The recent Pew Research Poll, finding that a plurality of Republicans now reject evolution, has inspired the posting of more than a few diaries here on Daily Kos. My own response has been one of sadness. The Bible is one of the great works of ancient literature, indeed, it is one of the greatest works of literature from any era. Reading this great work of literature should serve as a portal to explore other literary works; the Bible should not be a wall that closes the mind to science, art, literature and other fields of knowledge. While I do not wish to trumpet Judaism, in our faith the Bible, unless read as literature, is not read alone. Instead, the Bible is read with the commentary of the sages of the past 2,000 - from the Talmud, to Rashi (more on Rashi in a moment), Maimonides, and Nachmanides, down to rabbis and scholars of the present day and recent past, including Abraham Joshua Heschel and Nechama Leibowitz. Studying the Bible through the thoughts and writings of these and other sages, I believe, guards against the willful ignorance that apparently now infects a plurality of Republicans.
I am offering a reinterpretation of the opening lines of Genesis. This is my interpretation, but it is not really new, as it is based on (1) Rashi's understanding of the text - for if Rashi is correct, then the King James and modern Bibles have mistranslated the text - and (2) textual analysis of the word אוֹר - light. I offer my reinterpretation below the squiggly.
Christian fundamentalists often forget that Genesis was written in ancient Hebrew and not in Shakespearean English. A modern Torah scroll may very well mirror the original text. If you examine a Torah scroll, you will notice the absence of punctuation - not a single period or comma to be found. Punctuation did not exist in ancient Hebrew. New thoughts are delineated in two ways - by skipping a space, or by going
to the next line. It is safe to put a period at the end of a skip or a paragraph, but putting periods inside a paragraph was a matter of educated guesswork. In most paragraphs, it was obvious that more than one sentence needed to be delineated. For example, chapters 42 through 44 of Genesis form several columns of a Torah scroll as one long paragraph, without a single break. It was the Church, and not the rabbis, who in the Middle Ages divided the Bible into chapters and verses.
But does a modern Torah scroll mirror the ancient text? And did the Church get it right?
The oldest Torah scroll dates back to the 12th century. It is identical in all respects to a modern scroll - for over 800 years scribes have faithfully copied Torah scrolls letter by letter, leaving the identical breaks for paragraphs. But how accurate is the text? Rashi wrote his commentary on the Torah during the 1000's, and on virtually each of the approximately 12,800 pages of the Talmud, one or more rabbis are quoting Biblical text - either to support whatever proposition the rabbi is making, or to explain the text. Based on these texts, we were able to infer that the Bible in our possession today is essentially the same text that Jesus and Rabbi Hillel knew. Any doubt in this regard was dispelled by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where the Biblical texts discovered match, or virtually match, what we have today.
So we can conclude that Jesus and Hillel would have known a Torah where the first break in the text occurs after Genesis 1:5, with no sentences delineated therein. Using the KJV, we would have the following:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth and the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters and God said let there be light and there was light and God saw the light that it was good and God divided the light from the darkness and God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night and the evening and the morning were the first day.According to Rashi, the text should be understood to read:
When God as Judge began creating the heavens and all that was embedded in them, and the earth and all that was embedded in it, the earth was astonishingly empty, darkness was over the waters which covered the earth, and the Throne of Glory hovered over the waters by the command of God, God as Judge said, "Let there be light" and there was light.Rashi's understanding of text, which apparently predates the Church's division of this text into sentences, drastically changes what Christians have understood the text to mean. For, according to Rashi, God's first act was not to create the heaven and the earth, but to create light!
And what was this "light", this אוֹר - pronounced "oer"?
The sun? Very possibly. Even the ancients would have realized that life on earth could not have existed without the sun. (Although the 3rd day, Genesis 1: 11-13, when plant life was created, and the 4th day, Genesis 1: 14-19, when God created the sun, the moon and the stars, are backasswards. The rabbis noticed this and tried to explain it in the Talmud, but I won't digress further.)
What about the Big Bang? I wasn't around for it, but I imagine it created lots of light! But late 20th century scientific theories, based on observations of an expanding universe, would have been beyond the comprehension of the ancient author(s) - we really shouldn't go there.
To present a possible solution to this question, I have consulted my old college "Bible" - the American College Dictionary (1962 Edition). It has 3 entries for "light", 63 definitions in total, many with an "a", "b" and "c". Counting those sub-definitions, there are 71 definitions in total, taking up half a page. I'll start out with the first two and then skip to my proposed meaning of אוֹר:
1. that which makes things visible, or affords illumination: all colors depend on light. 2. Physics. a. electromagnetic radiation to which the organs of sight react, ranging in wave length from about 4000 to 7700 angstrom units and propagated at a speed of about 186,300 miles per second. It is considered variously as a wave, corpuscular or quantum phenomenon. Also called luminous or radiant energy. b. The sensations produced by it on the organs of sight. c. A similar form of radiant energy which does not affect the retina, as ultraviolet or infrared rays. 3. . . .I propose that the Genesis text should be understood to read that God's first creation was to create "mental or spiritual illumination or enlightenment." But did ancient Hebrew have such a meaning? The answer is - yes!
. . . .
16. Mental or spiritual illumination or enlightenment: to throw light on a mystery. 17. (pl.) Information, ideas, or mental capacities possessed: to act according to one's lights. . . . .
Every morning, 365 or 366 mornings a year, the very observant Jew recites the morning prayers, which includes the Ohr Chadash:
Cause a new light [אור חדש] to shine upon Zion, and may we all merit to see it soon.This prayer appears in the prayerbook of Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the oldest Jewish prayerbook known, dating back to the early 900's. And in all probability the Ohr Chadash prayer is hundreds of years earlier, part of the standard order of prayer developed by Rabbi Gamaliel II in the First Century CE. Now, for the past 2,000 years, have pious Jews prayed every morning, 365 or 366 days a year, for a big candle or torch or electric light bulb to shine upon Zion? Of course not. So, in rabbinical Hebrew, אוֹר means spiritual illumination as well as physical illumination.
Blessed art Thou, Lord, creator of the great lights.
But what about Biblical Hebrew? Three times the prophet Isaiah used the words לאור גויים - a light unto the nations, at Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, and 60:3. There were two, or possibly three prophets that in ancient times got lumped together in the Book of Isaiah; these two words were uttered on these three occasions by the second prophet Isaiah during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE. Reading these three passages, it is clear that the prophet is not prophesizing that Israel will be the world's leader in hydroelectric power, but a source of spiritual illumination for the world. Concededly Genesis is an older writing than Second Isaiah, but I do suggest that this is sufficient evidence to suggest that this usage of the word is very ancient indeed.
So, what was the point of this diary? To suggest that the Bible is not a superficial work but, when examined in detail, becomes susceptible to multiple interpretations. Fundamentalist Christians are wrong to use the Bible as a shield for their willful ignorance, just as some atheists here are wrong to dismiss it as ignorant myth. And the Bible should not and must not be used to deny evolution, or the age of the earth and the universe, or the Big Bang, or climate change - the Bible is far too complex to make such ignorant conclusions.