Friday, February 5, 2016

A Jewish Interpretation of the Book of Genesis By Julian Morgenstern 1920

A Jewish Interpretation of the Book of Genesis By Julian Morgenstern 1920

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The words, "Let us make man in our image", are probably a survival of the older version of (a) myth, which spoke, not of one God, but of many gods. The present monotheistic form of the story is the result of the adaptation of the original Babylonian myth to the standpoint of the Jewish religion.

In this connection it may be remarked that frequently Jewish Biblical students are startled, and even shocked, when the thought is first presented to them that this creation-story, and also the flood story and a number of other Biblical traditions and thoughts were borrowed from Babylonian mythology and literature. A moment's consideration, however, suffices to show that there is nothing unnatural or shocking in this fact, and that the admission of its correctness detracts not one whit from the credit and glory of Judaism. Nations, like individuals, must live alongside of each other and exchange cultural products of intellect and spirit, even as they exchange material products of field and factory. It would be a sorry people, just as it would be a sorry individual, which had to discover and learn everything for itself through its own, ofttimes bitter, experience, and could not learn from contact with other peoples and acquaintance with their history and thought. Israel is no exception to this rule. Throughout its history it has always been able to exchange the best of its knowledge and culture for the best of the knowledge and culture of its neighbors, the Babylonians among others. But Israel has never been a parasite upon the world; it has always given in exchange value received, and on the whole the balance of credit is in its favor.

Nor is this all. Not even Shakespeare created the plots of all his immortal plays. The great majority he borrowed from one source or another. But in their original sources these plots would have had little or no permanent interest for the world, and would in time have been lost or forgotten. It was Shakespeare's genius that made these plots live and become the literary treasures of the world. Somewhat similarly, though to a degree far more exalted, as the genius of a God-inspired people surpasses infinitely the genius of an individual, even a Shakespeare, Israel borrowed this creation story and the flood-story. In their original form these stories would, at the most, have had only a passing interest for the student of archaeology or history. It was Israel's religious genius which breathed into them a spiritual truth and universal message which made them live, and live not for Israel alone, but for all men and all ages. Israel borrowed, yes, but it borrowed something that was almost worthless; it touched this with the magic wand of its spirit, and thereby transformed it into something of eternal, priceless value. In voicing this spirit of Judaism, the old myths have become new and living stories, in which the spiritual element contributed by Judaism is greater and of vaster significance than the framework and the few details borrowed from the Babylonian. The old Babylonian myth was lost and forgotten two thousand years ago. It is the Jewish story which has lived, because of the Jewish spirit and the Jewish truth contained in it, and has become a part of the great spiritual heritage of the Jew, and a part of his priceless gift to mankind.

Of all the books of the Bible, Genesis is best suited for presentation to little children just entering the religious school. In the first place it is the first book of the Bible. And in the second place it deals with just the childhood period of Israel's history, and in a manner which the child can readily understand. Its stories are less actual history than records of the way in which our early ancestors, with childlike minds, conceived of life itself, and of Israel's history as having actually begun. This is a matter of prime importance. Much of our present confused thinking about religion is due to the fact that in childhood most of us were taught that the stories of creation, the flood, the abnormal ages of the first generations, and many other stories of Genesis were literally true and must be accepted as such without question. Modern education and scientific environment, however, make us realize that this belief can not be maintained. Yet many have mistakenly imagined that Judaism actually rests upon blind acceptance of these stories, and wonder what is now left that they may still believe, and what remains of Judaism.

To avert all such painful confusion and uncertainty of religious belief for the coming generation, the teacher must understand that these stories are not literal history. They merely express the way in which the imaginative, unscientific mind of our ancestors, at a remote period of their religious and cultural evolution, conceived of creation and first life on earth. All primitive peoples have dealt with these same problems in much the same manner and have found their answers to these problems in myths and folklore. It would be surprising, indeed, if our ancestors had not passed through this stage of cultural evolution. And it would have been lamentable if, having passed through this stage of mythology and folklore, some of their myths and folk-tales had not been preserved for us, their descendants. We should be thankful that this little fragment of what must undoubtedly have been originally a far larger collection of ancestral myths, folk-tales, and legends, has come down to us, and we should not hesitate to accept and interpret these stories as what they really are.

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