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Bereishit: The Concepts of Creation, the Beginning of Time, and the Big Bang – the Relationship between Faith and Science

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
Dedicated in memory of Rabbi Jack Sable z”l and
Ambassador Yehuda Avner z”l
By Debbi and David Sable
The Relationship Between Faith and Science
The opening chapter of the Torah and of the entire Bible contains the foundation of the entire religion of Israel: One God created everything!
The term that is commonly used to express this idea, "monotheistic religion," is an inaccurate translation. The Torah does not say: "In the beginning, the one God [El], or the God Most High, created the world," in the manner that Malkitzedek, king of Shalem, expressed to Avraham: "Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth" (Bereishit 14:19). The Torah does not refer, as many people even today say, to "a Higher Power." Rather, the Torah speaks of "Elohim echad" – that is to say, all of the powers in the world are one! Heaven and earth, dry land and seas, the sun, the moon, and the stars, plants, animals and man, male and female. In scientific terms – there is one set of laws.
The root el means "power," as is evident in the words of Lavan to Yaakov: "It is in the power [la-el] of my hand to do you harm" (Bereishit 31:29). The word elim thus means "powers."[1] The concept of "one Elohim" is a dramatic revolution; it asserts that all of the powers in the created world come from the One, and "there is none else beside Him" (Devarim 4:35).
This fundamental belief is connected to and finds expression in the sanctity of the number 7, which is a prime, indivisible number. In that sense, it parallels the number 1. The number 6, in contrast, divides in the best possible manner, and therefore it (together with the numbers 12, 24, 60, and 360) reflects the full multitude of what was created in the six days of creation. The number 7 is the last single-digit prime number; it does not divide, and it thus rules over all that was created in the 6 days of creation.
Therefore, the seventh day, the day of Shabbat, is the sanctified end of chapter 1 of Bereishit (according to Jewish tradition, as opposed to the division of Scripture into chapters adopted by Christianity, which tried to distance itself from Shabbat). This is attested to by "the heaven and the earth," the creation of which was finished, and by "all His work that God in creating had made," as stated in the passage describing the creation.
The contents of  Bereishit chapter 1 can be arranged in two columns – two sets of three parallel/complementary elements, with one verse serving as an introduction and the verses dealing with Shabbat serving as a conclusion, paralleling "in the beginning" – 1 and 7!
The fourth day – the creation of the luminaries – parallels and complements the first day – the creation of light and darkness.[2] The fifth day – the creation of that which lives in the waters and in the firmament (the air)[3] – parallels and complements the second day – the creation of the waters and the firmament, and relates not at all to dry land and all that lives on it.  The sixth day – the creation of that which lives on dry land and the creation of man, and the plants that shall be "for food" – parallels and complements the third day – the creation of the dry land and plants.
Although in the Torah this is all written as a single continuum, the structure nevertheless emerges from the verses.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth
First day: light and darkness
Fourth day: the luminaries
Second day: the waters and the firmament (the air)
Fifth day: that which lives in the water and in the sky
Third day: dry land;
the plants that grow on dry land
Sixth day: that which lives on dry land;
the plants that serve for food
The Torah is a song, and so should it also be read – as a song.
The major stop between the word "Bereishit," "in the beginning," and the words "bara Elohim," "God created," directs us to the meaning of the verse. R. Ovadya Seforno offers a persuasive explanation: "In the beginning of time," that is to say, when time began. Before Bereishit, there was no "before," because there was no time! According to this, the first statement (ma'amar) of creation (following the gemara's understanding) related to the creation of time; only after that there came light.
Modern physics teaches the very same thing. Time is a dimension of the universe itself. There is no time without space, and no space without time!
The "big bang" was an explosion of light, when time began and space began to expand.
The root "bara" appears three times in the parasha – in reference to creation as a whole, in reference to the great sea-monsters (taninim), and in reference to man, who was created in the image of God. This is a matter of immense significance, because the term bara has been interpreted to mean creation ex nihilo, something from nothing, whereas in reference to the creation of something from something, the Torah uses the terms yatzar (form) or asah (make) (Ramban, commentary to Bereishit 1:1). The term bara is used in reference to man because he was created in the image of God, not because of his body and nature, for in that regard he is like other living creatures. Thus, the verse describes, "Then the Lord God formed [va-yitzer] man of the dust of the ground" (Bereishit 2:7).
But why was the term bara used also in connection to the creation of the sea-monsters (Bereishit 1:21)? The Ramban explains that the term bara was used as a sharp statement against ancient mythologies. The great taninim in the Torah are the mythological sea-monsters that are described in idolatrous myths as fighting with the gods when the world was being created. The Torah utterly rejects these idolatrous beliefs: "And God created the great sea-monsters and every living creature that creeps."
Did the ancients know about dinosaurs (literally, "terrible lizards") and their extinction?
In my opinion, the accounts in ancient mythologies leave no room for doubt that the "gods" are described as victors in those "battles," and they "create" the sky and the dry land from the bodies of the dead monsters. It is clear to me that the remains of dinosaurs that have been uncovered by modern science were known also in the ancient world from digging in the beds of ancient seas that had dried up and from quarrying rocks in which were found impressions of their bodies. In sharp contrast to the mythological interpretation, the modern scientific interpretation is very similar in principle to that of the Torah.
The dinosaurs are part of the natural world that is governed by only one set of laws! Their immense size made them the dominant animals in relation to "every living creature" – but nothing more than that. There was no mythological "battle." Rather, they were wiped out in the wake of some astronomical event (a huge asteroid colliding with the earth), which caused the light of the sun to be blocked for a lengthy period of time.[5]
The "tehom" ("the deep") mentioned in the Bible refers to water found deep in the ground, and not in any way to the monster called Tiamet and its mythological story. The Torah took care to emphasize that "tehom" is nothing but water, as we find in the next parasha: "All the fountains of the great deep [tehom] broke out" (Bereishit 7:11).
The entire chapter of creation is an intense struggle against idolatry, fought first and foremost through the use of the name Elohim, which has a plural form but acts as a single entity: "God [plural Elohim] created [singular bara]"… "God [plural Elohim] said [va-yomer]." As we noted above, the word El means "power," and Elim are "powers." Elohim in the plural form but acting as a single entity means “the One who rules over all powers, He who has all powers.” All powers are one. "In the beginning Elohim created" – there are no other gods and there are no struggles. The one God created the heaven and the earth, the light and the darkness, the seas and the dry land, the plants and the animals, and even the good and the bad.
This, indeed, is how the prophet Yeshayahu interpreted the verses of Bereishit: "I am the Lord; and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the Lord that does all these things" (Yeshayahu 45:6-7). And so we recite every day in the blessings of keriat Shema (omitting the word "evil").
The battle against idolatry is also reflected in the three verses that use the term va-ya'as, "He made":
And God made the firmament… (Bereishit 1:7)
And God made the two great lights… (Bereishit 1:14)
And God made the beast of the earth after its kind… (Bereishit 1:25).
Let nobody think that the firmament or the lights or the great beasts represent different gods, and that they have some kind of power that stands on its own! It was the one God who made them all! In this spirit, Chazal also said (R. Yochanan, Bereishit Rabba 3:11): "The angels were created on the second day."[6] Let nobody say that God had partners in the creation of the world! The one God created the world; He had no partners – not gods, not angels, not the great lights, and not even the righteous!
It is important to note that in the continuation of verse 1, the primal "heaven" (shamayim) is not connected to water. It is not the "firmament heaven" (= the atmosphere) of the second and fifth day. Rather, this term denotes the entirety of the universe (as explained by the Ramban) – infinite expanses and their worlds, the material universe and the spiritual worlds. The words "sham" and "shamayim" derive from the same root – all the expanses, all that is "there" is called "shamayim." This is also how the term was understood by the Vilna Gaon in his Aderet Eliyahu, and so I also heard from my revered teacher, R. Tzvi Yehuda Kook.
The phrase "tohu va-vohu" created enormous difficulty. Already in the days of Chazal there were heretics who explained the phrase to mean that something existed even before the creation. But the word haya in Scripture, in all its conjugations, is a dynamic, and not a static, verb. "Yehi or" means, "Let there be light"; "Yehi raki'a" means, "Let there be a firmament"; "Va-yehi khen" means, "they were formed and made precisely in this manner."
In modern Hebrew, these words cannot be used in a dynamic sense, because (already in Rabbinic Hebrew, under the influence of Aramaic) le-heyot means "to be." But in the Torah, it means "to become," as well as "to appear" and "to spread."[7]
Therefore, the meaning of "ve-ha-aretz hayeta" is, "and the earth became" – and (according to the Rambam) it first became "tohu," and afterwards it became "bohu," and after that it became "darkness," and after that "the spirit of God hovered over the waters." According to the Ramban, "tohu va-vohu" are two different stages in creation, and the verse describes a process.
The first thing that was created was light. Creation began not with the sun, the moon, or the stars, but with the primal light! The gemara in Chagiga (12a) states: "With the light that God created on the first day, one could see from one end of the world to the other." This definition accords amazingly with our current scientific understanding – the universe was created with an explosion of primal light, and it expands by the power of that primal explosion. It is precisely in our time that we are able to observe and prove the expansion of the universe (the moving apart of the galaxies) "from one end of the world to the other," such that the explosion of light defines the universe and its expanding boundaries.[8]
Chazal (Chagiga 12a) go on to say that the world would not have been able to survive in that light, and therefore God hid it away for the righteous in the future. This too accords with current scientific thinking. The world continues to expand and the primal light continues to weaken, to become hidden.[9]
Only according to Torah and modern science is light the beginning, the time and space that continue to expand from the time of creation. For the first time in the history of the world, there is such an amazing correlation between the way the story of creation is taught in the Torah and the way the coming into being and expansion of the universe is taught by astrophysicists.
The Hebrew Calendar – Are “The Days of Creation” Ordinary Days?
The Hebrew calendar, a combined lunar-solar calendar, is alluded to already in the story of creation: "And let them [the two luminaries] be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years." The calendar of creation is determined by both the sun and the moon. (This is the way the verse is understood in the Yerushalmi, end of the second chapter of Rosh Hashana).
But how are we to understand the days of creation itself?
It was only on the fourth day that the units of day and night were established, for only on the fourth day were the sun and the moon created, and it is the relationship between them and the earth that establish the units of day and night. If so, how were the days determined during the first three days of creation?[10]
The Ramban explains (based on the gemara in Chagiga, ibid.) that God created the time units of day and night already at the outset, and based on that He determined the first three days. But it is more reasonable to assume (especially according to the opinion that maintains that God created worlds and destroyed them) that the days of creation were not governed at all by the rules of twenty-four hour days or by the laws that stem from the sun and the moon moving about in their orbits. The "days" of creation are "periods." In fact, in Seder Olam, (most of) the days of creation are not counted together with the days of the world, but are instead considered "days of tohu."
In Seder Olam, the first year begins only from the time of the creation of man!
This answers most of the questions that people ask about the age of the world and the scientific findings that at first glance contradict the Torah. The six days of creation are an abridged account in a "code" of "day" and "night" of entire periods in the universe, during which time everything was created and evolved in drawn-out processes (= "ten statements"), until the world known to us became stabilized. These periods are described as a sequence of six days in order to set Shabbat as the ultimate purpose of creation.
Shabbat and the Number 7 Testify to the One Creator
The entire account of the creation leads to Shabbat. Shabbat is the only day of the week that has a name. In the Torah, the days of the week do not have names[11] – only numbers: one, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth. In foreign cultures, it is customary to assign names to the days of the week: Sunday, Monday… Saturday. These refer to the sun, the moon, and the planets and have remained in general culture from the idolatrous period, even after millennia during which these heavenly bodies have not been worshipped. The Torah first uprooted idolatry by cancelling the names of the days; all of the days are subject to Shabbat, and Shabbat attests to a single Creator!
How so? As we discussed above, 7 is a prime number; it does not divide, and it is like the number 1! Thus, the entire parasha testifies to the oneness of the Creator, the unity of God. This is truly the first mitzva contained in this chapter – to recognize the one God who created everything, and to recognize this by way of the day of Shabbat.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] See the book of my revered father, Dr. Yechiel Bin-Nun, Eretz Ha-MoriyaPirkei Mikra Ve-Lashon, pp. 43-48.
[2] This resolves the difficulty of the third day preceding the fourth day, for without the light of the sun nothing grows.  
[3] One of the unique qualities of the earth is that from outer space it appears blue. The atmosphere is the upper ocean, "the firmament heaven."
[4] Man alone has no parallel! This is easy to see in this structure the "ten statements," the verses of "And God said" by way of which the world was created (as formulated by Chazal, Avot chapter 5), the first statement begins with Bereishit and ends with Shabbat, and on the second day and on the sixth day there are two statements, and man stands alone.
[5] The main difference between the modern scientific outlook and the outlook of the Torah lies in the scientific view of the extended process of the formation of the universe, including the solar system and the earth, over the course of billions of years, including 165 million years during which the dinosaurs lived, until they became extinct during a period of extended darkness 66 million years ago. If we fundamentally accept the explanation that the days of creation in the Torah denote long periods of time and the view of Chazal that "the Holy One, blessed be He, creates worlds and destroys them" (Bereishit Rabba 3:9), we are left with almost no fundamental difference between Torah and science, especially with regard to the creation of the world.
R. Israel Lifshitz, in his commentary to the Mishna, Tif'eret Yisrael (on tractate Sanhedrin), expresses great excitement about new scientific findings that in his opinion prove Chazal's claim that God "creates worlds and destroys them." This passage appears in the first edition of the work, but in later editions it was unfortunately censored and removed from the Tif'eret Yisrael. In recent editions, it has been restored and printed at the end of vol. 1 of Nezikin, and once again the significance of his words has become an object of discussion. (My colleague M. Weinstock wrote his Ph.D. thesis about this for the Hebrew University in 2008.)
A few years ago, a young student called me and asked (at the request of his Torah teacher) why dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Torah. I told him that indeed they are mentioned, and I asked him to open the book of Bereishit and slowly read the verses relating to the fifth day of creation. The boy was stunned and he responded with a cry of protest: "So why has nobody ever told us about this?" I told him that this is truly a good question, and he ran off to tell his teacher!
[6] In the Torah's account of creation, there is no mention whatsoever of angels (apparently for the same reason), but in Tehilim 104, which is arranged in accordance with the days of creation, angels are mentioned on the second day (after "the clouds" and the "wind"): "Who makes winds Your angels, the flaming fire Your ministers." This is the source of R. Yochanan's exposition.
[7] See my article on the verb haya in Megadim 5.   
[8] The moving apart of the galaxies and the expansion of the universe has been proven by way of observations that have shown that the light from distant stars is shifted toward the red end of the spectrum, and that this red shift is proportional to distance (Hubble's Law).
[9] The cosmic background radiation, which has no source of light and which is measured (almost) identically from anywhere in "heaven," is the "hidden" remnant of the primal explosion of light (as predicted by G. Gamow, R. Alpher and R. Herman, and as measured and proven by A. Penzias and R. Wilso at Bell Labs in 1964).
[10] Even if the sun and the moon already existed (in accordance with the second view in the gemara in Chagiga) but were not yet fixed in their current places until the fourth day (as argued by Rashi), they could not have determined the length of day and night until the fourth day.
[11] The Torah follows the same fundamental approach when it refers to the months by number. Only one month has a name, the month of "Aviv," the month of the exodus from Egypt. All other months are counted in relationship to it, after it. The months of "Ha-Eitanim" (the seventh month), "Bul" (the eighth month), and "Ziv" (the second month) are mentioned in connection to Shelomo (I Melakhim 6:1, 37-38; 8:2) and were part of the royal Israelite calendar, but most of the names are not known, because in the Torah the months have no names. The names of the months in the later calendar which "went up from Babylonia" (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashana 1:2) were originally Babylonian names; the Babylonian exile damaged the principles of the Egyptian exile. How much more difficult is our own situation, for after our long exile, we have returned with a foreign international calendar, which originated in Rome (already before the rise of Christianity).