Many readers of the Bible have caged themselves like animals in a zoo and are afraid to step out of the cages they created for themselves; they fear to think beyond the ideas they heard from teachers when they were taught Bible as children. The following are some examples.
- Exodus begins in chapter 1, verse 5, by telling readers that seventy “souls” came to Egypt with the patriarch Jacob when they were invited to travel and live there. This seems like a simple verse with a simple statement. But besides the question why scripture omits the females from the count, there are at least two other significant problems. Thinking about them leads the thinker to question and better understand other parts of the Bible.
If the reader would take the time to count the number of people who came to Egypt, the reader would find that the count is wrong; there were fewer than seventy. Why does the Bible say seventy?
The answer is simple once one looks at the other times that this number is used. The Torah was not giving a count. The number seventy is a figure of speech. It is used in the Bible to indicate “a large number.” Thus, also, when Hebrew scripture states there are seventy nations it is telling us that there are many other nations besides the Israelites, even more than seventy.
- The second problem with this verse is it speaks of “souls,” nefesh in Hebrew. Why does it do so? Once one leaves the cage and realizes that nefesh in the Torah means “person,” that the concept of a soul is not contained in the Torah and was only first introduced after 400 BCE, it becomes clear that the verse is speaking about people. Genesis 12:5 is thereby also clarified. It states that Abram took “souls that they [he and Sarai] had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go to the land of Canaan.”
- Most people take biblical words at face value even though they were never intended to be understood literally. Maimonides explains in his Guide of the Perplexed 1:65 that the word “spoke” and “said” does not always mean that the person or God uttered words. God has no vocal cords. They frequently mean “thought” or “willed.” God did not speak and utter words during creation in Genesis 1. God “willed” the creation of heaven and earth and all they contained.
- Similarly, he writes in 1:66 and in 2:48 that when scripture states that God did something, as in Exodus 32:16, “the work of the Lord,” the statement does not mean that God physically formed the tablets of the Decalogue. The words should be understood figuratively. They were produced by Moses, not God, and he did so in a natural way. They are called God’s work in the Bible because God is the ultimate cause of natural law. Thus, also, when Exodus 20:5 states that God will visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation” it should not be understood to mean that God is causing the evil-doers’ descendants pain. The is natural law. If children are brought up in a home where crime is taught and performed, chances are that they will continue to do what they were taught and that they will teach the wrongs to their children.
- Why does the Torah frequently repeat stories with changes in the repetition? There are, for example, two tales about the Israelites complaining about the lack of water and getting water from a rock, in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20. There are also two stories of God feeding the Israelites with quail in Exodus 16:12-13 and Numbers 11:31, 32. Were these two distinct events or two different versions of the same happening. Commentators differ, some taking one view and some the other.
- Why did God send ten plagues upon the Egyptians? Why the number ten? Is there significance that there are ten statements in the decalogue? Was there a need for plagues? Couldn’t God deliver the Israelites without them? Why were the average innocent Egyptian citizen also inflicted by plagues? Weren’t many if not most innocent from harming the Israelites? Why were first-borns killed, weren’t many of them too young to have acted improperly? When the Bible states that all the first-borns were killed, is it possible that this is exaggerated to emphasize the event, but only some or many died, including individuals in the Egyptian palace?
- Why is silver mentioned before gold in Exodus and elsewhere in the Bible? Was silver more precious than gold in ancient times?
- Why does God instruct Moses to lie to Pharaoh in Exodus 3:18; 5:3; 7:16, 26; and 8:16; to tell Pharaoh that God only wants the Israelites to leave Egypt for three days, to go to the dessert to worship God, after which they will return to slavery? Similarly, why does God tell Moses to have the Israelites “borrow” silver, gold, and clothing, with no intention of returning the borrowed items? Is Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) correct that this was a trick to cause the Egyptians to chase after the Israelites when they realized they were duped so that God could kill them? Is such a trick necessary? Why lie? Or is Maimonides correct when he states in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:48 that when the Torah states that God did something, God did not do it, it happened according to the laws of nature, and the Torah states that God did it because God created the laws of nature, and in this sense God was the ultimate cause of what occurred?
- The oft-used term “Ten Commandments” is incorrect. Scholars and clerics know there are more than ten commands in the Decalogue, although they differ as to how many there are. The correct term for the document, the one used by the Torah itself, is aseret hadibrot, “Ten Statements.” The Greek, “Decalogue” means the same. There are ten statements that contain between eleven and fifteen commands.
For example: most people recognize that the second command can be divided into more than a single mandate: (1) Have no other gods except the God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, (2) Make no image of God, (3) Make no image of anything on earth, the heaven, or in the water, (4) Do not bow down to them, and (5) Do not serve them.
- There are even different opinions among Jews how to divide the ten statements. The Masorites combined what most Jews today consider the first two statements into one and divided the last into two. Masorites lived during the second half of the first millennia. They were the Jewish scholars who determined the correct wording of the Torah and, among much else, the spacing of Torah sentences and paragraphs. The term Masorites derives from the Hebrew masora, which means “tradition,” and they were so called because they established or continued the Torah traditions. Their spacing of the aseret hadibrot is the one found in the Torah scrolls used during the Torah reading in synagogues. Thus, it is rather remarkable that their view of the spacing of the Decalogue, the one in the Torah scrolls, is not accepted by Jewry. Were the Masorites correct and out division wrong?
- Another difficulty with the Decalogue is how to interpret the prohibitions. For example, the second statement says that we may make no image of items on earth, in heaven, or in the water. Yet, contrary to the explicit prohibition in the Decalogue, the rabbis allow making and owning pictures and statutes.
- Still another difficulty: in the last statement (or last two, according to the Masorites) about coveting what does not belong to us, does this prohibit mental desires, or only the improper taking of another person’s object? The rabbinical interpretation is that it disallows theft even though this is contrary to what is stated because coveting is a mental process. This also raises the question: how this command differs from the injunction against theft.
These dozen examples show that the Bible is not as simple as children are taught, and people need to leave the cages they built for themselves and understand what the Bible is actually saying. The following is one final example of items that should make us recognize that we need to learn how to see the Bible and how to read it.
- As mentioned earlier, among other activities, the Masorites created spacings in the Torah that divided the Torah into what we call today paragraphs and chapters and thereby made the reading of the Torah easier. These divisions, as we saw with the first and last commandments, also resulted in conflicts regarding interpretation, such as what is the first and what are the last commandments.
There is another interesting situation because of the divisions. The Torah is divided into fifty-four portions, called parshiyot in the plural, parasha in the singular, so that Jews can read a portion every Shabbat and complete the entire reading of the Torah annually. (There are fifty-four portions and not fifty-two because the Jewish calendar is lunar, not solar, is made up of 354 days, eleven days short of the 365.25-day solar cycle, and needs the addition of a leap-year-month seven times in nineteen years.)
There is a space between each parasha, with one exception. The last biblical portion Vayichi begins in Genesis 47:28 with no space preceding it.
Rashi (1040-1105), based on Midrashim, offers two reasons why the parasha is “closed.” (1) When Jacob died the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed because the Egyptians began to enslave them. (2) Jacob wanted to reveal a prophecy about the future, “the end [the final redemption] but it was closed from him.” The failure to leave a space, Rashi is claiming, hints at these facts.
I think that it is more likely, that there was no space because the Masorites who created the spacings felt this was not a new chapter but the end of the former one.
I agree with much of what the Rabbi wrote. I agree that the Bible often speaks figuratively, or as in Rabbi Ishmael, “the Torah speaks in human language.” I now realize that much of what I read in my Children’s Bible as a child was wrong or misinformed. (although the pictures were amazing).
I was surprised to learn that Genesis 1 does not necessarily imply that G-d “spoke” or “said” anything, rather this was the “will” of G-d, as Maimonides explains (Guide 1:65). Another reason why G-d does not “speak” is that G-d does not have vocal cords. I thought that was a good point.
I also liked your interpretation of Exodus 20:5: G-d visits the “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation,” to mean that this is one of the laws of nature. For example, Gersonides’ explanation is that if a person acted improperly and is sent into exile (in some cases this was considered worst than death) then his children, and maybe children’s children would remain in exile.
Regarding the ten plagues, I agree that these were unusual, but natural events. The historical consensus is now that sometime around 1300 BC, the Minoan civilization (who pre-dated the Greeks) was wiped out due to volcanic ash 100 miles north from an island called Santorini in ancient times and Thera today. Interestingly enough, archeologists are now linking the blast to the ten plagues in Egypt. When the Bible speaks about a “great darkness” spreading over Egypt, it is likely that this was a volcanic cloud (could this be the same cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt or is this an allegory)? About this time, the Exodus takes place. As a result of the eruption, the Nile turned red due to bacteria and volcanic dust, resulting in algae, rotting the fish. One thing leads to the next and the frogs left the Nile and died; attracting huge swarms of insects and flies, killing cattle and wheat. Eventually, the bacteria spread to humans, as in the tenth plague of Egypt. Israeli filmmaker, Simcha Jacobovici explains in his film Exodus Decoded that it is possible that the ancient Hebrews were explaining the conditions of Egypt, similar to those that befell the inhabitants of Crete. Similarly, chief rabbi of the British Empire. J. H. Hertz opted for a natural explanation but I think the volcanic eruption explains the exaggerations. See this essay here by Dr. Drazin for Rabbi Hertz’s views: https://booksnthoughts.com/3150-2/
Thank you for your comments. I am glad that you liked the essay.