Out From Under the Umbrella

playing in the rain

Conversations with an Atheist Jew


I’ve asked Harvey to assist me in creating a few posts. He is a Jew by birth and is familiar with Jewish tradition.  Having asked him to guest post he asked that I add a disclaimer:

Please note that although I was and remain a Jew, I have been a total non-believer in the Abrahamic or any other God since my early twenties. I am a Jew only by accident of birth and ethnic tradition. I believe that I understand traditional Jewish attitudes towards their God and ethical issues, but only in the academic sense. I can still read Biblical Hebrew and some Aramaic, but I am by no means a Rabbi. I have read the new testament perhaps 4 or 5 times over the years (since my wife of 30 years is Lutheran) and the Koran twice (in English, of course).

The reason I’ve asked Harvey to do this is because I’m extremely interested in the traditional Jewish perspective and interpretation of the Bible. Christianity was born out of the Jewish tradition so having that perspective would be quite beneficial, I think, to understanding Christianity and/or the rejection thereof. This will be a series of posts as I have quite a few questions. Harvey suggested a Q&A format for these posts and I readily agreed. Harvey has graciously agreed to field additional questions in the comments section.  If you have questions that are off-topic you can email them to me and we’ll make a separate post to address them.  Just click on my profile where you’ll find an email link.

Me: What would be the traditional Jewish understanding of the book of Genesis?

Harvey:  Apropos my previous comments, traditional Judaism sees Genesis as an understanding that 1) God created everything 2) He is responsible for the existence of Man and intended him to “have dominion over” (have use of and, to some extent control) the rest of creation. 3) That Woman was, to some extent, an afterthought and, as a result, was to be under the domination of Man. and 3) That Man is, by nature, imperfect, and has only himself to blame for his shortcomings (i.e. transgressions against God). As such, he deserves the difficulties and and apparent unfairness that may come his way in this life. It is clearly allegorical and, in my experience, very few Orthodox Jews would contend that it should be taken literally.

Me:  What is your understanding of the intent of the book of Genesis.  Is it literal or allegory?

Harvey:If we presume that whoever actually wrote down the tribal myths/oral traditions that we now know as the Torah/Five Books of Moses were directly inspired by God, the question of intent becomes moot.  It seems much more likely, given our present understanding that there were clearly several distinct authors and probably at different times in history, that those who actually applied ink to parchment wanted to accomplish several things:

1) Every culture in history that we know about has seen fit to create a Deity. This was done because the world, particularly in ancient times, was a frightening, dangerous place, fraught with mysteries and, finally. with death. One can imagine that primitive Man needed some comfort from imagining that the weather, change of seasons, birth and death, etc. were at least “controlled” by some higher power than their puny abilities to do so. It follows that if there exists such  “God(s)”, that it would be wise to find ways to propitiate/worship such a powerful Deity. Hence, religion came into being. Genesis seems to be the agglomeration of many of the pre-existing tribal creation myths, rewritten and modified to the particular cultural needs of what had recently become a “nation”, Biblical Israel.
2) The tribes of Israel had, in Moses’ time, only recently banded together as a primitive nation. Most of them were illiterate. Priests needed to “standardize” the accounts of how and why Israel had become and needed to continue as a “nation”. In this regard, the “intent” of the writers of Genesis was largely political, to convince their congregants to remain together as a unit and to continue to submit to the sometimes painful commands of their rulers, such as needing to go to war, sharing their limited food supplies, becoming indentured “slaves”, etc.
3) If a leader/priest wants to convince people that one has the “right” to command obedience from a large group, one can do no better than to be “ordained” by a powerful Deity to do so. Already widely understood creation myths from cultures that preceded the nation that became Israel in the times following the Exodus from Egypt could be rewritten nicely to support this idea.
It follows that Genesis is largely intended to establish that Yahweh (the God of the Hebrews) was not only our Creator who could command our obedience, but that we had somehow transgressed badly enough to deserve His wrath. This idea could be used by Priests to explain how, even if the Nation of Israel followed all of God’s commandments, He might still allow bad things (like defeat in war, pestilence, slavery, etc) to happen. Obviously, we had transgressed in the Garden of Eden or more recently (probably both), and it followed that we not only deserved these bad outcomes, but should be even more thankful that God had not visited even worse upon us. These observations, it seems to me, support the view that Genesis is mainly allegorical. Taking it to be literal truth that somehow describes actual events (most of which are said to have occurred before any men existed) requires complete suspension of all the logical, analytical intellectual methods we have learned to apply in every other facet of life’s experiences. It further forces those who do claim it to be literally and unalterably the “Word of God” to engage in extraordinary mental gymnastics to try to reconcile that belief with everything we have learned about how the Universe actually works.


This is actually pretty close to what I’ve come to think of the book of Genesis myself.  It was a means to galvanize a tiny nation.  Their leaders used a deity to give them the right to authority over the people.  What do you think?  Do you have questions for Harvey?

9 thoughts on “Conversations with an Atheist Jew

  1. Thank you Harvey and D'Ma for this Q & A series. I like it. On March 17/11 I watched Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the Piers Morgan live show. I'm not sure if this has anything to do with your series or that I'm asking any questions. Just a comment about something Netanyahu said about Moses. He said, (not a direct quote but perhaps it could be found on Piers Morgan's site) – that Moses was a great leader but he wasn't good at finding a good peace of land. I remember at the time thinking, 'Why blame Moses? Isn't it God who directed his path to the "promised land?"'It seems to me Harvey that Netanyahu appears to believe some of the "O.T." is literal. Any thoughts on this?


  2. "Every culture in history that we know about has seen fit to create a Deity."Google ate my last, longer comment, so here's the short version: I'd be real careful about generalizing when it comes to religion. Almost all human societies have some sort of religious belief, but the nature of that belief can vary wildly.Stupid Blogger software. ::grumbles::


  3. @Michael Mock,Can you elaborate with an example of a differing religion that doesn't result in a Deity?I really don't know much about world religions. What can I say? I've lived a sheltered life. :)Blogger seems to be particularly hungry lately. ::grumbles:: with you.


  4. Zoe:I have no idea how "religious" or believeing Netanyahu may be, but such a comment seems to support my contention that at least one major "intent" for the Torah is to justify political needs. Even a modern elected official may, at times, find a Biblical justification for what he perceives as a necessary action useful.


  5. Thank you Harvey. I'm not aware of Netanyahu's beliefs either but it did make me wonder just how literal he was in regards to the Torah.


  6. Great post! Thanks to you and Harvey!Here's a question for Harvey:As I have read through the Tanakh (Old Testament), I am surprised by just how far away Christianity seems to be from its true context. Do you have any theories about how Christianity branched off? Is it, perhaps, similar to Mormons and Christianity in your eyes?


  7. Thank you Harvey. I'm not aware of Netanyahu's beliefs either but it did make me wonder just how literal he was in regards to the Torah.


  8. The Wise Fool:Obviously, my understanding of Christianity in general and sects thereof in particular is probably a good deal less than I can muster for Judaism. However, it seems to me that many Biblical scholars have suggested that whereas the earliest Christians saw themselves as Jews who happened to follow Jesus and the teachings of his immediate disciples, Paul was a proponent of expanding to non-Jews at that time. None of the earliest leaders of Christianity were real experts on Tanakh; rather, they found it useful to pick and choose those interpretations that could be used to support Jesus as the Son of God. Since this concept was totally foreign to the majority of Jews at that time, who preferred and were used to being separate from the many non-Jews around them, (particularly the Roman conquerors), it is no surprise that Christianity developed its own interpretations and apocrypha that diverged from that of the Rabbis. Although, as I understand it, the Council of Nicea, following the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, was mainly concerned with standardizing the Gospels, it also established somewhat Christianized versions of Torah, thereafter referred to as "The Old Testament." I suppose one could see similarities in the place The Book of Mormon seems to hold in relationship to Christian Bibles, and for the same reasons. Joseph Smith needed to establish his sect as a successor to and more "final" word of God; He, too, took those parts of the King James version that suited him and which he could "interpret" to support his teachings.


  9. I should probably also point out the similarity in how the Koran recounts much of what is in both Testaments of the Christian Bible, with certain specific differences in emphasis, including the Patriarchs, Moses, most of the prophets (in which group they include Jesus), etc.. They see the rest of the Koran as "the final" word in the Testaments recounting the Words of Allah (God), adding to and superseding both of the books that went before.


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