What was the ancient Jewish view of creation?
The Talmud is a collection of ancient writings by Jewish rabbis which relate to the Hebrew Scriptures. It has been described as “a work wherein is deposited the bulk of the literary labours of numerous Jewish scholars over a period of some 700 years [from 200 BC to AD 500]”.1
Thus it is the oldest Bible commentary in existence. There is, however, a very wide range of views held between the different rabbis. According to Abraham Cohen in Everyman’s Talmud, “Usually we are faced with a variety of views which are often contradictory, and it is by no means easy to achieve a coherent presentation of a doctrine.”2
How did those learned ancient men view the biblical account of creation? Did they take the Scriptures literally? Or did they absorb evolutionary views from their Greek neighbours?
To the question, ‘Why does the story of creation begin with the letter beth?’, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the Talmud’s answer is given: “In the same manner that the letter beth is closed on all sides and only open in front, similarly you are not permitted to inquire into what is before, or what was behind, but only from the actual time of Creation.”3 (See Figure 1.) That is to say “time is meaningless as far as God is concerned and did not exist until He created the world”.4
Was Adam one man?
Did any of the ancient rabbis believe that ‘Adam was a crowd’? Apparently not. Cohen says that a curious explanation is given in the Talmud as to why the whole human race originated from one man: “Because of the righteous and the wicked, that the righteous should not say ‘we are the descendants of a righteous ancestor’ and the wicked say ‘we are the descendants of a wicked ancestor’.” The moral is that “neither can plead hereditary influence as the deciding factor in their character”.5 “Man was first created a single individual to teach the lesson that whoever destroys one life, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had destroyed a whole world; and whoever saves one life, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had saved a whole world.”6
Eve made from Adam’s rib
The story is told that an emperor said to a rabbi that his God was a thief, because he took a rib from Adam. The rabbi’s daughter made an excellent reply. She told him a story about a thief breaking into her house, stealing a silver ewer and leaving behind a gold ewer instead. When the emperor expressed envy at such a robbery, she replied, “Was it not, then, a splendid thing for the first man when a single rib was taken from him and a woman to care for him was supplied in its stead?”7
Events of the creation week
There doesn’t appear to have been any suggestion that the days of the Creation week were long periods of time, although there was diversity of opinion as to the order of creation of heaven and earth.
Rabbi Nehemiah of Kefar Sihon expounded Exodus 20:11 as indicating three primal elements (heaven, earth and water) in the creation of the universe (in contrast to Greek philosophy which accepted four basic elements). This was expanded by the school of Hillel, to suggest that each of the three elements was created on a separate day, then after three days, each brought forth three species (as shown in Figure 2).
Rabbi Azariah however, believed in only two elements (heaven and earth), on the basis of Genesis 2:4. In other words, he took this verse to refer to the ‘elements’ which were created first, and therefore perhaps not in contradiction of the events of the six days of chapter 1. This was expanded by the school of Shammai to imply that heaven was created on the first day and waited three days until it was completed on the fourth day with the creation of the luminaries; while Earth was created on the third day and also waited three days until it was completed on the sixth day with the creation of man.8
Night and day
The majority of ancient rabbis believed that the creation of darkness preceded the creation of light,9 on the basis of the mention of darkness in Genesis 1:2 before the creation of light in Genesis 1:3. Each day of creation consisted of an evening (darkness) preceding the morning (daylight), on each of the six days of creation. This is why the day begins at 6 p.m. according to Jewish reckoning.
It is interesting to note that days of the week have never been given names by the Jewish people, but only numbers, following the pattern of the six days of creation. Hence, it would be perfectly reasonable to translate Genesis 1 into our Western culture with the words: Monday, Tuesday, etc. (see Figure 3). For example, it was taught, “One born on a Sunday will be wholly good or wholly bad because on that day light and darkness were created.”10
It is also interesting to note one explanation given for the meaning of the Hebrew word translated ‘heavens’. It was split into the two words sham and mayim, meaning the place of waters,11 thereby relating the very meaning of the word to God’s act of Creation on the second day, of separating the waters above the expanse from the waters below the expanse (or ‘firmament’ as in the King James (Authorized) Version).
So how did the ancient rabbis view the Creation account in Genesis? It is fair to say that they never took it other than literally. Perhaps they accepted certain incorrect scientific ideas from the world of their day, but it must be admitted that these false ideas did not come from the sacred text.
However, ‘Adam’ was understood to be a single man, from whose rib God made the first woman; ‘Day’ was understood to mean an ordinary (24-hour) day, consisting of a dark part and a light part; ‘beginning’ meant beginning, and so on.
References and notes
- Cohen, A., Everyman’s Talmud, Schocken Books, New York, 1975, Introduction, p. iii. Return to text.
- Ref. 1., Preface, p. vii. Return to text.
- Ref. 1., p.27., (p. Chag. 2:1). Return to text.
- Ref. 1., p.37. Return to text.
- Ref. 1., p. 94., (Sanh. 38a). Return to text.
- Ref. 1., p. 67., (Sanh. IV 5). Return to text.
- Ref. 1., p. 160., (Sanh. 39a). Return to text.
- Ref. 1., p. 35., (Genesis R. XII 5). Return to text.
- Ref. 1., p. 34. Return to text.
- Ref. 1., p. 281. Return to text.
- Ref. 1., p. 30. Return to text.