This week we begin again at the beginning of Torah in our weekly cycle. Like paging through an old family photo album we open the Torah from the first page with Bereshit. The beginning.
This portion is probably the most talked about in western culture. It is written to answer the fundamental question of humanity: Where did we come from? Every culture has sought to create a story of origin. This ancient Jewish story, adopted by Christianity, became the shared narrative of Europe and the Americas and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a recognized metaphor all over the world.
But for many the opening of our Bible is not read as metaphor but as scientific fact. In Northern Kentucky, not far from the Ohio border, is a so-called museum dedicated to teaching the story in the Bereshit as fact. The Creation Museum is a temple to Creationism, the idea that Bible narrative of creation is a science. In fact within a few feet of the entrance one of the first things said in one of the many multi-media presentations of the story is that if science is discovered contradicts the Bible the science is rejected. It is a remarkable statement. While the Bible has much to teach us, using it as the ruler to measure visible facts against for the purpose of understanding science simply isn’t a healthy way of looking at the world.
When faced with overwhelming evidence of science, some try to blend the two in some mental calisthenics to attempt to create the supremacy of the Bible over science or suggesting science is proving the Bible right. It is an interesting argument. The most interesting is an attempt to link science’s mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam to their Biblical namesake. Science has discovered that everyone alive today can trace their genetics to the genetic line of these two. While an over-simplification, this idea sparked some to link it to the Biblical narrative. The problem is that these two probably lived 50,000 years apart (we still aren’t sure) and neither were the only people. In fact some of decedents of other women alive at the time of Mitochondrial Eve are alive today, but they are all male. Mitochondrial Eve is the most recent female ancestor. Either lack of knowledge or purposeful distortion drives some of this talk of the Bible being a science book. This seems like a terrible distortion of what the Torah is designed to teach.
But there are those who reject the Torah all together because it doesn’t match science. Certain people hold the Bible to a very binary position. They see it as without value because it doesn’t tell the truth, especially when it comes to creation. I regularly read and hear people who say only fools would read the Bible with talking snakes and donkeys. These people don’t just throw the baby out with bath water, but gather their other children and the neighbor’s kids and toss them out too. Often seeking out the most outrageous statements from creationists to paint all that even read the Bible with the same brush. If fact, sometimes the reject someone’s personal belief system as being fake since it doesn’t fit their stereotype. One can find value in the Torah, even if it doesn’t get the facts about the development of the universe correct. Too often it is us that do that who are not allowed in the conversation.
Now there is a question that can be asked about the Torah, if it is not a true telling, and it is not science, what do we get out of it. I am often reminded of the words of one of my teachers, Rabbi Hanan Alexander who said, “The stories in the Bible are true, they just didn’t happen that way.” This is a liberating statement. It allows one to seek truth in a story that is known to be written as a metaphor. Like the famous story of George Washington’s honesty over the chopping of a cherry tree, and being faced with his father’s wrath. This often repeated story was created out of thin air by Parson Weems, the Washington biography. But to this day teachers use it to teach about the importance of honesty. Seeking the message of the story is far more important than seeking to discredit a story over lack of facts. And Bereshit is a prime example. There is so much to be gleaned from the creation story of our people. And our people knew this centuries ago. Commentary on the parasha speak of the universe being created to be a place for humans to eliminate God’s loneliness, the idea of all humanity reaching back to the same parents makes us all related and none better than another, and so much more can be gleaned.
This is our story, created by our ancient ancestors in their attempt to understand God, morality and how we should live as a people. It is well-crafted poetry that has much to teach us. Crawl inside the text this year, walk in the spaces between the words. Chew on them. You can find a lot in there. Avoid the noise of those that want to tell you what is suppose to mean, read many who give you ideas of what it could mean. You will be surprised what is in there and what you can pull out.