The first of Maimonides' Thirteen Principles is the belief that "the Creator, blessed be His name, is the Creator and Guide of everything that has been created, and that He alone has made, does make, and will make all things."1 Two mutually contra-dictory beliefs have threatened to undermine belief in the creation of the world by God. The first is the belief that the very idea of creation is contradicted by science. The second, ironically, is the contrary belief that a scientific account of creation must agree with Genesis 1. Recent events in the worlds of science and politics have brought renewed attention to both of these beliefs.
In modern times the scientific challenge has come especially from astronomy
and biology, specifically from the "Steady State" theory of cosmogony
and from the theory of evolution. The Steady State theory holds
that the universe always existed and had no beginning;
the theory of evolution adds the idea that species developed
randomly and not according to any conscious plan. Even in ancient
times challenges to the idea of creation by God were heard. The Midrash
Temurah tells of the following conversation between Rabbi Akiba and
In 1978 the astronomer Robert Jastrow published a book entitled God and the Astronomers3 in which he points out that astronomy no longer poses a challenge to belief in God and creation. On the contrary, the latest discoveries are quite compatible with these beliefs. Jastrow states that he is an agnostic in religious matters but wants to write about some fascinating developments in astronomy and their religious implications. The essence of these developments, Jastrow writes, "is that the Universe had, in some sense, a beginning."4
We have been aware for fifty years that we live in an expanding Universe, in which all the galaxies around us are moving apart from us and one another at enormous speeds. The Universe is blowing up before our eyes, as if we are witnessing the aftermath of a gigantic explosion. If we retrace the motions of the outward-moving galaxies backward in time, we find that they all come together, so to speak, fifteen or twenty billion years ago.
At that time all the matter in the Universe was packed into a dense mass, at temperatures of many trillions of degrees. The dazzling brilliance of the radiation in this dense, hot Universe must have been beyond description. The picture suggests the explosion of a cosmic hydrogen bomb. The instant in which the cosmic bomb exploded marked the birth of the Universe.
Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy.5
Jastrow points out that the heat produced by the original explosion was so great that it melted and destroyed all the evidence about the cause of the explosion. In other words, science has now gone as far back in time as it ever can. There is no evidence left which can show what happened earlier. This theory about the origin of the universe - the "Big Bang" theory - now commands the field, and, according to Jastrow, the Steady State theory is now discredited.
The question of what happened before the original explosion was tackled by two British scholars quoted by Jastrow. In a book on religion and the new astronomy Edmund Whittaker, a physicist, wrote:
There is no ground for supposing that matter and energy existed before and was suddenly galvanized into action. For what could distinguish that moment from all other moments in eternity?...It is simpler to postulate creation ex nihilo -- Divine will constituting nature from nothingness.6
In a mathematical treatise on relativity Edward Milne, a theorist, concluded: "As to the first cause of the Universe, in the context of expansion, that is left for the reader to insert, but our picture is incomplete without Him."7 Whittaker's conclusion is strikingly reminiscent of the argument attributed to Rabbi Akiba that all created objects presuppose a creator.
Jastrow discusses only the astronomical issues and not those posed by the theory of evolution. However, in the paperback edition of his book there are two "Afterwords" dealing, inter alia, with evolution, one by John A. O'Keefe, a Catholic astronomer with NASA, and one by Stephen T. Katz, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Cornell.8 O'Keefe quotes John A. Wheeler of Princeton who argues that the astronomical origin of the universe and the origin of man are interrelated. The forces responsible for the expansion of the universe and the forces of gravity, which hold the universe together, are closely balanced. Galaxies are places where the expansion has been halted by the mutual gravitation of matter. If the original explosion had been a bit more powerful, the rate of expansion would have been too great for gravity to draw matter together into galaxies and stars and planets, and without these there would have been no life. If, on the other hand, the explosion had been a little less powerful, the force of gravity would have been stronger than the forces of expansion and, after a short time, the universe would have contracted again and eventually collapsed, without producing intelligent life. As Wheeler put it, "in its early stages the Universe was balanced on a knife edge between these two destinies." In other words, the force of the original explosion seems to have been perfectly calibrated, and the universe seems to have been designed to produce life and man. O'Keefe supports this view by a comparison of the earth with other bodies in the universe. The earth is a sheltered planet with perfect conditions for the development of intelligent life. Had the physical conditions of the universe been a little different, there could not have been such a planet. "If the Universe had not been made with the most exacting precision we could never have come into existence." And so, O'Keefe concludes, "It is my view that these circumstances indicate that the Universe was created for man to live in."9
The scientific evidence therefore indicates that the universe was created at a specific point in time and it suggests that the universe was designed to produce human life. Both the creation and the design are incomprehensible without a creator and designer, that is -- God.
In showing that the universe had a beginning, science has come closer than ever before to the teachings of the Bible. Nevertheless, there is still a considerable distance between current scientific thought and the details of the Biblical account of creation. According to the latter, the physical world and separate species of living things were created essentially as we know them less than six thousand years ago over a period of seven days. Astronomy, geology, biology, and related sciences indicate that the process was a gradual one that took billions of years. Earlier geological strata of the earth's surface show the different stages through which the earth passed and approximately how long they lasted, while fossils and remains of extinct species such as dinosaurs show that the different species of living creatures evolved slowly from a common ancestor.10 These conclusions are denied by adherents of a doctrine known as "scientific creationism," who are campaigning to require that any public school that teaches evolution must also teach what they call "creation science" as a scientifically respectable alternative to evolution. In 1981, for example, the Arkansas legislature passed a law requiring the teaching of the following six principles of "creation science":11
1. Sudden creation of the universe, energy, and life from nothing.
2. The insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about all living kinds from a single organism.
3. Changes only within fixed limits of originally created kinds of plants and animals.
4. Separate ancestry for man and apes.
5. Explanation of the earth's geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood.
6. A relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds.
Despite such pseudo-scientific terms as "catastrophism" and the absence of any explicit reference to the Bible, it is clear that these principles are inspired by Genesis and that the Arkansas law is an effort to protect a literal or nearly literal reading of the book. The emphasis on "sudden creation" and "relatively recent inception" (principles 1 and 6) is based on the fact that in Genesis the creation is complete after six days. Teaching that the world is not billions of years old but, at most, 6-10,000 years old, makes it possible to affirm the six days of Genesis 1, taking them either literally or as representing six one-thousand year periods.12 Explaining the world's geology by "catastrophism" (no. 5) is designed to dismiss the geological evidence that the world is billions of years old by claiming that all this evidence is merely the residue of recent catastrophes such as the flood. Princi-ples 3-5 are designed to contradict the theory of evolution, according to which all species of animals evolved from a common ancestor through a process of mutation and natural selection. They are based on the Biblical description of God creating all species separately, "each according to its kind," and man being created in the image of God from the very beginning. The indebtedness of these six principles to the Bible was recognized by a Federal judge who found the Arkansas law unconstitutional since it had "as its unmentioned reference the first 11 chapters of Genesis."
The feverish concern of the "scientific creationists" to protect a literal reading of the story in Genesis 1 reflects a conviction that devotion to the Bible requires one to interpret it -- particularly Genesis 1 -- literally and accept it in its literal sense. But, as Steven Katz notes in his "Afterword" to Jastrow (p. 159), "In Jewish religious thought Genesis is not regarded as meant for a literal reading, and Jewish tradition has not usually read it so." In fact, as we shall argue below, even the compilers of the Bible do not seem to have been concerned with a literal reading of the text. They were prepared to have at least parts of it read non-literally.
In the Middle Ages, Saadia Gaon argued that a Biblical passage should not be interpreted literally if that made a passage mean something contrary to the senses or reason (or, as we would say, science; Emunot ve-Deot, chap. 7). Maimonides applied this principle to theories about the creation. He held that if the eternity of the universe (what we would call the Steady State theory) could be proven by logic (science) then the Biblical passages speaking about creation at a point in time could and should be interpreted figuratively in a way that is compatible with the eternity of the universe. It is only because the eternity of the universe has not been proven that he interpreted the verses about creation at a point in time literally (Guide, II, 25), but he still insisted that the creation story as a whole was written metaphorically (Book I, Introduction). To Saadia and Maimonides, belief in the truth of the Bible does not re-quire a denial of science ("reason," "logic") when the two seem to conflict. These philosophers imply that questions of science should be left to scientists and scientific method. In fact, Maimonides quotes a passage in the Talmud in which Jewish scholars abandoned an astronomical theory of their own in favor of a theory of gentile scholars (Pes. 94b). Maimonides approved of their action, saying that "speculative matters every one treats according to the results of his own study, and every one accepts that which appears to him estab-lished by proof" (Guide, II, 8). To him, clearly, science is a matter of speculation and is not the field in which the Bible seeks to be decisive. In more recent times Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook held that scientific ideas which seem to conflict with the Torah need not necessarily be opposed, but can serve as stimuli to delve more deeply into the Torah and discover more profound meaning in it.13
The approach of these thinkers is one that Fritz Rothschild has described as a guiding principle of Jewish Biblical exegesis:
The view that the Bible contains God's message to man has led to ever new interpretations, since it constantly forced believing readers of the Bible to reconcile the words of the sacred text with whatever they held to be true on the basis of their own experience, the canons of logic, contemporary science, and their moral insights...The traditionalist will always feel called upon to interpret the text so that it reflects not ancient error but the highest standards of trustworthy knowledge and insight of his own time.14
This approach urges us to probe more deeply into the Biblical accounts of creation and to search for the intention of the Bible's compilers in presenting these accounts. By compilers I mean those who gathered all the sources and books together and produced the Bible in the form in which it was canonized in classical Judaism. In critical terms these are the redactors of the Bible; in Franz Rosenzweig's terms, rabboteinu.15 Whatever the intention of the individual accounts of creation may have been, it is clear from the Bible as a whole that its compilers were not overly con-cerned with the details of the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. They incorporated several accounts of creation in the Bible even though no two accounts agree in detail with Genesis 1 or with each other. Genesis 1 tells about the creation of the world in 6 days. The second account of creation is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2). Several other accounts are found in poetic form in Psalms, Proverbs, and Job.16 Genesis 1 says that man was the last living creature created, while Genesis 2 says that he was the first. Genesis 1 speaks of the prehistoric waters in purely naturalistic terms and says that God merely commanded that they gather in a single spot so that dry land could appear. But in the poetic passages the ancient waters are personified as rebellious sea-monsters which threatened to swamp the dry land, until God subdued them and created the seashore as a boundary which they were prohibited from crossing. The most notable difference between Genesis and all the other accounts is that none of the others mentions the idea that the world was created in six days. This idea -- which is the centerpiece of the whole creationist movement -- was apparently not considered important enough in the Bible to be repeated in other accounts of creation.
The fact that so many differing accounts were all accepted in the Bible shows that its compilers were not concerned about these details.17 They undoubtedly assumed that the differences could be reconciled, but they left this task to the ingenuity of exegetes. This virtually assured that different reconciliations would be proposed and that some of the passages would have to be interpreted non-literally.18 What the Bible as a whole insists on is not these details but only what the stories have in common. In other words, these stories are regarded as poetic statements of certain basic truths, not as literal scientific accounts of how the universe developed. What matters in Judaism is the concepts shared by all these stories: that the world was created by God, that He planned it carefully and designed it to be hospitable to man. These are the very conclusions to which astronomy now points. The other details of the Biblical accounts should not be taken literally but metaphorically or poetically. To give but one example: the six days of creation culminating in the Sabbath on the seventh symbolize how God guided the development of the world stage by stage according to a well-thought-out plan. The process is described as taking place over a period of seven days because seven was regarded in the ancient world as the number of perfection and seven days were regarded as the ideal length of a process.19 The seven days are more a statement about the perfection of the process than a chronological statistic.
Thus a literal reading of the Bible, on which "creation science" implicitly insists, misses the point of the Bible itself, which seems uninterested in literal interpretation. Like poetry and certain kinds of prose, which sometimes speak in metaphors and symbols, the Bible as a whole does not intend these stories to be taken literally.
Literalism is not only misleading but is also a disservice to the cause of the Bible itself. It forces the Bible to compete as science, and in such a competition it cannot win. In a scientific age such as ours the Bible will never be accepted as science by educated people. What is more, attempting to secure acceptance for it as science is hardly worthwhile, for this would divert attention away from the Bible's religious message to details which from a religious point of view are trivial. The religious message is precisely the realm in which science cannot compete, and those devoted to the cause of the Bible would do far better service to their cause by stressing its unique religious message. To the religious person it makes little difference whether the world was created in six days or several billion years. Maimonides' first principle says nothing about the chronology of creation. What counts is the deeper message of the Biblical account of creation: The world was made by a wise Creator who seeks man's welfare, who created the world carefully with man's benefit in mind, who created man with Godlike qualities and commanded him to administer the world wisely. Though we observe the Sabbath every seven days, it is this deeper message which we celebrate each week.20 The current views of modern science deepen our understanding of this message and renew our confidence in it.
Jeffrey H. Tigay is Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures in the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
1. Translation adapted from S. Singer, The Standard Prayer Book (New York: Bloch, 1951), p. 107. For present purposes this well-known version of the principle is sufficient. For Maimonides' own words see his commentary on the Mishna, introduction to Perek Helek.
2. Midrash Temurah, end (J.D. Eisenstein, Otzar Midrashim 2:583 [the text is also reproduced in Sefer Ha-Aggadah, pp. 5-6, sec. 2/1 # 6]. This midrash is late, but the concern of the rabbis to deny the pre-existence of the materials used by God in creation is already expressed in Genesis Rabbah 1:4 (ed. Theodor- Albeck, p. 8; Sefer Ha-Aggadah, loc. cit., # 5). For Hellenistic Jewish sources reflecting the same concern see E.E. Urbach, Hazal (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1971), p. 164.
3. Citations are from the Warner Books edition, New York, 1980. Shorter versions of the essay appeared in The New York Times Magazine, June 26, 1978, and The Reader's Digest, July, 1980, pp. 49-53.
4. Jastrow, pp. 1-2.
5. Jastrow, pp. 3-4.
6. E. T. Whittaker, The Beginning and End of the World (London: Humphrey Milford, 1952), quoted by Jastrow, p. 102.
7. E.A. Milne, Modern Cosmology and the Christian Idea of God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1952), quoted by Jastrow, p. 102.
8. John A. O'Keefe, "The Theological Impact of the New Cosmogony," in Jastrow, pp. 131-146; Steven T. Katz, "Judaism, God, and the Astronomers," in Jastrow, pp. 147-163.
9. O'Keefe, in Jastrow, pp. 136-137, 138-140.
10. Only part of what is generally called "the theory of evolution" is a theory. Evolution itself is a fact, established by the remains of earlier species and their geological distribution. Only its explanation by natural selection is a theory. See Stephen Jay Gould, "Darwinism Defined: The Difference Between Fact and Theory," in Discover, January 1987, pp. 64-70 (I owe this reference to Mr. Joseph Rothstein of East Midwood Jewish Center, Brooklyn).
11. Quoted by B. Vawter, "Creationism: Creative Misuse of the Bible," in R. M. Frye, ed. Is God a Creationist? The Religious Case Against Creation-Science (New York: Scribner's, 1983), p. 74.
12. See Frye, p. 12. The view that the six days of creation stand for six periods of 1,000 years (this is usually buttressed with Ps. 90:4) is not much better from a scientific point of view than taking the six days literally. This view, by the way, is part and parcel of the same approach to chronological problems that explains the long life spans in Genesis by arguing that "years" doesn't mean what it normally does. This approach results in the blatant inconsistency of making "day" mean more than what it normally does and "year" less than what it normally does. Furthermore, even these short years must be interpreted inconsistently: Methuselah's 969 years would have to be divided by ten to become credible, but one cannot use the same divisor for his father, Enoch, without making the latter six and one half when Methuselah was born (see Gen. 5:27, 21). The patriarchs' life spans would have to be divided by two or three to make Abraham's 175 years credible. But if we divided them by two, then Joseph would have been only fifteen when he became Pharaoh's second-in-command, less than thirteen when propositioned by Mrs. Potiphar (a pedophile?), and less than nine when sent out alone by Jacob from Hebron to Shechem (see Gen. 41:46; 41:1; 37:1). Dividing by three would produce results even more fantastic. For Noah, who lived 950 years, we can't divide at all, since the chronology of the flood clearly indicates that the years of his life were twelve-month years (see Gen. 7:11, 24; 8:3-5, 13-14). In any case, there is no evidence that ancient Semitic languages used "days" and "years" so inconsistently; had the Bible, which "speaks in the language of man," done so, how many readers would have understood it? For the literary significance of the patriar-chal lifespans see N.M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary and McGraw-Hill, 1966), pp. 81- 85.
13. P'rakim b'mishnato ha-ciyyunit shel ha-Rav Kook, ed. Y. Hadari with Z. Yaron (Singer) (Jerusalem: Amanah, 1976), p. 44. I have summarized Rav Kook's view as it is paraphrased by the editors. Although the specific passage to which they attach this paraphrase does not seem to me to say exactly this, as a whole the passages cited on pp. 43-48 support this position.
14. Fritz Rothschild, "Truth and Metaphor in the Bible. An Essay on Interpretation," Conservative Judaism 25/3 (Spring, (1971):3-22. See also S. Schechter, "Introduction to Studies in Judaism: First Series," reprinted in Studies in Judaism. A Selection (New York: Meridian, and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1960), pp. 10-12.
15. "Die Einheit der Bibel," in F. Rosenzweig, Die Schrift, ed. Karl Thieme (Ko_"nigstein, West Germany: Ju_"discher Verlag Athena_"um, 1984), p. 29.
16. See, for example, Ps. 74:12-17; 89:10-13; 104; Prov. 8:22-32; Job 39:4-11.
17. See J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs. 2d edition. London: Soncino, 1963, pp. 193-195.
18. Saadia and even the Karaite Jacob al-Kirkisani held that apparent contradictions between passages in the Bible justify non-literal interpretation to avoid the inconsistency; see Saadia, Emunot ve-Deot, chap. 7; Kirkisani, in L. Nemoy, ed., Karaite Anthology (Yale Judaica Series 7; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), p. 12. This practice goes back to Biblical times. In order to resolve the inconsistency between Exod. 12:8-9 and Deut. 16:7 on the manner of preparing the Pesach offering, 2 Chron. 35:13 takes Deuteronomy's uvishalta as meaning "cook in fire" rather than "boil." It is not entirely out of the question that Deuteronomy does mean "cook" rather than "boil" (bashalu sometimes means that in Akkadian). In any case Chronicles shows us how a seeming contradiction led to interpreting Deut. 16:7 in a way which differs from what it seems to mean.
19. Cf. Gen. 4:24; 7:2-4; Lev. 12:2; 13:4; 1 Sam. 2:5; Job 1:2-3.
20. For observance of the Sabbath as
an affirmation of belief in the creation and the Creator see
Maimonides, Guide, II, 31 end; Judah Halevi, Kuzari,
II, 50 (the translation of I. Heinemann is most
precise on this passage; see Three Jewish Philosophers
[New York: Meridian, and Philadelphia: Jewish Publication
Society, 1960], part 3, p. 78); cf.
Mechilta, Bahodesh 8 (ed. Lauterbach, p. 263).