Adam and Eve – A Parable?

I am toying with the idea of writing a review of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ The Great Partnership. In the meantime, I have been watching a debate between Lord Sacks and Richard Dawkins. The debate took place on 12th September 2012 and was organised by the BBC. It can be watched in its entirety on YouTube.[1]

At one point, Dawkins challenges Lord Sacks regarding his belief in the literal meaning of certain Biblical events. For example, he asks whether the Splitting of the Sea is to be understood literally, to which Lord Sacks answers in the affirmative. Dawkins then asks about Adam and Eve. At this point (at about 18 minutes), Lord Sacks says, “Well, Adam and Eve is clearly a parable, because there was no first human… obviously, the Bible is telling us about the first dawn of civilisation.”

That’s a curious statement. Lord Sacks is an observant Jew; as such, he is bound by certain axiomatic beliefs and allegiances to certain texts and methodologies. Many classical authorities, like Rambam/Maimonides and Sa’adiah Gaon, clearly delineated the circumstances under which we can read Biblical passages as parables and abandon their literal meaning. Though there are disagreements among the classical authorities as to the precise parameters for allegorisation, everyone agreed that one cannot willy-nilly appeal to parable or allegory and neglect the literal meaning of Biblical passages.

Here is one example of a classical commentator delineating his approach to parables. Radak (1160-1235) writes in his introduction to his Bible commentary that,

One of the thirty-two hermeneutical mechanisms [described by Chazal] is parable… this does not apply to passages wherein commandments are specified… Even though we accept the passages literally, they also incorporate allegorical meanings…[2]

So Radak believes that no legal passages may be described as allegorical; one cannot shirk the responsibility of fulfilling commandments by reading them as allegories. Furthermore, Radak seems to argue that an allegorical interpretation of a passage does not mean that one can abandon the literal meaning of the passage; the parable is supplementary to the literal meaning.

Lord Sacks claims that Adam and Eve did not exist as individuals; they are parables for the emergence of civilisation. But Rambam had a radically different understanding. I wrote in Genesis and Genes that,

In the third section of The Guide for the Perplexed Rambam writes:[3]

It is a fundamental belief of Judaism that the world was created ex nihilo and that a specific human being, Adam, was initially created and that from his creation until the time of Moses approximately 2500 years elapsed.

Notice that Rambam characterises this belief as fundamental to Judaism i.e. central and indispensable.

The type of claim made by Lord Sacks about Adam and Eve is not new. Rashba (1235-1310) complained of those who saw the narratives about Abraham and Sarah as a parable for substance and form. He excommunicated them.[4]

Lord Sacks owes his readers and the Jewish public an explanation for his statement in a televised debate. In particular, he must answer the following questions:

1. Are there any rishonim (medieval classical authorities) who believed that Adam and Eve were anything other than flesh and blood human beings?

2. How does he explain the statement of Rambam quoted above?

A little later in the exchange, Dawkins asks Lord Sacks why he believes that the Parting of the Sea is to be understood literally, while Adam and Eve are to be understood symbolically. Rabbi Sacks responds by saying that the rabbis of the tenth century established a rule that if a Biblical narrative is incompatible with established scientific fact, it is not to be understood literally. Of course, in the midst of a debate, he was not going to provide detailed sources, but it is fair to ask him to do so at some later point. The only 10th century rabbi I can think of that Lord Sacks could have had in mind is Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, and to present his viewpoint the way Lord Sacks did is inaccurate and misleading.


Retrieved 19th February 2013.

[2] והתורה נדרשת בשלושים ושתים מידות ואחת מהן משל… אבל תורה ומצוות לא נאמרו משל… ואף על פי שהדברים כמשמעם, יש בהם גם כן משל, והוא הנסתר.

[3] מורה נבוכים חלק שלישי פרק נ: כאשר היתה פנת התורה שהעולם מחודש ואשר נברא תחלה היה איש אחד ממין האדם והוא אדם הראשון, ולא היה באורך הזמן אשר מאדם עד משה רבינו רק אלפים וחמש מאות שנה בקרוב.

[4] שאלות ותשובות הרשב”א חלק א סימן תיז: … לאמור כי מבראשית עד מתן תורה הכל משל ואברהם ושרה חומר וצורה ושנים עשר בני יעקב שנים עשר מזלות וארבעה מלכים אשר נלחמו את החמשה הם ארבעה יסודות וחמשה הרגשים…


7 Responses to “Adam and Eve – A Parable?”

  1. Josh Says:

    What does Sadia Gaon which you refer to in the last paragraph say?

  2. SQ Says:

    If Adam and Chava are parables, then Kayin was a parable who killed Hevel who was a parable? Because parables don’t give birth to people. And if Adam and Chava’s children are parables, then so are those kids’ kids. where does it stop? The Torah explicitly lists genealogies going back to Adam and Chava.

  3. Joekrak Says:

    What about “an eye for an eye”? That’s not interpreted literally. I’m not sure if that’s considered a commandment, but if so it would seem to contradict the above principle.

  4. r gornam Says:

    where is your explanation of R Saadyah Gaon?

  5. Daniel Says:

    Thanks for this.

    I watched the debate and I had the same Q. I asked my Rov in Israel who shares many of your points. There is no source that has been shown to me that suggests this has any place in Torah Judaism.

    Appreciate you highlighting this.

  6. Elie Gabay Says:

    Very interesting article!
    I watched that interview in 2012 but didn’t notice these statements. What you write above has been brought to my attention because it was mentioned by Rabbi Yossi Mizrachi in his lecture this week on parashat Behar-Bechukotai. He adds that someone emailed Rabbi Sacks to clarify his problematic statements and he replied that he did not want to get into an argument with Dawkins so answered him in a way that would keep him on his side, despite he himself actually believing that Adam and Eve really did exist.
    It seems very cowardly for a Jewish leader!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: