How to Read the Bible: Art as a Higher Manifestation of Nature
By Edwin C. Goldberg
In the past few years, a number of discoveries in outer space have made headlines including disturbances of motion in the orbit of the small, distant planet Sedna. These disturbances suggest there may be a giant and as yet undiscovered planet orbiting far beyond Pluto, as well as black holes that seem not only to draw in all matter in their solar neighborhoods, but also to actively seek out matter in a burst of feeding mania. Finally, these findings suggest concepts about the Big Bang theory that astronomers believe offer a glimpse at the moment of the Creation of the universe.
Of course, we don’t need a PhD to consider the heavens. We need only stand in a field on a clear night to find ourselves filled with wonder at the stars in the sky. Nor do we need advanced training in the Bible to see that these findings do not sync with the biblical view of Creation. As we begin once again to study the Book of Genesis, the old questions return:
- What is the relationship between the Bible and science?
- Is there a tension between the discoveries of science and the Revelation of Scripture?
- What is our understanding of the Big Bang theory?
- Do we accept this modern scientific description of how the universe we observe came to be?
- How does this explanation fit in with our understanding of God and Creation?
At the heart of the matter are the biggest questions: Is the text of the Bible true? And if not, then why do we continue to study it?
In the beginning of Genesis we read this translation published in The Torah Commentary: A Modern Commentary1 in 2005:
When God was about to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness.
Compare this version to the translation found in the King James Version2:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
What’s the difference? The King James Version reads like a history of the cosmos: this is what happened. The translation in The Torah: A Modern Commentary privileges the contrast between the chaos that exists before God’s direction and the structure that follows. Creation itself is not the point. Order out of chaos is the point.
Why is this difference important? It highlights the central reason for our studying the Bible.
One of the central tensions between scripture and science for some readers, including Jewish ones, is the apparent contradiction between a seven-day Creation and a universe that seems to have been unfolding for billions of years.
How do we deal with the gap between science and the Bible? One response is to simply admit that the cosmology of the Bible, while cutting-edge three thousand years ago, is just plain wrong today. Others would say that the purpose of the Genesis account of Creation is not to establish a time line but to distinguish God’s divine story from other ancient stories in which the gods had little control over the process of Creation.
In contrast to myths that suggested that the universe might at any time dissolve back into chaos, God’s Creation is secure. The point is that we have moved from chaos to order.
The Bible – this argument suggests – can reflect a higher truth than scientific fact. For another example, consider this verse from the Book of Daniel:
And the knowledgeable will be radiant like the bright expanse of the sky, and those who lead the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever. ( Daniel 12:3)
This passage, written in the face of intense persecution, encourages the faithful to endure, because reward will follow for those who do not give up. Nevertheless, the point is that though this verse is poetically true, it is not strictly scientifically true. Stars die. They become novas or supernovas, get sucked into black holes, or simply burn out. They appear eternal and yet they are not. The ancients may have thought that the stars were eternal, but the power of the verse comes not from its scientific accuracy but rather its poetic thrust.
The late educator and social justice activist Leonard Fein used to say he believed in true stories that never happened. Maybe much of the Bible is like that. This year, as we study the Bible perhaps we can take it seriously without taking it literally. Maybe we can reflect in our approach to Scripture the teaching of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the German Enlightenment philosopher, who taught that works of art are a higher manifestation of nature than truthful statements.3
As we engage in Torah study this year, I encourage us to keep in our minds the reason for our study: are we seeking to know what happened or do we wish to discover the higher manifestation that the Bible – as a work of art – presents? In the commentaries that follow each week on the Book of Genesis I will endeavor to point out this art that is at the heart of what makes the Bible so beloved and timeless to me and, I hope, to you.
- Chaim Stern, trans., W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed. (NY:URJ Press, 2005; trans., 1999), p. 19
- King James Bible
- Daniel Purdy, ed., Goethe Yearbook 18 (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011), p. 133
Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago. He is the coordinating editor of the new High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh (published by CCAR). He has a doctorate in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and has published five books, most recently Love Tales from the Talmud (published by URJ Press) and Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most (published by Jewish Lights).
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