Biblical literalism is on the rise. You can see it in the growth of Bible-based mega-churches where the "word of God" is preached as inerrant truth. But any serious reader of the Bible knows it contains contradictions, ellipses, and vague commands that require interpretation to be understood, let alone followed.
The most apparent challenge to biblical literalism occurs at the beginning of the Bible. The first two chapters of Genesis tell two starkly different stories of the Creation of the world and of humanity.
In the first story, humanity is created "in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27), with no mention of the physical body's creation. In the second story, man is created from dust, and God breathes life into his nostrils (Genesis 2:7). Similarly, the first Creation story culminates with humans created together, "male and female" (Genesis 1:27). In the second, Adam is created first, followed by the fish, birds, and beasts; only then does God derive the woman from Adam's rib. While the first account mentions only the word Elohim to refer to God, the second uses the Tetragrammaton (the Hebrew letters, yud-hei-vav-hei) as well as Elohim.
Most dramatically, God commands the humans in the first story to "fill the earth and tame it" (Genesis 1:28). In contrast, in the second story God places the humans in the Garden of Eden and commands them to "work it and keep it" or, more poetically, "to till and tend it" (Genesis 2:15).
If you take a documentary approach to the Torah, these discrepancies are easy to explain away: different authors wrote these two stories at different times, and a later redactor preserved them both. Case closed. Such a reading, though historically competent, does a disservice to the reader by failing to reach for a deeper meaning within the contradictions.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the giant of Modern Orthodoxy, addressed this interpretive problem in The Lonely Man of Faith. He argued:
It is, of course, true that the two accounts of the creation of man differ considerably. This incongruity was not discovered by the Bible critics. Our sages of old were aware of it. However, the answer lies not in an alleged dual tradition but in dual man, not in an imaginary contradiction between two versions but in a real contradiction in the nature of man. (Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997], p. 10)
Rather than writing off the contradiction as the by-product of an editorial process, Soloveitchik digs deeper. The contradiction itself is the truth, built into our psyche.
"Adam the First," as Soloveitchik names this archetype, responds to the mystery of existence like a scientist, engineer, or businessman. "He is not fascinated by the question, 'Why does the cosmos function at all?' nor is he interested in the question, 'What is its essence?' He is only curious to know how it works . . ." (Soloveitchik, p. 13). In his quest to master the earth, he seeks to understand its materials and processes so that he can control and replicate them himself. In this way, he proves himself to be created "in the image" of his Creator God.
"Adam the Second" thinks like a philosopher or artist. He ignores the functional question of Adam the First in favor of a metaphysical one: "Why did the world . . . come into existence?. . . . What is the purpose of all this? What is the message that is embedded in organic and inorganic matter?. . . . " (Soloveitchik, pp. 21–22). This Adam seeks not to imitate God like Adam the First, but rather to know his Creator, to relate to God.
What if Soloveitchik's idea of dual Adam also offers a window into how we read the Bible? What if the two Creation stories act as a sort of "author's note" to indicate to the reader of Scripture how to interpret the text? What might that look like?
Adam the First reads Torah to master the text. He seeks to know the intricacies of ancient Hebrew grammar and penetrate the original meaning of the text. The words are a code to be unlocked, revealing their singular meaning. He wants to convert the Torah into halachah, a precise system of circumscribed behavior that applies the Torah to everyday life. Thus he exerts his power over the text and imitates the God in whose image he is created by himself creating a system of ordered existence through law.
Adam the Second reads not to be commanded, but to be inspired. For him, the letter of the law matters less than its spirit. He seeks not to pin the text down to a single interpretation, but rather to breathe life into the inanimate letters. He wants the words to find new life in him, to jump off the page and into his soul, to give his life meaning and purpose. He, too, wants to know the author's intent—not as a source of legislative authority, but as a basis for understanding the profound mystery of his existence.
Let's be clear: one Adam is not better than the other, nor more real. Both exist within us, and both offer unique and essential insights into the fullness of our humanity. Indeed, each Adam is incomplete without the other, in life as in the act of interpretation. Adam the First, left unchecked, tends toward arrogance and rigidity. The second Adam, without the grounding influence of the first, will find himself lost with his head in the clouds of lofty ideas.
For a serious Jew, studying Torah is more than an intellectual act. Since its wisdom is meant to pervade our spiritual and ethical lives, how we read it matters. The two Creation stories act as a guide for integrated study, reaching toward integrated living. Not being content with either literalism or biblical criticism alone, we are to forge a middle path. Not only will this make us better readers of Torah, but it also holds the key to the text's redemptive power to make us better human beings.
Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.
Rabbi David Segal calls our attention to two ideas: (1) there are two quite divergent Creation narratives within the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis and (2) a deeper understanding of these stories may be found by having them speak to one another.
I'd like to suggest still another way of reading these two understandings of Creation.
Under the banner of a pseudoscience called "intelligent design," the first chapter of the Book of Genesis is proffered by some as a legitimate scientific alternative to the theory of evolution, which most Reform Jews appreciate, is the basis of all biological science.1
This explanation for life's origins employs an insidious logic that pits our propensity for "fair play" against the incontrovertible fact that religion and science address completely different realities. Indeed, proponents of "intelligent design" insist that intellectual honesty requires us to teach that the stories in Genesis are legitimate historical theories.
Nothing could be further from scientific or historical truth; the truths these biblical tales bespeak are of a mythic sort. This is not to suggest the Torah is less than meaningful. In fact, the accounts of the world's Creation, as recorded in Genesis's two tales, are among the most meaningful stories ever written!
However, the stories of a God who fashioned humanity in the divine image and according to a master plan are neither reliable nor plausible explanations of the world's origins. There is no way, given what we know of the scientific laws of the universe, that the world was created 5,775 years ago, nor for the world to have been created in six days, nor for all seven billion-plus people in the world to have descended from a single pair of parents.
Now, I am mindful that it is a comforting thought to believe there is a God who created the world for a purpose and I appreciate that the loving of a God who created the world for a purpose is a comforting belief.
In fact, I want so much for this to be true, that I deliberately choose to behave as if it is true. Yet, insofar as such a belief speaks to the spiritual and moral dimensions of our lives, the Torah's verses fall into the realm of religion and not into that of science.
Thus, when we study the origins of the universe, we turn to biology, chemistry, and the like. And when we ask the questions that speak to our sense of self, we return to our sacred Torah, which has guided, nourished, and sustained our people's spirit, lo, all these generations.
1. See "Science in Genesis," W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 6
Rabbi Aaron B. Bisno holds the Frances F and David R Levin Senior Rabbinic Pulpit at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
B’reishit, Genesis 1:1-6:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 18-55; Revised Edition, pp. 17-50;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 3-34