Creation: Monkeys or Mudpies?

When God was creating the heavens and the earth…. – Genesis 1:1

Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)
Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)

I’m from Tennessee, home of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, the infamous “Monkey Trial” in which Clarence Darrow faced off with William Jennings Bryan in the tiny court house in Dayton, TN. I learned as a child about Creationism and its variants: Young Earth Creationism, Gap Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Intelligent Design, etc. And no, I am not providing links: google them if you want. As far as I’m concerned, they are all nonsense.

Lately I’ve heard from the New Atheists (ok, I’ll give them a link) that “all religion” teaches such nonsense, and therefore religion is bunk. None of these folks appear to have been near a synagogue lately, because I don’t know of a branch of Judaism that espouses a literal understanding of the Creation stories in Genesis. I’m sure that there are Jewish fundamentalists somewhere who believe it, but if you ask a panel of rabbis, from Modern Orthodoxy to Reform, we’ll all say politely that the Creation stories are meant to be understood as metaphor. Then we’ll disagree about how to interpret it, and that’s where it will begin to be interesting.

Anyone who gets all hot and bothered over six days of Creation and monkeys and whatnot is missing the point of the Creation stories. (Yes, stories plural, because there are two of them in Genesis, and they contradict one another in more than details. Read Genesis 1 and 2, if this is news.)

Among other things, these narratives point to a notion of the world as a place that teeters between order and chaos. At the beginning of Genesis 1, all is tohu-va-vohu: a sort of murky chaos where “darkness was over the surface of the deep.” God makes order of the chaos, separating light from darkness. Then this same God makes new things with words: light, sky, dry land, sea, plants and animals. Every step of the way, God is separating, organizing, making order out of that original, chaotic tohu-va-vohu. 

And then, with words and clay and breath, God makes human beings. We are different from plants and animals; it took more than words to make us. We make choices, sometimes bad choices, sometimes good choices. In that, we are like the Creator. As the story says, we are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Which brings us back to the Monkey Trial: the distress of the Creationists was twofold: first, that the scientists seemed to be saying that the Bible was not true. Certainly scientists say that Genesis is not literally true. Science does not comment on whether Genesis may convey some other kind of truth, because all it can speak to is scientific knowledge.

The second thing that bothered the Creationists was the idea that somewhere back in the past, grandpa might have been a monkey, or a monkey-like being. This idea was profoundly repulsive to them, because they saw in the Biblical story and they felt in their guts that human beings are different from animals in an important way.

I agree that they are seeing an important Biblical truth: humans are different from animals. We have responsibility for our behavior in a way that animals do not. Where the Creationists and I differ is that they think it is important that human beings were never anything but human. I would argue that in the Bible it already says that we were something else: in the Bible it says we were clay. Frankly, I don’t think it matters whether grandpa was a monkey or a mudpie.

And what about God? What if we were to see “God” not in some cartoon image, but as a Factor that moves the world from tohu-va-vohu, from entropy, towards something organized and meaningful, separating light from darkness, sea from dry land?

The real problem with Creationism and its ilk is that it wants answers, not questions. Good science asks questions, and when it gets an answer, looks for more questions. Judaism does the same: it seeks questions, and more questions. The more often we read the Creation stories, the more questions we will ask.


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

10 thoughts on “Creation: Monkeys or Mudpies?”

  1. Rabbi, I was surprised you wrote, “I don’t know of a branch of Judaism that espouses a literal understanding of the Creation stories in Genesis.” I can only conclude that you don’t know any Orthodox (or more right) members of the tribe — all of whom take Torah as the LITERAL word of HaShem. Even some Modern Orthodox rabbi’s have a tendency to be a bit yeshivaish.”


    1. One of the philosophical underpinnings of Modern Orthodoxy is “Torah uMaddah,” that is, Torah and Scientific Knowledge. I assure you that that’s what’s taught in major yeshivot.

      Some (not all) haredim are a separate matter; they choose to insulate themselves and their children from scientific knowledge, even though they do not seem to mind the contradiction of consuming modern medical services and some technology. That’s whom I meant by “fundamentalists.” In my opinion they dishonor Torah by refusing to honor its complexity and the complexity of creation.


      1. I guess it depends on one’s definition of “branch,” then, in part. It seems that maybe you’re using it to refer to official streams/movements, like Orthodoxy in general, in which case your assertion isn’t wrong; the commenter above, however, is using it to refer to a subset like fundamentalist haredim, in which case he isn’t wrong either. See the enormous controversy over the books of R. Natan Slifkin, for example.


  2. You are 100% right, Rabbi A. I’ve been in a number of classes with Modern Orthodox rabbis in which the words of Torah are seen as complicated and symbolic. I remember a Jewish scholar teaching on the FIRST 3 WORDS of Torah. AMAZING and wonderful! And complex, challenging, with multiple understandings possible. LOVED IT!

    I also love the story of Rav Kook dancing in the streets when Darwin published his theory of evolution. His students asked him why he was so joyous. His answer, because now no one can read the Torah literally. OK, he was wrong about that but the story makes a good point.


      1. I hope Rabbi Ruth will correct whatever errors I make here, but this is how I understand the issue.

        There isn’t one-and-only-one answer to “what is it in Hebrew,” which is one of the things that makes it so interesting. Those first words aren’t really in accordance with any standard grammatical construction. The very first word in Hebrew is “bereishit,” which literally means not “in the beginning” but “in the beginning of…”

        Robert Alter renders it into English as “When G-d began to create heaven and earth…” It can also be rendered as “In the beginning of G-d’s creating heaven and earth…” Understood this way, it says nothing about whether or not this happened at the very beginning of everything, just that when G-d began to create these particular things, this is how it happened. So one of the interesting issues, then, is the question of whether we are to understand this as meaning that it represents the very beginning of everything, before which there was nothing, or not, in which case one has to deal with the question of what might have happened before our story opens.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Very good, Patti! Thank you for the cogent answer. I am away from my computer this weekend and was reluctant to tackle this on my phone. You said everything I would have. Thank you.


      2. Lurkertype, it doesn’t necessarily imply anything, it just leaves the door open for that interpretation; it doesn’t rule it out, in other words.

        Now I’m curious to go look at a bunch of modern translations and see how they stack up.


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