Biblical literalism is on the rise. You can see it in the growth of Bible-based mega-churches where the "word of God" is preached as inerrant truth. But any serious reader of the Bible knows it contains contradictions, ellipses, and vague commands that require interpretation to be understood, let alone followed.
The most apparent challenge to biblical literalism occurs at the beginning of the Bible. The first two chapters of Genesis tell two starkly different stories of the Creation of the world and of humanity.
In the first story, humanity is created "in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27), with no mention of the physical body's creation. In the second story, man is created from dust, and God breathes life into his nostrils (Genesis 2:7). Similarly, the first Creation story culminates with humans created together, "male and female" (Genesis 1:27). In the second, Adam is created first, followed by the fish, birds, and beasts; only then does God derive the woman from Adam's rib. While the first account mentions only the word Elohim to refer to God, the second uses the Tetragrammaton (the Hebrew letters, yud-hei-vav-hei) as well as Elohim.
Most dramatically, God commands the humans in the first story to "fill the earth and tame it" (Genesis 1:28). In contrast, in the second story God places the humans in the Garden of Eden and commands them to "work it and keep it" or, more poetically, "to till and tend it" (Genesis 2:15).
If you take a documentary approach to the Torah, these discrepancies are easy to explain away: different authors wrote these two stories at different times, and a later redactor preserved them both. Case closed. Such a reading, though historically competent, does a disservice to the reader by failing to reach for a deeper meaning within the contradictions.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the giant of Modern Orthodoxy, addressed this interpretive problem in The Lonely Man of Faith. He argued:
It is, of course, true that the two accounts of the creation of man differ considerably. This incongruity was not discovered by the Bible critics. Our sages of old were aware of it. However, the answer lies not in an alleged dual tradition but in dual man, not in an imaginary contradiction between two versions but in a real contradiction in the nature of man. (Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997], p. 10)
Rather than writing off the contradiction as the by-product of an editorial process, Soloveitchik digs deeper. The contradiction itself is the truth, built into our psyche.
"Adam the First," as Soloveitchik names this archetype, responds to the mystery of existence like a scientist, engineer, or businessman. "He is not fascinated by the question, 'Why does the cosmos function at all?' nor is he interested in the question, 'What is its essence?' He is only curious to know how it works . . ." (Soloveitchik, p. 13). In his quest to master the earth, he seeks to understand its materials and processes so that he can control and replicate them himself. In this way, he proves himself to be created "in the image" of his Creator God.
"Adam the Second" thinks like a philosopher or artist. He ignores the functional question of Adam the First in favor of a metaphysical one: "Why did the world . . . come into existence?. . . . What is the purpose of all this? What is the message that is embedded in organic and inorganic matter?. . . . " (Soloveitchik, pp. 21–22). This Adam seeks not to imitate God like Adam the First, but rather to know his Creator, to relate to God.
What if Soloveitchik's idea of dual Adam also offers a window into how we read the Bible? What if the two Creation stories act as a sort of "author's note" to indicate to the reader of Scripture how to interpret the text? What might that look like?
Adam the First reads Torah to master the text. He seeks to know the intricacies of ancient Hebrew grammar and penetrate the original meaning of the text. The words are a code to be unlocked, revealing their singular meaning. He wants to convert the Torah into halachah, a precise system of circumscribed behavior that applies the Torah to everyday life. Thus he exerts his power over the text and imitates the God in whose image he is created by himself creating a system of ordered existence through law.
Adam the Second reads not to be commanded, but to be inspired. For him, the letter of the law matters less than its spirit. He seeks not to pin the text down to a single interpretation, but rather to breathe life into the inanimate letters. He wants the words to find new life in him, to jump off the page and into his soul, to give his life meaning and purpose. He, too, wants to know the author's intent—not as a source of legislative authority, but as a basis for understanding the profound mystery of his existence.
Let's be clear: one Adam is not better than the other, nor more real. Both exist within us, and both offer unique and essential insights into the fullness of our humanity. Indeed, each Adam is incomplete without the other, in life as in the act of interpretation. Adam the First, left unchecked, tends toward arrogance and rigidity. The second Adam, without the grounding influence of the first, will find himself lost with his head in the clouds of lofty ideas.
For a serious Jew, studying Torah is more than an intellectual act. Since its wisdom is meant to pervade our spiritual and ethical lives, how we read it matters. The two Creation stories act as a guide for integrated study, reaching toward integrated living. Not being content with either literalism or biblical criticism alone, we are to forge a middle path. Not only will this make us better readers of Torah, but it also holds the key to the text's redemptive power to make us better human beings.
Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.