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How does human history fit in with the Torah's timeline?

Not even worrying about why the universe and Earth look so old, there is extensive evidence of a human population and human civilizations from well before 4000 BCE (i.e. 6000 years ago, there were more than two humans). Human fossils (that is to say Homo sapiens as opposed to other hominids that existed around and well before this time) and artifacts dating back as far as 200,000 years have been found in Africa, Eurasia, and Australia, and more recent artifacts and fossils (still tens of thousands of years old) have been found in the Americas. Egyptian pyramids (and proto-pyramids) were built both before and after the time of the Mabul (Noah's flood) (confirmed by carbon dating) as well as other Mesopotamian and Indus writing forms that are found to be both from before and after the time of the Mabul, as well as proto-Chinese characters that pose evidence of a single evolving culture that spans pre-Creation, pre-Flood, post-Flood, and modern day China. These are just some examples I've found when attempting to research early human history. I can edit this question with sources detailing as much evidence of this as is requested, or I can reference you to Google to find encyclopedia articles and scholarly journals or the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program or something, or we can proceed with the assumption that this is in fact almost universally accepted as confirmed and consistant records of human history.

Anyway, I'm having a hard time reconciling this account of human civilization that extends well before Creation and continues steadily even through the Mabul, which should have wiped out civilization, with the Torah. Here are the possibilities I can personally think of or that have been suggested to me with varying levels of support from authoritative sources, but none of them so far work for me:

  1. Archeologists and anthropologists (as well as geologists, physicists, cosmologists, biologists, geneticists, and any other line of empirical scientific knowledge that separately and consistently supports it) are part of a massive anti-religious conspiracy. However I think such a massive conspiracy theory is untenable and would be difficult to demonstrate.

  2. Archeologists and anthropologists are all a victim of misinformation as during and before the Mabul, life on Earth was so different as to systematically confuse all methods of dating. However this also doesn't make sense to me, as it implies that while life on Earth really is fully recent, that the rest of the universe must actually be really old since we can see objects from billions of light years away, and the Mabul couldn't impact the speed of light. And what's more, if you can only rely on dating from post-Mabul organic matter, then it raises questions about various inconsistencies. If the pyramids, for example, were of a post-Mabul society (as they are known to be), you should not find C14 dating of organic matter found in or with the pyramids to point to anything before the flood. One way or another the pyramids are from before the flood (and civilization there and around the world continues like normal).

  3. Hashem wanted to make everything look completely natural so he made Earth with a history. However the known significant human population from well before Adam would mean he was not the first man, and it would go so far as to imply that one should never ever expect any kind of evidence for anything in the Torah which has its own problems. Worse, it would be hard to answer this without painting Hashem as deceitful unless it can be clearly demonstrated from the intended meaning of Talmudic or similar sources that Adam wasn't the first man and that the Mabul didn't wipe out any civilizations. (Actually, I have heard reference to 974 worlds or generations before ours, but when I tried to dig deeper all I found was a Beraisa in Chagigah 14a about them being generations that were not created, but instead that their souls are the wicked among actual generations. And I have also seen reference to Zevachim 113 to say that there is precedent to say the flood was not completely global, but all it brings is a single opinion that makes the exception only for Eretz Yisrael and even then says that everyone there died. That is to say, all cultures, and most evidence of most of the world, would still have been destroyed in the flood.)

  4. As referenced in part of my objection to #3 above, this Earth had hundreds of "worlds" living on it before hand and Hashem destroyed them all in preparation of this world. However, while I have heard this claim, I couldn't find anything to back up that such worlds were literally created in a sequential natural form that mirrors the observed natural formation of the solar system and life. The best I found (which is not to say it is good) is an article from Aish that takes the words of Rav Abahu and allows for a vague inference that they did exist on a previous version of this planet that was destroyed to the point it was formless yet still maintains a coherent line of archaeological evidence of human civilization. Or perhaps Aish meant that in some early period of the sixth day there were (somehow and for some reason? I couldn't really follow what they were trying to say) precursors to humans without souls. (I'm also incredulous to the possibility that Hashem would in this way need to make so many living beings and people only to kill them in the process of making Earth, especially when only to recreate everything in six days anyway.) In any event it only could explain the difference between the first six days of creation with human history older than 6,000 years ago without addressing the events that followed like the Mabul.

  5. A suggestion by Dr. Gerald Schroeder, who says time, from the point of view of Earth, slowed down dramatically from the point of view of Hashem (who is assumed to have the same time perspective as background radiation), and it is in some particular way calculated that the first day of creation was exactly 8 billion years, the second day 4 billion, and so on. And that this supports an old age of the universe and the formation of the solar system and life over long periods of time. However as far as I can tell, from a perspective of physics, Schroeder is alone in this understanding, and as far as I can tell the same can be said of the Torah perspective. And it would go against the suggestion that the Torah is written in the language of men. And it contradicts the more recent improvements to the estimate of the age of the universe since Schroeder made his calculation around the turn of the century. His calculation also contradicts the order and time that various aspects of the universe, solar system, and life developed. And as is the case with suggestion #4, this only addresses human history before 6,000 years ago.

So as you can see I'm having trouble figuring this out. What are some better, or what is the proper, explanation(s) to deal with human history as stated in the Torah and human history as implied by the physical evidence?

NOTE: For answers stating that the Torah does not in fact literally mean a global flood or that human history started 6000 years ago: Please cite specific people that say this, preferably older answers based on messorah and not answers that were forced to bend around a context of archeological evidence. If you reference people like Schroeder or Slifkin who bend Torah around science, go further and quote the relevant things they've said along with the older sources they're basing themselves on that allow for such bending. Furthermore, please indicate why this is not taught mainstream (at least in my personal experience, learning about Berashis from various people and sources, I was never taught that human history was before 4000 BCE or that the flood could have left most of Earth undisturbed). If this is the proper understanding, it should be taught as such, I think, rather than cause people to be led astray after finding the literal interpretation to be seemingly incorrect.

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@MonicaCellio, I think this might be a duplicate of that first link? –  Daniel May 3 '13 at 21:56
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@Daniel It's not exactly a duplicate, as it also asks about seeming continuity pre and post mabbul. –  Fred May 3 '13 at 22:05
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@AL, thanks for clarifying, and sorry for the premature close. I've reopened. –  Monica Cellio May 3 '13 at 22:18
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Not a question but a statement. –  josh waxman Aug 30 '13 at 15:15

9 Answers 9

The question seems to be bothered by the issue that archeological records show that people were around much more than 6000 years ago while the genealogy in the Bible would place Adam, the first man, more recently.

There are many ways of addressing this. Just as the six days can be explained as not literally being six days, one can explain that the first man existed much more than 6000 years ago. One can also say that Adam the person wasn't actually the father of all mankind (but of a significant group in the area). Rishonim such as the Rambam already discussed the story of Adam as an allegory, so this isn't such a critical issue.

The archeological record may show some evidence for a large flood, but not one that wiped out all of civilization and animals on the entire planet. But the flood story can be understood as being a regional flood and one may not need to interpret every detail of the story literally.

Some people have explained that the Torah is focused on theological issues, and may not be trying to give an exact description of pre-history. Others have expanded the concept of “dibbera Torah ki-leshon benei adam" to explain why the Torah may have presented early stories in a non-scientific manner.

Update: See also some of these articles from Tradition:

See also books on this topic, e.g. The Challenge of Creation, by Natan Slifkin.

Update 2: The Rambam did not take the "6 days" of Bereishis literally, as well as other details. See More Nevuchim II:30. (C.f. Wikipedia, though it needs some editing and citations.) Also, I don't see what's wrong with re-interpreting something based on archeology. What matters is whether it's a reasonable (or plausible) interpretation, not what motivated it. See the Ramban on the Rainbow (Bereishis 9:12) where he re-interprets a phrase based on the Greeks' explanation of rainbows as a natural phenomena. (He then realizes that this reading actually fits quite well with the text!)

More can be said about these specific issues, but יש לו סוד, and the basic idea is to realize the goal of the Torah is to teach the Mitzvoth and certain hashkafic principles. The simple literal meaning of Bereishis is not there to give an fully-detailed historical account of the development of the world from the first moment until Avraham.

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Can you please cite where Rambam said this? I don't have Tradition to look it up. I'm curious how he says Adam was allegorical when the Torah says he was God's first creation of Man, his family, how long he lived, etc. I'm also interested how the he understands the Torah speaking of Adam's children as being "the first to do xyz" which implies that there was not another unmentioned civilization. Can you cite who says the flood should be taken as regional (must have been a small region to leave pyramids and cuneiform) and why it was then necessary to keep countless animals on an ark for a year? –  A L May 5 '13 at 4:45
    
The Torah never says his children were the first to do xyz. It mentions two great-great-great-grandchildren who were the 'fathers' of shepherds and musicians. That is a much easier statement to take allegorically than: X was the first person ever to do Y. –  Double AA May 5 '13 at 4:59
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@ArielK Upon further research I believe Rambam actually does take the 6 days as literal 24 hour days, and in the intro to Moreh Nevuchim he says not to extrapolate or interpret what he says. So nay for the freedom to reinterpreted Bereishis as is convenient. I'm looking for a better answer. –  A L Jul 15 '13 at 23:28
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(In fact, the Rambam writes he would have been willing to re-interpret Bereishis to allow for a universe that always existed, just that Aristotle's proofs weren't convincing.) –  Ariel K Jul 25 '13 at 2:23
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@ArielK The Rambam seems to also factor in how well an idea can fit in to the pesukim. He writes that if Aristotle's ideas were compatible with fundamental tenets of Judaism and if his ideas were proven correct (both of which are not the case), it might then be possible to wrangle the verses in the Torah accordingly. By contrast, the Rambam writes that Plato's idea doesn't undermine tenets of Judaism, and furthermore, verses could readily be reinterpreted to fit this view. So perhaps you are essentially correct, but the Rambam also seems to consider ease of interpretation of the verses. –  Fred Sep 11 '13 at 21:03

It seems that according to Rav Saadiah Gaon as well as Rambam, an old earth is possible. As is the existence of human beings prior to the date Adam was created according to Torah.

Another approach is to look at people like Dr Schroder in Genesis and the Big-Bang who argue that as space-time expands from the point of view of a person standing one earth in 2013 the earth appears billions of years old, however, if you were standing and looking from the point of view of the big bang the universe would seem to be a mere 5773 (almost 4) years old.

ספר אמונות ודעות - מאמר שביעי - אות א

אומר תחלה, כי מן הידוע באמתות הדברים שכל דבר שנמצא במקרא הרי הוא כפשוטו, זולתי מה שאי אפשר לפרשו כפשוטו מחמת אחת מארבע סבות, או מפני שהחוש דוחה אותו, כעין אמרו ויקרא האדם שם אשתו חוה כי היא היתה אם כל חי, והרי רואים אנו השור והאריה שאינם ילודי אשה, לכן צריך שנדע שאין הדבר אמור אלא בבני אדם. או שהשכל דוחה אותו, כאמרו כי ה' אלהיך אש אכלה הוא אל קנא, והרי האש ברואה וזקוקה [לחומר] ופעמים נכבית, ואין השכל מקבל שיהא הוא כך, ולכן מוכרח שתהא מלה נסתרת בלשון שנקמתו כאש אכלה, וכמו שנאמר כי באש קנאתי תאכל כל הארץ.

And so I declare, first of all, that it is a well known fact that every statement found in the Bible is to be understood in its literal sense except for those that cannot be so construed for one of the following four reasons. It may, for example, be rejected by the observation of the senses, such as the statement, “And the man called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20), whereas we see that the ox and the lion are not the offspring of womankind. Hence we must conclude that the implication of the statement embraces human descendants only. *Or else the literal sense may be neglected by reason such as that of the statement,* “For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deut. 4:24). Now fire is something created and defective, for it is subject to extinction. Hence it is logically inadmissible that God resemble it. We must, therefore, impute to this statement the meaning that God’s punishment is like a consuming fire, in accordance with the remark made elsewhere in Scripture, “For all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of My jealousy (Zeph. 3:8)

ספר מורה נבוכים - חלק ב פרק כה

דע כי אין בריחתנו מן המאמר בקדמות העולם מפני הכתובים אשר באו בתורה בהיות העולם מחודש - כי אין הכתובים המורים על חידוש העולם יותר מן הכתובים המורים על היות האלוה גשם; ולא שערי הפרוש סתומים בפנינו ולא נמנעים לנו בענין חידוש העולם, אבל היה אפשר לנו לפרשם, כמו שעשינו בהרחקת הגשמות; ואולי זה היה יותר קל הרבה, והיינו יכולים יותר לפרש הפסוקים ההם ולהעמיד קדמות העולם, כמו שפרשנו הכתובים והרחקנו היותו ית' גשם. ואמנם הביאונו שלא לעשות זה ושלא נאמינהו - שתי סיבות. האחת מהם - שהיות האלוה בלתי גוף התבאר במופת, ויתחיב בהכרח שיפורש כל מה שיחלוק על פשוטו המופת, ויודע שיש לו פרוש בהכרח; וקדמות העולם לא התבאר במופת, ואין צריך שיודחו הכתובים ויפורשו מפני הכרעת דעת שאפשר להכריע סותרו בפנים מן ההכרעות; וזה - סיבה אחת. והסיבה השנית - כי האמיננו שהאלוה בלתי גשם לא יסתור לנו דבר מיסודי התורה, ולא יכזיב מאמר כל נביא, ואין בו אלא מה שיחשבו הפתאים שבזה כנגד הכתוב - ואינו כנגדו, כמו שבארנו, אבל הוא כונת הכתוב! אבל אמונת הקדמות על הצד אשר יראה אותו אריסטו, שהוא על צד החיוב, ולא ישתנה טבע כלל ולא יצא דבר חוץ ממנהגו - הנה היא סותרת הדת מעיקרה, ומכזבת לכל אות בהכרח, ומבטלת כל מה שתיחל בו התורה או תפחיד ממנו - האלוהים, אלא יפורשו האותות גם כן, כמו שעשו בעלי התוך מן הישמעאלים ויצאו בזה למין מן ההזיה. אמנם אם יאמן הקדמות לפי הדעת השני אשר בארנונו - והוא דעת אפלטון - והוא, שהשמים גם כן הוים נפסדים - הדעת ההוא לא יסתור יסודי התורה ולא תמשך אחריו הכזבת האותות, אבל העברתם, ואפשר שיפורשו הכתובים על פיו, וימצאו לו דמיונות רבות בכתובתי ה'תורה' וזולתם, שאפשר להתלות בהם, וגם יהיו לראיה. אבל אין ההכרח מביא אותנו לזה, אלא אם התבאר הדעת ההוא במופת; אמנם כל עת שלא יתבאר במופת, לא זה הדעת ניטה אליו, ולא הדעת ההוא גם כן נביט אליו כלל, אבל נבין הכתובים כפשוטיהם, ונאמר, כי התורה הגידתנו ענין, לא יגיע כוחנו להשגתו, והאות מעיד על אמיתת טענותינו:

WE do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the Incorporeality of God. We should perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the Scriptural passages referred to are in harmony with the theory of the Eternity of the Universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Bible when we rejected the idea that God is corporeal. For two reasons, however, we have not done so, and have not accepted the Eternity of the Universe. First, the Incorporeality of God has been demonstrated by proof: those passages in the Bible, which in their literal sense contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise. But the Eternity of the Universe has not been proved; a mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument. Secondly, our belief in the Incorporeality of God is not contrary to any of the fundamental principles of our religion: it is not contrary to the words of any prophet. Only ignorant people believe that it is contrary to the teaching of Scripture: but we have shown that this is not the case: on the contrary, Scripture teaches the Incorporeality of God. If we were to accept the Eternity of the Universe as taught by Aristotle, that everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, we should necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion, we should disbelieve all miracles and signs, and certainly reject all hopes and fears derived from Scripture, unless the miracles are also explained figuratively. The Allegorists amongst the Mohammedans have done this, and have thereby arrived at absurd conclusions. If, however, we accepted the Eternity of the Universe in accordance with the second of the theories which we have expounded above (ch. xxiii.), and assumed, with Plato, that the heavens are like wise transient, we should not be in opposition to the fundamental principles of our religion: this theory would not imply the rejection of miracles, but, on the contrary, would admit them as possible. The Scriptural text might have been explained accordingly, and many expressions might have been found in the Bible and in other writings that would confirm and support this theory. But there is no necessity for this expedient, so long as the theory has not been proved. As there is no proof sufficient to convince us, this theory need not be taken into consideration, nor the other one: we take the text of the Bible literally, and say that it teaches us a truth which we cannot prove: and the miracles are evidence for the correctness of our view.

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A few notes. Dr. Schroeder's work, while popularized, has way too many flaws for me to consider it as part of an answer, and it doesn't address the problem of human civilization continuing straight through the flood. The rest of your answer is very similar to Ariel K's answer, but that would require putting whole swaths of Bereishis and Noach in the realm of allegory well beyond any precedent set by Rav Saadiah Gaon or the Rambam. I may be willing to consider that possibility, but see my question here judaism.stackexchange.com/q/30158/1947 for that issue more in depth. –  A L Jul 26 '13 at 18:46
    
I'd also be interested in knowing your take after considering this relevant blog post: machzikeihadas.blogspot.com/2009/04/… –  A L Jul 26 '13 at 18:51
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I think that what you are saying is that it is impossible to read the first 2+ chapters of breishit as literal if you also wish to consider science to be factually describing history. I agree with you. Rambam IS saying that you can read the first 3 chapter of breishit as allegorical. He says it explicitly, he only feels that Aristotle failed to make a convicing case. If modern astrophysicists did make a convincing case then Rambam would have read breishit as allegorical. –  Eytan Yammer Jul 26 '13 at 19:00
    
We will probably have to be moved to a discussion and not questions and answers but I will respond in part here: I think that machzikei daat rejects assertions by saying that the tone of Rambam or Saadiah Gaon are hyperbolic or exagerating. It is an fine opinion.In the end there are 3 options: except that there are sections of the torah which are allegorical, accept that science is wrong, attempt to make the 2 match. In this case option 3 is impossible and 2 is unpalletable in my mind one is the best answer and fits nicely with legitimate understandings of early texts –  Eytan Yammer Jul 26 '13 at 19:13
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Just taking this approach where you have to drastically reinterpret descriptions of events to match reality, a problem is that then what does it teach on the pshat level? A lie if anything. Who would make the case that the first 11 chapters are meant to be devoid of any pshat meaning if not absolutely forced to? –  A L Aug 30 '13 at 4:04

R' Aryeh Kaplan z'l teaches as follows:

R' Nehunia ben Hakana brings in Sefer Temuna that there are larger shmita cycles of 7000 years each, of which we are now in the 6th, putting the age of the earth at 42,000 years old.

Midrash states that a "Divine day" is like 1000 years. Therefore a "Divine year" is 365,250 years.

R' Yitzchak of Acco - who investigated and authenticated the Zohar Hakadosh - held that the shmita cycles of Sefer Temuna were "Divine years", arriving at a figure of 15,340,500,000 years as the age of the universe. While actually a little longer than current scientific theories, this figure - reached about 800 years ago - is remarkably close.

Given this, we can extrapolate that Adam Harishon was distinct in some way from whatever beings preceded him.

As for the flood, are you assuming that our current geological knowledge is flawless? Maybe we just don't know what to look for as an aftereffect of a miraculous event.

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Is one of those aftereffects the tossing of certain species from the ark to Australia and nowhere else, and the tossing of other species to Canada and nowhere else? Did God just forget to tell us that part of the story? –  Double AA Sep 17 '13 at 5:20
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Can you clarify: does he think the earth is 15 billion years old or the universe is? If the latter, what exactly was going on in the first four shemittos when there was no earth? –  Double AA Sep 17 '13 at 5:22
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According to this theory, what happened to all the pseudo-humans who lived before Adam? Did the disappear when Adam was created? Did they last until the Flood? –  Double AA Sep 17 '13 at 5:29
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I seriously doubt God held of Shmuel's Tekufa in calculating His years. He would have used something more precise. –  Double AA Sep 17 '13 at 5:34
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@yoel Please don't treat "science" as some massive piece of tradition with every tentative consensus being in the same playing field with the most firmly demonstrated laws. Archeologists not finding remains in a large desert confirming one event is very different from geologists, geneticists, and archeologists demonstrating that what we find is entirely inconsistent with the flood story. I'm confused why you think that miracles involved would suddenly make it as if the physical events associated with it appear to have never happened at all. –  A L Sep 17 '13 at 18:35

some things are not reconcilable at the present time and with our present knowledge. I think this is one of them.

Main thing is to decide whether the torah is of divine origin. One who studies the torah in-depth will see that its depth and wisdom is infinite. Beyond the ability of a man's finite mind to invent. One can see the same marks of infinite wisdom in studying nature, hence he can deduce that the One who created the Universe is also the One who wrote the torah.

Then you won't be bothered by the need to reconcile everything with the torah.

It doesn't answer the question the way you wanted, but I think it's the best we can do until things will be clearer in the future be'H

see also Rabbi Kook's response to evolution available here

among his points, he states:

Even to the ancients, it was well known that there were many periods that preceded our counting of nearly six thousand years for the current era. According to the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 3:7), "God built worlds and destroyed them," before He created the universe as we know it. Even more astonishing, the Zohar (Vayikra 10a) states that there existed other species of human beings besides the 'Adam' who is mentioned in the Torah.

**

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I'm not sure that "don't worry about it" counts as an answer. –  TRiG Jul 4 at 11:52
    
@TRiG thats not what i wrote. God made the world in such a way that free will is possible. so there must exist some loopholes to explain the world from a naturalist perspective. hence, one needs to look at all the evidence and weigh which side is more correct from the big picture –  ray Jul 5 at 18:43
    
Why all the fuss and muss on this question? A Divinely-originated myth is still a myth. Why was it given as a myth, and not scientifically provable statements? G-d knows! –  Gary 2 days ago

First of all, carbon-dating isn't all that accurate. There are a number of considerations which can affect the apparent age of a substance. For example, if temperatures 4000 years ago were warmer than we think, things might seem older than they really are. Furthermore, the massive amount of boiling water moving around in the flood could have caused major to changes to everything buried in the ground, again affecting the carbon ratio.

When archaeologists calculate try to determine how old a civilization is, they often make extensive use of records kept by those civilizations. However, there is no guarantee of their accuracy. If a king wanted everyone to think he ruled for 100 years, he could have the scribes write that, and future generations would never find out that he only ruled for 5 years.

In general, historians, archaeologists, and scientists have only limited data about what happened thousands of years ago. So they make plausible guesses to connect the pieces of evidence that they find. There's very little certainty, so they settle for "highly likely". While this often leads them to reach correct facts, occasionally they end up with statements that contradict the Torah. They could easily revise their theories to fit with the Torah (their evidence would still work), but few of them believe that the Torah is completely true, so they don't bother.

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The question doesn't discuss stars. Why do you? Isn't this not an answer because it's claiming a giant conspiracy of ancient record keepers? How do you deal with his question from the pyramids? Your claims about carbon dating do not answer it. This answer seems more like handwaving than a detailed argument. –  Double AA Mar 13 at 17:13
    
It's not a giant conspiracy of record keepers, it's simply that accuracy may have been prized less back then. Real scientific, precise history with rigorous research is relatively recent. The linked article provides a lot of information about carbon-dating accuracy problems; I can try to find more free online scientific sources if you'd like. –  Ypnypn Mar 13 at 18:17
    
"massive amount of boiling water moving around in the flood"?!? Huh? Never heard of it being hot, just that there was a lot of it... –  Gary 2 days ago

Maybe this explanation can add to a result.

The word "eretz" means "land" as well as "earth". And this is wrong. It doesn't actually mean both as in "those two", it means both as in "they are the same". Our ancestors 4000 years ago did not know that the earth was round or how big it was. For them it was just the thing they stood on that wasn't water.

What the Torah says is ultimately true. It's not a lie to make people understand, it's the plain truth. It's also old and was written in an ancestor of Hebrew and included (true) stories told in mesopotamic languages including East-Semitic and Sumerian.

When the Torah tells us that the entire eretz was flooded that was literally true, for a value of "eretz" that equals "all the land between the mountains and the see", namely the region that people then actually did call "eretz". Mesopotamia used to flood quite often. It would be surprising to learn that Noah of all people had not lived through one of those.

So yes, it was indeed a regional flood, but no, Torah did not tell us a lie. All the land was flooded because land outside Mesopotamia was never included in "all the land".

As for other events told in the Torah, recall that those two happened a long time ago. Who knows what those words meant back then, particularly units. A "mile" is not the same distance in England and Germany, why would a "shana" be the same unit of time?

Assuming that the story of Adam and Eve is literally true, who can tell whether it is literally true in the naive way that we read into it now thousands of years after it was first recorded in, presumably, Sumerian and then ultimately by Moses in Hebrew as spoken and understood by people 3000 years ago. It's possible that the story was quite clear to people at the time and as they understood it did not at all contradict anything we found out about the world or will ever find out. It's just that we are too far removed from the society that first heard the story.

"X ran for President" can be literally true yet mean something else to us than to someone who knows what the word "run" means but not what an election is. I find it inconceivable that the Tanakh wouldn't be full of linguistic problems like that. Just think of the "an eye for an eye" debacle of how plain easy sentences can be misunderstood by applying the wrong template to reading them.

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1. You're making assertions about what the Torah meant without supporting them. 2. Units of distance are arbitrary; the length of the year is universally obvious and consistent. 3. Why would you assume Sumerians myths are true? The first men lived hundreds of thousands of years before Sumer existed. 4. It's much easier to understand old language than language of the future, for the former has been known and the latter is an unknown construct. The Torah wasn't written for people 3,000 years ago, it was written for all generations. 5. Maybe this isn't the most appropriate day for an answer. –  A L Jul 16 '13 at 18:32
    
Actually, I said that I didn't know what the Torah meant. I am not making assertions what the Torah meant. The length of the year is consistent, but there is no reason to assume that it would be the common way to give an age in all cultures. Some use months. I assume Sumerian myths are true because I find them in the Torah. It's not "much easier to understand old language" and the "future" has nothing to do with it. And the Torah remains written in ancient Hebrew, even if it is meant for all generations. –  Andrew J. Brehm Jul 16 '13 at 20:57
    
What I mean is you're trying to presume what the Torah means about what "land" refers to. Even if it refers to what ancient Israelites thought of as "all the land" the initial problems of civilizations surviving there persist. And, for example, you seem to be saying that any myth common to Sumerians and the Torah is based on a true story, I certainly appreciate the answer, but I need something concrete before I can accept it. –  A L Jul 17 '13 at 6:06
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I read the text. I even went to northern Iraq and looked at the mountains and the huge Mesopotamian valley. You are confusing your reading of the text with the plain words. Once you realise that people in the past used the word "land" to describe the land they lived on, in this case the river valley, it follows that the mountains (harim) referred to IN the land cannot have been as huge as the mountains delimiting the land. The region of Ararat/Urartu delimited the land. The mountains underwater were indeed only hills. Any other reading just contradicts reality so why bother with it? –  Andrew J. Brehm Jul 19 '13 at 8:39
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And it was very obviously farm animals the text refers to. ALL animals in existence would not have fit on any type of ark. But animals most of whom belonged to Noah would easily have walked onto the ark as described in the text. Yet again you don't take into account the extreme age of the text. This was probably obvious to people then and the mystic impossible reading only started much later. (I am sure the same will happen to texts written today, as with my "running for President" example where understanding the word "run" will not give you the true meaning.) –  Andrew J. Brehm Jul 19 '13 at 8:41

You seem to pose several questions at the end which I will attempt to answer first

To rephrase your question as I see it: Why are most institutions not teaching a non-literal reading of the bible?

Answer: Creation is taught as fable to make it easier to understand for children. This is true of many midrashim as well. The fact that many (most?) people don't revisit their understand in adulthood may be more an indictment of how the Jewish education encourages and prepares students to be intellectually curious than a problem with how specific subject material is taught.

Regarding your overall question: I have heard from Rav Moshe Stav, and educator at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh that the story of creation and the flood is described in the gemarah as K'vod Elokim haster davar (Proverbs 25:2) - meaning, as he put it, that the events as recorded should not be taken at their simple face value reading.

Moreover Rav Kook (Igrot HaRaayah no. 134) makes a very astute comment regarding matters in the torah which seem to be contravened by scientific discovery (his context was dealing with the theory of evolution)

Concerning opinions which are derived from recent scientific investigations which on the whole contradict the straight forward meaning (pshat) of the words of the Torah:

“In my opinion … even though these theories are not necessarily true, we are not at all obligated to deny them and stand against them. This is because it is not at all (stress mine-HH) the point of the Torah to inform us of simple facts and occurrences of the past. The main point (‘ikar) is the inner content (tokh). … For us it is of no consequence whether in fact there ever existed in this world a golden age (i.e. the Garden of Eden – HH) in which mankind lived in spiritual and physical bliss or [not]… and thus when we have no vested interest we can judge [these new theories ] fairly.”

The particular understanding of creation which I support is that of Rabbi Matis Weinberg, who did not cite earlier sources. Essentially, he contends that Adam was the first homo sapien imbued with divine spirit. Meaning that from a technical perspective Adam had a mother and father, and that there were plenty of other people around when he was born (yes he had a navel). Maaseh Bereshis is then describing theological ideas couched in metaphor.

To editorialize a bit, even as a child I was taught that the purpose of the Torah is teach proper theological belief and action, not to serve as a historical document. Perhaps not enough people take that statement to heart early on in their education.

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Rashi's point that the Torah's purpose isn't to relate history is predicated on the problem that the Torah is relating historical information. If you "take to heart" that the Torah isn't historical then you have missed his point. –  Yirmeyahu Aug 30 '13 at 15:21
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@Yirmeyahu I am not stating that there is not historically accurate information found in the torah, rather the the purpose of the document is other than to convey 100% historically accurate information at all times. –  please remove my account Aug 30 '13 at 15:30
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Thank you for addressing the question of education. But it's not just about children, it's basically universally expressed as being history, not fable, to anyone other than those who make the effort to investigate the issue. Secondly, can you quote where the gemara says that Parshas Noach isn't history? Everything I've seen in the gemara tries to explain the details as very real. –  A L Aug 30 '13 at 18:51
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@ShmuelBrin the question is does it really matter? Iyov is part of tanach even though there is an opinion that the actual historical events never took place. –  please remove my account Sep 3 '13 at 13:21
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this seems to be the opinion of Rav Kook as well. I will edit my answer to reflect this. morethodoxy.org/2013/09/16/… –  please remove my account Sep 16 '13 at 16:19

according to the bible, god told adam not to eat from the tree of life, which seems to have happened on adam's first day, it would be hard to say that god instructed, and then punished a baby.

hence you must conclude that according to the bible, adam was created a full-grown man, if so we can say god created a full-grown world, one with a history to humanity, with fossils, and evolution and what-not, perhaps we will discover causes for deaths of pre-bible humans, however the world was still created 5774 years ago.

this is my own theory, i have not seen this written anywhere, or heard this from anyone. but it seems perfectly logical to me.

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This mainly addresses the "age of the universe" problem which really isn't my focus, and it doesn't address the problems as they relate to the flood. –  A L Sep 17 '13 at 5:11
    
The question is about the flood, not Adam. Unfortunately, it avoids the two answers frequently said by the Rebbe, that 1. The flood could have changed the speed of nuclear decay and 2. Hashem created the world old. –  Shmuel Brin Sep 17 '13 at 5:12
    
@AL yes it does, but it also addresses the history of the universe, including human civilization. –  tryingToGetProgrammingStraight Sep 17 '13 at 5:12
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@ShmuelBrin the rebbes answers are nice, however they dont mean there cant be another way of explaining things. –  tryingToGetProgrammingStraight Sep 17 '13 at 5:15
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Last Thursdayism is the idea that the whole world are build last Thursday, just that it comes with history. The idea is so ridiculous but cannot be disproved. So saying that God created the world in 6 days 4k years ago with "history" will be as ridiculous as last Thursdayism. –  Jim Thio Sep 23 '13 at 3:01

One way to reconciling Biblical history with archaeological and historical evidence which seems to disprove it is to simply throw the Bible out as a text created by man, not by God. Though this is not a useful answer for everyone, Judaism has an important religious principle, developed by many important philosophers and scholars, such as Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and Spinoza, that the Torah speaks in the language of man (dibra tora ki'lshon bnei adam).

There is a long tradition of the concept of accommodation, that is to say that the Torah was written in such a way as that those who received it would understand it. Maimonides writes about the reasoning for sacrifices in this manner, that they existed because that is what the ancient Israelites expected to have from a religion. Spinoza has a different take on this, that the Torah is written in the language of "children" (in this he looks down upon the Biblical text and wants to say that for people living in the modern age it is no longer necessary or applicable). [NB: For a much more in-depth discussion of the notion of accommodation and how it came to be used in both Judaism and Christianity, see Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination.]

However one wants to take the notion of accommodation, it is very applicable to the Bible and can be useful to understand how it came into being and to reconcile the Biblical histories with the evidence. For example, one can talk about the flood story as a story that transcends cultures. It most likely did not happen in the exact manner that the Bible tells us, but in the ancient near east, flooding rivers were a yearly occurrence. In fact, a year without a flood was a worse disaster than if there was a massive one. My point is, the story of the flood can be seen as coming out of the ancient Israelites' cultural context in the ancient near east and Abraham's origins in Mesopotamia, which the Bible attests.

As for other historical elements such as the Exodus (for which there is no archaeological evidence) or the counting of years anno mundi (from the origin of the world) it is much more difficult. Ultimately one needs to decide if it is necessary to completely correlate Biblical history with secular history. If the whole thing is an allegory or metaphor, it may still have valuable moral or cultural importance.

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This explanation is that of Reform Judaism and not exactly what I was hoping for. To say the Torah relates lies just so people "get it" is a stretch. Do you suppose that when the Torah says that God rejected Cain's sacrifice but accepted Hevel's sacrifice that this story was written just so the Jews would be happy? But sacrifices are to return in the Third Temple even though the notion of animal sacrifice is looked upon as barbaric. And many commandments clearly contradict what was normal for people of the time. Even the Pesach lamb sacrifice went against the Egyptian culture they came from. –  A L May 4 '13 at 0:40
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@AL It's not such a stretch. Did you want it to say "In the beginning, 13.7 billion years ago, the scalar inflation field expanded by 47 orders of magnitude, then began cooling adiabatically into a quark-gluon plasma"? How would the desert Jews have interpreted that? –  Double AA May 5 '13 at 1:16
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@DoubleAA That sentence is unnecessarily complicated. You can also say "In the beginning many many years ago there was a big fire which sent ashes everywhere and those ashes rained down and became the world." The desert Jews could understand that, and it's not inaccurate (it's just not complete). But Hashem did not say that. –  Ariel May 5 '13 at 2:19
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@Ariel Once we're not aiming at precision, I'll leave it up to the Big Guy to decide what's the best simplification for us. Remember that knowing exactly how matter made shift X or developed attribute Y historically is not really useful for humans today except perhaps in its allegorical meaning. (And yes, that last sentence is true even if you take the beginning of Genesis very literally.) –  Double AA May 5 '13 at 2:22
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@DoubleAA What I said was a stretch is that God might command us to sacrifice animals just because we were used to doing that, or, for example, there was no global flood and that the Torah would say things that contradict reality just to make it more understandable. Meaning, if you were to suggest that Noah's flood never was global but rather a regional flood and the Torah only was worded thus to make it understandable, it is a stretch to think that nobody would understand it if the Torah would say "There was a local flood that desolated the surrounding region due to the sins of the people." –  A L May 5 '13 at 3:43

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