Wednesday, October 21, 2009


XGH has a funny post about a picture of Adam and Eve from his 5 1/2 year old daughter's school. It depicted them as real people, and that bothers him a bit, although he is not sure where to go from there.

The early stories in Genesis bother a lot of people. Much ink has been spilled over the biblical accounts of creation, the garden of Eden, Noah's flood, and the Tower of Babel. To most contemporary Jews, these are obvious myths. But two religious problems follow from this position. The first is how to derive meaning from such stories. Most people view historical fact as more robust than myths in terms of religious significance. The second is a slippery slope problem: are other other more significant religious stories also myths? If creation and the flood are myths, then what about the exodus from Egypt and the covenant at Mt. Sinai? And if those are myths, not history, then much of Judaism must be rethought, and some would argue abandoned.

At the other end of the spectrum, some view these stories as literal history. The problem here is that this puts such people in a perpetual state of war with most of the hard sciences, along with history, archeology, and a lot of other things. And this leads to disastrous results. There are some rabbis who have no formal training in the sciences but argue vehemently that most scientists are completely wrong and that Genesis, if properly read, gives all the answers. This position is not just difficult to maintain among most audiences, but it borders on the comical.

For all the obvious reasons, I treat these early stories as stories. They are pre-scientific attempts to answer scientific questions, and as such they should be celebrated, even if we no longer think their account is correct. But more importantly, these stories address important questions regarding the significance of things like creation, and later commentators have derived many great lessons from them. These lessons endure, regardless of the historicity of the stories. (I just reposted one of my attempts to analyze part of the creation story, drawing on both a midrash and Rashi.) There's nothing wrong with treating a story as a story.

Not that there's much comparison, but I think "The Three Little Pigs" is a great story with a good moral and practical lesson. To get back to XGH's question, if I illustrated it would draw the pigs as pigs. But I would also mention to my kids that this is a story, not a factual account of real suilline building projects.

I know that pigs lack opposable thumbs and thus cannot physically built a house out of straw or sticks, and certainly not bricks. And I know that a wolf does not have sufficient lung capacity to blow enough air at high enough velocities to blow down even a rudimentary house made out straw or sticks. But I also know that I would miss the point of the story if I focused on such questions.

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