Literal Myths

DOES IT MATTER WHETHER OR not our sacred writings are historically accurate?

This question comes up every year at our synagogue Torah study, as people go to great lengths to try and explain the fantastical events of the text, especially the Book of Exodus, by relating them to natural events. Somebody is bound to mention that the Nile’s fish were killed by a blood-red tide, that locust swarms were a common (and in the Torah’s case, well-timed) occurrence, that Mount Sinai was a volcano, etc., etc., etc.

I feel that these good-natured and well-intentioned attempts at explanations may be unnecessarily missing the point. My own point of view is that what matters is the story. If the story says G?d sent the plagues and came down on the mountain in fire and cloud, then that’s what happened … in the story. Just as surely as Annakin Skywalker turned to the dark side of the Force, Sam saved Frodo from the Ring’s machinations and young Arthur pulled Excalibur from the stone, G?d spoke in intimate miracles to Abraham and Moses.


We live in an age of plastic facts. However, there are some places where we need to be accurate and literal (in science, politics and journalism especially). But when we were kids, we were less picky about whether a story-qua-story needed to be true in order to be enjoyable (and instructive). Why should that change when it comes to Torah, or any other holy text? Let’s foster a spiritual aesthetic of “suspension of disbelief,” of trusting and going along with the storyteller — and maybe learn something in the process.

4 comments for “Literal Myths

  1. Jonathan Friedmann
    2019.06.09 at 1005

    Quoting from Ahad Ha’am’s 1904 essay, “Moses”:

    Ahad Ha’am’s 1904 essay Moses:

    “I care not whether this man Moses really existed; whether his life and his activity really corresponded to our traditional account of him; whether he was really the savior of Israel and gave his people the Law in the form in which it is preserved; and so forth. I have one short and simple answer for all these conundrums. This Moses, I say, this man of old time, whose existence and character you are trying to elucidate, matters to nobody but scholars like you. We have another Moses of our own, whose image has ben enshrined in the hearts of the Jewish people for generations, and whose influence on our national life has never ceased from ancient times till the present day. The existence of this Moses, as a historical fact, depends in no way on our investigations. For even if you succeeded in demonstrating conclusively that the man Moses never existed, or that he was not such a man as we supposed, you would not thereby detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses—the Moses who has been our leader not only for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, but for thousands of years in all the wildernesses in which we have wandered since the Exodus.”

    • 2019.06.09 at 1822

      Preach it brother! (And thank you. I see now why One of The People is so revered.)

  2. Alana
    2019.12.28 at 0046

    I have a little saying that I may or may not have come up with all by myself:

    “Just because it didn’t actually happen, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”


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