Reading Modern Science into Genesis

Contemporary approaches to reconciling discrepancies.

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Current Scientific Theory

According to modern physics, the universe sprang into existence 15 billion years ago in the Big Bang. During the first fragment of a second, the universe expanded from a singularity--an infinitely small, dense point--into a primeval fireball, a chaotic storm of energy out of which the first fundamental particles began to form. 

After three minutes, protons and neutrons began sticking together, forming hydrogen and helium nuclei, but only after another 300,000 years had the universe cooled enough to allow these nuclei to bind with electrons, creating the first atoms. As the atoms formed, photons were released and electromagnetic radiation was able to travel for the first time, flooding the previously opaque universe with light.big band

As a result of gravity, atoms began falling together and forming clumps. It took 300 million years for this process to give birth to the first stars and galaxies, and another nine billion years before our solar system came into existence. The earth was formed around 4.5 billion years ago, and the earliest fossil evidence of life on our planet is dated to a billion years (one aeon) later.

Contrasting Biblical Account

The Bible presents a radically different account of the beginning of the world. The first chapter of Genesis describes what seems to be a flat earth, geocentric story in which God takes six days to create--in the following order--light and darkness, the sky, land and sea, plants, the sun, moon and stars, marine life, birds, land animals and, finally, the first human beings. Calculations based on later biblical genealogies indicate that this process took place less than six thousand years ago.

For modern Jews, this discrepancy poses a problem. The Torah, traditionally held to be an accurate record of divine revelation, flat out denies the best of contemporary scientific research. Does this necessitate making a choice between tradition and science, or is it possible to negotiate the contradiction?

Many modern Jews either dismiss the traditional creation story, interpreting the opening chapter of Genesis as myth or metaphor, or reject the scientific account as incompatible with the incontestable truth of Torah. Others prefer to compartmentalize, utilizing a kind of doublethink to apply scientific narratives in some areas of their lives and religious ones in others. Making the effort to synthesize Genesis and science is only one option among many, and far from the simplest.

Drawing Connections

In one way, modern physics has made the challenge easier. Medieval thinkers were forced to grapple with the tension between the Torah's creation story and Aristotle's notion that rather than having been created in time, the world had always existed. Today there is no dispute that the universe came into being at some point in the past. This apparent commonality has provided motivation for some writers to take up the challenge of proving that modern physics merely points to the timeless truths which are clearly described in the book of Genesis.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.