In an article entitled Jews for Darwin, Nathan Aviezer explains how Orthodox Jews can reconcile holy scriptures (the word of God) with modern science. His recipe for removing conflict between science and religion is found in Maimonides’ approach to the word of God: Whenever biblical text contradicts well-established knowledge, one should set aside the literal meaning of the text and interpret the biblical words metaphorically.
To illustrate this open-minded approach to what he believes is the “word of God,” Aviezer notes that the six days of creation mentioned in Genesis might have been much longer than six ordinary days. For, we need not take the word “day” literally. Perhaps it means “era” as it does in the Book of Ruth. This metaphorical reading has the advantage that, if each of the six “days” of creation were a billion years long, then science and Genesis would have similar estimates of the age of the earth.
It is odd that Mr. Aviezar resorts to this old-shoe attempt to save Genesis, since even if each day of creation were a billion years long, this would not save the story. Contrary to the creation story, there could not have been three full days and nights before the sun existed. Nor did seeded and fruit-bearing plants come before fish and before the sun and the stars. Nor did God make a firmament (a huge dome that separates the waters above from the waters below) on the second day, or on any other day. Perhaps this is what leads Mr. Aviezer to suggest that we might be forced to interpret the entire creation story metaphorically, as describing a series of events that never happened in fact.
What I shall argue against Mr. Aviezar’s suggestion, however, is that it cannot save God or the sacred texts from conflict with science. The “Retreat to Metaphor” is incoherent at root, and it throws out the baby with the bathwater. Consider the following flaws:
First: The Retreat to Metaphor is ad hocAviezar’s solution is ad hoc in the sense that it has cannot be generalized: It has been invented to save specific problem passages. So, it has all the appearance of having been invented simply to save certain passages from being falsified. The problem is that there is no way to know in advance which parts of the presumed Sacred Text (Word of God) will need to be set aside as metaphorical when scientific knowledge advances. Of course we know now the earth is not flat, that there is no firmament, that there could be no day and night before the sun existed, and that the earth is a few billion (not just a few thousand) years old. But, prior to gaining such knowledge, we could not have known whether certain parts of Genesis should be taken literally or only metaphorically. This is a huge problem. What good is the “Word of God” to us if there is no way to know what God really is saying, whether He is speaking literally or only metaphorically? How can we know whether a passage is meant literally or only metaphorically when the next unforeseen scientific discovery might force us to retreat to a metaphorical interpretation?
This may not seem much of a problem for parts of the Bible that are only concerned with moral facts, not with scientific facts. For example, the commandment not to steal seems to be telling us that theft is plain wrong, literally wrong. What would it mean to say that theft is only metaphorically wrong? Still, it importantly seems to be telling us something else as well, namely, that God forbids theft and demands punishment for it. But did God literally forbid stealing, or is this just a metaphorical way of speaking, too? This leads us to a second objection to the Retreat to Metaphor:
Second: Is the entire Bible a Metaphor?If some of the Bible is only meant metaphorically, why not all of it? If the entire Creation Story can be discovered to be only metaphorical, how can we know which of the “moral stories” and purported histories of God’s relations to man are merely metaphorical? Did God literally speak to Moses, or is this just a metaphor? And, if it is only a metaphor, for what is it a metaphor?
The story of Job has long been held by many scholars to be like a parable, a story not to be taken as anything that really happened, but only as a metaphor or tale with a moral point. Just as Maimonides allows us to set aside as metaphorical any of the sacred text that conflicts with scientific fact, perhaps we can set aside as metaphorical any moral story that conflicts with our moral and philosophical sensibilities. Finding it not moral or sensible to think that an omniscient God would allow Satan to murder Job’s wife and children just to test Job, we might set it aside as metaphor. Once the plunge into metaphor is taken, however, how much of the rest of the Bible will be safe? If all the stories that offend our moral sensibilities are metaphors, why not think that the good stories are just metaphors too?
So, what is left in the Bible that is not metaphorical? Perhaps the entire Moses story, his leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, getting the Ten Commandments from God, the golden calf, the genocidal massacres, and all the rest is nothing but a fable or a metaphor. How can we tell that this story (for which there seems to be no confirming Egyptian archaeological evidence) is to be taken literally, not just metaphorically? The same problem applies to the New Testament: Perhaps the stories of Jesus, his walking on water and raising the dead, the sermon on the mount and the miracle of the loaves, the last supper, the crucifixion and the resurrection, etc. are themselves nothing but stories, fables, parables, beautiful metaphors, all. Once we let the Metaphor Genie out of the bottle, what will be left that is not a metaphor? Mr. Aviezar gives us no non-arbitrary rule for deciding what is metaphorical.
Third: How can we know what is Scientifically Impossible?Aviezar’s rule to set aside texts that conflict with well-established scientific knowledge will not easily help us to decide which texts are only metaphorical. For, it is not obvious which stories really are scientifically impossible. Do the stories of the parting of the red sea, of God’s stopping the sun in its tracks, or of Christ’s walking on water really conflict with science? That is to ask, are miracles really scientifically impossible? David Hume in places seems to argue that miracles are conceptually impossible because they are violations of the laws of nature, and a law of nature by definition cannot be violated, since a law of nature is simply a regularity to which there are no exceptions (so, a regularity to which there had been an exception would then not be a law of nature). This seems an unfair way of stacking the deck against the “possibility” of miracles.
If the laws of nature are established and maintained by God, as Mr. Aviezer seems to believe, it seems a possibility that God could suspend those laws (or the ways things behave when God is not controlling them), thus allowing for “miracles.” Making a bit of manna fall from heaven would be a very minor exercise for a God powerful enough to have created the entire universe. And, even Richard Dawkins allows that it is a scientific question whether or not there is indeed such a Super Being with Super Powers in our universe. But, if this is the case, there is very little that a Believer like Aviezer would be forced to set aside in the sacred text as being only metaphorical. For, in God all things are possible – even suspension or violation of the most basic regularities or laws of nature. So, again, Maimonides’ rule for regarding scripture as metaphorical seems arbitrary.
So, where one person sees a claim as being scientifically impossible, another might view it as compatible with science (if there is a God). Of course, it would take a Cartesian Evil Genius to fool us all into thinking the earth is spherical when in fact it is flat, or into thinking that our earth is billions of years old when really it is only 6,000 years old. But, that is what some religious people believe that God can and is doing. Here, Hume’s other argument seems more telling: These people’s beliefs go against all reason and experience.
It is worth noting that the reasoning that makes us think that a certain passage is so scientifically impossible that we must take it metaphorically is the same kind of reasoning that makes us think that God Himself must be a scientific impossibility. So, taking parts of Scripture to be meant only metaphorically does not save the belief that the Bible is the Word of God.
Fourth: All metaphors must have a Literal Meaning.When we decide that a passage in the Bible must be meant metaphorically, the next question must be: What does the metaphor literally mean? Recall that a metaphor is an implied comparison between two things, in contrast to a simile which explicitly compares two things. For example, the metaphor “He is a pig” is only short for the simile, “He eats like a pig.” Again, I am speaking metaphorically when I say, “I walk on eggshells every time I discuss religion with my mother.” Of course I do not literally walk on eggshells when I discuss religion with my mother. It is only like walking on eggshells. That is to say, one has to discuss religion with extreme care lest people get their feelings hurt.
The point and its accompanying problem is this: Anything that is said metaphorically is something that could be said literally. So, any passage in the Bible that is meant only as a metaphor is something that could be said in a literal fashion. For example, the metaphorical statement that “Fred is a pig” just means “Fred eats like a pig.” So, we always are entitled to ask of any metaphorical passage, “What is its literal meaning?” And, I submit that Mr. Aviezar cannot supply the literal meanings (literal translations) of his purported scriptural metaphors.
Let us take an example: (1) Genesis 1:16 to 1:19: “And God made two lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth.... And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.” Taking this literally, we would suppose that this means that some Supreme Creator made the sun, moon and stars on the fourth day of creation and set them in the firmament (the dome that separates the waters above the earth from those below). But, since this seems contrary to scientific fact (since there is no firmament, and since the sun and stars existed before day and night on earth) presumably Mr. Aviezar wants to set this passage aside (perhaps even the whole creation story) as a metaphor.
The problem is this: If the literal meaning of this “metaphorical passage” is not the one I already mentioned, then Mr. Aviezar must explain what he thinks the literal meaning really is. Does it mean that something like a God did something like making something like the sun and put them in something like a firmament? If God did not literally make the sun and stars on the fourth day of His making things, what did in fact literally happen that the Word of God is trying to metaphorically convey in those passages? If the Word of God is a metaphor that we cannot unpack, if the literal meaning is unknown to us, then the metaphorical meaning -- the entire meaning -- is unknown to us, and so we do not have the word of God. If all of it is a metaphor for we-know-not-what, it might as well have been written in invisible ink, for all the good it does us.
Just one more example: Is it only a metaphor when the Bible tells us that God spoke to Moses on the mountain, that God gave Moses the ten commandments, and so on? What we want to know is whether or not the story of Moses is literally true, or whether it is only a metaphor. If it is a misunderstanding to think there literally was a Moses (or that God literally spoke to Moses, or that there literally was a God who gave us commandments), then what indeed is the literal rendition of the “metaphorical” stories involving Moses? If the Moses story and the creation story are not meant to be taken literally, there is no way of knowing what on earth they really are intended to convey.
Perhaps Mr. Aviezar is just using the word “metaphor” loosely. Perhaps he does not mean that the story of Moses and the story of creation and of Adam and Eve are metaphors. Perhaps he means rather that they are just fables, moral tales with a moral point like the story of Job -- just moral tales for us to ponder. But there are problems with this approach. Surely it was an article of faith for Maimonides that there literally was a Moses who delivered his people from the Pharaoh, who got commandments directly from God, etc. No Orthodox Jew can think this story is just a fabricated fable, with no literal underpinning.
On the other hand, if the story as revealed in the Bible is taken to be literally true, then Moses does not seem to have been a proper messenger from God to teach mankind how to live a moral life. For, the story of Moses is the story of a moral monster, a homicidal maniac, who led his people on a hideous, merciless march of genocide throughout the Promised Land. The commandment not to murder meant nothing to Moses when it came to exterminating occupants of the land he wanted. He did not even spare women and children in his murderous rampage. His Hebrew hordes murdered untold thousands of men, women and children who had never done him any wrong.
If no such person as Moses ever literally murdered those thousands, then what literally is the Moses story about? On the other hand, if the Moses story is just a moral tale to ponder, what is the moral point supposed to be? No morally intact person can read the story of Moses and what he led his people to do without feeling moral outrage. There is no excuse for what Moses did. None. To further claim that Moses had God’s blessing is a blasphemous and morally corrupting claim. The only proper moral way to teach the story of Moses would be to teach it with the same kind of outrage that we all feel in teaching how the Jews were treated in the Holocaust. The Retreat to Metaphor cannot save the Moses story.
Take another example: When the Bible says that Adam lived to be 930 years old, does it literally mean this, or does it only mean 93 years or 930 moons, or what? If the claim is not demonstrably false, but only implausible in the extreme, how can we decide whether to interpret it literally or metaphorically? Is God incapable of making His meaning clear and unambiguous?
When do we retreat to metaphor? Genesis 6:4 tells us ,”There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children unto them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” So, if I do not want to believe that God literally had sons who had sexual intercourse with human women, I guess I can take this passage metaphorically. But, for what is it a metaphor? God had something like divine sons that had something like intercourse with human women? Once we go down the road of abandoning literal interpretation for metaphorical interpretation, we are lost. For, an indefinite number of metaphors then become possible, limited in their number only by our imaginations, with our having no way of deciding which of the many is the metaphor intended by God. The Devil speaks with a forked tongue, and God speaks in metaphors and riddles? How can we then know what any of it means?
Fifth: Literal interpretations always have priorityThe final objection to the Retreat to Metaphor is the most obvious: When asking what a text really means, the first and primary interpretation always will be the literal meaning -- unless the text is a work of fiction, a fable, a made up story. With religious stories, it sometimes is difficult to know for certain how they were meant. For example, when we read stories of the ancient Greek gods, it is difficult to know whether or not people like Euthyphro who took the stories to be literally true were regarded as childish or foolish by the average citizen. It seems possible that most Greeks well knew that there was no superhuman Zeus who turned himself into a swan to rape human maidens, etc. Perhaps they regarded these as no more than entertaining stories, sometimes stories with a moral point.
But, on one point we have no question: We know that, interpreted literally, the stories of the Greek gods are pure fabrications. With regard to the Greek gods, we all are unapologetic atheists. No agnostics with regard to Zeus, Hera and Chronos. And, now that science gives a different explanation for lightening (it is not bolts thrown by Zeus), we do not set aside part that part of the story and say that it must be meant metaphorically. No such nonsense. We know what the story said, what the story meant, and we know that either it was only meant as a story, or it was a false belief. We do not try to save it by retreat to metaphor. Nor is it at all clear how any such retreat to metaphor could save the stories of Zeus. They are just stories about things that never happened, not a metaphorical way of saying something that really happened.
Mr. Aviezer might seem to gain some support from Ian Plimmer, the Australian Professor of Geology who has written a book called, Telling Lies for God – Reason vs Creationism.  On page 17, Plimmer writes, “To maintain that there can only be a literal interpretation of the Old Testament belittles all biblical scholarship.” In fact, says he, “it could be argued that literal interpretation damages Christianity as the Bible becomes the object of mockery.” On page 19 and 20, he goes on to say that a literal interpretation of the creation story could make Christianity look ridiculous, since the nomads who told those stories were “flat earthers” who believed in a firmament, etc. So, at the bottom of page 20, he tells us that the biblical creation stories are beautiful accounts by primitive civilizations…” He concludes that “These stories are neither right nor wrong.” To the contrary, however, I think Plimmer just wanted to throw a sop to liberal Christians like the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane who is an ally of his against Creationism. The fact of the matter, as Plimmer sets out in detail, is that these creation stories were meant literally by those who invented them. Those primitive nomads meant exactly what they said, and what they said was factually wrong. The Creationist mistake is not that the stories were only meant metaphorically. They were not. The Creationist mistake is just in thinking that the stories are true. We know they are not.
So what are we really trying to save by Retreat to Metaphor?Mr. Aviezer and I, then, approach the Bible differently. Where I see a mistake, he sees something that must be intended metaphorically, not literally. But, why is a metaphorical reading rather than a mistake the preferred reading of parts of the Bible that seem to be contradicted by science? If an Australian aborigine tells me that in ancient times a great Kiwi Bird laid a giant egg in the sky which now is our sun, the story impresses me as a beautiful early attempt to praise and thank the Great Kiwi. I almost want to pray to the Kiwi Bird myself and to thank Her for the sun from which all warmth, light and life is possible on this earth. Indeed, I wonder at the agony and sacrifice of the Great Kiwi in having laid a fiery egg more than 860,000 miles in diameter. But, in the end, I control my religious passions and come to my senses, knowing that the sun just cannot be a giant Kiwi egg.
So, what shall I say to my Aborigine worshipper? Shall I teach my aborigine how to become an Orthodox Aborigine by taking his story metaphorically rather than literally? Shall I tell him that his ancestors were not wrong, but were only speaking in metaphors? Shall I tell him that his ancestors’ story was only a way of expressing a feeling of gratitude, a way of saying “Thank You” to the Great Kiwi without actually believing there is any Kiwi? But that would be a lie. They just had a false belief about the origin of the sun. … Or, perhaps they just loved telling stories by the fireside.
And, if Aviezer tells me that Genesis is just a way of saying “Thank You” to God for the wonderful world He has given us, but that none of the details of the story are meant literally, I understand the feeling. Sometimes I myself feel like saying thanks for the flowers on a beautiful day, even though I do not think there is any God to thank for anything. Gratitude without an object. But, this is not what Aviezer is suggesting. He really does believe in God, the “Almighty”, the “Creator.” He is careful to point out that his God is not a God-of-the-gaps, not a God used to fill in the explanatory gaps that science has not yet filled in. His God does not explain the apparent design of plants and animals until a theory of evolution can do the job, his God is not the unmoved mover that keeps objects moving until acted upon by other objects, his God is not the Being that explains thunder and lightning until science can explain that too. Rather, he tells us that understanding the laws of nature is a way of understanding God: Orthodox Judaism does not view the laws of nature as being materialistic, non-religious explanations. Quite the contrary, says he, the laws of nature were established by God Himself and form an important expression of His faithfulness to humankind. So, in the end, knowledge of the physical world is akin to knowledge of the Creator.
This is a clever move. It seems to make Aviezer’s religion immune to any conflict with science, because all discoveries of science are merely discoveries of the workings of nature which were made by God. And, all the details in the Bible that seem to make factual claims that could be tested by science are only metaphorical, at least at the point where science seems to have disconfirmed those claims. But, one set of claims of Orthodox Judaism is NOT metaphorical. Orthodox Judaism insists that God really does exist as an Almighty Being, a Being Who established the laws of nature, a Being with Intelligence Who made a covenant with the children of Israel, Who gave us eternal and Divine moral commands, uzw. Metaphors do not entirely eviscerate Orthodox Judaism, as explained by Mr. Aviezer. The universe does have an Almighty Creator.
The Bad News: There is Nothing Left to Save
The bad news for Mr. Aviezer is twofold: The first piece of bad news has already been mentioned in the preceding paragraph: No matter how much an Orthodox Jew impresses us with his respect for science and for learning, his Judiaism remains a religious view, not mere science. (Science is not just Theology in disguise.) Saying that knowledge of the physical world is akin to knowledge of the Creator does not make Judaism science, because God (according to Aviezer) is not one with the physical universe -- God is the creator of the universe, the intelligent being who established (created?) the laws of nature. So, God is separate from what scientists at least so far have studied.
Still, if there is such a Being, why couldn’t future science investigate and come to understand the psychology of the Creator, and even understand and explain how He could create physical matter from nothing and create the laws of nature? Why couldn’t the future bring a New Science, a Science of the Divine that makes even God Himself intelligible according to basic laws? For, as David Hume pointed out, nothing is intelligible in nature or in psychology unless there is causation, and there is no causation without laws which are exceptionless regularities. So, if there were any Creator with any powers, mental or physical, those too would have to be part of nature and so would be potential areas for scientific investigation. So are we to believe that scientists might one day discover that the Universe is founded on a kind of Word Magic performed by a fantastical being?: God said, Let there be light, and there was light? Not plausible, I should think.
The second piece of bad news for Aviezer is that we KNOW that there is no such thing as God. Even Mr. Aviezer knows this. He is just hiding his head under the covers. But, at some point, we just have to give it up. There is no God. We all know it. It can be proved. David Hume was no agnostic. He did not think that he did not know whether or not there is a God. To the contrary, he said that it seemed to him that it would take a miracle for a person to believe in God. That is to say, he believed that it would require a violation of the laws of psychology, a violation of the laws of thought, to believe in God. Why is this? It is because the belief in God is belief in something that, as Hume put it, goes against all reason and all experience. To believe in God would require us to believe in something whose existence we know to be impossible. And, it is impossible to believe what we know to be impossible. It would take a miracle to believe. Or, perhaps it would only take a form of irrationality or insanity.
So, Just give it up.When criticizing Plato, Aristotle once said, “As dear to us as we hold our friends, still dearer yet must we hold the truth.” So, we must abandon gentleness here and tell our friend Aviezer just to give it up. There is no God. Let it go. Stop retreating from the possibility of scientific disconfirmation by making your religion a series of retreating metaphors for only God knows what (pun intended). Just admit you fell for a superstition, a venerable, perhaps morally edifying superstition, one that you even thought was beautiful, but a superstition nevertheless. We know there is no God, and we all know the proof of His non-existence.
There is no such thing as Zeus. We all know this. Euthyphro cannot save the story that Zeus turned himself into a swan to commit adultery by claiming that the story is just a metaphor for something that really did happen. It is just a fable, a story with no more possibility of being true than stories of cows that jump over moons and dishes that run away with spoons.
What things do we know? We know that knocking on wood brings neither good luck nor bad luck. If any scripture told us that knocking on wood brings luck, we would say that was false, not something with a metaphorical religious meaning. We also know that there are no such things as fairies and no such things as leprechauns. We know these things. We know that our sun is not a giant egg laid by the Great Kiwi Bird. We know there was no Zeus, Hera, Mars, or Thor either. We also know (not being children) that there is no such thing as Super Man, and no Plastic man or Hulk either. How does this show that there is no such thing as God? This proves there is no God because the notion of a God is far more fantastic and extraordinary than any of these wild, fantastic stories that we know be must false. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Infinitely extraordinary claims require impossible evidence.
Let me tell you a story about my mother. I am not a good son. When she went to the hospital to have brain surgery to remove a small growth, I did not visit her. I let my sister take her. A couple weeks after the surgery, my mom called. She was crying. She asked if I would love her no matter what. I told her, Sure mom. What’s up? When I got to her place, she told me what was wrong. The tumor had been more extensive than they had thought. To get it all, they had to remove her entire brain. Prefrontal lobes, medulla, cerebellum, brain stem, the whole show. Of course I was incredulous. How could she be walking around, talking, fixing a piece of pie with ice cream for me, with her entire brain removed? But, she showed me the hole in her head. Not wanting to waste the extra space, they sewed a zipper in the back, and she could store spare tissues in her head. I know. I looked. I unzipped the back of her head and put my hand inside. No brain. Nothing but used tissues. Yuck.
So, what is the point of my story about my mom? The point is that if you can believe this story, then you have no brains yourself. Indeed, this is how we know there are no such things as ghosts. How? First, we know that no beings can think without brains. As Hume put it, mind depends on matter (thinking depends on having a physical brain), not matter on mind (nor can minds create matter). This is a truth of universal experience. Animals with little brains (like mice) are not as intelligent as animals with larger brains (like dogs and people). People with brain damage have damaged thought, and people lacking brains do not think at all. We also know that nobody can see without the use of eyes. Claims to have clairvoyant powers are easily tested. If a person claims to be able to see blindfolded, without the use of his eyes, then remove his eyeballs from his head, and have a magician on hand to make certain that he does not cheat. Nobody sees empty sockets in his own face when looking into a mirror.
What does this have to do with God? Well, we know there are no such things as ghosts, and God is the biggest ghost story ever told. There is no being that manages to be super-intelligent without having any brains. Nor is there any Super Being that can create entire universes by word magic. Knowing that this is impossible is just part of growing up.
As for Moses, throw him into the pit with other mass murderers like Stalin and Pol Pot. We do not want our children learning moral lessons from the likes of Moses, not even if he is only a metaphor for viciousness and evil. To rid ourselves of these primitive, barbaric, and morally blasphemous superstitions will teach us a new way to love the desert, like a new breath of fresh air: We will love the desert because it is clean and empty like our souls: No filth. No clutter.
- Nathan Aviezer. 2007. “Jews For Darwin,” Skeptic, Vol.13 No.1, pp. 10-12.
- Ian Plimmer. 1994. Telling Lies for God – Reason vs Creationism (Random House, Australia, 1994), pp. 17-20.
- David Hume. 1748. An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X. Of Miracles (The Liberal Arts Press, 1955), pp.140-141. Hume’s claim that it would require a miracle to believe in Christianity is easy to overlook. It occurs at the very end of Section X., Of Miracles. Here, Hume says,
“… upon the whole, we may conclude that the Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity. And whoever is moved by faith to assent to it is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person which subverts all the principles of his understanding and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to reason and experience.” (underlines mine)Note that the subtle Hume is not saying that belief in Christianity requires the support of miracles such as Jesus’ raising the dead, walking on water, or being resurrected. What Hume suggests is that the Christian religion is so contrary to all reason and experience that it would require a miraculous subverting of all the principles of a person’s understanding for a reasonable person to accept Christianity’s veracity. Just as it is impossible to stop the motion of the sun in the skies, so is it impossible for a reasonable person to believe in the Christian religion. To believe what one knows to be impossible would require a suspension of the laws of thought, a violation of the laws of psychology.