READING GENESIS *

 

 

texts and commentaries

Introduction

The majestic sweep of the creation story told in Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 strikes me every time I read it. The power is overwhelming, the simplicity is awe-inspiring, and the orderliness is deeply impressive. There is something beyond-time, transcendent, about this creation narrative. I have read it ritually on Simhat Torah and been moved to tears by its transcendent power.[1]

And yet, the creation narrative is a very, very complicated text. It is actually more complicated than the text of evolution which is, itself, not simple. So many problems and questions arise: What is the meaning of the grammatical irregularity in the first sentence? Are the waters not created? What exactly happened on the second day? Why does it take two days to do the "work of the waters and the land"? Since the trees were created with their fruits, were fall and spring fruits present at the same time? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? What is the difference, if any, between the slithering and the crawling creatures? What is the "image of God" in which humankind is created? Since there are differences between the creation stories in Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 and Genesis 2:4 - 25, what is the relationship between these two texts? Study is the only way into this narrative; the more one studies, the deeper the text becomes.

The most widely read book in rabbinic Jewish culture is not, properly speaking, a book but a commentary to a book. It is Rashi's commentary to the Tanakh.[2] No one with an educaton rooted in the tradition finds his or her way into the scriptural text without Rashi (1040-1105, northern Europe). His commentary, which is a mixture of explication and midrash, was and remains the key to the rabbinic understanding of the Tanakh. Another commentator widely read but only by the already-educated is Ibn Ezra (1089-1164, Spain). His commentary is very technical. It is also laconic to the point of being very difficult to understand at many points. Yet a third basic commentary to Genesis is that of Rashbam (1085-1174, northern Europe). He hews very closely to the text yet his commentary to this chapter is omitted from many of the standard editions of rabbinic commentaries; why? He is the grandson of Rashi; why did he feel compelled to write his own commentary? Finally, what would a philosopher, rabbinic sage, and kabbalist like Nahmanides, known as Ramban, (1194-1270, Spain) do with this narrative? How would he work his science, philosophy, and mysticism into the text of the Torah?

To answer the question of the varying interpretations of the creation narrative, I first studied and taught these four commentators.[3] In the course of this work, two very interesting questions arose: First, how did Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and Ramban "read" the text? Did they have a grasp of how the narrative would look if written from the point of view of their commentaries? If so, just how would one (re)write the narrative line so as to reflect their interpretations? What would "Rashi's Genesis" look like? "Ibn Ezra's Genesis"? "Rashbam's Genesis"? and "Ramban's Genesis"?

To answer this first question, I asked students to (re)write the creation narrative from the point of view of various commentators.[4] In the text that follows, I present a joint effort at (re)writing the creation narrative according to Rashi and Ibn Ezra by Ms. Toby Director Goldman and myself. Our work is the result of long study sessions held together with the Wexner Heritage Foundation leadership group in Atlanta, and we wish to acknowledge their participation. In addition, I give my (re)written creation narrative of Rashbam and Ramban. For comparison, I include a reproduction of the Hebrew text (figure 1) and my translation of the original text, called "The Traditional Genesis." This translation hews as closely as possible to the original Hebrew as well as to traditional English style and rhythm.

The existence of four very different "readings" of the Genesis story gave rise to the question, how should one best present them without favoring one over the other. Put more generally, how does one display polysemous texts? In a previous book,[6] I presented four psalms, with four commentaries each, in the form of a "grouped textual field," that is, arranged on the page the way a traditional rabbinic book is arranged -- with the main text in the middle and the commentaries displayed around the text. This method of text presentation, relatively new in English, is actually the classical rabbinic method of presenting a sacred text that can be read in more than one way. My presentation was very well-received and, in the hard-copy versions of this article, I have arranged the reconstructed Genesis narratives of Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and Ramban in the same manner here.[7] For this web version, I have experimented with new forms. The reader is invited to follow these reconstructed narratives in this new yet very Jewish mode of text presentation.

I have used the following editorial conventions: (1) Where a commentator offers more than one interpretation, I give it as an alternative in the footnotes, labeled "Alt.". Where alternate phrasing for the English seemed appropriate, I present that, too, in the footnotes, labeled as "Ling. alt." ("linguistic alternative"). (2) The (re)written narratives are given, in large measure, without references to the literature upon which the commentators drew. For those sources, the reader should consult the editions and translations in the notes. (3) I have systematically used inclusive language even when referring to God, although Hebrew uses male-gendered language for God and for inclusive human references.

* * * * * * *

The second question that arose while studying and teaching these commentaries was: Is there such a thing as the "simple meaning," the sensus literalis, the peshat ? Or, are we dealing with a polysignificant text, one which simply has more than one meaning? If so, how can one assert an authoritative meaning for a polysemous text? What is the relationship between multivalence and truth? These questions, although they have come to the fore of literary and philosophic criticism in the second half of our century, were known to the medieval commentators whose readings of the creation narrative are set forth here. The juxtaposition of these (re)written creation narratives presents an opportunity to examine these questions more fully.

Reading these creation narratives side by side leads to a sense of wonder -- over the depth of the Genesis text itself and over the care with which earlier readers approached this text. (Re)writing the creation narrative from the point of view of several commentators has highlighted this, as perhaps study of the commentaries alone did not. If, as Jon Levenson has argued,[8] the original Genesis version of the creation story was intended to stamp order on previous and parallel versions which are more chaotic, then the text did not succeed in doing that for long, for the sheer complexity of the received text, together with the love and intelligence lavished on it by readers throughout the ages, generated its own chaos. We are awash in questions and interpretations. It seems to me, therefore, that there is no "simple meaning," no sensus literalis, no peshat. Rather, there is variety of literary interpretation, though all subscribe to the theological thesis that there is but one God and that it is God Who is the source of the existence of all creation, in one way or another. There is no one voice, but rather voices, though there is only one Voice.

The question of the authority of the creation narrative is twofold -- spiritual-theological and socio-political. Both these dimensions are common to the issue of authoritative written or oral texts in all religious traditions and both can be said to define the "sacredness" of the text(s) under consideration.

The spiritual-theological authority of a text can stem from one or more sources. One could argue, with Heschel,[9] that the ultimate authority of a sacred text comes from its ability to embody the holy, to allude to the transcendent. This aspect of a text, while not verifiable in any philosophic sense, is recognizable, and one generation conveys its sense of the numinous nature of the text to another. The authority of the text, in this view, is the echo of its spirituality through time. Or, one could argue, with Judah Halevi, that the ultimate authority of a sacred text comes from the continuous historical witness to its extraordinary origin. The presence of over one million people at Sinai and the continuous affirmation, generation after generation, that a text was given by God at that moment in time constitutes the authority of the text.[10] There are other arguments, but the arguments from spiritual experience and historical witness are among the strongest. Seen in this way, the Voice of the creation narrative, i.e., the theological thesis that the one God created reality, is "verified" for the contemporary reader either through his or her own experience of the numinous in this text, or by her or his sense of the weight of continuous historical witness. In either case, the authority does not vouch for the details; these are in interpretive dispute. Experience and / or history only affirm the Presence, the Voice.

The socio-political authority of a text can also stem from one or more sources. One could argue, with Kaplan,[11] that it is the acceptance of a text by a community that gives it its sacredness. If a text is not accepted by the community, it is not part of the canon and it is not sacred. Or, one could argue, with Maimonides,[12] that there is a continuous chain of scholars whose authority is recognized by the community and that it is the scholars who lend authority to the text. If one were to recognize different scholars as the appropriate interpretive authority, one would have a different sense of the authority of a text. Seen in this way, the truth of the creation narrative is a function of the community to which one belongs and / or of the scholars whom one invests with the authority to determine truth.[13]

In an article I wrote many years ago,[14] I noted that Maimonides confronted the question of the authority of the text in both its spiritual-theological and its socio-political dimensions and determined that Moses, and hence the Torah and the Jewish religion, were superior on both grounds. Moses had attained the most advanced possible spiritual state and he had given the world the most advanced possible legal system. He was, thus, both a spiritual-theological and a socio-political authority. Furthermore, the text he gave was, in its direct emanation from the Godhead, divine but, in its language and concepts, it was the work of Moses who was the best-prepared of intellects. The authority of the Torah, then, was a fusion of the spiritual-theological (divine) and the socio-political (human). Its origin was divine, but its formulation, the details of its language, its theology, and its legal implications, would certainly be disputed in the millenia after Moses.[15 ]The Voice is re-sounded in the multiplicity of voices.

It seems to me that the traditional Jewish worldview is an approach to text that is both logocentric and plurisignificant; it is univocal and multivocal at the same time. Text, even sacred text, is the result of intertextuality -- with other preceding texts and contexts, with the texts of the experience of the divine and of the community, and with the personal texts of the author and the reader. Text is, thus, always multivocal, plurisignificant. Yet text always has authority and, while that authority varies with the spiritual, theological, communal, and political location of the reader, it is authority that provides intellectual, spiritual, and social coherence. Text is, thus, always also univocal, logocentric.[16] Finally, even authority is always multivocal -- as soon as one gets down to the details of the text -- without the multivocity ever undermining the logocentricity of the text. (Re)writing of the creation narrative, in its authenticity and its multivocity, demonstrates this worldview very clearly.

 

Texts and Commentaries

 

The Traditional Translation with Renderings According to Rashi and Rashbam

The Traditional Translation with Renderings According to Ibn Ezra and Ramban

The Hebrew Text

 

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*This article first appeared in hard-copy versions as "Reading Creation," Bibel und Midrasch, ed. G. Bodendorfer and M. Millard, Forschung zum Alten Testament, 22:117-66.

[1] See D. Blumenthal, God at the Center (San Francisco, Harper and Row: 1988; reprinted Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson: 1994) 191-94.

[2] Rashi's commentary is actually the first printed Hebrew book, appearing in 1475 in Reggio di Calabria, Italy.

[3] The following editions and translations have been used: Raschi, ed. A. Berliner (Frankfurt, J. Kauffmann: 1905; reprinted, Jerusalem, Kirya Ne'emana: 1973) together with Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Rashi's Commentary, ed. M. Rosenbaum and A. Silberman (Jerusalem, Silbermann Family: 1973); Sefer Be'er Yitzhak (Livorno: 1564; reprinted, Israel: 1975) together with Ibn Ezra's Commentary on the Pentateuch, ed. H. N. Strickman and A. Silver (New York, Menorah Publishing: 1988); Der Pentateuch-Commentar des R. Samuel ben Mëir, ed. D. Rosin (Breslau, S. Schottlaender: 1881; reprinted 1965); and Peirush ha-Torah le-rabbenu Moshe ben Nahman, ed. C. Chavel (Jerusalem, Mossad Harav Kook: 1974) together with Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, ed. C. Chavel (New York, Shilo: 1971).

[4] At the time I did this, I did not know that it is customary to ask students of Talmud to write out the text from the point of view of various commentators. My thanks to my friend and colleague, Professor Michael Broyde, for this observation as well as for his sage advice on how best to prepare these texts for publication. My thanks, too, to my friend and colleague, Professor Michael Berger, for his very constructive comments to the various versions of this paper.

[6] Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville, KY, Westminster / John Knox: 1993).

[7] See above.

[8] J. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (San Francisco, Harper and Row: 1988); reviewed by D. Blumenthal, Modern Judaism, 10 (1990) 105-10.

[9] A. J. Heschel, God in Search of Man.

[10] To appreciate this argument one should pose the following questions: First, how do we know that Saturday is Shabbat? The answer is because each of us becomes part of a continuous chain of tradition on that subject: my parents told me, as their parents told them, and as I tell my children the rhythms of our community. Indeed, Jewish law gives quite some thought as to what to do when one gets separated from the living community of tradition. Second, one should ask: Where does the tradition of Saturday being Shabbat begin? There are no disputes about this matter in the tradition, though there are calendrical disagreements on many other matters. The answer seems to be that the tradition goes back to the manna which appeared after the crossing of the Reed Sea. Since that time, the Jewish people has, collectively, counted every seventh day and named it Shabbat. It is a continuous tradition, reaching way back into history.

[11] M. M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilzation and elsewhere.

[12] M. Maimonides, Commentary to the Mishna, "Introduction."

[13] The conflict between (neo)fundamentalist and academic interpretation is, thus, really a socio-political conflict over authority -- i.e., over which scholars to recognize as authority or, over which community to belong to.

[14] D. Blumenthal, "Maimonides' Intellectualist Mysticism and the Superiority of the Prophecy of Moses," Studies in Medieval Culture, 10 (1977) 51-68; reprinted in Approaches to the Study of Judaism in Medieval Times, ed. D. Blumenthal (Chico, CA, Scholars Press: 1984) 1: 27-52.

[15] This is also the opinion of Heschel, op. cit.

[16] I, personally, favor the use of the spiritual-experiential criterion but I know that others use other criteria for treating texts as authoritative.

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