It is probably not hyperbole to say that the Torah’s Creation story is one of the most powerful and influential stories in human history.
But here’s a provocative question. Is it literally true?
Our first instinct might be an emphatic and outraged “of course it is!” and shut down all discussion. Instead, let’s consider the matter soberly.
The Creation story is a type of creation myth, a genre common to all societies across all human history.
A genre is a category of things characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. Creation myths are symbolic stories that carry enormous influence on our lives and societies. The word “myth” itself doesn’t primarily mean false or fanciful; in the society in which it is told, a myth is regarded as conveying profound truths – not just literally, but metaphorically, symbolically, and historically.
A creation myth is potent and formidable because the ideas it contains express in narrative form what we experience as our basic reality – where we come from, how we find ourselves where we are, and crucially, where we are going.
The idea of a creation myth is not particular or unique to the Torah. It is a feature across all cultures in human history, and we probably each have our own personal creation myth about the direction.
To ask if a myth is literally and factually true is to miss the message entirely and is the wrong lens to understand it on any level.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch emphasized that the Torah is not a textbook of magic or metaphysics. The Torah is not a how-to manual of how God created the universe; it’s about how to ethically form and structure human society in general and Jewish society in particular.
The Creation story is about 34 verses long, whereas the Mishkan and its related laws and services occupy close to a quarter of the Torah. R’ Jonathan Sacks quips that while the Torah is clearly interested in talking about the natural universe, the home god makes for us; it is clearly much more interested in the home man makes for God.
Moreover, the Torah speaks in human language for humans to understand – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם. The Torah does not describe things in terms of objective truths known only to God but in terms of human understanding, which is, after all, the basis for human language and expression. There is literally no point whatsoever for the Torah to include information we could not comprehend.
The Torah is God’s handiwork. But godly as it may be, it must be read, understood, and practiced by imperfect humans. It’s not a deficiency in the medium, the Torah – it’s a deficiency in us, the audience.
Taking the entire Torah at literal face value only, we’d practice the law of the captive woman, the law of the rebellious son, and we’d all be blind from taking an eye for an eye.
Using just one example, the concept of “the image of God” literally means God has a form, an incorrect and possibly heretical belief. Taken non literally, it’s an astoundingly egalitarian concept and infinitely more consequential, to the extent that one sage, Ben Azzai, identified it as the essential principle of the Torah.
The Torah was given in the ancient world, where the available universe of ideas held that the ancient world’s gods were part of nature and often fought each other. For example, in Atrahasis, a contemporary Akkadian epic, there were different tiers of god, and the working class gods were tired of serving the upper-class gods. So they created humans from the dirt to be the new underclass and relieve the working gods of their labor. In this cosmic order, the gods are indifferent to humans at best, and humans don’t matter at all. Humans exist to be enslaved and serve the gods. Critically, this corresponded to the earthly social hierarchy, where people exist to serve the priestly class and king, who serve the gods best.
This entire hierarchy is utterly obliterated by the Torah when the One singular God, free and independent, creates humans out of love, and in God’s image, creates them free. This imagery completely delegitimizes the language of oppression and enslavement and reimagines humans as supremely valuable and completely free. Note also how the “formed from dirt” motif is inverted and elevated when God personally infuses the dirt with a soulful breath of life – וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים.
The Mishna learns from the imagery of the emergence of humanity by creating one individual that each life is its own universe, so when one person takes another’s life, it is like destroying a universe. When a person saves a life, it is as if he saved a universe.
R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we take self-identity for granted today, but historically, self-identity was subsumed to community and culture. In a world where the individual self barely existed and mattered very little, it’s radical to say that God cares for us individually because it’s not obvious at all – בשבילי נברא העולם.
The motifs in the Torah’s creation story don’t need to be literal to be explosive. All this and more, from just one concept – the image of God.
The development of the scientific method created an inflection point in the trajectory of human knowledge, transforming our understanding of the world around us. We needn’t feel threatened by revolutionary ideas like evolution and the Big Bang, because once again, the Torah speaks in human language for humans to understand. Imagine explaining General Relativity and the age of the Universe to a band of barely literate slaves in the desert 3000 years ago. Dinosaur bones were only discovered in 1677 and were believed to belong to giants!
If we’re looking to the Torah to teach us empirical facts, or parsing the text for hints or rebuttals to an old or young universe, to evolution or dinosaurs, to arcane magic or General Relativity, we are going to come away disappointed because that is not a primary function of the Torah; how it all works is a wholly separate and parallel track to what it all means.
As R’ Jonathan Sacks explains, science speaks of causes, but only religion can speak about purpose; science can take things apart to see how they work, but only religion can put things together to see what they mean.
If science is about the world as it is, and religion is about the world that ought to be, then religious people need science because we cannot apply God’s will to the world if we do not understand the world.
Torah is an art, not a science.