Reading Modern Science into Genesis

Contemporary approaches to reconciling discrepancies.

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If Aviezer begins by suggesting that the Bible can be read in such a way as to bring it into line with scientific knowledge, a statement at the end of his book implies that in the event of a clash between the two systems, religious faith must take priority: "If I were to find that traditional Judaism appeared to be inconsistent with certain aspects of modern science, this would in no way weaken my [religious] commitment."

Radical Interpretation

The case carefully advanced by Aviezer hit the headlines with the publication of Gerald Schroeder's bestselling Genesis and the Big Bang, a more radical book in terms of both style and content. Since Schroeder advances essentially the same ideas as Aviezer, I'll focus on two key differences between the writers' arguments.

First: Aviezer was content to interpret the "days" of creation figuratively. Not so Schroeder. For him, Genesis is a literal account of the scientifically established process of creation. He resolves the contradiction between six days and 15 billion years by invoking Einstein's theory of relativity, which asserts that rather than being an absolute value, the flow of time is influenced by motion and gravitational force. 

Time being relative, six days in one frame of reference could well be equivalent to 15 billion years in another. Since there was no possibility of objectively measuring the time involved in the creation process, Schroeder draws the audacious conclusion that six days represented the elapsed time from none other than God's perspective.

This claim raises difficult religious questions. Since relativistic time dilation is a function of motion and gravity, are we to understand that these forces operate on God, in other words that God is part of the physical universe? It seems that in an attempt to extricate himself from an annoying textual problem (the discrepancy between the age of the universe according to Genesis and the Big Bang theory), Schroeder has opened the door on a much more significant theological one.

Second: Schroeder claims that people who think that Genesis clashes with modern physics have not read the Bible carefully enough--the Torah must be understood through study of the canonical commentaries: Onkelos, Rashi, Maimonides and Nahmanides. On the face of it, for example, the Bible contains no hint that the creation of the universe was a process of expansion from an initial singularity.

However, Nahmanides' comment on Genesis 1:1 implies exactly that: "At the briefest instant following creation, all the matter of the universe was concentrated in a very small place, no larger than a grain of mustard.... From the initial concentration of this intangible substance in its minute location, the substance expanded, expanding the universe as it did so." In Schroeder's view, this kind of in-depth reading of the Torah will always tend to reveal the consonance between two sources of truth--revelation and science.

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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.