Tananim Gedolim: “great reptiles,” the dinosaurs in the Torah

Posted by – December 5, 2013

Originally written December the 5th, 2006, I’ve revised and re-named it to be part 2 of 4 of my D-cember: Dino-cember! series

Tananim Gedolim, in English, “Great Reptiles”

The Spiritual Can Illuminate The Scientific. The Scientific Can Illuminate The Spiritual.

There has been (and will continue to be) debate about evolution and the age of planet Earth.

Among Christians, especially the growing fundamentalist groups, creationism is often embraced, stating a literal 6 day creation of the Earth. Some Charedi Jews (i.e. ultra Orthodox) hold to the Earth being 5767 years old, though an important distinction should be noted: the “literal” reading—the idea that the text shouldn’t be interpreted as much as simply “read”—taught by many forms of fundamentalist Christianity, isn’t really possible within Judaism because we work with the original Hebrew of the Torah which, by definition, can only be interpreted into English, ancient Hebrew worldview converted into English thought and words. So even the more hardline factions that strictly hold to the 5700+ Hebrew calendar years timeframe for the Earth’s age (not meaning 5700+ years from Adam and the human spirit’s first run-publication, or something else) aren’t fundamentalist in the same way strict, sola scriptura literalists are, as they don’t insist that this is the only meaning within the passage.  Within Judaism it’s taken for granted that multiple meanings and explanations, even hidden mystical interpretations, exist on every page, with numerous wisdom and commentary texts relied upon to “bring down” (from Sinai) right interpretations, not the “one book, one meaning” mentality associated with the sola scriptura-thinking prevalent in Protestant versions of Christianity.

The passage that mentions “the great reptiles,” Bereishit (Genesis) 1.21, says the following:

21. And God created the great sea monsters, and every living creature that crawls, with which the waters swarmed, according to their kind, and every winged fowl, according to its kind, and God saw that it was good

The Hebrew words “tananim” (reptiles, serpents, Leviathan) and gelodim (great, plural) are translated here as “great sea monsters.” The term gelodim, the greats, is clear and unambiguous, “the greats” is frequently used by itself as a noun, especially to refer to the Talmudic greats, the great sages. Tananim is the area of difficulty. Most translations render “tananim gelodim” as great sea monsters, great serpents, or the Leviathan…the King James Version goes with “great whales.” The Leviathan is an ancient mythological sea monster, think Loch Ness Monster, a massive marine reptile described as a fire-breathing dragon in Job 41:
“18 His snorting throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Firebrands stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from his nostrils as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds.
21 His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth.”

It’s unmistakable that tananim are giant reptiles or members of a terrifying reptiloid species of some kind. In modern Hebrew, “tananim” are crocodiles.

Rashi, the famous Torah commentator and rabbi from 11th century France, offers more insights into the tananim gelodim, which he sees as the Leviathan. Rashi is so foundational because he focuses on the basic meaning of the Hebrew words, the grammar, and decoding ancient idioms. He typically keeps it brief, not getting into hidden interpretations, but for the Leviathan he makes an exception, since the letters in tananim gelodim led to the midrash (retelling) cited. Rashi writes:

the sea monsters: The great fish in the sea, and in the words of the Aggadah (B.B. 74b), this refers to the Leviathan and its mate, for He created them male and female, and He slew the female and salted her away for the righteous in the future, for if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them. הַתַּנִינִם is written. [I.e., the final “yud,” which denotes the plural, is missing, hence the implication that the Leviathan did not remain two, but that its number was reduced to one.]- [from Gen. Rabbah 7:4, Midrash Chaseroth V’Yetheroth, Batei Midrashoth, vol 2, p. 225].
Source

Okay, come on… c’mon, we’re talking about ancient giant reptiloids that emerged before birds and mankind, and have to go extinct before humanity can begin their world, being too mean, too enormous, too terrible, to co-exist with humans.
The preponderance of the evidence indicates the tananim gedolim are dinosaurs.

I love dinosaurs. They did exist.

the Barosaurus was unbelievably tall when leaning back onto the hind legs to slap attackers.

the Barosaurus was unbelievably tall when leaning back onto the hind legs to slap attackers.

me with the Barosaurus skeleton in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, American Museum of Natural History, NYC. Early June, 1999.

me with the Barosaurus skeleton in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, American Museum of Natural History, NYC. Early June, 1999.

There are people who retcon history to erase the dinosaurs, or say dinosaurs coexisted with humans, or say that tananim gedolim being dinosaurs is Biblical proof that dino-human coexistence occurred. The Creation Museum in Kentucky has displays showing a vegetarian Tyrannosaurus in Eden, mankind (including human children) peacefully coexisting with predatory dinosaurs that somehow aren’t chasing and eating them, dinos saddled for riding… it’s crazy.

To assume that all Triassic fossils are 248-208 Million Years inaccurate
all Jurassic fossils are 208-144 Million Years inaccurate
and all Cretaceous fossils are 144-65 Million Years inaccurate is way too much for me to swallow.
We’ve proven that situations like The Lost World or The Flintstones didn’t happen.

In this actual exhibit at the Creation Museum (real, not photoshopped) a baby Tyrannosaurus eats plants in Eden, as a Jesus-looking figure (standing inside the T-Rex’s kill radius) looks on peacefully. The Tyrannosaurus‘ teeth, blades rather than the grinding molars characteristic of herbivorous dinos, may have made chewing leaves physically impossible.

It stretches credulity past the breaking point to think the dinosaurs (meaning “terrible lizards”), including Tyrannosaurus Rex, each tooth a scimitar-looking kill-blade, chilled with early homo sapiens, just kicked back and watched Eden flag football together with mankind like bros, and didn’t make a midnight snack out of the human race and end it forever. Velociraptors would see humanity as a feast, raptor-christmas!!!
Dinosaurs are called dinosaurs, “terrible lizards,” for a reason—not because they did a terrible job of lizard-ing—because they terrorize us, and can strike terr into the hearts of man, even in crumbly fossil form.  Listen to Rashi, gigantic dragon-like predators aren’t compatible with the world of man; “if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them.”

But of course, dinosaur fossils and an Earth that is demonstrably billions of years old doesn’t necessarily contradict the Torah. To insist on a literal six-day Creation is to have a shallow understanding of a Creation story that has infinite depth in each verse.  There’s much more to it.  There is so much more to Torah, so much more depth and color, so many layers and intricacies to the numerous interpretations and subtexts, not to mention the richness of the oral tradition (the aggadot, midrashim, etc.)
Dr. Gerald Schroeder makes a convincing case that the six days are six epochs, and brings down several Tanakh passages that substantiate that idea.

Dr. Gerald Schroeder is an Orthodox Jew and MIT-trained scientist who has made it his life’s work to teach that the Torah can offer enriching perspectives to verifiable science and visa versa. His lectures are the source of much of what I’m about to tell you.

What is a day? All sides can agree that day, by definition, is the time between sunrise and sunset. We know that since Torah tells us the sun wasn’t created until day 3, it can’t be referring to literal days (because a day requires a sun) so these 6 days refer to epochs of Creation. Psalm 90:4 says “a thousand years in Your sight are as but yesterday.”

The Jewish sages of the Middle Ages tell us the Earth is billions of years old, and they weren’t bending to science, because science didn’t even exist in their era. Nachmanides described all matter of the universe expanding from the size of a seed (the big bang) in the 13th century… scientific truth mirroring spiritual truth.

In Genesis, you see one beginning, not a cyclic universe. This has been shown by science, a big bang booting-up the universe and linear time.

The second description of Creation describes Adam not finding a mate among the animals. “And man named all the cattle and the fowl of the heavens and all the beasts of the field, but for man, he did not find a helpmate opposite him.” (Gen. 2:20) Obviously, Adam in sinless Eden is not a sheep molester. The Midrash explains among the “beasts of the field” were animals who looked and talked just like people! Prehistoric man! And since he couldn’t find a soul mate among Neanderthals, Hashem created the male and female soul. 5767 years isn’t the age of the Earth, but the time since the human soul was bestowed. 5767 in history mirrors what has been discovered by archeology as about the time organized civilization arose. I don’t think this is a coincidence; this is obviously an important break in human history.

Astronomy has shown that light exploded into the matter of suns, then suns exploded into chunks, element-rich planets which spawned life, i.e. we come from light beams. This is confirmed throughout Judaic thought, as we are called “beings of light.”

Spiritual truth can mirror scientific truth. There are countless examples of this. Another was how a Talmudist, going on kabbalistic teachings, deduced a major descending artery in the brain that was later confirmed to exist by science.

Both the scientific and the spiritual are very exciting to study, because they have the potential to expose and confirm the deepest, most visceral truths of our existence. Science should be embraced by the religious, and it’s very frustrating to see them bashing science. They align themselves with the same mentality of those who insisted the world was flat. Our global reality would be greatly improved by a new Renaissance or Islamic Golden Age that harnesses the best thinkers, undivided: theologians, scientists, anthropologists, everyone toward a goal of bettering the world of man, without heeding specialty boundaries and the counter-productive “thinking from silos” that’s so prevalent today.  Unity.  Unity would be great.

I recommend checking out Dr. Schroeder’s take on the dinosaurs and the translation of tananim.  Dr. Schroeder isn’t one of these “Answers in Genesis” types, he’s more a physicist who’s well-versed in Torah and takes you deeper. His explanations add richness to our understandings of the cosmos and Torah alike.  It’s good to seek out scientific truths, (“…the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” Deut. 29:29) and the exciting scientific discoveries ahead can only help us understand ourselves and all creation.

Nick

For the other dinosaur-posts in my D-cember: Dino-cember! series, go to:
Part 3: Brontosaurus, you shan’t be forgotten

Part 1: The Griffin Was Based On A Real Creature! (#1 most-visited page on nickscrusade.org, by far)

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  • Anonymous

    You’re quite misleading about the religious Jewish response to evolution. “A small minority of Charedi Jews”. If you mean a minority of Jews, yes. If you mean a minority of Charedim, I see no reason why you should think this. Not a single leading “Charedi” rabbi has stated his belief in evolution, they have in fact banned it (See Slifkin, Nathan,) so why do you think their followers would believe in it? Then when you say most Jews believe in evolution, while this is probably true, a) the majority of Jews’ reasons for belief have nothing to do with what Genesis says and b) most Orthodox probably don’t believe in evolution (since “Charedim” constitute the vast majority of Orthodox Jews).
    Furthermore, can you explain what flaw you find in the argument that God made the earth with fossils or the fossil dating system is off because of the flood?

  • Nick

    I’m familiar with quite a lot of Hasidim. Nearly all of them agree with what Dr. Schroeder. So I’m drawing conclusions based on personal experience.
    And yes, some big name Charedi institutions, Ohr Sameach for example, teach this stuff. A very old Earth is backed by the sages, you can’t get around that.

  • Nick

    No flood could throw off fossil dating by 200 million years.

    I believe the flood in Genesis, which is documented in the stories of nearly every civilization, is what has been confirmed by archeology as the global catastrophic rise in sea levels when the Ice Age ended. This was long after dinosaurs died off.

  • Michael A. Hoffman II

    You refer to the Midrash as a source of reliable information. The Midrash, like the Talmud itself, is a book of traditions of men, man-made fairy tales, including X-rated nonesense about Ham and Noah on board Noah’s ark and the denigration of the black race.

  • Nick

    I don’t believe the Midrash is racist. I know several black converts to Judaism that would disagree with you. But hey:

    To please all is an impossible aim, and to escape some criticism is an unattainable goal.

    - M. Ibn Ezra, “Shirat Yisrael”

  • Thinker

    Ugggg. You depict a common response to Christians and their alleged dismissal of science. And I’m sorry. It seems that way. Luckily, I do believe the fundamentalist Christians are actually decreasing in size (not soon enough) and so too with them go their closed-minded thinking required to be a follower of Christ. It’s hard enough to consider and accept with faith the teachings of the Bible without throwing on top of those the exceptions that must be made to the Right. No wonder so many people think that becoming a Christian means checking your brain at the door. But many Christians are scientists, researchers, and truth seekers. (I would highly suggest a reading that won me over, The Case For Creation). Is it possible for Christians to use their brains? To use their brains and accept creation? Yes. Does that mean they should act so elite? No, and I’m sorry. It rubs so many the wrong way. I think (and know) the day is coming when becoming a follower of Christ doesn’t mean becoming a republican, a stay-at-home mom, a literalist, or a close-minded buffoon. (I would most highly suggest reading a Generous Or+hodoxy by Brian D. McLaren for more thoughts on what following Christ should actually look like). Too much extra junk is thrown on top.

  • Thinker

    Ugggg. You depict a common response to Christians and their alleged dismissal of science. And I’m sorry. It seems that way. Luckily, I do believe the fundamentalist Christians are actually decreasing in size (not soon enough) and so too with them go their closed-minded thinking required to be a follower of Christ. It’s hard enough to consider and accept with faith the teachings of the Bible without throwing on top of those the exceptions that must be made to the Right. No wonder so many people think that becoming a Christian means checking your brain at the door. But many Christians are scientists, researchers, and truth seekers. (I would highly suggest a reading that won me over, The Case For Creation). Is it possible for Christians to use their brains? To use their brains and accept creation? Yes. Does that mean they should act so elite? No, and I’m sorry. It rubs so many the wrong way. I think (and know) the day is coming when becoming a follower of Christ doesn’t mean becoming a republican, a stay-at-home mom, a literalist, or a close-minded buffoon. (I would most highly suggest reading a Generous Or hodoxy by Brian D. McLaren for more thoughts on what following Christ should actually look like). Too much extra junk is thrown on top. should actually look like). Too much extra junk is thrown on top.

  • kh123

    “To assume that all Triassic fossils are 248-208 Million Years inaccurate
    all Jurassic fossils are 208-144 Million Years inaccurate
    and all Cretaceous fossils are 144-65 Million Years inaccurate is way too much for me to swallow.”

    Interpretations of fossils, my friend. Don’t forget, these are interpretations based upon preconceptions about the earth’s past history, which rely more on beliefs than they do on any testable, repeatable, real-time operational science. Even methods such as radiometric dating rely on numerous non-provable assumptions about the past history of whatever’s being dated.

    (i.e., time of formation of sample, closure of sample, non-intrusion of parent/daughter isotopes afterwards, etc…. Someone earlier made the observation that the flood would have been a significant factor in the recalibration of rock or fossil samples. Any large scale catastrophe would have done the same for that matter. Which, incidentally, even evolutionary models call for several mass extinctions based on global or continental cataclysms, from volcanism to cosmic impacts to… yes, even floods. So even given their own assumptions, there’s quite a bit of potential for radiometric clocks to have been sufficiently “reset” and “intruded” upon; which of course calls into question the reliability – if at all – of any of these methods.)

    And incidentally, these secular interpretations of millions of years (uniformitarianism) were first forwarded by a lawyer, Charles Lyell, who made it his expressed intent to attack what he described as “the ancient writings” of “the Mosaic account” of history. In other words, the account attributed to Moshe, the Torah.

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