IN THE BEGINNING: Biblical Creation and Science (138 pages)

Table of Contents

PERSPECTIVES

THE FIRST DAY: The Origin of the Universe

THE SECOND DAY: The Formation of the Solar System

THE THIRD DAY: The Appearance of Dry Land and the Seed-Bearing Plants

THE FOURTH DAY: The Seasons, the Days, and the Years

THE FIFTH DAY, PART I: Evolution

THE FIFTH DAY, PART II: The Origin of Life

THE FIFTH DAY, PART III: The Animal Kingdom

THE SIXTH DAY, PART I: The Uniqueness of Man

THE SIXTH DAY, PART II: Man as the Pinnacle of Creation

AFTER THE SIXTH DAY: The Early History of Man

REFLECTIONS

Appendices

Index of Biblical Commentators

Index of Scientists

Subject Index

 

Perspectives

In the analysis of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, there has always been a certain reluctance to treat the text in its literal sense. Such reluctance is not surprising. Everyone with an awareness of science recognizes that there seem to be a large number of contradictions between the “facts” as represented by scientific knowledge and the “facts” as implied by a literal reading of the first chapter of Genesis.

The question that is addressed in these pages is whether it is possible to understand the first chapter of Genesis as a record of events that actually occurred in the past. To answer this question, a detailed comparison is made between the biblical text and current scientific evidence. The analysis shows that, in contrast to the widespread misconception, there is in fact remarkable agreement between many biblical passages and recently discovered scientific facts in the fields of cosmology, astronomy, geology, meteorology, paleontology, anthropology and archaeology.

As is well known, in all areas of science, important and often dramatic progress has taken place in recent years. However, it is rarely appreciated to what extent this newfound knowledge can have a profound influence on our understanding of the first chapter of Genesis. Indeed, it is the thesis of this book that modern science has provided us with a unique opportunity to discover new and deeper insights into numerous biblical passages that otherwise seem enigmatic. Far from being the antagonist of Genesis, science has become an important tool for its understanding.

The emphasis in the present analysis is on events and on statements of fact as they are recorded in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. For these events and facts, we seek a counterpart in the scientific theory of the development of the universe. No pretense is made that everything has been explained. However, we shall show that much of the biblical text can be understood in its literal sense on the basis of modern science.

Each chapter of this book is devoted to one of the days of creation. The chapter begins with the questions that one might ask about the biblical text. This is followed by an account of the relevant scientific background. We then give an interpretation of the biblical text based on the scientific evidence. Each of these three elements requires some comment.

The questions that are raised are not the only ones that could be asked, nor is it implied that each question will seem compelling to every reader. However, these are the questions that are commonly asked – by some, in a sympathetic spirit of inquiry, whereas by others, as a provocative challenge to the biblical text. To each of these questions, modern science provides a new and illuminating explanation.

There is a tendency these days to disparage science by emphasizing the transitory nature of scientific theories. However, every competent scientist can distinguish between the more speculative theories and those that are firmly established. It is the former that are short-lived and whose demise is regularly reported in the popular press, whereas the latter have an excellent record for longevity. For example, the theory of relativity and the quantum theory have had unqualified success since their inception in explaining hundreds of different phenomena. Such well-established theories are constantly being refined and extended, but they do not undergo fundamental revision. Of course, the empirical nature of science precludes the possibility of absolute proof for any theory. However, it is extremely unlikely that a well-established theory will eventually be overthrown.

It will be shown that current scientific evidence provides an answer to each question that is asked about the biblical text. This does not of course imply that the Book of Genesis should be read like a science textbook. But it is proposed that there exists a scientific explanation that is consistent with the text. Establishing this consistency is the task to which this book is dedicated.

 

The First Day: The Origin of the Universe

Genesis 1:1-5

1In the beginning, G-d created the heaven and the earth. 2Now the earth was desolate and chaotic, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of G-d hovered over the water. 3G-d said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4G-d saw that the light was good, and G-d separated the light from the darkness. 5G-d called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. There was evening and there was morning – one day.

Questions

The events associated with the first day of creation are de­scribed in the opening five verses of Genesis. These verses contain several statements that are very difficult to understand.

1.

First and foremost, we read that G-d created the universe (1:1). The creation must surely have been the most dramatic event that ever occurred. Why, then, cannot every scientist observe clear and undeniable evidence for the creation of the universe? Why are there, in fact, no signs whatsoever of the occurrence of such an event? Indeed, let us openly admit that the very concept of creation (i.e., something out of nothing) contradicts well-known laws of nature, such as the law of the conservation of mass and energy. This law of nature asserts that it is impossible to create something out of nothing.

2.

We read that G-d created light (1:3). What light? The only known sources of light are the sun and the stars, reflected light from the moon, and the light produced when one strikes a match or turns on a light switch. But on the first day, there was no sun, no stars, and no people. The nature of this light is thus a complete mystery that is never explained in any subsequent verse. Nevertheless, it was considered so important that the entire first day, one sixth of the story of creation, is devoted to this enigmatic light.

3.

We read that G-d subsequently "separated" the light from the darkness (1:4). Darkness is not a substance that can be "separated" from light. The word "darkness" simply denotes the absence of light. If there is darkness, then there is no light; if there is light, then there is no darkness. Thus, there is no logical content to the words "separation of the light from the darkness".

4.

We read that the universe began in a state of chaos (Hebrew: tohu va-vohu) (1:2). No indication whatever is given in the text as to the nature of this chaos. Just what was chaotic? And how was the chaos removed, if indeed it was removed?

5.

Finally, we read that the entire complex series of cosmolog­ical events necessarily involved in the creation of the universe occurred within a single day (1:5). It is well known that the duration of cosmological events is not measured in days or even in years, but in millions and billions of years.

These are some of the questions that one may ask. We shall now present the current scientific evidence that relates to each of the questions, assessing in detail the apparent contradictions between science and Sefer Bereshit. It will be shown that, improbable as it may seem, scientific evidence discovered in recent years provides an explanation of the biblical text that is completely consistent with current scientific knowledge.

 

Cosmology

Cosmology is the branch of science that deals with the origin and development of the universe. It is one of the oldest of the sciences, having been the subject of sustained interest for thou­sands of years in almost every civilization. However, until the twentieth century, all cosmological studies were based on pure speculation, with little if any scientific basis. It is important to realize that the situation had not significantly improved even by the middle of the twentieth century. Professor Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate from Harvard University, writes that "in the 1950s, the study of the early universe was widely regarded as not the sort of thing to which a respectable scientist would devote his time … there simply had not existed an adequate observational and theoretical foundation on which to build a history of the early universe."1

The approach to cosmology that was fashionable in the 1950s was based on the idea that the universe we observe today has always existed and will always exist in essentially its present form.2 Indeed, the assumed constancy of the universe was consis­tent with the results of thousands of years of continuous astro­nomical observation, which has produced a record of a fixed and unchanging sky, except for the apparent gradual rotation of the stars around the heavens as the earth revolves around the sun once each year. The pattern of stars and constellations that we see today is virtually identical to that recorded by the star-gazers of ancient civilizations. The tradition of stellar quiescence naturally suggests the idea of a constant universe and may have played a part in its acceptance – all without adequate scientific basis.

 

The Big Bang Theory

In 1946, George Gamow and his collaborators proposed an entirely new theory of cosmology.3 The main features of this revolutionary theory are listed in the accompanying table, in which time is measured in billions of years. The present time is denoted by 14 because, according to the Gamow theory, the universe began 14 billion years ago. At that time, denoted by 0 in the table, there suddenly appeared an enormous ball of light, which scientists call the primeval light-ball but is popularly known as the "big bang," and hence the name "big bang theory." The sudden appearance of the primeval light-ball marked the beginning of the universe in the sense that before the big bang, nothing at all existed. Thus, the big bang is the precise realization of creation.

Event

Time (billions of years)

The present

14


Universe suddenly becomes transparent
Light begins shining and fills entire universe


0.001

Formation of atoms and molecules

Sudden appearance of primeval light-ball
Beginning of the universe
Big bang – creation

 

0

We put aside for the moment the all-important question of where the primeval light-ball came from and proceed to describe some basic aspects of the theory. In particular, how did the primeval light-ball develop into the universe as we know it? Our present universe is filled with matter, ranging from stars and galaxies to oceans and trees and animals. From where did all this matter come?

The answer is given by the famous formula of Einstein's theory of relativity

E = mc 2

where E denotes energy, m denotes mass (matter), and c denotes the speed of light. This formula states that matter can be converted into energy. Moreover, because of the large value of mc2, a little matter suffices to produce an enormous amount of energy. This matter-to-energy conversion is not merely a hypothetical possibility, but forms the basis for nuclear energy; its powerful nuclear bombs devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but its peaceful use in nuclear power stations provides electricity for hundreds of millions of families throughout the world. The big­bang theory utilizes the fact that Einstein's formula can work both ways; not only can matter be converted into energy, but energy can also be converted into matter. Although it requires a vast amount of energy to produce only a little matter, the amount of energy present in the primeval light-ball was so enormous that it was the source of all the matter that now exists in the entire universe.

The terms "light" and "light-ball" are used here to denote a general phenomenon, called "electromagnetic radiation" by the scientist. This phe­nomenon is most easily explained by referring to the sun. The sun emits electromagnetic radiation that the eye can see, called visible light. This light includes the spectrum of colors ranging from red to blue (the familiar colors of the rainbow). However, the sun also emits electromagnetic radiation that the human eye is incapable of seeing, called invisible light. The spectrum of "colors" of the sun's invisible light includes infrared radiation (which gives the skin the sensation of warmth), ultra­violet radiation (which causes the skin to tan), microwave radia­tion (used for cooking in microwave ovens), radio waves, X-rays, etc. There is no essential difference between the colors of visible light and those of invisible light; together they comprise the entire spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. A camera with appropriate film will record each of these colors equally well. Therefore, we follow the standard practice of using the term "light" to include all electromagnetic radiation, encompassing both visible and invisible light.

We now come to a most important event that occurred shortly after the big bang, at the time denoted by 0.001 in the table. In order to understand this event, some background information is necessary. The usual form of matter is an atom, or a group of atoms called a molecule. Most of the objects with which we are familiar are composed of atoms and molecules, including planets, rocks, water, air, and the tissues of our body. However, when matter was initially formed, immediately after time zero, it did not exist in the form of atoms. The enormous temperature of the primeval light-ball would have instantly disintegrated any atom. Therefore, matter existed in a different form called a "plasma". The important distinction between these two forms of matter is that an atom is electrically neutral, whereas a plasma consists of particles having either positive or negative electric charges. The properties of charged particles are such that a plasma "traps" light and pre­vents its free passage. For this reason, a plasma always appears dark to an observer.

Within a fraction of a second after the big bang, the universe consisted of the light of the primeval light-ball interspersed with a plasma. Even though the light of the light-ball was extremely intense, it was trapped by the plasma and could not "escape" to be "seen." To visualize this situation, imagine that the universe had been inhabited at that time by someone with a camera. The universe would have appeared dark to our cameraman because of the plasma, and any photographs taken would have resulted in pictures that were completely black, even though the universe was filled with the light of the light-ball. It is as if one were to take photographs (without flash) in a totally dark room.

After time zero, the very hot primeval light-ball cooled ex­tremely rapidly. By the time 0.001 (see the table), the universe had cooled sufficiently to permit the charged particles of the plasma to combine and form atoms. The formation of atoms from the plasma was a vitally important event, being crucial for the universe to develop into its present form.

In contrast to a plasma, any region of space filled with free atoms and molecules is transparent. One need only think of our planet's transparent atmosphere, which is composed of molecules of air (mainly nitrogen and oxygen). Light shines freely through the atmosphere; from the surface of the earth, one clearly sees the sun, the moon, and the distant stars and galaxies. Therefore, when the plasma was suddenly transformed into atoms and molecules 14 billion years ago, the light of the light-ball was no longer trapped by the plasma. The universe suddenly became transparent, and the light began to "shine" visibly and soon filled the entire universe, as it still does to this very day.

This concludes our brief description of the main features of the big bang theory of George Gamow. As with any scientific theory, the criterion for acceptance is that the predictions of the theory must be confirmed. The most striking prediction of the big bang theory is surely that the universe is filled with light, dating back to the very origins of time. This light, which lies primarily in the invisible portion of the electro­magnetic spectrum, has very special properties (which need not concern us here) that make it easily distinguishable from other sources of electromagnetic radiation. However, the predicted radiation had never been observed.

It is easy to explain why the predicted radiation was not observed. The primeval light-ball was originally extremely hot and contained an enormous concentration of energy. However, with the passing of time, the light-ball expanded and cooled, with the result that the radiant energy spread out. Today, after 14 billion years have passed, the energy of the light-ball is very thinly spread and its electromagnetic radiation is so extremely weak that detecting it was technically impossible with the available scien­tific apparatus.

The situation regarding the big bang theory can be summa­rized as follows. This theory of cosmology was completely different from generally accepted ideas. Indeed, the theory seems to border on the irrational. Moreover, for technical rea­sons, its dramatic prediction of the existence of a special radia­tion that fills the entire universe could not be tested. Therefore, it is not surprising that when first proposed, the big bang theory was not taken seriously by the scientific community.

 

Confirmation of the Theory

In the years following the Second World War, major techno­logical breakthroughs occurred in many fields. It was the era of the invention of the transistor, the laser, and the computer. Scientific instrumen­tation also underwent a radical improvement. Many experiments that were impossible to perform with the technology available in the 1940s became routine by the 1960s. Of particular relevance here, radiation detectors were also improved a hundredfold and more. In fact, by the 1960s, it had become technically feasible to detect the extremely weak electromagnetic radiation predicted by the big bang theory.

In 1965, two American scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of the Bell Telephone Research Laboratories, were using an extremely sensitive antenna to measure galactic radio waves. While testing their antenna, they observed very weak electromagnetic radiation that seemed to have no source and seemed to be coming simultaneously from all directions in outer space. It was soon realized that this radiation was precisely what was predicted by the big bang theory.

Since Penzias and Wilson first announced their findings, many other scientists have confirmed their measurements. At present, there is not the slightest doubt that this fundamental prediction of the big bang theory has become scientifically established.

Other key predictions of the big bang theory have also been confirmed. For example, when there is an explosion, the particles fly apart in all directions. The “particles” of the universe are the galaxies. Therefore, as a result of the big bang “explosion”, all the galaxies should be flying apart from each other. This prediction of the big bang theory has also been confirmed scientifically, principally through the astronomical observations of Edwin Hubble. This phenomenon is now known as the Hubble expansion of the galaxies.

The big bang theory also makes a specific prediction regarding the chemical composition of the universe. In particular, the theory predicts that the mass of the gas helium relative to the mass of the gas hydrogen throughout the universe should stand in the proportion of 1:2.5 (corresponding to one helium atom to every ten hydrogen atoms). This prediction has also been confirmed scientifically.

In addition to these three principal predictions, there is much further scientific evidence supporting the theory. In particular, two satellites were launched into space to measure the detailed properties of the radiation of the primeval light-ball. This radiation is commonly known as the microwave background radiation. These satellites are called CORE (Cosmic Background Radiation Explorer), launched in 1989, and MAP (Microwave Anisotropy Probe), launched in 2001. The data from these two satellites are in perfect agreement with the predictions of the big bang theory.

Because of the confirmation of all its predictions, the big bang theory has become the standard theory of cosmology, with the abandonment of all competing theories. Today, scientists carry out research in cosmology only within the framework of the big bang theory. The final mark of recognition of the validity and importance of the big bang theory occurred in 1978, when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of the remnant of the primeval light-ball. Unfortunately, George Gamow could not share in this honor, because he died in 1968 and the by-laws of the Nobel Prize do not permit posthumous awards.

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the Penzias-Wilson discovery. Professor Steven Weinberg calls it "one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century."4 One can well understand the superlatives used by Weinberg. The big bang theory has totally altered our conception of the origins of the universe.

 

The Biblical Text

It is now time to return to our initial program, a comparison between the biblical text and current scientific knowledge. Ac­cordingly, we shall examine in detail each of the five points listed at the beginning of this article.

1. Creation

The most surprising assertion of the big-bang theory is that the universe was literally created. It is instructive to quote the world’s leading authorities on this subject.

Professor Paul Dirac, Nobel laureate at the University of Cambridge, writes:
“It seems certain that there was a definite time of creation.”5

Professor Alan Guth, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes:
“The instant of creation remains unexplained.”6

Professor Stephen Hawking, of the University of Cambridge , writes:
“The creation lies outside the scope of the known laws of physics.”7

Professor Joseph Silk, of the University of California , begins his recent book on modern cosmology with the following words:
“The big bang is the modern version of creation.”8

Today, it is not possible to carry on a meaningful discussion of cosmology without the creation of the universe assuming a central role. Professor Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University, wrote in 1999: “The modern theory of cosmic origins [asserts] that the universe erupted from an enormously energetic event, which spewed forth all space and all matter. The currently accepted scientific theory of creation is referred to as the standard model of cosmology.”9

People sometimes ask: What existed before the big bang, the event that marked the beginning of the universe? Professor John Wheeler of Princeton University explains that the very concept of time did not exist before the creation. “There was no ‘before’ prior to the Big Bang. The laws of nature came into existence together with the Big Bang, as surely as did space and time.”10 Wheeler emphasizes that scientists view space and time as the “stage” upon which the events of the physical world take place. If there is no physical world – if the universe does not exist – then neither time nor space can exist. “Time” and “space” are not independent entities; these concepts have meaning only after the creation of the physical universe.

We now turn to the central issue – the vital question of what caused the sudden appearance of the primeval light-ball that her­alded the creation of the universe. In the words of some of the world's leading cosmologists, the creation of the universe is "outside the scope of the known laws of physics"11 and "remains unexplained."12 In contrast to science, Sefer Bereshit does give an explanation for what caused the creation of the universe – an explanation written in its very first verse: "In the beginning, G-d created..."

2. The Light

Cosmology has now established that the sudden unexplained appearance of the primeval light-ball corresponds to the creation of the universe. The Divine pronouncement, "Let there be light", may therefore be understood as referring to the creation of the primeval light-ball – the big bang – that signals the creation of the universe. All the matter and energy that exists today throughout the universe results directly from this "light." Note in particular that there were not two separate creations recorded in Sefer Bereshit on the First Day -the universe and the light – but only one.

3. Separation of Light

The big bang theory explains that the universe originally consisted of a mixture of a plasma and the light of the primeval light-ball. At that time, the universe appeared dark because of the plasma. The sudden transformation of the plasma into atoms shortly after the creation caused the light (electromagnetic radiation) of the primeval light-ball to "separate" from the previously dark universe and shine freely throughout space.

The biblical passage "G-d separated the light from the darkness" may be understood as referring to the separation of the light from the dark light-ball-plasma mixture. This "light" (radiation) was eventually detected by Penzias and Wilson, earning them the Nobel Prize.

4. Chaos (Tohu va-Vohu)

Important developments have occurred in the big bang theory since 1980 which fall under the general heading of the "inflation­ary universe," proposed by Professor Alan Guth. A recent article summarizing these new findings contains the following words: "The universe began in a random chaotic state."13 A recent book on cosmology discusses at length the phenomenon of the primordial chaos and its important cosmological implications.14 This discussion appears in the section of the book called "Pri­meval Chaos," which is part of the chapter entitled "Chaos to Cosmos." Finally, Professor Andrei Linde of the Lebedev Phys­ical Institute of Moscow has proposed the "chaotic inflation scenario" to describe the beginnings of the universe.15 It lies beyond the scope of this article to explain the nature of this chaos and its importance, but it should be emphasized that the role of chaos in the development of the very early universe has become a major subject of cosmological research. The relevance of this to our discussion is clear: Sefer Bereshit asserts that the universe began in a state of chaos (tohu va-vohu) (1:2).

5. Creation in a Single Day

It is a common fallacy to believe that because cosmological changes occur extremely slowly at the present time, it must have always been so. However, according to the modern big bang theory, a long series of dramatic cosmological changes occurred within an extremely short time at the very beginning of the universe. This point was brought home forcibly by Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg of Harvard University with his choice of a title for his famous book on modern cosmology: The First Three Minutes. It takes Professor Weinberg 151 pages to describe a long series of momen­tous cosmological changes that took place in our universe during a mere three minutes.

 

Summary

A most appropriate summary to this chapter can be found in the words of Professor Alan Guth, who comments that "from a historical point of view, probably the most revolu­tionary aspect" of the modern theory of cosmology is the claim that matter and energy were literally created. He emphasizes that "this claim stands in marked contrast to centuries of scien­tific tradition in which it was believed that something cannot come from nothing."16

In short, hundreds of years of intense research by some of the world's greatest scientists has produced a picture of the origins of the universe that is in striking agreement with the simple words that appear in the opening verses of Sefer Bereshit.

NOTES

1. S. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (London: Andre Deutsch & Fontana, 1977), pp. 13-14.

2. H. Bondi, Cosmology, 2 nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1960).

3. Weinberg, loc. cit.; G.T. Bath, The State of the Universe (Oxford University Press, 1980), chap. 1.

4. Weinberg, p. 120.

5. P. A. M. Dirac, Commentarii, vol. 2, no. 11 (1972), p. 15.

6. A. H. Guth, Scientific American, May 1984, p. 102.

7. S. W. Hawking, The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time (Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 364.

8. J. Silk, The Big Bang (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1989), p. xi.

9. B. Greene, The Elegant Universe (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), pp. 345-346.

10. J. A. Wheeler, Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam (New York: Norton, 1998), p. 350.

11. Hawking, p. 364.

12. Guth, p. 102.

13. Ibid.

14. J. D. Barrow and J. Silk, The Left Hand of Creation (London: Heinemann, 1983).

15. A. Linde, Physics Today, vol. 40, September 1987, pp. 61-68. According to the proposal of “chaotic inflation,” the universe we observe is embedded in a much larger structure, with the sudden appearance of the observable universe having been triggered by chaos. Professor Linde explains that immediately after its creation, the observable universe was “subsequently describable by the usual big bang theory” (p. 66).

16. Guth, p. 102.

For further information or to order a book, contact me at aviezen@mail.biu.ac.il

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