Ibn Ezra in Genesis


Clerics give sermons and extol certain biblical commentators giving their congregants the impression that whatever the person said was correct even though the commentator, like all of us, also made remarks that were not acceptable. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) is an example. Some of his interpretations are rational, others are not. The following are some of his thoughts from his commentaries on the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis.


The rational sage Maimonides (1138-1204) listed thirteen principles of Judaism in his essay called Chelek. The third principal requires Jews to understand that God is incorporeal. Ibn Ezra agreed in his commentary to Isaiah 44:24: “God has no body.” He reproved those who imagine God anthropomorphically (with a human body) in Genesis 1:26 and Deuteronomy 32:1, and anthropopathically (with human emotions) in Genesis 6:6. Like Maimonides, he explained that biblical descriptions of God in human form or with human emotions are mere metaphors. The Bible speaks in language common people can understand.


Unlike the common view, but like Maimonides, Ibn Ezra denied divine knowledge of human thoughts and actions. He writes in his commentary to Genesis 18:21: “for it is the truth that the All (namely, God) knows every particular (only) in a general manner, but not in a detailed manner,” meaning God only knows the laws of nature that God created, but not how humans use them.


Ibn Ezra’s concept of the after-life is like Maimonides’s: only a person’s intellect, his or her knowledge, survives and lives forever. Thus, when Genesis 5:22, 24 states that “Enoch walked with God,” it means that Enoch developed his intellect. And the words, “he was not, for God took him,” is a figurative way of saying that his body ceased functioning, but his intellect survived.


The tree of life in Genesis 3 also suggests the importance of the use of the intellect and its perpetual life. The tree, according to Ibn Ezra, is figuratively the intellectual ladder that humans should climb to achieve everlasting life.


In Genesis 27:13, Ibn Ezra opposed those who claim that Jacob could not have lied to his father Isaac when he disguised himself as Esau to secure a blessing from his father Isaac. They say Jacob was a prophet, and a prophet never lies. Ibn Ezra shows that prophets do lie and gives examples from David, Elisha, Micah, Daniel, and Abraham. In each instance, the circumstances of the time demanded the lie.


Similarly, Ibn Ezra asked how Isaac, a prophet, could be misled by Jacob’s disguise and think that he is Esau in Genesis 27. Furthermore, even if he was fooled, he clearly intended the blessing for Esau; how, then, could Jacob benefit from it. Ibn Ezra’s answer is simple: even the prayer of a prophet is no more than a prayer, a hope. Isaac was beseeching God on behalf of his son.  He was not prophesying. Besides, ibn Ezra and Maimonides were convinced that prophecy was a higher level of intellect, not a miraculous delivery of divine information. Thus there is no rational basis for interpreting the Hebrew Bible to refer to the messiahship of Mohammed[i] or Jesus.[ii]


Ibn Ezra noted[iii] many instances in Scripture that are obscure. Thus when Genesis 41:1 states, “It came to pass at the end of two years,” we have no idea when the two-year period began.


According to Ibn Ezra, the Bible only informs us of the creation of the known world, but reveals nothing of the outside unknown universe. This is emphasized by the definite article “the heaven,” in Genesis 1:1; i.e., the observable heaven.


But ibn Ezra was not entirely rational. He believed in astrology, that heavenly bodies influence human behavior and humans should study and understand how this occurs in order to protect themselves. True, humans cannot change the heavenly bodies, but they can make decisions how to act based on their knowledge.[iv] Once they learn from astrology, for example, that a catastrophe will occur in a certain place at a specified, they can stay away from that place. He explained many biblical passages based on his belief in efficacy of astrology. In his commentary to Genesis 31:19, he posited that Rachel took her father Laban’s teraphim (an idol) because had she not done so, Laban, an astrologer, could have used the teraphim to discover where her husband Jacob fled.


Astrology is also the basis of Ibn Ezra’s explanation of Genesis 6:2-4 which states: “the sons of Elohim saw the daughters of men that they were fair. They took them as wives… and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men of old, men of renown.” Ibn Ezra interpreted Elohim, usually translated “God,” as powerful beings, in this case wise men who understood astrology. They found excellent wives with their skillful examination of the stars and, as a result, had outstanding children.


Jewish tradition states that the entire Torah was given by God to Moses. Ibn Ezra offered the “secret of the twelve” in his commentary to Deuteronomy 34. He identified a half dozen biblical sections which could not have been written by Moses. The “secret of the twelve” notwithstanding, Ibn Ezra refused to accept that parts of the Pentateuch were written long after the time of Moses. He passionately rejected the interpretation of Yitzchaki (ninth-tenth century CE) that the Edomite lineage in Genesis 36:31 was composed during the days of King Jehoshaphat (ninth century BCE) and inserted at this later period into the Pentateuch.


Ibn Ezra accepted the imaginative stance of the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 61a, b, Eruvin 18a, and Genesis Rabbah 8:1 that the first human creation was a single being with male and female organs. Thus Genesis 2:24’s “Therefore a man should leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh,” means that they should be similar to their original state of being a single entity. This notion that the first human creation had both male and female organs appeared earlier in fourth century BCE Plato’s Symposium.


He concurred with the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a, that the world will exist for only six thousand years (Genesis 1:5, see also Genesis 8:22).


He considered that the fruits of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life were, contrary to the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 40a, unlike fruits known to us today. Therefore, they are not identified in the text. Adam, he wrote in Genesis 3:6 and 8, was wise before he ate the fruit of the former tree and after he digested the fruit, as a result of the digestion, he had sexual intercourse with Eve. The tree of life could not have given humans perpetual life, only a longer life, because the human body is unable to endure for too long. Although God stated that “on the day that you eat of it you will die,” they did not die on that day because they repented.






[i] Maimonides Epistles, ed. M D. Rabinowitz, Jerusalem, Mossad HaRav Kook, 1959, p. 144.

[ii] Ibn Ezra’s introduction to the Torah.

[iii] In his commentaries to Genesis 45:22 and Exodus 12:40, he states that there are more ambiguous biblical statements than are identified by b. Yoma 52a, b; e.g. Genesis 4:7, 45:22, 49:7, Exodus 17:9, 25:34, Deuteronomy 31:16, and Ruth 4:8.

[iv] Although Maimonides strongly rejected a belief in astrology and considered it idolatry (Guide 3:17 and 51), he tells us that humans can and should control natural forces, both heavenly and earthbound, through their intellect. The intellect differentiates humans from animals who are controlled by these forces. In this sense, he agrees with Ibn Ezra.