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Kingdom of Priests


Is Biblical Literalism “Naive”? Yes and No

posted by David Klinghoffer

I got some emails from self-described Biblical literalist creationists objecting to my calling such literalism “naive.” I’ve been pondering whether there’s a better word for it but so far I’m stumped. I guess you could characterize creationism simply as “Biblical literalism” applied to the Genesis creation account and leave out the disparaging adjective “naive.” Certainly I meant no offense to anyone and I regret it if offense was taken.

The reason I hesitate to retract, however, is that there’s a kind of literalism that I find very attractive and that isn’t naive though it can be maddeningly hard to pin down. In Jewish tradition, the Biblical text is regarded as only the briefest, most cryptic distillation or crystalization of the infinitely vaster body of oral Torah — the orally transmitted tradition held to go back in some of its streams to the revelation to Moses at Mt. Sinai or even earlier — to Adam or Abraham. Much in that tradition consists of narrative threads or fragments much wilder than anything in the Bible itself. 
For example? I was talking last night with my wife about the legend or myth or tradition (whatever you want to call it) that in the end of days, the righteous will enjoy a festive meal in a sukkah (tabernacle) constructed from the skin of the sea monster Leviathan. They will dine on the meat of the Leviathan.
At this image, cynics will snicker. Religious rationalists will harrumph, “Well, it’s only a symbol!” I find these two responses depressing, dispiriting, empty. They’re not my way.
In the Jewish Orthodox world, such traditions are contemplated in a charming but strange way, without asking if they’re meant to be understood literally. Jews who are simple in their faith — which is not a bad thing! though it’s not me either — have no problem assuming that the story is a true forecast of things to come in as literal a sense as the weather forecast that predicts autumn rain in Seattle, but even more certain.

Judaism sure appears to treat ideas like these as if they were literally true. At the end of Sukkot last week we said a farewell to the sukkah that we had spent the previous week eating and otherwise dwelling in. The formal farewell includes a reference to the future feast in the sukkah of Leviathan.
I don’t know what to make of such things but I love to think about them at a level of detail that could be called literalist and that mere symbols don’t usually merit. They are incredibly stirring. I hold out the hope that shimmering just beyond the edge of my ability to grasp, there lies some spiritual reality to which the “symbol” points, a quite literal reality that exceeds my power of expression as it exceeds that of human speech and writing in general.
That’s not a symbol as a rationalist would hold, where the figurative image simply alludes to some drab moral or lesson or other. Is there a better word than “symbol” for what I’m grasping toward? Your thoughts, please.


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Dan

posted October 19, 2009 at 11:25 pm


In relation to this post, readers may find this link enlightening:
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0007272



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Mark

posted October 20, 2009 at 1:33 am


Sam Harris helped write that. Hmmm…
Was it peer reviewed?



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Dan

posted October 20, 2009 at 1:59 am


Mark,
Good question. If one turns to the website for Public Library of Science, it states that PLoS ONE is peer-reviewed. It is a slightly different journal format; in addition to being online, it claims not to be as pre-occupied with impact factors and the authors (generally) pay the cost of publishing – hence it is open access (anyone on the internet can read it). PLoS ONE claims to be peer-reviewed and focuses on the experimental design and results, rather than a specific topic or the topic’s impact.
http://www.plosone.org/static/information.action
It is my hypothesis that Harris decided to publish here to ensure that anyone with internet availability can have full access to his article. Had he published in a journal like “Molecular Psychiatry”, for example, only those with subscriptions would be able to view his work. Further, I would not say Harris just “helped” write it. As the lead author (1st author), Harris most likely did the lion’s share of the experimental work and writing. To be fair, NMR studies performed on brains for psychological analysis have been questioned, but are widely used nonetheless. One implication of this work being that the notion of a supernatural god could be nothing more than a thought or feeling conjured in one’s brain.



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Mark

posted October 20, 2009 at 5:08 am


Me: “WAS it peer reviewed?”
Dan: “(it) IS peer-reviewed.”
Does this mean the article WAS peer reviewed, or EVENTUALLY WILL BE peer reviewed?
(not yelling)



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Mark

posted October 20, 2009 at 5:15 am


Me: “WAS it peer reviewed?”
Dan: “(it) IS peer-reviewed.”
Does this mean the article WAS peer reviewed, or EVENTUALLY WILL BE peer reviewed?
(not yelling)



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Ray

posted October 20, 2009 at 7:47 am


@Mark:
My experience in the medical educational setting allows me to respond: Articles appearing in a peer-reviewed journal have been peer-reviewed. An author submits an article. The editorial board submits the article to a panel of experts qualified to review and critique the piece. Only when it passes peer review will it be published.



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Mark

posted October 20, 2009 at 8:08 am


Thanks, Ray.
Might there be a subsequent rebuttal to that article in the next issue of the journal?
Dan wrote: “One implication of this work being that the notion of a supernatural god could be nothing more than a thought or feeling conjured in one’s brain. ”
“/Could/ be”? What /else/ could it be, according to the feelings conjured in your brain?



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Mark2

posted October 20, 2009 at 12:34 pm


Marc, how do you know they’re “buddies”?



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Josh

posted October 20, 2009 at 1:40 pm


David, I don’t know if there is a good alternative term, but I like your distinction. There’s a difference between saying “it’s ONLY a symbol” and “it’s a symbol of things we cannot even begin to appreciate”.



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Dan

posted October 20, 2009 at 1:45 pm


Marc,
The comments are relevant. Klinghoffer’s post dealt with Biblical literalism, which he correctly referred to as “naive” in an earlier post. The peer-reviewed paper dealt with religious belief – Biblical literalism is a form of religious belief. If such belief is psychological and not based on evidence, one can consider it naive. As such, the paper intimates a source for this sort of naivety and would then support Klinghoffer’s earlier applied label. Therefore, the comments are germane to the topic.
I contend, Marc, that your comments are irrelevant to the topic. What do two bigoted Republicans in S.C., who stereotype Jewish individuals, have to do with the naivety of Biblical literalism? By your logic, a post on Ariel Sharon or Adam Sandler would be relevant.
Mark,
Unless the editor at PLoS ONE published the Harris without subjecting it to review, it was reviewed. What I’m really saying is that unless PLoS ONE committed serious and grave intellectual fraud, the paper was peer-reviewed. Your healthy skepticism is most welcome; you could even email the editor at PLoS ONE and confirm that the paper was peer-reviewed and not simply subject to editor review. To caution, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., US (PNAS) has a fast-track submission for academy members that can by-pass traditional peer-review, in which case the papers will state this.



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Baltomaggid

posted October 20, 2009 at 2:01 pm


The Torah, written in Hebrew, has been literally translated, but the concepts have not. Two short examples:
The fourth word in the Torah is “es” having no real translation, but consisting of the first letter (aleph) and the last letter (sof)of the Hebrew alphabet. The statement/concept is that everything from the beginning (aleph) to the very end (sof) was created at that time.
The Hebrew word “shamayim” (heaven) has been the subject of much discussion. We learn: What does the word “shamayim” mean? That Hashem kneaded fire and water, and combined them together.
It is therefore called “Shamayim” — made up of two smaller words “eish” and “mayim”(fire water).
We learn this from the verse (Job 25:2) “He makes peace in His heights.” He placed peace and love between them. May he also place peace and love among us.



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Michael

posted October 20, 2009 at 4:56 pm


Baltomaggid
>The fourth word in the Torah is “es” having no
>real translation, but consisting of the first letter
>(aleph) and the last letter (sof)of the Hebrew alphabet.
Just a couple of nano-nits — If you accuse me of being overly picky I will admit to the accusation. I just happen to love this stuff, so please don’t misunderstand my intent. I sincerely appreciate your post.
To begin, the fourth word is spelled aleph-tav, not aleph-sof, as you claim. Honestly, not a big deal. However, the word is, in fact, translatable. It means “the next word is a direct object of the preceeding verb”. More simply, ‘et’ is referred to as a ‘direct object marker’. We have similar constructions in English, e.g., the apostrophe which, for example, can be translated as meaning a possessive noun. IMO, I believe one must strain to read into the word that it implies ‘everything was created at that time’.
A better argument for your claim, if you like, is that this phrase “the heavens and the earth” is what scholars call a Hebrew ‘merism’ — a word describing an idiomatic construction used to convey inclusiveness as in “black and white and everything in between” or “good and evil and everything in between”.
Fun post. Thanks
Michael



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Mark2

posted October 20, 2009 at 6:38 pm


Sof wins, though if you were Sephardic, you’d say it the same way. There’s no dot in the letter. (Sof is just another way of saying Sav)



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Michael

posted October 20, 2009 at 8:36 pm


To Mark2:
I am surely confused. If what you meant was that our difference was because I’m using the Sephardic aleph-bet then I retract my claim that Baltomaggid’s use of ‘sof’ was incorrect. On the other hand, is it not true that most of the ‘standard’ Hebrew Bibles use the Sephardic? I ask this honestly, because I do not actually know.
In my own library, I have 3 Hebrew Bibles and each one uses the Sephardic aleph-bet — the BHS, the JPS version of the Tanakh, and Richard Elliott Friedman’s personal translation in his book, “Commentary on the Torah”. In addition, I have Bibleworks 7 in which I have access to the WTM Westminster Hebrew OT Morphology, and the WTT version of the BHS — both of these are Sephardic.
Anyway, this is cool. I learned something today and that’s always a good thing.
Cheers,
Michael



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Baltomaggid

posted October 21, 2009 at 12:18 pm


To be literal:
The Sephardi pronounciation of the letter would be “eth”
The Israeli pronounciation is “et”
The Askenazi pronounciation is “es”
it’s all the same



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Mark

posted October 25, 2009 at 7:34 pm


I believe that the word you might be looking for is sacramental. But that might be to Christian with too much baggage.



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Don

posted October 29, 2009 at 1:26 pm


I was ignorant of the Leviathan legend. But I’ve often wondered about the porpoise or manatee skins in the cover of the Tabernacle of Exodus. It seems clumsy but makes me think of the Red Sea Crossing, properties of water-tightness, the flood and Noah’s Ark, and any number of pictures in the Scripture. As I read your description of a Leviathan tabernacle, my mind could see the perfection of a single skin, in place of the scores of smaller skins in the original, picturing thereby Union and Unification, even as feasting on the same beast’s meat speak’s to my Christian heart the picture of the One who Is the covering, is also the Sacrifice, the Meat, the Provision, the Container of the Family, the Temple in which we shall all be incorporated. The Book of Ephesians speaks to these topics, encouragingly addressing the Oneness of Jew and Gentile, all moving toward full realization of the Headship of the Father.
I see many of the symbols as real images of Truth, not mere convenient analogies, but actual, created pictures of Ultimate Truths, as the Tabernacle of Moses is a picture of the Eternal House of God, intended as such, but nonetheless a real artifact, not a mere literary device. I ponder how many other created things fit this pattern, whether or not I, today, accept their reality.
Finally, I believe the first two chapters of Genesis to be historical because Exodus 20 provides an eyewitness account “for in six days…”. I’m a lawyer trained in engineering. I accept the testimony of a truthful builder/designer!



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Mark2

posted November 10, 2009 at 2:29 pm


Of course, “Modern Biblical scholarship” will become, after a few centuries, ancient Biblical scholarship.



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