Sunday, February 14, 2010

Evolution in the Bible

2/13/2010--In Elie Wiesel’s little book, Rashi, some of the better known observations of this highly influential medieval biblical and talmudic commentator are set forth. Rashi, whose name was Solomon ben (son of) Isaac, was born around 1040 in Troyes, France. His influence in the Jewish world of the time was unsurpassed. Even today, faced with a question about the meaning of a verse in the Talmud, orthodox Jews will first look to Rashi, whose commentary is included in the text of traditional versions of the Talmud. My Soncino computer version of the Babylonian Talmud includes Rashi, for example, though only in the original, not in translation.

Rashi read the Torah, the Old Testament, literally, but imaginatively. The results could be surprising. For example, given Adam’s reaction upon seeing Eve for the first time, “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”, Rashi concludes that Adam had previously mated with the animals but only achieved satisfaction when mating with Eve.

The verse in Genesis in which God curses the snake reads, “upon your belly shall you go” (3:14). Rashi therefore concludes that the snake had legs but then lost them. As we now know, that is truly the natural history of the snake.

This observation is of interest for two reasons. For one thing, it suggests an early human memory of change, if not evolution, in the natural world. Vestigial limbs may have prompted thoughts of changes in animal forms in early humans. The inclusion of such a hint in the Bible, like the reference to Mediterranean flood accounts, may point to stories and myths with origins in the natural world.

More significant in Rashi’s suggestion is his method. Rashi is of course a biblical literalist in the sense that everything in the Bible is true. But he is not a biblical fundamentalist. Not everything is in the Bible, hence the legs of the snake are not mentioned, which means that a lot of natural history is left out. Nor does the Bible always say what it means. When the sons of Aaron are punished with death by God for offering “strange fire” to God (Leviticus, 10:1), Rashi concludes that they were drunk.

This kind of playfulness with the text does not denigrate it but makes it live. Rashi’s faithfulness is not to Torah as such, as if Torah were the point, but to the relationship of humankind, principally the Jewish people to be sure but not exclusively, to God. To that end, the question is not whether the Bible is true, but what it teaches us about how to live. And in that quest, neither Rashi nor the other rabbis of the tradition, abandon their own judgment. If the Bible commands us not to eat pork, then of course we don’t eat pork. But if the Bible commands us to stone violators of the Sabbath to death, we don’t just do that and in fact that command fades away in Jewish history.

Then why read the Bible at all? Why not just live together as a community through human reason? That was not a question for them, but it is for us. My reason for beginning with the Bible and the other great religious texts of humanity is that they teach us the truths of humanity, history and nature. They reflect our collective wisdom. The Torah teaches an orientation toward reality that makes sense of the world. And except for the fact that God does not exist as an entity, I agree with Rashi that the Bible is basically true.


  1. Oh boy. The snake lost its limbs over 50 million years ago, so there is no early human memory of it.

    Christian fundamentalists don't have the long rabbinic tradition of interpretation, so they stick only to the text itself. Otherwise, they are the same as Jewish literalists.

    What you call playfulness with the text is what I call making stuff up.

    "And except for the fact that God does not exist as an entity, I agree with Rashi that the Bible is basically true." That's got to be the biggest exception I've ever heard. Of Biblical proportions, actually.

  2. It's true in the sense that it is infinitely malleable, like any text. Ask any Kabbalist. In fact, the real challenge is to find any text where the reader can't wring some ostensibly true meaning out of it.

  3. I would not say infinitely malleable. If that were the case, we would not understand each other. This is an old literary debate about the community of competent readers. In the case of God, I agree with the statement by Walter Brueggemann in Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy 113 (1997): “The Old Testament insists that there is a moral shape to the public process that curbs the raw exercise of power. It equally insists that there is a hidden cunning in the historical process that is capable of surprise and that prevents the absolutizing of any program or power.” This describes God as the way things are rather than as a being.

  4. I would not say infinitely malleable. If that were the case, we would not understand each other.

    As is often the case, the goal is not understanding but persuasion.