he Hebrew Bible starts off by giving an account of the world that is at odds with well-established scientific findings. It is a book that says that heaven and earth were made in one week, yet careful analysis of astronomical data suggests otherwise. It says that various sorts of animals were brought into being just days apart, whereas the fossil record points to an incremental evolution of one species from another over millions of years. It even seems to imply that there was water before there was light, but our understanding of water as a physical and chemical substance dictates that the reverse must be true.
Due to these and other well-known discrepancies between scripture and science, the public ferment over how to read the biblical creation story is relentless—and understandably so, for the dispute is about nothing less than what it means to be right. Yet, even with the stakes so high, the disputations have been uniformly disappointing. The most potent champions of secular reason have argued with some eloquence—and to no useful effect whatsoever—that religious people who believe God created the world are being contemptibly stupid and should stop. Religious people, meanwhile, are mostly indifferent to the rhetoric of these atheist crowd-pleasers, who might as well be speaking in a foreign language. It turns out that it’s very easy to board a plane without accepting all the logical implications of the theory that best explains why it stays in the air. And for any of the faithful who do want some reassurance couched in technical-sounding jargon, the halfway houses of creationist pseudoscience and intelligent design offer a menu of intellectual comfort food that is, alas, far more soothing than nourishing.
There is at least one way out of this seemingly intractable state of affairs, and it lies in a somewhat surprising direction. To start on our way, we need first to realize that Tanakh (the Hebrew acronym that encompasses the three sections of the Bible) itself contains profound commentaries on the nature of language and knowledge. These commentaries are not only compatible with scientific reasoning, but even display an uncommon understanding of what science is. Accordingly, we can begin to argue that the whole question of the Bible’s literal truth or falsity is considered a pointless one by the biblical text itself.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
What does it mean to “create the heavens and the earth”? To begin making sense of Tanakh, we must recognize that words get their meaning through the context of their usage. In this case, the three relevant words—bara, meaning “create”; shamayim, meaning “heavens”; and aretz, meaning “earth”—all have to be explicated through the verses that follow the very first one. In verse 6, we find that there is a rakiya, a “spread out thing.” Creating the heavens consists of situating that rakiya with respect to some other entities that differ from it, and giving it the name “heavens.” In near-identical fashion, in verses 9–10, the aretz is defined through the arrangement and naming of a yabasha, or “dry thing,” as “earth.”
From these first steps we can already infer that creation as bara is first and foremost about giving names to things that are distinguished by recognizable properties. A few chapters later, this inference is resoundingly confirmed: “When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God; male and female He created them. And when they were created (hibaram), He blessed them and called them Man” (Genesis 5:1–2). As before, naming goes hand in hand with creation, this time at the moment when the clearest and brightest distinction between different kinds of people is being drawn. Another riff on the same idea plays out in the Garden of Eden, when the first human being is tasked by God with naming all the animals in the world while in search of an “opposite companion” (Genesis 2:18).
This role granted to people in giving names to living creatures is worth dwelling on, for it reverberates backward to the very first moments described in Genesis. It is by having the capacity for language that man is able to join God as a fully fledged participant in the work of creation—for it is through language that man develops the taxonomy that allows the naming of diverse phenomena. It should come as no surprise, then, that the first recorded action taken by the Creator at the beginning of the world is to speak: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). We have heard this phrase so many times that by the time we are old enough to ponder it, we easily miss its simplest point: The light by which we see the world comes from the way we talk about it.
Saying that our choice of language fundamentally shapes what we understand about the thing we are describing should not be mistaken for an empirically testable claim. Rather, from the perspective of Tanakh, choosing a language is by definition tantamount to the assumption of particular commitments by the group of people who will use that language to communicate.
“Everyone on earth had the same language and ‘dvarim ahadim.’”
The Jewish tradition overflows with separate expressions of this point, but perhaps the best comes to us from the story of the Tower of Babel. United by one language, a city in the Land of Shinaar sets out to build a mighty tower whose top would reach the heavens. The homogeneity of thought in Shinaar is emphasized in the text through a complex repetition. The phrase safa ahat suffices for “one language” while the highly ambiguous phrase dvarim ahadim is usually translated as “and the same words”— but since both words are plural in the Hebrew, it reads as “ones words” or “ones things.” Taken together, they project a sense that all things have been subordinated under a single unifying idea. Ultimately, though, the project is confounded by how words spread, evolve, and diversify over time. Originally fitted together like a tower made of bricks, the coordinated whole eventually fragments along linguistic lines, and when that happens, cooperation toward a common purpose shuts down.
Various scientific accounts of what the world is are convincing, predictive, and useful, and no careful scientific thinker expects one to replace or subsume the other.
Biology and physics constitute two distinct languages for talking scientifically about the same world. For example, a biologist might happen upon a single-celled organism and try to determine which nutrients in its environment have an effect on whether the cell will grow and divide into two cells. A physicist, in contrast, would more likely determine how the cell exerts a force on its surroundings so it can move around. In practice, each of these scientists might need to employ both biological and physical thinking in order to make full sense of their chosen subject; when doing so, however, they must inevitably engage in an intuitive act of translation from one way of talking about things to the other. It may be that gamma rays are toxic to a living creature, but the act of assessing whether that creature is alive after absorbing gamma rays is a different process from assessing how much radiation it absorbed.
Viewed in this light, you can see how various accurate accounts of what the world is might differ depending on which categories and terms are used. Physicists describe the world as a grand mathematical pageant acted out by different types of fluctuating quantum fields; evolutionary biologists characterize the seemingly endless array of adaptations and functions achieved by specific organisms through a continual process of diversification and selection over eons of self-replication. Both of these ways of talking are convincing, predictive, and useful, and no careful scientific thinker expects one to replace or subsume the other.
How much more misguided is it, then, to claim that scientific findings have replaced the message of the Hebrew Bible? The function of Tanakh within the Jewish tradition is unequivocally to call the nation of Israel to the service of God—that is, to enjoin a particular group of people with a shared language and relationship to biblical text to adhere to a specific code of conduct elaborated within it. This point is perhaps best emphasized by the medieval commentator Rashi when he takes up the Talmudic question of whether everything in the Bible preceding the first explicit commandment to the Israelites should be considered irrelevant. Rashi explains that the entire purpose of Genesis is to establish that God, as Creator of the world, may give the Land of Israel to whom He pleases. It is therefore an account of the world that functions as the basis for one people’s fulfillment of their commitment to a particular covenant. And so the content of that covenant (with all its many ritual and ethical details) dictates how the world must be described and conceived.
That is why, in the opening verses of Genesis, we hear about light and dark, day and night, land and sea, and of fish, plants, birds, beasts, men, and women. These are the words that one needs to know first when creating a world that will enable the Israelites to keep their observances. Would it have been a help in pursuing this mission to have words for DNA and electrons, too? Maybe. But surely it is obvious that such technical obscuranda do not make the short list for the sort of beginning required here.
“The waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”
Now, perhaps you are thinking that it is all very well and good to say there are many useful languages for talking about the same world, but that the fights that rage over the validity of scripture are not reducible to differing vocabulary preferences.
The line of scrimmage is drawn most brightly when we pose the question in the following way: Is the creation story of Genesis actually what happened, and should it be taken to be literally true? Or is it merely a metaphor wrapped within a myth? Whether among the secular or the faithful, there is clearly a widespread craving for decisive judgment on this issue.
We commonly hear it said that scientific rationality is the correct method for ascertaining what is true about the world, and while those who think so may allow that the Bible is sometimes very apt, they are ultimately going to judge any claims derived from it in terms of their verifiability or falsifiability.
But the notion that what the Bible does best is provide metaphorical explanations of established (or establishable) scientific phenomena is enraging to adherents of biblical religion. They say the Bible is “literally” true because they correctly appreciate that this word stands in the eyes of everyone for the highest and clearest standard of agreement with reality. They will not embrace the view that their holy text is a confusingly poetic or allegorical version of a plain truth that could have been stated much less ambiguously.
For them, the idea of Bible as metaphor evokes the notion of deception, since in a metaphor the true meaning of a phrase is distinct from its literal one. And there is no question that in the end, a God of metaphor cannot inspire the same allegiance, or give the same comfort and salvation, as an absolutely true and real one. Should it be surprising that people for whom religious commitment is a way of life might bridle at the suggestion that their deepest personal motivations are pegged to a lower rung of reality?
One has to admit that the Hebrew Bible itself is spoiling for a fight over this exact patch of turf. All sorts of intellectual gymnastics involving the relativity of time and the definition of what constitutes “one day” may be possible in an attempt to make the week-of-creation jibe with billions of years passing since the Big Bang. But all that effort is beside the point when we have to confront the brazen miracles it describes later on in the story during the Exodus from Egypt.
Surely, at least part of the purpose of having a whole sea split for the Israelites, with “the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:22), is to provide a fantastically grand example of something happening that seems impossible. Tanakh as a whole is peppered with instances of this kind of event—moments when the rupture between our expectations about what is natural and what the text recounts is awesome enough that we perceive the hand of God in what has happened. Sooner or later, we have to acknowledge that the biblical narrative resists the idea of immutable natural laws in what initially seems to be a flat-out rejection of the scientific worldview.
The full story, however, is far more complicated. For a first hint of this, let us take up the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, that singularly miraculous moment about which the whole Judaic narrative turns.
“The sea saw them and fled…”
The medieval sages comment rather mysteriously on a verse in Psalm 114—“the sea saw them and fled”—that refers to this event by claiming it is actually the fulfillment of a promise made in the distant past:
Shimon of Kitron said: The sea was divided for the sake of Joseph’s casket. Thus the “sea saw it and fled” for the sake of him for whom it is written “and he fled and got him out.” (Midrash Tehilim Rabbah)
Thus, in the view of this rabbinic exegesis, the sea split down the middle because Moses was carrying the bones of Joseph with him—remains that, according to the verse in Exodus that mentions those bones, Joseph had made his Hebrew brethren swear to carry with them back to the Land of Israel 400 years earlier. On its face, this is no explanation at all; rather, it serves as an invitation to scoff at any connection there could possibly be between one of the Bible’s most stunning miracles and a set of four-century-old remains.
But let us consider: Joseph is best known as a dreamer and fortune-teller, the favorite son of Jacob who is betrayed by his envious brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. He lands on his feet, quickly gaining the confidence of his master, Potiphar, and assuming responsibility for managing the whole household. This arrangement does not last, however, once Joseph attracts the attention of Potiphar’s unfaithful wife.
And much as she coaxed Joseph, day after day, he did not yield to her request to lie beside her, to be with her. One such day, he came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside, she caught hold of him by his garment and said, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. (Genesis 39:10–12)
This is the specific moment to which the midrash refers: The sea “fled” because Joseph “fled.” But what on earth could one thing have to do with the other? To understand the significance of this moment in Joseph’s life, we have to put it in the context of the rest of the story. After languishing in prison, Joseph ultimately makes his own fortune as an interpreter of dreams. He helps Pharaoh understand the meaning of some dreams about cows and grain that accurately foretell seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine in Egypt. As a result, Joseph is set in charge of managing Egypt’s whole agricultural economy and succeeds in averting mass starvation while consolidating Pharaoh’s ownership of the land’s wealth and people.
How does Joseph know the future? The Hebrew Bible never records a moment where Joseph either hears or speaks to God in the manner of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Rather, one may argue that his skill lies in understanding how dreams can act as metaphorical models for the predictable aspects of the world. This point is perhaps best expressed in Joseph’s youthful dreams about sheaves of grain and stars in the sky:
Once Joseph had a dream which he told to his brothers; and they hated him even more. He said to them “Hear this dream which I have dreamed: There we were binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered and bowed low to my sheaf.” His brothers answered, “Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?” And they hated him even more for his talk about dreams. He dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: And this time, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” And when he told it to his father and brothers, his father berated him. “What,” he said to him, “is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother, and your brothers, and bow low to you to ground?” (Genesis 37:5–10)
His family thinks he is talking about ruling over them, and they are not entirely wrong. Yet the same dream admits another equally relevant interpretation: namely, that Joseph will be a better farmer because he is a better astronomer.
As it is written in Ecclesiastes 3:1–2, “a season is set for everything…a time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted.” But when? In the present day, it may feel relatively easy to know how long a season is expected to last, and what the optimal timing is for planting a crop that needs a certain amount of rain and sun, but only because so much of this information has been recorded and relayed in calendars, almanacs, and astronomical tables. The backbone of any such store of information is a reliable way of telling time, and at the dawn of civilization, that almost certainly meant looking to the heavens above. When it comes to timing, the sun, moon, and stars are undoubtedly the most regular and reliable phenomena of the natural world, together forming the basis for the definition of days, months, and years.
Joseph’s dreams suggest he understood this fact so well that he correctly anticipated his future superiority as a provider of food produced through exploitation of reproducible patterns in nature. This point is driven home in the blessing Moses gives to the tribe of Joseph at the end of Deuteronomy:
And of Joseph he said: Blessed of the Lord be his land with bounty of dews from heaven, and of the deep that couches below; with the bounteous yield of the sun, and the bounteous crop of the moons. (Deuteronomy 33:13–14)
Like a prophet, Joseph possesses knowledge of the future that is not obvious to everyone. Yet he derives this knowledge not from direct instruction from God, but from the recognition of a hidden, predictable order in the world. As he says to Pharaoh, “the matter is established by God” (Genesis 41:32). It is somehow built into the world by the One who made it. Of course, Joseph is ultimately successful because he figures out how to make this realization useful to other people. Nonetheless, when viewed in this light, Joseph starts to sound rather a lot like a scientist.
This last point deserves special emphasis, because it raises the matter of what kinds of things science can tell us about the world. When Joseph says to Pharaoh, “the seven cows [in your dream]…are seven years” (Genesis 41:26), he clearly is not saying that cows and years are the same thing. Rather, he is making an intuitive claim of correspondence between an object in the modeling space of a person’s imagination (a cow) and a measurable empirical observable (a year). Strange though it may be to say so, this is a fair account of how theoretical science works in general.
The word electron, for example, picks out a vast trove of empirical observations made about the world that can be explained and made consistent with one another through abstract manipulations of certain mathematical objects devised by people. The success of these mathematical objects in making it possible to predict the composition and behavior of many disparate phenomena while making very few modeling assumptions is quite breathtaking, and also extremely useful. All the same, no finite amount of accuracy or usefulness can ever bridge the qualitative gap between the models we dream up and the full-blown reality we encounter.
The nature of this epistemological condition is aptly expressed through the midrash’s pairing of a splitting sea with Joseph’s flight from the wife of Potiphar. Joseph is presented with a tempting opportunity, and the choice before him is how to act. He could run away (and wind up in prison for it, as he eventually does) or he could stay and hop in the sack. So, at this single moment in the life of one individual facing a circumstance unique in its innumerable details, what will he do? Can anyone predict, with certainty, what he will do before he does it? Of course not. We could make a model of who Joseph is in that moment, based on available information and assumptions that have worked exceedingly well in the past. Still, no matter how carefully reasoned our hypothesis might be, the logical possibility of being surprised by what happens next is always with us. As God put it to Moses at the burning bush: “I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14).
A turbulent sea turns out to be no less idiosyncratic than the human heart. At one moment in time, when a particular nation stands at its shores and cries to the Lord for salvation, a body of water splits. Whether it does so because of a distant earthquake or a sudden lapse in Newtonian mechanics is a non-question, philosophically speaking, because in neither case are we talking about a reproducible phenomenon. All we know for sure here is that the usual modeling assumptions we make a priori turn out to give us the wrong expectations in this individual case, and the remaining question from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible is, What meaning should we discern from our surprise?
The example of Joseph emphasizes the role of the scientist as one particularly persuasive species of dreamer, leaving a vast amount of room for different accounts of the same world to be true.
What the text here demonstrates with startling intricacy is how the unpredictability of the world is inseparably interwoven with the very possibility of making choices of moral significance.
To call the world a clockwork mechanism, wheeling about like the fated stars that helped Joseph tell agricultural time, is to rob human beings of responsibility and of the chance to take actions that have meaning. Yet the minute we acknowledge that we can never know with certainty what is going to happen, we have to allow that seas are no less capable of surprising us than people, for in either case our model of the subject in question will always be woefully incomplete.
Thus, the question of whether the Hebrew Bible is “literally” true is itself too simplistic, going by the book’s own more rigorous epistemological standards. Was the world created in seven days? In any scientific attempt at constructing a plausible model of the past, we have to start by stating our modeling assumptions so that empirical observations in the present can be tested against them. Almost comically, Joseph the scientist is twice the victim of this sort of exercise, when—first at the hands of his brothers, and then in the household of Potiphar—a stolen garment of his is held up as convincing forensic evidence supporting an account of the past Joseph himself can directly refute.
Does that mean scientists are lying, or mistaken, when they sift through fossils and cosmic microwaves trying to piece together what brought us to where we are? Of course not; there may be different ways of interpreting the same data, but some are more convincing than others. Nonetheless, the example of Joseph emphasizes the role of the scientist as one particularly persuasive species of dreamer, leaving a vast amount of room for different accounts of the same world to be true. Remember, after all, that Pharaoh dreamed two different dreams, each consistent with the same underlying meaning. As Joseph himself declared, it was precisely this diversity of valid descriptions that proved the future he foretold had been “established by God.”
The Sea of Reeds split for Joseph’s bones because they are, at the end of the day, disparate pieces of the same world—the same partly predictable world. Together, they remind us that we are free to make choices, and that the ones we make define our relationship to the One Who made us.