Monday, September 29, 2008
[Jan Brueghel the Elder. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. 1615.]
Since tomorrow is the anniversary of the birth of Adam, I think this post is especially appropriate this week.
Traditionally, many Jews have understood the creation story in the first few chapters of Genesis to imply that the universe was created about six thousand years ago and before that nothing material existed. I have the impression that most ultra-Orthodox people would still agree with this.
There is however a problem with this interpretation.
In the 18th century, scientists began studying fossils more intensively. In 1841 three primary layers were identified by geologist John Phillips. One layer, the Paleozoic, consists primarily of extinct shellfish such as trilobites and plants such as ferns. The Mesozoic includes huge extinct reptiles, the dinosaurs. The Cenozoic includes an abundance of mammals, many huge and now extinct such as the mammoths, and flowering plants. All paleontologists since 1841 have confirmed the existence of these primary layers.
This seems to present a problem for Judaism, since Genesis seems to teach that there was one creation event and all life that has ever existed was created at that time. Any fossil layers should include modern day life as well as any species that may have become extinct since creation, however this is not the case.
Rabbi Yisrael Lipschitz, the rabbi of Danzig, Germany gave a speech in April, 1842 (published as Derush Ohr HaChayyim, found in the back pages of the Tiferes Yisrael Mishnayot Nezikin volume 1) resolving the fossil question. Midrash Rabbah Breishis 3:7 and 9:2 states that many other worlds were created and destroyed previously to this one. The commentaries on the midrash explain that the earlier worlds were gradually improved upon and refined. Furthermore, Midrash Rabbah Breishis 1:5 states that this world is like a king's palace which was built on a landfill - a garbage dump of some sort. The Talmud Chagigah 13b states that 974 generations of people existed before creation. Rabbi David Brown in his book “Mysteries of the Creation” explains these ideas in greater detail.
I believe that the following may the be correct interpretation of Genesis:
When the Torah states, for example, (Genesis 1:11) that plants were created on the third day, that means basically two things: the first time plants appeared on earth was a Tuesday and also each Tuesday, even this week, plants are being renewed by spiritual emanations from God (as it says in the literal translation of Psalms 136:7 "To Him making great lights" in the present tense; God is even now energizing them). The same is true for all the days of creation in Genesis 1. This is why Sabbath observance is so central to Judaism - even now, God ceases creating for one day each week and we affirm our belief in Him by doing so as well. The Bible's first thirty four verses are absolutely literal, however they are not describing historical events which happened one time only. Rather, they are describing a cycle of creative events which continues constantly and which did, at certain points in history, millions or billions of years ago, bring these aspects of the universe into physical form for the first time. The first plants may have appeared 500 million years ago - but they appeared on Tuesday and this week they also received renewed energies on Tuesday. The same applies to each other day of the six days of creation. This is what Genesis 1 teaches us. (This also explains why there are "two creation stories" in Genesis. There aren't. Genesis 1 is not merely history.)
History begins from Genesis 2:4. This is the day which the Jewish calendar starts from - New Years (Rosh haShanah) year 0 or Friday, September 1, 3762 BCE according to the Gregorian calendar. Adam was a real person, the garden of Eden was a real place and so on. Adam is the ancestor of all men alive today. His creation represents the beginning of the present, current world and therefore the Jewish calendar begins counting from that day.
The Aramaic translation of the Torah on Genesis 2:7 reads "And the Lord God created Adam from dust of the ground, and breathed upon his face the breath of lives, and it became in Adam a Discoursing Spirit." I would guess, based upon this, that language was born with the creation of Adam. The ability to assign arbitrary sounds to different ideas and connect them using rules of grammar I suspect began only 5768 years ago. This explains why we do not find writing until about 5,000 years ago. Cities were first established at this time. The usage of metal and other advanced technology originated at this time as well. This may have been the result of language. Early, pre-Adam men, who became extinct before Adam's creation, I would suspect were non-verbal. Therefore they only lived in small, primitive communities.
According to Midrash Rabbah Breishis 18:4, the first language was Hebrew and this is the language which Adam and Eve spoke along with their early descendants. I suspect, however that Adam and Eve could not write. There is no reference to writing in the entire book of Genesis. God spoke to people, but did not give them any documents. I would suspect that during the period from Adam until the Tower of Babel (1766 BCE) all people spoke Hebrew and if they wrote they devised various pictographic writing systems such as cuneiform and hieroglyphics. Pictographs continued to be used after the Tower as well (and they still are in eastern Asia).
The Torah was given by God to the Jews at Mount Sinai in 1314 BCE. The Torah was written in some form of the Hebrew alphabet (see Talmud Sanhedrin 21b towards the bottom and afterwards for a discussion of the various ancient Hebrew scripts). At that time writing is first mentioned in the Bible and the alphabet was first used. The earliest translatable alphabetic writing is a Hebrew inscription, found in the Sinai and dated to about 1,500 BCE. Thus the alphabet was born.
Therefore, in summary:
Genesis 1 lists which days of the week different creations first appeared and are spiritually reenergized today, but it does not indicate in which era they first appeared.
We are all descended from one man who was created in 3762 BCE.
At least several other types of ecosystems existed before him and the fossils are remnants of them.
Speech began with Adam. He spoke Hebrew.
Languages other than Hebrew began after the Tower of Babel 1766 BCE.
The alphabet was given to man with the revelation in the Sinai 1314 BCE.
Posted by jewish philosopher at 3:22 PM