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Some Challenges For Bible Literalists

Posted on February 9, 2010 at 10:50 PM

By Gary Konecky

 

On Saturday, December 26, 2009 / Tevet 9, 5770, Jews across the world read the Torah portion of Vayigash during morning services.  Vayigash consists of Genesis 44:18 –47:26.  Among other things, it recounts Jacob’s family moving to Egypt. Starting in Genesis 46:8, we are given a name by name account of who in Jacob’s family went to Egypt.  It is interesting to note that wives of Jacob’s son’s mentioned as going to Egypt in Genesis 46:5 are not named nor counted in this lengthy list. 

 

As bible literalists insist that the plain, literal meaning of the text is all that matters as it is G-d’s word, why this significant omission?  Surely, the infallible, allknowing G-d, did not slip up in editing; so my first challenge to bible literalists is to explain the literal meaning of this apparent contradiction.

 

We now come to Genesis 46:26-27:  “All the souls coming to Egypt with Jacob, those descended from him, excluding the wives of Jacob's sons, all the souls were sixty six.  And Joseph's sons, who were born to him in Egypt, two souls; all the souls of the house of Jacob who came to Egypt were seventy.”

 

All the souls were sixty-six plus Joseph’s two sons equals sixty-eight, yet we are told “all the souls of the house of Jacob who came to Egypt were seventy.” Since 68 does not equal 70, and an all knowing, infallible G-d would know basic arithmetic, my second challenge for bible literalists is to explain this math error using a literal meaning of the text.  Bible literalists are restricted to a literal reading of the text, as it is their position that only a literal meaning of the text is the appropriate way to understand scripture.  A literal reading of the text also means that bible literalists cannot use names or people other than the sixty-eight mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

 

For those who do not believe in bible literalism, there are extensive commentaries by learned Jewish sages that explain these seeming contradictions. Such explanations draw on the oral Torah, and the Jewish tradition to search for meaning in the word of G-d. For we are taught in: 

  • Leviticus Rabbah 22:1:  “He who loves the study of G-d’s words will not be satisfied with the written Torah, but will go on to the Mishnah and Talmud.” 
  • Baba Metzia 33:  “The Rabbis have taught: ‘Those who study Scripture are scholars of degree, but not a high degree.  Those who study Mishnah are scholars of higher degree.  Those who study Talmud are scholars of the highest degree.’” 
  • Sopherim 16:  “We read:  ‘The L-rd spoke with you faces to faces.’ (Deut. 5:4)  The passage does not read ‘pan to pan,’ face to face, but ‘panim le-panim,’ faces to faces.  This teaches there are four faces or kinds of Torah: Scripture, Mishnah, Halakah, and Aggadah.”   (note 1) 

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Note 1:  The source of the quotes from Leviticus Rabbah, Baba Metzia, and Sopherim is  page 467 of The Talmudic Anthology, Tales & Teachings of the Rabbis, edited by Louis I. Newman in collaboration with Samuel Spitz, copyright 1945, published by Behrman House, Inc.

 

 

 


Categories: Bible Interpretation

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