Monday, September 29, 2008

How I Understand Genesis

[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.


Anonymous said...

How come you were raised christian and your last name is stein?

jewish philosopher said...

I went to court and changed my name.

Garnel Ironheart said...

It is interesting to know that in the "right" yeshivahs, the Yiferes Yisrael's drush is removed from the books and destroyed, lest the students learn of his heretical lapse.
At any rate, one can also interpret "day" as "era" since the word "yom" frequently takes on their meaning throughout Tanach. There is no problem reconciling an old world with the story in Bereshis.
In addition, your year calculation vis a vis Adam is off since genetic evidence clearly shows modern humanity to be older than that. However, this can also be reconciled as the wording the Torah uses to discuss the condition of the world during the Flood strongly implies (see Rashi who hints at it as well) that time was suspended. The "year" of the flood could have been thousands of years long, just as each "day" of creation could have lasted millions. In the end though, we agree there is no conflict between Genesis and science.

jewish philosopher said...

As far as I know, in Kollel Chazon Ish the Tiferes Yisroel was unedited.

As far as I know, the genetic clock is very speculative.

Garnel Ironheart said...

All science is very speculative but it's all we have to go on from the secular point of view.

The one major limitation of science isn't the science itself but rather "scientism", the atheistic bias (almost religious in nature although they'd never admit it) that non-believing scientists bring to their work. Given the huge amount of data and the natural error rates in any investigation, what you find is always going to be what you look for. That's the major difference between pro-global warming scientists and anti ones. Which studies matter, which you discredit and which you use in your analysis.

Moishe said...

Sholom Jacov!

1) I dont believe in such far-removed-from-peshat explanations. IMHO It's science should be explained to fit to the Holy Torah, not the vise versa.

2) There exist several explanations of fossil sorting within peshat of the Torah :

Kol Tov!

Yeshivish Atheist said...

You should read what Rav Aryeh Kaplan had to say on this subject, it might be an approach you would appreciate.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, there is some archeology evidence to support that Hebrew was the first written language, if you assume a "written language" is a symbol associated with a sound (letters), not an object (pictograph). Some of the first writing was found in the Sinai desert, dated around the time of the Exodus (or slightly prior). It was theorized to have evolved from Hyrogliphics.

This predates both Cuniform and Sanscrit writting.

JCS said...

I would be interested to know what the traditional Jewish view of the serpent in the garden is. Was that serpent "Satan" or merely a serpent?

I have no Jewish background and was recently told by a Jewish friend what he thought about it but I don't know that his views are in keeping with historical Jewish perspectives

jewish philosopher said...

I'm not sure really.

JCS said...

Thanks for your reply.

Do you know where I might find this information? I am really struggling with Gen 1-3 (for obvious reasons) and it seems important to me to have all my ducks in a row before I start making assessments.

jewish philosopher said...

You might try starting here.

Rambam said...

Did you read the wikipedia article on Cuneiform? How on earth can you claim that writing appears 5000 years ago? The wiki entry says cuneiform was around starting in the 34th century BC!! One could argue that date I am sure, but there can be no argument that it was around WAY before Adam's supposed life.

Genesis was written by people ignorant of actual human history, get over it.

jewish philosopher said...

I don't understand the problem. I am suggesting that speech began with Adam in the 38th century BCE and writing is first found in the 34th century BCE.

Ramdam said...

Adam was not around in the 38th century BCE, not according to the Torah (literally) or any traditional commentary.

jewish philosopher said...

This year is 5771 on the Jewish calendar, meaning Adam was created 5,771 years ago. Do the math.

Rambam said...

So was Adam around in the 38th century BCE or not? If he was created 5,771 years ago then he was not. You are contradicting yourself.

Do the math.

jewish philosopher said...

I really don't follow. Isn't 3762 BCE in the 38th century BCE?

Rambam said...

Whoops counting error on my part.

Still, this article is almost all empty assertions.

Cuneiform evolved from earlier proto-writing systems that were around long before Adam would have lived so arguing that language bursts onto the scene all at once with Adam is absurd. You have no evidence for this other than his being contemporary with cuneiform. You take an opposite view of all the scholarship that understands language to have originated 50,000-60,000 years ago when pottery and other sophisticated cultural practices were at already in play. To assert that language and writing emerge at the exact same time miraculously, well without evidence that is just arguing like a religious crank.

Alphabets are said to originate about hundreds before you claim, IN THE ARTICLE YOU CITE!!! i.e.

"There have been two major discoveries of inscriptions identified as this script, the first in the winter of 1904-1905 in Sinai by Hilda and William Petrie, dated to the mid 19th century BCE, and more recently in 1999 in Middle Egypt by John and Deborah Darnell, dated to the 18th century BCE."

Ummm, I thought it came at Sinai? What is going on in the 18th and 19th century BCE????

Nice try attempting to rationalize your silly Bible. Unfortunately, speech begins long before Adam, alphabets originate long before Sinai, and non-Hewbrew languages (e.g. ancient Egyptian) show up long before the Dispersion.

Even if all your silly theories were true. There isn't a verse in the bible suggesting any of your rationalizations. IT does say a whole lot about stars and animals being CREATED 6000 years ago though. Sooo.. well, the rational conclusion is that the Torah was written by people ignorant of cosmology and actual human history. Your attempt to make this seem like anything other complete drivel in the aftermath stinks of special pleading.

jewish philosopher said...

Does anyone have any idea why people existed for 200,000 years as illiterate stone age tribes and then suddenly everything changed about 6,000 years ago with writing, metal tools and cities?

Seems odd.

Also, hieroglyphics are pictographs. There is no way of knowing what the spoken Egyptian language was or if it changed. Japanese and Chinese are entirely unrelated but share the same pictographic writing system.

Rambam said...

We should expect good ideas like writing to spread around quite quickly. So the period right after writing comes about should appear sudden. However, scholars have identified much proto-language which suggests gradual evolution. Do you have a shred of evidence for the contrary assertion you repeat over and over without justification??

Sort of a trend with you, huh?

Are you gonna answer about your mis-dating the first alphabets?

It is true that we have no direct evidence of spoken languages. The existence of writing 6000 years ago and the technology we know these people have suggests speech is much older than you claim. Since the bible is your only source for this claim, you deserve to be laughed at until you back it up with something.

You also fail to provide any biblical sources for your claims, so the mere fact that your imagination is NOT inconsistent with the bible or most archeology is not the same as being the theory that best fits both.

jewish philosopher said...

The point is that I don't find any scientific evidence which refutes the Torah and on the contrary much supports it. It's a little odd that 97% of human history was in the stone age and then BOOM the last 3% has gone from the stone age to the space age. What happened?

Rambam said...

Scientific evidence which refutes the Torah: The Torah claims that the Sun was created after the earth. Scientific evidence suggests the opposite. Of course, you will say that the Torah never intended to tell us anything factual about creation... right... Apparently the whole story was really about language you say. I am asking you to back this up from the text. You can't because that wasn't what the text was actually saying. What it was saying: a bunch of horseshit that scientific evidence proves to be such.

As for why the rate of change of human progress picked up. This is so obvious that it really underscores how sad your method is. You view everything through the lens of confirming your own biases. I ask you, didn't things change rather dramatically in the industrial revolution? Each epoch in human history has been much shorter than the previous. The acceleration in change has been a universal, so it says nothing specific at all about anything supernatural.

So "What happened?"

Extremely disruptive technologies like writing, the internet, etc. tend to spread extremely quickly and produce profound change. No deity required.

There is a huge difference between what you can squeeze into a very stupid worldview, and what is the simplest and best explanation of the evidence. You have got this badly confused.

You still don't want to acknowledge the point about your lying about the dating of the script. Just like you wouldn't acknowledge your other lie about no rabbi's being convicted of sex with chidren in another thread.

The only thing sadder than your closed-mindedness, extreme bias/dishonesty is your extreme conceit and enormous pride in yourself that makes it impossible for you to see your errors or think rationally. Sad.

jewish philosopher said...

Clearly, no one really believes in Darwin's monkey myth either, as I have explained here.

However idiots like you will continue preaching it until the last living human staggers out of a gay bar and drops dead in the gutter from a heroin overdose.

How very, very sad.

Rambam said...

You won't admit your a liar. It is in plain sight for everyone on the web to see. How pathetic.

Wow and you seem so clever and superior with your red herring.

What's more. Your chosen red-herring just further highlights your ignorance and conceit.

jewish philosopher said...

You can't even count and figure out which century is which. The morons who comment here...

Rambam said...

I make mistakes. I can admit it. It's called honesty, try it. You provide false information in your posts, are called on it, and won't acknowledge in the comments, let alone change your post. Your comeback is that I am a moron, for making a mistake I already acknowledged. Seriously. Like I said, your deceit and conceit is in plain sight for all to see. What a joke you are.

two questions:

What is the minimum piece of evidence / observation that would lead you to reject your religion?

What do you consider to be the biggest obstacle to your convictions? In other words, what is the biggest weakness in your ship?

jewish philosopher said...

"What is the minimum piece of evidence / observation that would lead you to reject your religion?"

I would be convinced of evolution if I would see credible evidence strong enough to support such an incredible idea: for example, millions of intermediary steps showing the development by trial and error variation from a worm to a fish. Considering the fact that marine animals are often preserved in sediment and for 200 years scientists have collected billions of fossils, the fact that we cannot find even one such example of evolution is the clearest proof Darwin was wrong.

"what is the biggest weakness in your ship?"

I don't think there really are any.