Why Aren't Dinosaurs In The Bible?
The Bible And Dinosaurs: How To Read The Torah
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Did you ever wonder why, in the beginning of Genesis, there’s no mention of dinosaurs or other prehistoric creatures? If we were writing about the creation of animals, these would seem like a pretty big detail (pun intended) to leave out. It seems like in the Torah’s version of creation, there were no dinosaurs. Is this a sign that the Bible doesn't match up with history?
In this video, Rabbi Fohrman argues that if we’re asking this question, it means that we’re misunderstanding something fundamental about the nature of the Torah. Watch this video to learn what the Torah is – and what it isn’t.
Hi, it's Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Noach. You are watching Aleph Beta. So where did all the dinosaurs go?
Where Did The Dinosaurs Go In The Bible?
Well, I guess they probably didn't have room on the big boat for them during the flood. That is one of the sort of folk legends which we have around about the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Certainly the dinosaurs are the most visible mysterious component of the vanished world. I know that when I take my kids to the Museum of Natural History, that's the draw, the Dinosaur Room. There's Raptosaurus Rex battling Megalosaurus and they’re huge and they’ve got fangs and your seven-year-old is wide-eyed and that's why you even bothered to go to the Museum of Natural History in the first place. What's the deal with these dinosaurs? And then the painful question, the question that the seven-year-old girl asks her father, stares up into his eyes: 'Daddy, how come these aren't in our book?' I mean, the Torah is supposed to contain the great history of it all, so... where are all the dinosaurs? That's what I want to talk to you about today.
Where Do Dinosaurs Fit Into A Biblical Context?
Okay, so I would like to give you a general framework for thinking about this question… but not really just this question but really puzzling things about the Torah itself. I will elaborate some of that later, but let me jump in and give you the paradigm now.
A while back, I read a fantastic book and it is called 'How to Read a Book' by Mortimer Adler. He tries to give you a manual as to how to attack a book, how to go about understanding it. One of the very first things he says is: 'You have to decide early on what kind of genre the book is — and if you misinterpret the genre of the book, then you are lost from the very beginning and you really have no chance of really understanding it.'
Imagine that you were reading a Chemistry textbook and you did not understand that it was a Chemistry textbook, so you thought you were in fact reading poetry. You would ask the wrong questions about it. Or if you were reading poetry, and you thought you were supposed to be reading a Chemistry textbook, you’d also ask the wrong questions.
So imagine you are actually reading poetry, you are reading the Carl Sandburg poem 'The Fog Crept in on Little Cat Feet' and imagine you are teaching that poem and somebody in the back of the room raises their hand and says, 'Teacher, teacher, I don't understand... How could the fog creep? It doesn't have feet, it’s not a cat. This whole poem, it just doesn't make any sense.' You would say, ‘You just don't understand the genre. There is no answer to that question, it is the wrong question, it is a bad question!’
You could ask, if you want: “The imagery of the fog creeping, what's it meant to convey?” — but that is an entirely a different question. That's a question that makes sense for poetry. The bottom line is, you have to understand the genre. If you misinterpret the genre, you misinterpret everything.
And, so now, the great question is: What kind of book is the Torah? How could we begin trying to read this book without having any idea what kind of genre it is? And the problem is: it’s not so easy to figure out what kind of genre the Torah is. It’s got 613 laws — them’s a lot of laws, so maybe it is a law book, a legal treatise. But it is really not such a good legal treatise, because it sure has a lot of stories in it. What are all these stories doing in a legal treatise? It is just out of character. It's got lots of philosophy in it; could it be a philosophy book? But you know, it has too many laws and stories for it to be a philosophy book. So what kind of book is it?
Here is what I think it is. I would say it is a guide book. It is a book intended to guide individuals and a nation how to develop a relationship with those around them. A relationship with people around them, a relationship with their God. How to do that at the collective level — if you are the nation of Israel — and how to do that at the individual level — if you are one of the people of Israel.
What does this guide book consist of? What does it take to guide someone in this? One of the things it takes is laws. There are laws that you have to follow, certain laws that you have to know, the laws are very, very important... but it doesn't just take laws. It takes more than laws.
So if you say to yourself: ’All that it takes to be a good person is to follow the 613 commandments,’ that's actually, probably, not entirely true. The Ramban talks about being a menuval b'reshus haTorah. Somebody who keeps, punctiliously, all the commands — and still is a morally obtuse person. How is that possible? It is possible because law alone is a too narrow a discipline to completely regulate human behavior — and the Torah itself accepts that. And that's why there are stories.
The stories are there to teach you values, stories that tell about what happened with our ancestors and the way God dealt with them and the way they dealt with God, and there are timeless lessons that apply to us today that are not about laws but are about larger truths that we are supposed to find a way to integrate into our lives. And there are certain philosophical notions that we need to understand — so the Torah talks about those ideas, too. It takes all of that to guide us.
So now, back to Mortimer Adler. If the Torah is a guide book, what does that then mean? It means that everything it tells you — its laws, its stories and its philosophy — is all going to be told from the perspective of a guide book. Everything is going to get slanted, to be told from that perspective.
Torah As A Guidebook, Not A History Book
And, by the way, Chazal says as much. There is a famous statement that our Sages make: ‘Nevuah she’chutz’recha l’dorot niktevah,’ ‘Any prophecy that was relevant for generations ended up getting written in the Torah.’ Prophecies that were just locally relevant for a particular generation didn't get written'. Why? It gives us lots of insight into what life looked like back then! Because it doesn't guide you, that's why. It is an interesting fact, but only that which guides you is written.
Let me show you another puzzling aspect of how the Torah writes history. Chazal tell us, ‘Ein mukdam u'meuchar batorah,' ‘There is no such thing as chronological order in the Torah' (Megillah 14a). Really, there is no such thing as chronological order in the Torah?? Well, there is... but you can't trust the chronological order in the Torah, Chazal say, because every once in a while, the Torah will actually place something second that happened first.
Now, why would the Torah do that?? Why would the Torah deliberately mislead you about the chronological order of events? Because it is not a history book, it is a guide book — and if the Torah can guide you by juxtaposing two different episodes with the same theme, so that you should understand the theme that worked over overarching periods of Jewish history, the Torah is going to do that — and it is going to sacrifice the history in order to guide you.
Answering Why Dinosaurs Aren't Mentioned In The Bible
And now, let's come back to dinosaurs. So I think you may understand where I am going here. The dinosaurs might have been around, but evidently the Torah didn't consider using Tyrannosaurus Rex as a guide to human behavior. So it left it out! And Stegosaurus, too. You want to learn about them? That's what the American Museum of Natural History is for. So you’ll go there. But the Torah is not going to tell you about them, because it doesn't fit into the guidebook. Were they important for what they contributed to the biological record? Very important! But they weren't important for you and how to guide your life from the Torah's perspective. So the Torah is not going to talk about it.
It may well be that the Torah tells one story and science tells another story, and ultimately it is the same story — it is a story called reality. But one is intended to tell you the nuts and bolts of that reality and the other is intended to guide you through it.
When you and I read this guide, let us make no mistake about what we are reading. We are not just reading any old book. We are reading something that is meant to shape us, meant to help us tackle a grand quest as to what is the best way to live our lives and relationships with others. Everything the Torah tells us is designed to help us achieve those goals. But we need to understand the genre in order to be able to understand the messages.