהֶם, וְאֵת כָּל-עוֹף כָּנָף לְמִינֵהוּ, וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים, כִּי-טוֹב. 21 And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that creepeth, wherewith the waters swarmed, after its kind, and every winged fowl after its kind; and God saw that it was good.
Why mention the creation of great sea monsters, taninim? The sea monsters were the foes of the ancient gods, who battled with them. Here the Torah transforms them into another of God's creations, and thus not another force in the universe opposed to God.

Compare the Leviathan, a sea monster, whose creation is mentioned in Tehillim 104:26:
כה זֶה, הַיָּם גָּדוֹל-- וּרְחַב יָדָיִם:
שָׁם-רֶמֶשׂ, וְאֵין מִסְפָּר; חַיּוֹת קְטַנּוֹת, עִם-גְּדֹלוֹת.
25 Yonder sea, great and wide, {N}
therein are creeping things innumerable, living creatures, both small and great.
כו שָׁם, אֳנִיּוֹת יְהַלֵּכוּן; לִוְיָתָן, זֶה-יָצַרְתָּ לְשַׂחֶק-בּוֹ. 26 There go the ships; there is leviathan, whom Thou hast formed to sport therein.
Thus, God plays with his pet, the Leviathan, in his spare time. He is no opposing force to God.

Note also the nice parallel made between the 1's and 4th (light and luminaries), 2nd and 5th, and 3rd and 6th day in terms of what is created.

Further, what is described in the 6-day account of Creation are the actions of God. God is Unfathomable, and so the reality and exact mechanics of Creation could well be beyond Man's comprehension. Even if Creation is actually being described, it would of course be metaphorical in some respect. Just as we do not think that the God has an arm because of the use of the term zeroa netuya. Along this line of reasoning, within a metaphorical reference, 6 "days" may well refer to eras, or to a conceptual group of related acts of Creation, and are used because the human mind could wrap around the term.

But enough for this issue. Separate from the 6 days is the issue of the age of about 6000 years. This time reference is from Adam, and we should not perforce relate this to the age of the Earth, or the age of dinosaurs, or even the age of early human-like creatures. If Adam and Eve in the garden is metaphor, then much time may elapse from the "six days" to the 6000.

The Age of Civilization
The issue of 6000 years really is a problem in terms of dating civilization. Counting years from Adam, based on genealogical lists throughout Tanach, the time since Adam is less than 6000 years.

First, to attack the science :)
Now, carbon dating is based on extrapolation rather than being directly observed. They look at the half-life of carbon today, and assume that that was its half-life in the past. This may be true, or it may be not. And none of this is testable. To cite a Wired article, which I cited earlier when on a nishtaneh hateva series:
Scientists led by a team at the University of Chicago developed carbon dating in the 1950s. The technique dates a piece of dead organic material by measuring the rate of decay of a radioactive isotope known as carbon-14. The problem: The level of carbon in the atmosphere -- and ultimately in living things -- varies over time. Scientists needed to calibrate their numbers, but that turned out to be a challenge because nuclear weapons used in testing and warfare changed the level of radioactivity in Earth's atmosphere in the 1950s and 1960s.


Could other events have had an effect on the level of radioactivity in Earth's atmosphere in the past, such that the numbers would need to be recalibrated? Is there any way of knowing? Try calibrating with ancient trees, since they figure a specific rate of growth for the trees...

Another interesting tidbit, from the same article:

At first, scientists could only date materials to about 5,600 years ago, the half-life of carbon-14. After a while, newer technology expanded the reliability, but only so far because tree rings don't go back more than 12,400 years ago, said Paula J. Reimer, co-author of the new Radiocarbon report and director of the Center for Climate, the Environment & Chronology at Queen's University Belfast.
This is a curious number. That is, at first, carbon dating did not contradict the Biblical account, but with newer technology, and further assumptions about the past, it began to.

But enough with the science. I am not sufficiently scientifically trained to be able to attack the science. In other words, I most likely have no idea what I am talking about. Let us turn to the text. If the garden of Eden is Biblical metaphor, and the geneological lists with people living for about a thousand years is not taken literally (compare ancient Sumerian king lists in whichs kings ruled for tens of thousands of years), the dating may well be off. If the events in the garden of Eden is Biblical metaphor, then while Adam may have existed historically, he is not necessarily the very first human, but other humans and civilizations could have preceded.

With this (lengthy) introduction out of the way, let us consider the merits of Adam and Eve as metaphor.

C. Adam and Eve as Metaphor
There are many different parts to the story of Adam and Chava (=Eve). There is (in chapter 2) Adam's creation, the naming of the animals, Chava's creation, and (in chapter 3) the sin of eating of the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

If the first chapter, the Biblical cosmogony, is there to tell of the relationship of God to the World and his creations, the second and third chapters tell of the relationship of man to God and the world. Specifically, the creation of Adam in the image of God (tzelem ilu) shows Mankind's (here man and woman) relation to God and role on the earth. The naming of the animals shows Man's dominion of the natural world.

Chava's creation shows the proper relationship between man and woman in married life, in a monogamous relationship, and one unit, with independence from parents. The sin of eating of the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is a lesson about the nature and place of man in this world, and how he is distinct from the angels. It is this last tale, of the Tree of Knowledge, that I wish to focus on.

What are some text-internal reasons we would label the story about the garden of Eden , and paericularly the tree of Knowledge, metaphorical?
  1. Adam = Man and Isha = Woman (she is not named Chava yet) are names of types, and thus connote humanity. Add the consistent use of the definite article which depersonalizes them.
  2. Forget modern science. Talking snakes and a paradise in which nature provides for man, and in which man lives eternally, is not within the perceived reality of any Israelite throughout history. (Of course, the change in the nature of reality is explained at the end in the punishment.) Nor are trees that grant knowledge or eternal life.
  3. Disagreement between chapter 1 and chapters 2 and 3 in the description of the creation of various creatures, including Man. If one or both is metaphor, we can account for the differences.
  4. Consumption of the fruit changes the nature of Mankind.
  5. The "punishments" are not truly personal punishments but rather changes to the very nature of Man and the natural order.
The tale of the eating from the Tree of Knowledge is not a tale of Man's Fall From Grace. Man was not worse off after the "sin" than before. His eating of the fruit of the Tree is inevitable, and it improved him.

Within the text we see that this is an improvement. Thus the serpent says (third chapter):
ד וַיֹּאמֶר הַנָּחָשׁ, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה: לֹא-מוֹת, תְּמֻתוּן. 4 And the serpent said unto the woman: 'Ye shall not surely die; ה כִּי, יֹדֵעַ אֱלֹהִים, כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ, וְנִפְקְחוּ עֵינֵיכֶם; וִהְיִיתֶם, כֵּאלֹהִים, יֹדְעֵי, טוֹב וָרָע. 5 for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.' and God repeats this, so we know it to be true:
כב וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֱלֹהִים, הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ, לָדַעַת, טוֹב וָרָע; וְעַתָּה פֶּן-יִשְׁלַח יָדוֹ, וְלָקַח גַּם מֵעֵץ הַחַיִּים, וְאָכַל, וָחַי לְעֹלָם. 22 And the LORD God said: 'Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.' Man is different from angels. The angels cannot help but do God's will, for they are so constructed. They lack free will. As we read in the first perek, Man was created - deliberately, in God's image. This image of God is the same as that we read in verse 22, above - the knowledge of good and evil, and the ability to choose between them.

In the story, yetzer - temptation and the ability to choose contrary to God's wishes - is personified by the snake. The fruit is not what gives Man the ability to know Good and Evil, and to act against God's will - it is the act of eating it. Eating the fruit was set up as being against God's will, so by eating it, Man turned his ability to choose between Good and Evil from potential to actual.

No reality of Adam and Chava eating the fruit was necessary - the story is a way of highlighting this feature of man in a metaphorical way - but man was created with this ability.

Man is also created with a mission. He is given the ability to know and choose between Good and Evil, between what is God's Will and what is against His Will, and his mission is to choose Good. Thus, Devarim 30:19:

יט הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ--הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; כ לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-ה אֱלֹקֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ וּלְדָבְקָה-בוֹ: כִּי הוּא חַיֶּיךָ, וְאֹרֶךְ יָמֶיךָ--לָשֶׁבֶת עַל-הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע ה לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב, לָתֵת לָהֶם
20 to love the LORD thy God, to hearken to His voice, and to cleave unto Him; for that is thy life, and the length of thy days; that thou mayest dwell in the land which the LORD swore unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them. If an angel must follow God and do Good, what greatness is there in doing so. Man after the "sin" is on a higher level than angels, since he can actually choose Good.

The "punishments," which are cast as punishments in the story, are not really punishments, but declarations of reality as it must be given man's nature.

Since man's calling is to work on himself and be faced with difficult choices as they exist in the "real world," he cannot live in a paradise, for this would be a waste of his potential. He must struggle to bring forth the fruits of his labor, as must Chava. The serpent, who in the tale represents temptation, is now the all-time enemy of man, and man must struggle with the snake - his nature - and man must crush the snake in order to fulfil his mission. Man is not to live forever, but has a path of development, and a set time to choose Good before he returns to the earth, and so man differs from angel. This was the reality from the beginning, but is shown as a reaction to man's nature because they stem from Man's nature.

Man's exile from the Garden (and the other punishments delineated there) is therefore not the unjust action of a Jealous God who guards His Power and fears rivals, or an overreaction to what was seems a minor sin.

There is surely more to to the metaphor, and perhaps other layers of metaphor (e.g. regarding man's relationship to woman), but it seems that a good argument can be made for it being metaphor, arguing on the basis of the text itself.

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