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Kingdom of Priests

More objections from adherents of Biblical literalist creationism to my recent posts on the subject have been coming in. Some are thoughtful and raise subtle distinctions. As a Facebook friend writes: 

I just wanted to register the fact, without rancor, that I am a “naive Biblical literalist” myself. As a matter of fact, it sort of sounds like a lot of Jews are too. And there’s a difference between “Biblical literalism” and “sola scriptura” or “soul compentency” or Scottish common sense philosophy (or “any milkmaid could understand it perfectly”).

Did not the Lubavitcher Rebbe insist on the “literalness” of the creation account in Genesis? In fact, didn’t he insist that the sun moves around the earth?

Others are poignant and (in a gentle way) make me feel guilty. An email correspondent asks:

As a Gentile who has had a long interest in the Jewish Scriptures, who has visited Israel, and loves the Jewish people and supports Israel in whatever small capacity I am able, I found your article very interesting.
 
I’ve always assumed that Genesis is recording real history from the time I was first taught the stories as a young boy.  I always accepted that G-d is real, that He speaks to people, has a plan for this world and made a promise to Abraham that is irrevocable. I guess that is why I also support the creationist position but I notice that you say that is a naïve position. So, I am very interested to understand how the Jewish rabbis interpret Genesis and what I should be thinking about this issue.  If Genesis is not literal, does that mean that we should no longer consider Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Joseph as historic figures (forgive me if I spelt them wrong)? Does that mean that G-d’s promise to Abraham never happened and the Jewish people never entered Egypt? I’m interested to understand.

If we’re willing to entertain the idea that Noah’s flood (the subject of this week’s Torah reading, Noach) did not occur as plain historical fact exactly the way it’s described in Genesis, why not put Abraham between similar brackets? What about Moses?
Regarding Moses, his historical existence and the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai would seem to be nonnegotiable. They are the subject of No. 7 and No. 8 among Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith. But is Noah, just as the literal Scriptural account of his flood experience expresses things, similarly nonnegotiable? I don’t see grounds for thinking so.
For Moses and for Abraham, furthermore, you could point to many authenticating details in the historical record — not proof, of course, but confirmation that the narratives are historically plausible. I wrote a whole book on Abraham from that angle: The Discovery of God.
The question is whether thinking of the flood, or the Garden of Eden for that matter, as figurative is damaging to the integrity of your faith, or not. Accepting the Darwinian account of evolution — life emerging through blind, purposeless churning of matter — would sure seem to do radical violence to that integrity. But as for narratives where the historicity is not so clearly essential to theological coherence, a saying of the Talmud that I often think of recommends itself:
“Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know'” (Berachot 4a).

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