Torah Metaphors: Beresheit

General Introduction:

Just to make it absolutely clear, this is not a standard Torah commentary based on the teachings of the rabbis that one would obtain in a yeshiva. My background is in English and Comparative Literature and what we will be doing in this series of articles is examining the Torah in a similar fashion one might examine the writings of Shakespeare. Accordingly, if you wish to make a comment on the article, I would like to request that you present your arguments utilizing an academic format, based on the text, and not quote outside sources. It is the purpose of these articles to introduce an alternative and, hopefully, a fresh perspective to what is written in the Torah and not merely to reheat and serve up the same ideas that have been presented again and again during the last thousand years. Finally, I would just like to add that the inspiration for these articles comes from the works of the English psychologist Maurice Nicoll and that the source I used for the Torah was the website:

Genesis 1.1 – 6.8

Although most English translations use the phrase: “In the beginning…” it is my opinion that since the Hebrew word beresheit actually contains the word for: head a better translation would be “at the head of all things” or “of chief importance”. Thus the Torah is not giving us the story of the creation of the universe, but rather outlining for us God’s plan for the Hebrews or, if you prefer, The Children of Israel. Accordingly, the terms heaven and earth represent two levels of understanding (i.e. high and low). Therefore we see that Jerusalem is located on the top of a mountain, while Sodom is located in a valley.

Another very important concept we are introduced to is that of wet and dry. The key here can be found in the 5th Book of Moses where he says “my words are like a heavy rain”. What is important to grasp here is that in Hebrew the word for rain can also mean materialism. So, what we see in the opening lines of Genesis is that the waters are associated with darkness. Since light and darkness are universal symbols for levels of understanding, this explains why, later in the Book of Exodus, God does not want the Children of Israel to have too much water. When Moses finally does concede to the demands of the people, striking the rock to produce water, he cries out (in Hebrew) “you fallen ones”.

In addition to this, another theme we shall be dealing with throughout this series of articles is the connection between: sons, fruit and the words of God. The clearest example of this relationship can be found in the holy day of Shavout which is also known as: “The Festival of the First Fruits”. Since this holy day celebrates God giving his Torah to his people and the Hebrew word for first fruits also means first born sons, the connection is fairly obvious.

Lumping all these themes together, we can then begin to appreciate that the description of the first week does not really have to do with the creation of the earth, but rather is outlining the establishment of a school or teaching program. One indication that this interpretation is correct can be found in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. In short: the Hebrew name Moriah shares the same root as the word for teacher and we are told in the story that “on God’s mountain he will provide”.  Since we have already established that a mountain is a metaphor for a high level of understanding, what we can then see is that people must make their way to God’s mountain through their own efforts (i.e. working six days a week), but when they finally reach the highest level of understanding, they must stop laboring in their studies and allow God the teacher to provide the final lesson.

Another indication supporting this interpretation can be found in the story of Joseph interpreting the dreams of the two servants of Pharaoh. Before going any further, it must be emphasized that this story has nothing whatsoever to do with food. For centuries the rabbis have taught that “the Torah is the bread of life” and wine is always associated with the word of God. Thus, pharaoh’s baker and wine steward are high ranking religious advisors and not kitchen staff (Unless of course you want to believe that the Emperor of Persia really did send a mere wine steward named Nehemiah to help Ezra rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem).

In short then, we are told that the dream of the three branches represents three days as well as the dream of the three baskets. Baskets, traditionally, are used for serving bread and branches provide fruit. In addition to the connection made between fruit and knowledge in the Garden of Eden, we have already mentioned the connection between fruit and the words of God during the holy day of Shavout. Thus a basket, as well as a branch, represents a source of knowledge and both these items are equated with a day. Hence a day also represents a source of knowledge, which is very easy for us to accept since in modern times many individuals like to claim: “I learn something new every day”.

Accordingly, the story of the first week teaches us that we must study God’s ways via our own efforts for six days, but on the seventh day we must stop studying and allow God to speak directly to us. Thus the Hebrew word for the Sabbath comes from the root of the verb to sit and, traditionally, studying the Torah or the rabbinical commentaries is referred to as “the walking along the way”. In a later article we will discuss numbers more deeply, but here I would just like to mention that as the first son of the second wife, Joseph should be associated with the number seven and Joseph clearly stated that it is only God which provides understanding. In the same way, King Solomon ascends the six steps to his throne under his own power, but then he sits at the seventh level and relates to the people the wisdom he has received from God.

In regards to the story of Adam and Eve, I would just like to say that I believe that Adam was created on the eighth day and that he does not represent the first men who were created on the sixth day. Instead, Adam represents the first man with the spirit of God placed within in him. This seems obvious since: How could God have declared the sixth day as “very good” if Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit the same day? In addition to this, we must recall that Jacob returned to Canaan when he was eighty years old and Moses retuned to Egypt when he was eighty years old, so the number eight should be associated with an additional source of knowledge provided by God.

Some of the crucial elements in the story of Eden are:

  1. The word for naked which, in Hebrew, also means cunning
  2. The fact that the snake is punished by losing the use of his feet.

In regards to the word naked/cunning we are told that the snake was the most cunning animal in the field. This implies that all the other animals, including Adam and Eve, were also cunning; they just weren’t as cunning as the snake. Thus Adam was cunning before he ate the forbidden fruit. The change brought about by eating the fruit was that he began to focus on himself. In other words, before eating the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, Adam’s sole source of knowledge was God and, by definition, God is good. After eating the fruit, Adam became aware of himself, hence the definition of evil is anyone who considers themselves a source of knowledge about God. Accordingly, eating the forbidden fruit has given Adam the idea that he is now a source of knowledge and this is why, of all the available leaves in the garden, he selects the fig leaf to cover himself. In the Book of Judges one of the sons of Gideon associates the fig with goodness and, as we have already noted, God is good.

Adam, by selecting the fig leaf, in effect has attempted to changed himself into a branch of a fig tree and we have just commented that branches are sources of knowledge. Furthermore, God then proclaims that Adam is like him and we have already explained that the function of God is to teach (i.e. Before obtaining the forbidden knowledge, Adam was merely a student).

This then brings us to the concept of life and death. As we can see, Adam and Eve are not killed, yet they are expelled from the garden. We have just demonstrated that fruit and trees are associated with knowledge. Since Adam is expelled from the garden and this is described as death, then what we can begin to appreciate is that knowledge about God’s word brings life and understanding, while separation from the teachings of God brings death and a lack of understanding. Thus in the last days, literally dead people will not rise up out of their graves on the Mount of Olives, but rather those people who are spiritually dead at that time will be given understanding and a higher level of spiritual life by God (we have already shown that a mountain represents a higher level of understanding and, in ancient times, olive oil was considered a source of light).

God tells Eve that her descendants will try to crush the head of the snake, while the snake will attempt to bite their heels. In other words: each will attempt to destroy the other’s source of knowledge. The important element here is that the descendants are described as Eve’s descendants and Adam will call Eve the mother of all living. Since Eve is not even the mother of Adam and she certainly isn’t the mother of the animals, what we can see then is that the word life is a metaphor for understanding. Indeed, in modern times, the legal distinction between life and death is based upon brain activity. Furthermore, we have just touched upon the connection between trees, knowledge, life and understanding. Hence “The Tree of Life” represents a source of knowledge which brings understanding and understanding the words of God should be associated with “living forever” which is a metaphor for “unlimited spiritual understanding”. Accordingly, the snake represents a person who uses his brain and his intellect to learn about God, while the descendants of Eve use their feet to obtain information about God through intuition and communications via the school of the earth. Hence Moses is told to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. What is important to appreciate here then is that the walking stick of Moses, who is also described as the law giver, will change into a footless snake, while the walking stick of Aaron, the priest of God, will change into the four footed crocodile (the English translation is incorrect).

There are many important aspects to the story of Cain and Abel, but probably one of the most important is the connection between Cain who wanted to sacrifice the first fruits of the field and the Egyptians who wanted to throw the male babies into the Nile. We have already noted that the Hebrew word for first fruits and first born sons are the same and their connection with the word of God. In the Book of Exodus, God describes the Children of Israel as his son. The key to understanding the two stories is that the Hebrew word for meat also means preachings or gospels. So, if one were to read the title of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew it would be possible to interpret this to mean the Meats of Matthew. Thus, in my opinion, the connection between these two stories is that Cain and Egyptians would like to sacrifice the words of God, as represented by the first fruits and the Israelite babies, and preserve their own religious teachings. Thus throughout this entire series of articles we shall be returning, again and again, to the issue of the teachings of men versus the teachings of God……


Dror Ben Ami is the author of the book: THE MISUNDERSTANDING: An Introduction to Metaphors, Images and Symbols Found in the Old and New Testaments.





About the Author
Dror Ben Ami has studied English and Comparative Literature at Georgetown University, George Washington University and the University of Haifa. Building on research begun almost forty years ago, Mr. Ben Ami has written a complete commentary on Biblical Law (i.e. the Hebrew Torah) and is currently working on a complete commentary of the four gospels. Living in Israel since 1980, Mr. Ben Ami brings a unique perspective to scripture, answering many questions that few people have the background, or the knowledge, to even ask....