JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 1998 / 26 Tishrei, 5759

Permission to believe

In honor of Shabbes Bereishis, when the Genesis story is read publicly in synagogues across the world, the bestselling author, in his JWR debut, confronts the issues raging in the Creationism debate

By Gerald Schroeder

CREATION IS IN THE NEWS ALMOST DAILY. Not the original Genesis account of creation, but the 20th century version, the Big Bang. For a scientist active in the Bible/Science debate, the reports from the Hubble telescope and its Earth-bound counterparts raise a barrage of questions.

Skeptics and believers alike want to know if the biblical description of our cosmic origins can jibe with the scientific account. There's no way, I'm told, we can squeeze the 15 billion years of cosmology into the six days of Genesis chapter one. And then there is the biblical calendar that reports God creating mankind less than 6000 years ago. Haven't I heard of the Cro-Magnon Homo sapiens fossils from 50,000 years ago, I'm asked.

On the first point, there is; and on the second, I have.

Following are the most frequently asked questions. And the replies I am able to provide while standing on one foot.

1) Was there a beginning to our universe?

In the early 1600's, James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, calculated the age of the universe. Based on the generations listed in the Bible, he discovered that the creation of the world took place in the year 4004 BCE.; on October 23; at high noon. Johannes Kepler, the astronomer who discovered that planets move about the Sun in elliptical orbits and not circles as had been previously assumed, was a contemporary of Ussher's. Scientist Kepler realized that theologian Ussher was wrong, and was determined to let the world know. Kepler calculated that the creation was not in October of that year, but in April!

Dr. Schroeder's speaking schedule for Oct./Nov. '98

21 October 1998: Wednesday 7:00 PM Provo Utah; Brigham Young University in the ProvoTabernacle. For further information: Prof. Darwin L. Thomas, Sociology at BYU. 801-378-6706

24 October 1998: after the Sabbath; Salt Lake City; For exact venue contact Rabbi Benny Zippel in Salt Lake City 801-467-7777

25 October 1998: Sunday Portland, Oregon; a day long seminar starting mid-morning on Torah and Science; Congregation Kesser Israel; for information contact Rabbi Leonard Oppenheimer at Congregation Kesser Israel

26 October 1998: Monday Portland continued; lunch & learn; for information contact Rabbi Leonard Oppenheimer at Congregation Kesser Israel

27 October 1998: Tuesday evening Houston, Texas; for information contact Winton Roberds 281-326-4201 or David BenZion at Houston radio station KPRC

28 October 1998: Wednesday 7:45 PM Fort Lauderdale; for information contact Rabbi Mark Spiro, Aish HaTorah, Miami, 305-945-2155

29 - 31 October 1998: Detroit series of lectures; for information contact Rabbi Tzvi Hochstadt, 248-737-0400

5 November 1998: Thursday 7:30 PM New York City; for information contact at Aish HaTorah Sharon Lynn 212-579-1388 x 15

Today their use of the Bible as a tool for cosmological inquiry seems mightily misplaced, but let's put it into perspective. In a 1959 survey among leading United States scientists, two thirds of those questioned believed that the universe had no beginning. It was eternal, they said repeating the 2,400 year old teachings of Plato and Aristotle.

Only in 1965, with Penzias and Wilson's discovery of the radiation remnant of the big bang, did that fundamental paradigm change. Science had discovered the echo of our creation, and in doing so had validated the opening phrase of the Bible. There had been an "In the beginning" (Genesis 1:1) to our universe. The overwhelming scientific evidence is that some 15 billion years ago, the time space matter and laws of nature that make up our universe came into being from what appears to be absolute nothingness. Ussher and Kepler may have erred in their interpretation of the biblical calendar, but conceptually they were infinitely closer to the truth than the scientists of that 20th century survey.

2) How could the world be created in six days?

Genesis chapter one recounts for us, day by day, the key events of the six days of creation. But the Sun does not appear till day number four. All ancient commentators, those referred to as the Sages, tell us that the term "day" refers to a duration of time, and that duration was 24 hours, regardless of whether or not there was a Sun. Those first six days, they said, "were no longer than the six days of our work week, but they contained all the ages and all the secrets of the universe."

Days containing ages sounds strange. Nevertheless that is what we twice read in Genesis: "These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created in the day that the Eternal God made heaven and earth" (Genesis 2:4). And again "This is the book of the generations of Adam in the day that God created Adam" (Genesis 5:1). It took an Einstein to discover how ages could be squeezed into a day. The laws of relativity taught the world that the passage of time and the perception of time's flow varies from place to place in our most amazing universe. A minute on the moon passes more rapidly than a minute on the Earth. A minute on the Sun passes more slowly. The duration between the ticks of a clock, the beats of heart, the time to ripen oranges, stretches and shrinks. Where ever you are, time seems normal because your body is in tune with your local environment.

Only when looking across boundaries from one location relative to another very different location can we observe the relativity of time. If you can not understand how this can be, do not despair,. The other approximately 5 billion inhabitants of the Earth are in a similar quandary. We look back in time, studying the history of the universe. From our vantage we find, correctly, that billions of years have passed. But, those same Sages told us, the Bible sees the six days of Genesis looking forward from near the beginning, from the moment that stable matter formed from the energy of the big bang.

Viewing the six days from that beginning holds the answer as to how our generations fit into those days.

The universe we live in is not static. It is expanding. The space of the universe is actually stretching. If we took a mental trip back in time, sending our information back to the moment from which Genesis views time, the effect of our mental trip would be to pass to a time when the universe was vastly smaller, in fact a million million times smaller than it is today. Space would have shrunk a million million fold. This huge compression of space would equally compress the perception of time for any series of events simply because as the string of information that described those events traveled back in time, the space through which it was passing was shrinking, squeezing the data ever closer together. In the jargon of cosmology, the data were blue shifted (blue because of the relatively short wavelength of blue light).

To calculate the effect of that million million compression, divide the 15 billion years we observe looking back in time by the million million. You'll get six days. Which of course is just what Genesis chapter one has been claiming for the past 3,000 years. Genesis and science tell the same account, but seen from vastly different perspectives.

3) Has the Bible missed on evolution?

The Bible is well aware of evolution although it is not very interested in the details of the process. All of animal evolution gets a mere seven sentences (Genesis 1:20-26). Genesis tells us simple aquatic animals were followed by land animals, mammals and finally humans. That is also what the fossil record tells us but of course with much more detail than these few biblical verses provide. Not withstanding the claims by misguided clerics, the Bible makes no claims as to what drove the development of life and science has yet to provide the answer.

In case you haven't studied biology in a while, let me provide a brief update on paleontology's record of life's evolution. First came the discovery that life appeared on the Earth almost 4 billion years ago, immediately after the molten globe had cooled sufficiently for liquid water to form. This contradicted totally the theory of life's gradual evolution over billions of years in some nutrient-rich pool. The rapid origin of life remains a mystery. Then we learned that some 550 million years ago, in what is known as the Cambrian explosion, animals with optically perfect eyes, gills, limbs with joints, mouths and intestines burst upon the fossil scene with not a clue in older fossils as to how they evolved. It is no wonder that Darwin, in his Origin of Species, repeatedly implored his readers (five times by my count) to ignore the fossil record if they were to understand his theory.

The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence tells us that something exotic, unexpected, and as of yet unexplained, happened to produce life as we know it.

4) Just which rib did Adam have to spare for his mate, Eve?

The 1500 year old Talmud commentary on the Genesis asked the same question and presented a variety of answers, with no clear conclusion. Here are two of the replies. The Hebrew word usually translated as rib (tslah) at the making of Eve (Genesis 2:21,22) appears repeatedly throughout the Bible. It never means rib. It always means side. Based on this, the Talmud suggests that Adam and Eve were both fully formed beings, joined at the side and God separated them. This is in line with Genesis 1:27 and 5:2, where we are informed that God "created them male and female and blessed them and called their name [their name!] Adam in the day they were formed." Only later did they have separate names.

The other Talmudic suggestion is that the entire building of Eve (Gen. 2:22) is God taking a fully formed Eve aside, braiding her hair and then presenting her to Adam. This opinion stems from the use of the word "build" in villages by the sea to mean "braid hair", as the waves braid one upon the other as they reach the shore.

5) The Bible's calendar puts the creation of Adam at about 6000 years ago.

Science says the number should be closer to 60,000 years. Let's not confuse man with human. The biblical creation of Adam, humankind (Genesis 1:27), relates to the creation of the human soul (in Hebrew, the neshama) and not the human body. The Talmud is replete with descriptions of hominids having the same shape and intelligence as humans. But they were not human. They lacked the neshama. Recall that the Talmud was redacted a millennium before paleontology raised the scientific question of pre-human hominids. The Talmud learned of hominids from nuances in the text of Genesis. Science has confirmed the ancient predictions of Genesis.

Museums make the break between pre-history and history at about 6000 years ago, marked by the invention of writing and the appearance of large cities. Necessity is the mother of invention. The sudden expansion of clan-sized towns and settlements such as ancient Jericho, into cities necessitated commerce and administration, which in turn required record keeping and hence, writing. Was it the creation of the neshama that enabled clans to reach out and join together into cities? That is a question unanswerable by science.

6) If God is omnipotent and merciful as the Bible claims, why do bad things happen to good people?

It is true, not withstanding the bad we occasionally see around us, that the God of the Bible is described as merciful and long suffering, filled with righteousness and truth (Exodus 34:6). Equally confounding, at the end of the Six Days of Creation we are told that God saw all that was done and "behold it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). Not just good, but very good. Still young children get MS and earthquakes shake down buildings to crush the innocent. The same God that streaks the sky with a rainbow of red at sunrise and produces the beauty of a flower must also take credit for these horrors.

If we were gods, there would be no crippling diseases. Disasters would be unknown. But we are not running the show. And though we may see it as unfortunate, bad things happening to good people is consistent with the biblical description of God's role in the world. By chapter four, Cain has murdered Abel. According to the Bible, Abel was the good guy. God had accepted his special offering while rejecting Cain's run-of-the-mill sacrifice. God had the power to prevent Abel's murder, but chose not to. Isaiah hints at why.

"I am the Eternal, there is no other. I make light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil" (Isaiah 45:6,7). God, the infinite source of light, creates darkness by withdrawing some of the light. Similarly, God, the infinite source of peace, creates evil by shielding a portion of the peace. The biblical definition of creation is the partial withdrawal of God's presence. God pulls back, and in doing so creates the universe with its laws of nature. For the most part, nature takes its natural course. Only when events get way off course does the Bible recount that God steps in and overrides nature.

A natural looking world is an essential part of the biblical game plan of life, namely, the exercising of our free will. "I call to you witness today the heavens and the earth, I have placed life and death before you, the blessing and the curse, therefore chose life that you may live, you and your progeny" (Deut. 30:19). If humans are to have the will to choose freely, the world must look natural. A natural world has radiation producing crippling mutations and earthquakes crushing the innocent.

7) If God is omniscient and knows the future, how can we have free will? God knows the end already.

God knows the future but not as a future. Having created time, God is outside of time. In such a dimension, future and past and present are meaningless. They are simultaneous. The four lettered Hebrew name of God sometimes written as Je/ko/v/ah is a composed of the letters that spell in Hebrew I was, I am, I will be. The three tenses folded into one, an Eternal now. We, however, live in time and for us the future has not occurred. Nature has given us a hint of what it means to be outside of time.

The laws of relativity have shown us that at the speed of light time does not pass. To our perception, light travels for eight minutes as it moves from Sun to Earth. But if we could move along with the light, at the speed of light, in its journey from Sun to Earth, we would record that zero time passed. Here on Earth, being inside time, those eight minutes afford us the opportunity to choose among a variety of activities. But all those activities, their beginnings and endings, would appear as occurring simultaneously from the perspective of the light. In this sense, although totally outside of human experience and so difficult to comprehend, God knows the ending even at the beginning.

8) If God wrote the Bible, why doesn't it mention dinosaurs?

In a way the Bible does mention dinosaurs, or if not dinosaurs, then large reptiles. In Genesis 1:21 we learn that God created the big taninim. This is the only animal in entire creation account with a size attributed to it. Taninim is occasionally translated as whale, crocodile, lizard, even dragon. The confusion over the meaning of taninim is surprising since it is a word known elsewhere in the Bible to mean reptiles. Genesis 1:21 reads "and God created the big reptiles." Dinosaurs were certainly the big reptiles.

9) Who started this battle between Bible and science?

Many people discard the Bible's teaching because it seems scientifically incorrect. Ironically, it is the theologians who started the Bible/science conflict. Clerics with the scantiest scientific knowledge were, and still are, willing to trash every scientific discovery that seems to encroach upon their imagined sacred turf. First Copernicus in the 1500's had the audacity to suggest that the Earth moved around the Sun. This was unacceptable to the religious establishment not withstanding that the opening sentence of the Bible places the heavens before the Earth. Copernicus was a believing Catholic.

The discovery didn't shake his faith.

Then a hundred years later Kepler shook the religious world by informing that the Earth moved in an ellipse around the Sun. This humiliated the clergy. Wouldn't a perfect God produce a perfectly circular orbit? The next century brought Newton and the laws of inertial motion. It must have come as a bolt out of the blue for him to learn that the church felt his laws were "subversive to revealed religion." With inertial motion, the planets could keep moving by themselves without God's constant push. One would have to search far and wide to find a cleric today who is against the laws of motion. With each stage, the popular impression was that science had proven the Bible wrong, not withstanding the fact that the Bible had made no claims in any of these fields. Still the controversy persists, though the topics have changed.

We are all the losers as this needless dispute continues to erode biblical credibility. For millennia, the Bible provided a measure against which we might consider our deeds. We would do well to re-establish that measure.

New JWR contributor Gerald Schroeder earned his BSc, MSc and PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with his doctorate in the Earth Sciences and Nuclear Physics. He is the author of Genesis and the Big Bang : The Discovery of Harmony Between Modern Science and the Bible; now in six languages; and The Science of God : The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom


©1998, Gerald Schroeder