History or Allegory? It Really Doesn’t Matter

I fielded a question recently from someone who had read a book by a certain author and was confused because this author had presented certain incidents from sefer Bereishis (the book of Genesis) as allegorical. The questioner had learned these things as literal history and wanted to know which things actually happened and which were stories presented for the moral lessons they teach. I assured him that our tradition is indeed to consider the narrative in sefer Bereishis as literal history but if someone considers certain things to be allegorical, that is not in and of itself heretical.

This is territory that I have tread before, in The God Papers and The God BookIn Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed), Maimonides discusses the debate between the Jewish belief that the universe was created and the then-prevalent scientific position that the universe always existed. (It may surprise you to learn that this was not only a debate in the Rambam’s day but even until modern times. The Big Bang theory was not widely accepted even among scientists until the 1970s.) Obviously, Rambam ascribed to the Biblical creation account but he makes a surprising statement. He says that if it were definitively proven that the universe always existed, it would not pose a theological quandary. All that would mean is that the creation account, which we always assumed to be literal, is actually an allegory. (Guide II, 25)

It’s interesting to note that the difference between a created universe and an eternal universe is infinite, while the difference between a 6,000-year-old universe and a 15-billion-year-old universe is finite. Judaism won the big battle: science now agrees with us that the universe was created. The difference of a few billion years is merely quibbling over the details. If the Rambam wouldn’t get bent out of shape over an infinite percent difference, our current scientific debate would barely pique his interest at all. And yet, for so many, this issue presents a serious crisis of faith!

In truth, there’s a lot of gray area between the “definitely literal” and the “definitely allegorical.” Let’s look at the prophets. Isaiah chapter 20 says that God had Yeshaya (Isaiah) walk around for three years barefoot and naked except for a loincloth. The Radak says that Yeshaya didn’t actually do this, he saw it in a vision. The Bible describes God as having the prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel) perform a lot of symbolic tasks that might seem pretty crazy to us, like eating a scroll (chapters 2-3), lying on his side for over a year (chapter 4), and more. The consensus of commentators is that these things did not actually occur. Rather, they are things that Yechezkel saw in visions that the Bible describes allegorically as if they really happened.

However, we must consider the famous incident of the “valley of dry bones” in Ezekiel chapter 37. This chapter describes how Ezekiel saw a valley full of dry bones reattach themselves, get covered with muscles, sinew and skin, and get up. (This story was the inspiration for a familiar song: “the knee bone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the hip bone….”) One might be tempted to consider such a thing allegorical but the predominant tradition is that this story literally happened. Rabbi Yehuda ben Beseira, one of the Sages of the Talmud, claimed not only to be descended from one of these revived skeletons, but to be in possession of that ancestor’s tefillin (Sanhedrin 92b).

There are, of course, times when we don’t know for sure whether something is history or allegory. One noteworthy example is the entire Book of Job. The Talmud (Baba Basra 15a-b) has a multi-pronged debate about when Iyov (Job) lived. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that Iyov lived in Moshe’s day; Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazar say that he was one of the Babylonian exiles; Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha says that Iyov lived in the time of Esther; others say he lived at the time of Yaakov. There are still other opinions.

The most surprising opinion, however, may be that Iyov never existed at all! According to this opinion, the entire story is a parable taught for the lesson it imparts. A similar (but slightly different) opinion appears in the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 57). There, the scholar Resh Lakish opines that Iyov was an actual person but that this story is a work of historical fiction, the same way that our legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood are works of fiction based on people who actually lived.

Is the Book of Job a work of literal history? Historical fiction? Pure allegory? There seems to be no consensus on this one – it’s completely user’s choice!

There are times when it actually would be problematic to take things literally! I’m talking about such verses as “The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch My hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it” (Exodus 7:5) and “I will surely hide My face on that day because of all their evil…” (Deut. 31:18). Does God have hands? Does He have a face? (Consider Exodus 33:23: “I will remove My hand and you will see My back but My face will not be seen.” That verse has hands, a face and a back!) One of Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith, as paraphrased in Ani Maamin, is “I believe wholeheartedly that God has no body and physical limitations do not apply to Him. There is nothing resembling Him.” In such a case, taking things literally would be heretical!

So there are things in Torah we take literally. There are things in Torah we take allegorically. There are things we just don’t know about. And there are even things we’re not permitted to take literally! Clearly, what’s literal and what’s allegorical is not black-and-white but a huge mosaic of gray tiles in a multitude of shades. (Laws, of course, are literal. “Thou shalt not kill” means do not kill!)

So, if I read a book or hear a speaker who takes something as allegorical that I have always considered literal, that doesn’t make him a heretic. We both draw lines between Biblical history and Biblical parable, he just draws the line somewhere different from where I do.

However – and this is crucial – this does not give us carte blanche to disregard everything in the Torah that disturbs our 21st-century sensibilities by exiling it to the Land of Parables. Remember when Maimonides said that if the eternity of the universe were proven he would consider the creation account to be an allegory? That’s not the end of his thoughts on the matter. He continues, “The eternity of the universe has not been proven and we do not abandon the literal understanding of Biblical verses in order to accommodate a theory” (Guide II, 25 again).

You and I are not the Rambam. (At least I’m assuming you’re not!) We are not at the paygrade to decide that things are allegorical if doing so contradicts our mesorah. Even the Rambam said he would not do so without a 100% ironclad compelling reason! (That’s a good thing: the scientific theories of his day were pretty compelling but they were eventually disproven.)

If our mesorah says that something is history and someone chooses to believe that it’s a parable, it’s not heresy. They may be wrong but that’s okay; people are allowed to have ideas that are wrong. But just because it’s not heretical, that doesn’t mean that the rest of us should go out of our way to be wrong, too. If and when something requires reevaluation, there are those who are qualified to reevaluate it, though such people are few and far between. I am fairly confident that none of the people at that paygrade are reading this article. I know for a fact that no one at that paygrade wrote it.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.