By Israel Drazin


There are significant interpretations of Genesis that many people do not know. This is do in part because much scriptural material is obscure or at best ambiguous. This is not surprising or even bad. All good literature has parts that are obscure or ambiguous. As the great Argentinean writer Jorge Borges (1899-1986) wrote: two people write good literature, the writer and the reader. Obscurity and ambiguity draw the interest of readers and prompt readers to think of various ways to decipher the story or text.


Must people believe that the earth was created from nothing- called creatio ex nehilo?

            Despite Maimonides developing thirteen essentials of Judaism[1] and other scholars following with their own lists, the general consensus is that Jews do not have to “believe” anything. What is important is proper behavior. But, this issue aside, what does the Bible say?

At issue is how we understand the obscure verse that describes the creation, Genesis 1:2: “Now the earth was tohu vavohu and darkness was upon the face of the tehom and the ruach elohim hovered over the face of the waters.”

This verse raises many questions. I will mention a few of them. The principle question for our discussion is: is verse 2 describing the condition of the world prior to creation; in other words, is it saying that there was material in the world that preexisted creation, which is the view of the Greek sage Aristotle? Or should we understand it as the Talmudic sage[2] who wrote that this verse is saying that tohu vavohu, darkness, wind, and water were created on the first day?

The untranslated words in the verse are also obscure. No one really knows what tohu vavohu means, but it seems to denote unformed or unfashioned matter. This seems to support the view of preexisting matter because if the world was created from nothing, why was there a time when matter was unformed? Similarly, we don’t know what tehom means. It is usually translated “deep.” But what is the “deep.” Again, it seems to indicate that something existed before creation, a deep. The phrase ruach elohim is usually translated “the spirit of God,” but is God’s spirit different than God? Furthermore why does the Bible tell us this? What does it have to do with the other items that were present? Actually the basic meaning of ruach is “wind.” And the basic meaning of elohim is someone or something special or powerful:[3] God is called Elohim in the plural because God is more special and more powerful than anything else. Thus the proper translation is “a strong wind,” which also seems to preexist creation.

But the verse, as I said could be read as most people comprehend it today and as the Talmudic sage saw it. What did Maimonides say?

In his Guide of the Perplexed 2:25, Maimonides admits that people can understand Genesis to be saying that God created the world out of nothing or from pre-existing material. He wrote that it is easier to read Genesis to say that God formed the world from pre-existing matter, but he prefers the view of creatio ex nihilo because it fits in with God performing miracles.[4]


What does the tale of the Garden of Eden tell us?

            Should we understand the tale of the Garden of Eden[5] as an actual happening or as a parable? Maimonides considered it a parable.

Maimonides taught in his Guide of the Perplexed 1:1 that people should work to develop their thinking and understanding by studying the sciences and logic, and make life decisions based on what they learnt, on what is reasonable. He explained in 1:2 that the biblical parable of the “garden of Eden” containing the divine prohibition that people should not eat from the fruit of the tree of “good and evil,” is a prohibition against making decisions based on what is good and evil, on what morality teaches. Instead, people should base their decisions about how to act on what makes sense after a careful analysis of all factors relevant to the situation. In essence, Maimonides stresses that morality is a system of rules for the multitude, for people who cannot or do not want to think.

Morality is faulty. It attempts to establish absolute rules of behavior that fit all situations, but this is impossible since every event is different. True, for example, one shouldn’t drive through a red light, help old ladies cross the street, give charity, and not kill. But there are instances where these rules do not make sense, such as when one is being pursued by a murderer, when the old lady is crazy and harmful if touched, or if it makes more sense at the moment to spend the money for an investment, or to kill in self defense.  Additionally, what may be proper in one country at one moment in time may not be proper at another time. Thus, morality is a good set of rules for people who don’t think because the rules are generally (but only generally) the right way to behave to help people and society.

Maimonides followed the teachings of Aristotle and not Plato who mistakenly thought that there are absolutes for virtually everything. When Christianity started Christians bought into Plato’s ideas. When Christianity spread, it influenced people of other faiths to accept the notion of absolutes and the need to be moral. As a result, many great philosophers who failed to recognize the true nature of morality wrestled with how to define it without success, simply because it cannot be defined other than to say that it is a set of general rules on how the general population who don’t think should act.

Aristotle said it this way in his Nichomachean Ethics:

Matters concerning conduct and with what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health…. (In) particular cases, … (people) must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion, as happens also in the art of medicine or of navigation.

[1] In his introduction to Sanhedrin chapter 10 called Chelek. As surprising as it may appear, there are scholars who feel certain that Maimonides wrote the thirteen essentials of Judaism for the general public who he felt needed such a list, even though he did not accept all but the first ones about God. Thus, for example, Maimonides knew that errors had crept into the Torah text and also knew that there were tikkunei sophrim, changes made in the text by the Masorites of the first millennium CE, yet one of the thirteen principles is that the entire Torah now in our hands is the same one that was given to Moses. Similarly, although he wrote in the beginning of Chelek that the dead will not become alive again, the thirteenth essential states the opposite.

[2] In Chagigah 12a.

[3] Thus vnei elohim in Genesis 6:2 does not mean “sons of God” but superior men, as ibn Ezra understood it. Similarly, the requirement in Exodus 22:8 to bring the litigation to elohim does not mean bring it to God, but to judges, as Rashi and others say.

[4] This is a tricky statement. It raises the question: is Maimonides accepting creatio ex nehilo, rejecting the view of Aristotle whose views he generally accepts, and basing it on miracles not because he truly believes this, but is saying this because of what the Greek philosopher Plato called “a noble lie,” an untruthful statement made to the multitude that they can accept and live their life better, even though philosophers had a different view. The question exists because many scholars are convinced that Maimonides did not believe that God interferes with the laws of nature he created. Thus when Maimonides says he came to this view because of the belief in miracles, he is telling his wise readers that he actually ascribes to Aristotle’s view, as he usually does.

[5] Genesis 2 and 3.