Literal Myths

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

This question comes up for me every year at our living-room Torah study, as people go to great lengths to try and explain the fantastical events of the Book of Exodus. 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 this 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 are unnecessary. My 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, and 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 an aesthetic of “suspension of disbelief,” of trusting and going along with the storyteller — and maybe learning something in the process.

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