Thoughts on the Stories in the Bible
I recall many years ago, a colleague describing a discussion with young people about some of the stories in the Bible. He asked them whether they believed that the story of Noah and the Flood (for example) really happened and most of the students replied that they did not believe the story was true. Then he asked them whether they thought he believed the story and most of them thought that certainly the rabbi must believe it was true, that it really happened as described in the Torah.
One of the things we were taught in Seminary was that there are different kinds of truth and that even when a story is not historically or factually true, even if it was total fiction, it still may contain important truths. It is in this way that I have come to understand the biblical narratives. As Sporting Life points out in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” regarding the stories in the Bible, “they ain’t necessarily so.” So why then read these “fairy tales”? They are in fact the Myths of our tradition. In using the word “myth” here, I mean it in its technical sense as the ancient traditions of a culture that are intended to explain the basic beliefs and principles of our faith.
Personally, I wonder how many Romans or Greeks actually accepted the stories of their gods and goddesses as factually true. Do Native Americans or other aboriginal peoples, when they retell their traditional stories about ancient times, really believe that those stories are factual and that is how the world came to be? Perhaps, just as some people take the biblical stories as literal, historical truth, people of other cultures may do the same. I suspect, though, that at least some of them see the stories simply as allegories and pious legends that, in the absence of actual scientific knowledge or historical documentation, provide a basis for all that they believe in this world today. They create a foundation and teach important lessons even if they have no basis in fact. As some people have noted, there are history books that are not factual and, on the other hand, there are works of fiction which impart deep and important truths. Though our biblical texts may have some basis in history, I believe that their eternal teachings are what we are looking for as we read them and study their text year after year.
I found this statement by a Christian theologian and author, Conrad Hyers,(1933 – 2013), which summarizes this view. Hyers writes, “Myth today has come to have negative connotations which are the complete opposite of its meaning in a religious context... In a religious context, myths are storied vehicles of supreme truth, the most basic and important truths of all. By them, people regulate and interpret their lives and find worth and purpose in their existence. Myths put one in touch with sacred realities, the fundamental sources of being, power, and truth. They are seen not only as being the opposite of error but also as being clearly distinguishable from stories told for entertainment and from the workaday, domestic, practical language of a people. They provide answers to the mysteries of being and becoming, mysteries which, as mysteries, are hidden, yet mysteries which are revealed through story and ritual. Myths deal not only with truth but with ultimate truth.”
Last Monday night in our Rabbinic Judaism class on Zoom, we began looking at the biblical book of Proverbs and various commentaries both by traditional rabbinic authorities and by some modern biblical scholars as well. Tradition holds that Proverbs, as well as Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, were all the product of King Solomon, the son of King David, who lived in the 10th century BCE and who founded the dynasty that ruled the southern kingdom of Judah for some 400 years. Archaeologists have found proof that there indeed was a King David, but some have claimed, based on the actual remains uncovered by archaeologists, that the biblical descriptions of the city of Jerusalem, the Temple of Solomon, and the extent of the kingdom at the time of David and his son Solomon, do not reflect the reality of the 10th century. They claim that the stories in the Books of Samuel and Kings are a re-envisioning of that period in light of the reality of a later age. It reflects the glory of King Josiah’s reign in the 7th century, when Jerusalem had greatly grown, the power of the kingdom had increased, and the Temple had become a major religious shrine. It is sort of like describing Washington, DC, in the time of Adams and Jefferson, as if it was a major government and cultural center like today.
What these scholars are saying then, as I understand it, is that David and Solomon by the time these biblical books were written had become mythical heroes. Sure, they were real kings, but over time they had become figures of myth, larger than life. Sacred stories had grown up around them and biblical writings were ascribed to them. King David is seen as the author of the Book of Psalms and Solomon of Proverbs and other volumes. The biblical stories about Solomon tell us that he received a gift of great wisdom from God and became the wisest of all men before and after. By ascribing the book of Proverbs to Solomon, its anonymous author (or authors) is claiming that its teachings are indeed words of great wisdom to live by, as if they had come from the wisest of all men.
Our most recent Torah portions have been filled with stories of miraculous events: the plagues brought against Egypt, the splitting of the sea for Israel to cross on dry land and the drowning of the Egyptian army who were in pursuit, the various wonders wrought in the desert: manna, quail, water from rocks, and others. This week we will read of the revelation at Mount Sinai and future passages in the Torah include miraculous fire descending from heaven, the opening of the earth to swallow up Korach and his followers, and even a talking donkey.
Great efforts have been made to show how these “miracles,” could have actually happened from a scientific perspective. Yet many of these efforts turn up short. For example, I mentioned from the pulpit last week the discovery in Sinai, already in the 15th century, of a substance much like the biblical description of manna. However, it only appears for about six weeks each year and in quantities not nearly enough to feed the 600,000 men of Israel and their families (assuming that number is accurate). In addition, this substance does not care about shabbat. It doesn’t come in double quantities on Friday and it continues to appear on Saturday, in contradiction to the biblical narrative. Should we reject the stories because they are not factual and rather imaginative? I don’t think so, they are all part of the myth and we do not need to explain them. They teach us of our belief in divine providence as well as establishing the fundamental nature of shabbat.
When rabbinical students would question any of these miraculous passages in scripture, one of the professors at the Seminary supposedly would respond in a humorous vein, “Was you there, Cholly?” There is no need to come up with scientific proofs and tortured explanations, these are all part of the story. What we are challenged to do is to understand what message is being conveyed. What can we learn from these myths?
I think one of the most challenging verses in the Torah is the constantly repeating refrain, “Vay’daber Adonay el Moshe leimor,” The Lord spoke to Moses the following. If, as we sing in Yigdal, “ein lo d’mut haguf v’eino guf” God has neither the image of a body nor a body, how did God speak to Moses? Without the physical components by which we make sounds and create language, how did God communicate His will to Moses? What, if anything, did Moses actually hear? For most of the biblical figures who hear from God, we can say it happened in a dream or in a vision. However, with Moses, the text makes it explicit that God spoke to Moses “face to face” and Moses got the message and conveyed it to the Israelites. If this is “just” a myth, then what are we to make of all these commandments? If they are “divinely inspired” and handed down by the teachers and leaders of our people through the ages are they any less important to us? Does that make them any less binding?
Some scholars have cast doubts on the whole story of Israelite enslavement in Egypt. That chapter in our sacred history is a fundamental element of our values and beliefs. “You know the heart of the stranger” and therefore we are to treat others properly and seek out the divine image in all people. Again and again in our prayers we hark back to the story of the Exodus and its meaning for us. Regardless of the historicity of the biblical story of the Exodus, whether or not there ever was a Moses, does not really impact our Jewish belief and our tradition in my view.
In one of his essays, Ahad Ha-Am wrote over a century ago, that the stories we tell of our ancient heroes or even those closer to our time, are truer than the so-called historical facts, for it is they which are intended to guide our lives and impart the values by which we live. As he writes in his essay on Moses, “Every man who leaves a perceptible mark on that life [the social life of mankind], though he may be a purely imaginary figure, is a real historical force; his existence is an historical truth.” He goes on to write, “Even if you succeeded in demonstrating conclusively that the man Moses never existed…you would not thereby detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses.”
For my class, I would hope that the teachings of the Book of Proverbs were no less valuable and insightful were they written by King Solomon, the wisest of all men, or by some enlightened sage who lived a few centuries later and published under Solomon’s name. For Jews, they remain the Proverbs of Solomon. For me, the Torah is no less a source of tradition and fundamental teachings as a sacred myth as it would be were it a history book. As we affirm when we are called to the Torah, “asher natan lanu Torat emet,” God has given us a Torah of truth and its teachings are more important than its history. It is by them that we strive to live our lives.