Darwin and the rabbi

In this Darwin-year a bit of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki won’t hurt anyone. Here’s what he has to say about the first verse of the Bible (‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’)

If you wish to explain it according to its simple meaning, explain it thus: “At the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth, as the earth was rough, empty and dark, God said: ‘Let there be light’.” And scripture did not come to teach the sequence of creation, to say that ‘these came first’ for if it came to teach this, it should have written: “At first (בָּרִאשֺׁונָה) He created the heavens and the earth,” for there is no רֵאשִׁית in scripture that is not connected to the following word, like: “In the beginning of the reign of Jehojakim” (Jer. 27:1); “the beginning of his reign” (Gen 10:10); “the first of your corn” (Deut. 18:4).

Here too, you say בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָה אֱלֹהִים like בְּרֵאשִׁית בְּרֺוא ‘in the beginning of creating’. And similar to this is, “At the beginning of the Lord’s speaking to Hosea,” (Hos. 1:2), which means ‘at the beginning of the speaking of the Holy One, Blessed be He, to Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea…’.

Now if you say that it came to teach that these were created first, and that its meaning is ‘in the beginning of all He created these’, and that there are elliptical verses that omit one word, like: “For he did not shut the doors of my womb” (Job 3:9) and it does not explain who it was who shut; and like: “he will carry off the wealth of Damascus” (Isa. 8:4) and it does not explain who will carry it off; and like: “or will one plow with cattle” (Amos 6:12) and it does not explain: “if a man will plow with cattle” ; and like: “telling the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46: 10) and it does not explain that telling the end of a matter from the beginning of a matter.

If so, be astounded at yourself, for the water preceded, as it is written: “and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water” (Gen 1:2) but scripture did not yet disclose when the creation of water took place! From this you learn that the water preceded the earth. Moreover, the heavens were created from fire and water. Perforce, you must admit that scripture does not teach us anything about the sequence of the earlier and the later.

Roughly, what the rabbi says here is nothing less than: there is no historically and factually correct account of creation in scripture. Not bad for someone who lived between 1040 and 1105 AD and didn’t need to await the findings of modern science…

And he’s not some obscure figure, that rare scholar that was centuries ahead of his time only now to be rediscovered. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki has been an influential figure in Jewish religious life. His commentaries have been studied ever since they were written and his ideas even had some influence on Christian theology.

The idea that the bible does not recount creation in an historical and factual way -but in a theological way- is way older than the time when the likes of Darwin and Lyell made it evident. In fact, the idea that the creation story in the bible should be taken litterally is much younger. It’s the by-product of the rise of modern ways of thinking. The ways of thinking that gave rise to both Darwin and Lyell, but also to biblical litteralism.


2 Responses to “Darwin and the rabbi”

  1. Your statement that modern ways of thinking also produce Biblical literalism is fascinating. There is something intuitively right about that statement!


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