Magical Realism in the Bible: How can you take it literally?

Magical Realism in the Bible: How can you take it literally?

Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night illustrating magical realismThe biblical book of Numbers is filled with magical realism. Quail appear when the people want meat. Snakes slither into the camp to bite whiners and complainers. An abused donkey tells her owner off. A wooden staff sprouts almonds.

What can we learn from this consistent use of magical realism?

A Rabbinic View of Magical Realism

Through magical realism — says the rabbinic voice in Pirkei Avot — Torah teaches that marvelous things are part of the fabric of the universe. Pirkei Avot (5:6) says:

Ten things were created on the eve of the [first] Shabbat at twilight. They are the:

– mouth of the earth [that swallowed the rebels in Parshat Korach];

– access to the well [that accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness during Miriam’s lifetime];

– mouth of the donkey [that spoke to Balaam];

– rainbow [that Noach saw];

– manna [that fed the hungry Israelites];

– staff of Moshe [that split the sea];

– Shamir [worm who cut the stones for the Temple];

– writing [on the tablets Moshe brought down from Mount Sinai];

– writing instrument;

– tablets.

In other words, all kinds of magical beings exist in our world.

True, magical beings are not part of the natural order of things. God created them after concluding the step-by-step ordered logic of the first six days.

But magical beings are part of God’s creation. They are a part that stands outside the order. When the twilight region of our consciousness is activated, we see them. Heightened emotions, special events, or special seasons help us see.

A Literary View of Magical Realism

Literary critics say that magical realism helps showcase these magical elements of our everyday world. Magical realism recognizes that we live simultaneously in multiple worlds of consciousness. Offers an antidote to a rigid scientific world-view that suppresses parts of reality, in order to maintain its powerful institutions. Gives voice to marginalized aspects of reality. And surprises readers, who then become aware of the active role they play in thinking as they read.

From this literary perspective, Torah reads like a subversive book. It draws us into multiple worlds of consciousness. Pushes us to wonder what role myth places in our lives. Challenges us to claim an interpretation. And reminds us not to take for granted marginalized groups — including non-human animals.

Read more perspectives on Torah portion Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9), click here.

This is a revised version of a dvar Torah presented at Or Shalom Synagogue in 2014.

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