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Moses Maimonides on the Literal Meaning of Genesis

According to some Seventh-day Adventists, the only way to maintain a strong theology of the Sabbath is by way of an unbendingly literalistic account of the creation week in Genesis. Yet Orthodox Judaism has included non-literal readings of the creation, without controversy or schism, for more than a millennium. Although the Jewish faith includes provisions for anathematizing and excommunicating heretics (as in the famous trial of Spinoza on charges of pantheism or atheism), no Jew has ever been declared herem for failing to be a strict young earth creationist or literalist on the days of creation in Genesis 1. Abraham Joshua Heschel—a Hasidic Jew and the preeminent twentieth century interpreter of the Sabbath—did not subscribe to a literalistic creation week. Neither did perhaps the most highly revered and authoritative rabbinical interpreter of the Torah from the 12th century up to the present. According to a medieval Jewish saying still repeated by orthodox Jews today, “From Moses [in the Torah] to Moses [Maimonides] there was none like Moses.” Yet Rabbi Moses Maimonides taught that the six days recorded in Genesis should not be understood as literal 24-hour time periods.
Maimonides major concern in his writings on questions of origins was to demonstrate, contra both Plato and Aristotle, that the creation occurred as the Bible records it. In Plato’s Timaeus, the world is created by a Demiurge de novo (that is, at a moment in time) but not ex nihilo (that is, out of nothing). Plato imagines, in other words, a creation from pre-existing matter in the cosmos. For Aristotle, according to Maimonides’ reading, the world was meanwhile created neither de novo nor ex nihilo but is an eternal emanation of the Unmoved Mover. Although Maimonides confessed that he could not disprove the Aristotelian view through either rigorous logical or empirical proofs, he maintained that the creation occurred both de novo and ex nihilo as the language of Genesis clearly suggests.
Even as Maimonides argued for the superiority of Scripture to Greek philosophy on important questions of origins, however, he also insisted that it was a mistake to read the six days of the Genesis narrative as literal 24-hour periods. The creation in Genesis, Maimonides taught, is not primarily intended as a cosmogony (that is, as a scientific description of the way the world came to be in every particular detail) but rather as a cosmology, i.e., a description of the structure and order of God’s creation. Strictly speaking, the question of how the world first came into being is undiscoverable by scientific means and remains veiled in mystery, even within the biblical narrative itself. This means we must decide what we will believe about the most important questions of origins on non-scientific grounds, including the authority of divine revelation. But the theological meaning of Genesis is not tied, Maimonides maintained, to any kind of unbending or chronological literalism (in the modern sense of the word). The days of Genesis 1 are essentially metaphorical.
“We Should Accept the Truth From Whatever Source it Proceeds”
Maimonides arrived at this reading of Genesis, it is important to note, under no pressure to fit his theology to new scientific discoveries or evolutionary theories. But in cases where the weight of scientific evidence is overwhelmingly clear, Maimonides declared, believers should not hesitate to modify their readings of Scripture as reason and new empirical findings might demand. The rabbi’s guiding principle was that “we should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds.” There can be no conflict between truly scientific reasoning and correct interpretations of revelation, Maimonides maintained. Yet this does not mean scientific evidence should be bent every which way to bring it into conformity with literalistic readings of Scripture. Believers should rather investigate all questions without fear or reservations and follow the evidence where ever it might lead. And if they find that something can be truly proven by scientific methods but that it seems to conflict with Scripture, this means they have misinterpreted Scripture. If, on the other hand, a statement is made that is rationally plausible but is in principle un-provable by science, and if this statement conflicts with the teachings of Scripture (as in Aristotle’s conception of the world as an eternally existing emanation), the believer should reject the statement as both theologically and scientifically unsound.
For Maimonides, then, the slogan of sola scriptura might be true insofar as it goes as a statement of Scripture’s absolute authority in theological matters. But those who abandon their reason and senses when interpreting the Bible—the position of fundamentalism or verbalistic fideism—are in fact not showing any great honor to the Bible’s authority. They are actually distorting Scripture’s authentic meaning and sealing themselves off to the living Word by refusing to use their God-given faculties of mind. The correct and faithful way of reading Scripture includes scientific reasoning, which is also a tool of spiritual discernment. “One can easily fall prey to the illusion that one understands Scripture by virtue of being able to read Hebrew,” Gad Freudenthal notes in his analysis of Maimonides philosophy of science. “In point of fact, many words and phrases are, as it were, encoded—they have a particular, philosophic sense, so that understanding them on their ordinary meaning inevitably leads to error, even heresy. For the naïve reader, the revealed text is therefore full of pitfalls.”
“Naïve readers” will of course include not only purblind fundamentalists of various stripes but also liberal scholars who subject Scripture to strictly naturalistic or historicist methods based upon equally dogmatic and arrogant a priori assumptions.
A Guide for the Perplexed
How, then, might Maimonides respond to Darwinian evolutionary theory if he were alive today? He might begin by drawing vital distinctions between naturalistic and theistic theories of organic evolution, and then provide a vigorous critique—on scientific and logical grounds—of plausible but in principle undemonstrable evolutionary claims (such as Darwin’s hypothesis that all of biological existence is the result of natural selection). At the same time, the Rabbi might (like many Orthodox Jews today) embrace with perfect equanimity falsifiable scientific tests demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt a certain amount of common ancestry between species as well as a very old earth and very old life on earth.
And what might Maimonides say to Seventh-day Adventists anxious that only the most woodenly literalistic readings of Genesis will support a theology of the Sabbath? I suspect he would look at them somewhat quizzically (as would Abraham Heschel), and then perhaps refer them to certain passages in his 1190 treatise, A Guide for the Perplexed. The “keeping of the Sabbath is a confirmation of our belief in the Creation,” Maimonides wrote. “The object of Sabbath is obvious, and requires no explanation. The rest it affords to man is known; one-seventh of the life of every man, whether small or great, passes thus in comfort, and in rest from trouble and exertion. This the Sabbath effects in addition to the perpetuation and confirmation of the grand doctrine of the Creation.”
What more should a faithful Adventist be required to affirm about why we keep the Sabbath?
Kenneth Seeskin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Maimonides, A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Trubner, 1885).

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