Many Christians today no longer find it tenable to read the narratives of the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible—as literal history. Many Christian theologians realize that evolutionary history contradicts a literal reading of Genesis, but also recognize that evolution is the best description of biological history. Theologians who accept evolution and therefore reject a literal reading of Genesis must come up with non-literal ways to interpret Genesis; the most apparent such method is to interpret Genesis as allegorical.
There is a longstanding tradition within Judaism that interprets parts of the Pentateuch allegorically—that is to say, they argue that the text is not meant to be read as a literal description of events that took place, but rather as a fictitious story that reveals truths about God and his relationship with humanity. While working on my undergraduate degree at Ohio State, I took a course on Jewish philosophy wherein I discovered that several Jewish thinkers, from Philo to Soloveichick, were perfectly comfortable with reading much of the Hebrew Bible allegorically.
Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, Egypt between circa 25 BCE and c. 5 CE. In his discussion of the creation of the universe, Philo asserts that God is the creator of an incorporeal, archetypal model that served as a blueprint for the creation of the physical universe (Philo, 4). This implies that God created the very matter from which the universe was formed, and since Philo has such a high view of God, he was unable to take certain passages of the Pentateuch as literal descriptions of events. As an example, Philo doesn’t accept the idea that God created the universe in six literal days, because, “the Creator stood in no need of a length of time (for it is natural that God should do everything at once, not merely by uttering a command, but even thinking of it),” and thus, “when Moses says ‘God completed his works on the sixth day,’ we must understand that he is speaking not of a number of days, but that he takes six as a perfect number” (Philo, 25).
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138–1204), also known as Maimonides, was a medieval rabbinic philosopher who lived in Spain. The second of Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith declares that God exists in perfect unity, a doctrine grounded in Deuteronomy 6:4 which states “Hear O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” Maimonides’ third principle states that God has no parts and therefore no physical form, since God’s perfect unity is incompatible with the idea that God has individual parts. Maimonides therefore takes biblical descriptions of God having a bodily form to be anthropomorphism (i.e., describing God with human terminology to give his incomprehensible attributes some sort of conceptualization). Maimonides doesn’t accept the idea that God created via speech as described in Genesis chapter 1 (since this would require God to have a mouth), and so he takes this description as an allegorical reference to God as a king or ruler of the universe, since a king brings about his will by spoken decree (Maimonides, 120). Maimonides also rejects the idea that God literally looked upon his creation (see Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, etc.), since this would imply that God has eyes, and so he takes the statements about God looking upon his creation as referring to God’s intellectual appreciation (Maimonides, 27-28).
There are some clear advantages to using allegory as an interpretive method for a sacred text like the Pentateuch. For one, it allows the interpreter to make the text perpetually relevant because it allows the meaning of the text to be tailored to the interests or concerns of the present audience. So when Philo describes the six-day creation of the universe allegorically or Maimonides presumes that God has no body, they are conceiving of God in ways that are consistent with conceptions of God in classical and medieval philosophy, despite contradicting a literal reading of the Bible’s descriptions of God. Allegorical interpretations also allow the interpreter to rationalize apparent contradictions between a literal reading of the Pentateuch and modern scientific knowledge of the world. The issue of science wasn’t as prominent during the times of Philo and Maimonides who lived prior to modern knowledge of evolutionary theory, however, later Jewish and Christian theists could exploit allegorical interpretation for the purpose of avoiding contradictions between biblical and scientific descriptions of cosmology and the ancient past. I suspect this benefit of allegory is what prompts Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik (1903–1993) to say the following:
“I have never been seriously troubled by the problem of the Biblical doctrine of creation vis-à-vis the scientific story of evolution at both the cosmic and organic levels, nor have I been perturbed by the confrontation of the mechanistic interpretation of the human mind with the Biblical spiritual concept of man.” (Soloveitchik, 7)
Philo and Maimonides believe in a God who is too mighty to interact with the world in the concrete ways described in Genesis. However, it could be argued that Philo and Maimonides believed in a much more powerful and impersonal God than what the ancient Israelite authors of the Bible believed in. Maimonides’ prooftext for the idea that God exists in perfect unity, and therefore cannot have a body, is Deuteronomy 6:4, which states that “Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” However, there is no reason to assume that Maimonides’ interpretation of this verse is what the original author had in mind. The biblical writer could have merely been suggesting that there is only one God (monotheism) or one God who is worth worshiping (monolarty / henotheism), which is more consistent with other biblical texts that suggest the Israelites believed in many gods. Maimonides’ suggestion is perhaps possible, but the fact that this passage is unclear and that Maimonides’ interpretation requires allegorizing so many other biblical texts, it might be better to accept that the ancient Israelites believed in a God who had some kind of body (after all, God certainly had a physical in Genesis 18). It seems to me that much of the allegorizing that goes on with respect to the Hebrew Bible stems from an unwillingness to accept the concepts of the texts as they are written.
Being religious Jews, both Philo and Maimonides consider the Pentateuch to be a sacred and authoritative text of divine origin. Philo claims that Moses learned what he wrote in the Pentateuch “from the oracles of God” (Philo, 3), and Maimonides similarly asserts (as his eighth principle of faith) that the Pentateuch was received by Moses “from the mouth of God.” It is not difficult to accept the idea that God might use metaphors when communicating to mankind via the Pentateuch. However, since God is alleged to be all-powerful and all-knowing (contra several Bible passages), we might reasonably expect that God would be clear about which parts of the Bible should be read literally vs. allegorically.
Genesis chapters 1-11 contain many features which suggest that its original author(s) intended it to be understood as literal history. For example, there are extensive genealogies tying all of humanity back to the first human couple, Adam and Eve, and these genealogies are filled with names of people who play no role in the proceeding narratives (see Genesis 5 and 11). This type of genealogy is a good indicator that the author is attempting to write a literal history; you simply don’t find this amount of irrelevant details in allegories. Furthermore, there are several ways that the author could have indicated that the narrative was allegorical, for example, by simply mentioning at some point that the narratives are parabolic or explaining the allegorical interpretation following the narratives. To my mind, the fact that historically and currently so many intelligent and reasonable people have understood the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2 as intended to describe literal events calls the divine provenance of these texts into question. If God wanted to communicate via allegory, why didn’t he make the allegorical nature of his oracles clear so as not to confuse some percent of honest and intelligent readers? It seems that it should be within God’s power to give allegories in a less ambiguous manner.
These considerations make it difficult for me to accept that the Pentateuch is divinely inspired. I cannot accept that it is true literally, because this contradicts what I understand about the history of the world scientifically, but I cannot accept it allegorically either, because I do not see sufficient evidence that the original intention behind these narratives was for them to be read as allegory. And if these narratives are allegories inspired by God, I think it is reasonable to expect that God would have been more clear that this was the case.
Maimonides, Moses. The Guide of the Perplexed Vol 1, translated by Shlomo Pines (University of Chicago Press, 1974).
Philo. The Works of Philo, translated by C. D. Young (Hendrickson, 1993).
Soloveitchik, Joseph B. The Lonely Man of Faith (Doubleday, 1965).