NOTE: The following is essentially identical to the published version, minus revisions made in the course of final editing and proofreading.
Jeffrey H. Tigay
In memory of Rabbi Jacob E. Segal

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 a sectarian:

According to this story, experience tells us that things do not come into existence without a maker,  and if this is true of such relatively simple things as garments and houses and doors,  it is equally  true  of something as complex as  the  world.  Yet,  the Steady  State theory and the theory of evolution imply,  or  have been taken as implying,  that our experience and common sense are misleading. If the universe always existed, there was no creator, and if species evolved accidentally,  there is no need to  assume that there was a creator directing the process.

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).