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October 10, 2012 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bereshit

JPS’ Genesis commentary is written by Nahum Sarna of Brandeis University.  His discussion of Bereshit, the Torah’s first portion, draws numerous distinctions between the Torah and pagan mythology.  For example:

*The Torah begins by stating that God created tehom (the deep) (Gen. 1:2).  Sarna notes that in Mesopotamian mythology, Tiamat is the goddess of primeval chaos, and is conquered or destroyed by other gods.  Why the grammatical similarlity? The Torah’s agenda seems clear: to take parts of nature that pagans worshipped and show how they are merely parts of God’s creation.

*Gen. 1 suggests that God created the sun after vegetation- a scientifically absurd proposition, of course.  But here too the Torah has an agenda: in many cultures, the Sun was worshipped as a major deity.  So by making the creation of the sun follow that of living things, the Torah is emphasizing that the sun is no less part of God’s creation than plants.

*Gen. 3 discusses humanity’s seduction by a snake.   Sarna points out that in some pagan cultures, the snake was a deity.  But here, the snake, like humanity, is just another of God’s creations, and gets punished just like humanity.

Another unusual part of the Torah is the genealogy of Adam’s descendants, who allegedly live hundreds of years (Gen. 5).  As absurd as this seems (to me) when taken literally, Sarna points out that this passage is actually not so mythological when compared to pagan mythology: the first Sumerian kings, according to their mythology, collectively lived 200,000 years (about a hundred times as many as the men mentioned in Gen. 5 put together).  The Torah is actually trying to make the first men seem more, rather than less, human when compared to the first men of pagan mythology.

Why didn’t the Torah go further and say that the first men lived 30 years (which, given what we know of life expectancies in primitive cultures, seems more accurate than the Torah’s chronology)? Just as many of the Torah’s ritual and ethical laws try not to go too far or too fast for Israelite sensibilities, maybe the Torah’s creation story sought to similarly water down reality.

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One Comment

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  1. Larry Lennhoff / Oct 12 2012 4:17 pm

    All the cultures from that time and place tended to view the present as less special than an original golden age. If the Torah said the first men lived for 30 years and could barely use fire, it would have been very difficult for the Israelites of the matan torah era to accept.

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