Does the Story of Creation Hold Up to Scientific Scrutiny?

Water is older than the Sun, science found - which, say some rabbis, supports the story of Genesis.

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Outer space turns out to be full of water.Credit: NASA, via Reuters

Think the story of creation, as described in the Book of Genesis, would hold water if subjected to scientific scrutiny?

It may seem that way to those who insist that faith and science are fated to be opposing forces – a position that Pope Francis recently pooh-poohed, saying evolution does not conflict with Catholic teaching -- But the findings of a recent study about the origins of water on Earth may have sounded strikingly familiar to those acquainted with the first few verses of the Torah.

The study, published in the journal Science, found that up to half the water on this planet predates the sun. It originated in interstellar space and survived down here rather than vaporizing when the sun made an appearance, as scientists had previously thought.

“Our findings show that a significant fraction of our Solar System’s water, the most-fundamental ingredient to fostering life, is older than the Sun,” said Conel Alexander of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who took part in the research.

The verses in Genesis talk about water, too – specifically, about what some say is the division between that water in space and the water here on Earth: “And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.”

That was on Day 2 – predating the sun by two days, according to the biblical order of creation. (Or so it seems at first glance.)

What are religious Jews to make of such parallels between scientific findings and the biblical account of creation? That depends on whom you ask, of course, with answers ranging, in essence, from “nothing” to “a great deal.”

Anatomy can't teach about love

“These are totally separate things,” says Rabbi Yehoyada Amir, who heads the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and is a professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew Union College. It doesn't even matter if science supports religious tenets, in his view: the Bible is here to teach us values and the role of mankind in the world, not to give us an accurate play-by-play of how the universe began.

Rabbi Yosef Kleiner agrees that never the twain shall meet. He sees the goal of the biblical description of creation as setting an educational model for mankind: We should work in stages – taking one day at a time, so to speak – and then rest, just like the Bible describes God as doing.

“I think it’s not connected, because the objectives of science and of the Book of Genesis, and the Torah as a whole, are different,” says Kleiner, the Conservative rabbi of Congregation Moreshet Avraham in Jerusalem.

The biblical description of creation and scientific findings about the origin of the world “are two parallel things that describe the same idea – the world – from different perspectives and with different objectives,” he says. “It’s not that one thing can teach us about the other... [just as] anatomy can’t teach me why a person loves. It can only describe how a person looks on the inside.”

Cosmology and the Torah

But Nathan Aviezer, an Orthodox physics professor at Bar-Ilan University who grew up in Detroit and has written several books about the interplay of science and religion, argues that contemporary cosmology has gone a long way toward clarifying the previously opaque opening verses of the Torah.

Take that seemingly confusing part about water beneath the heavens and water above, for instance. In the past, Bible readers had to shrug off that heavenly water as esoterica that was beyond their understanding. Now we know that there is water in space – or, in the Bible’s words, “above the firmament.” The current findings provide a further boost to scientific support for a literal understanding of Day 2 of creation, says Aviezer.

“It corresponds even more strongly with what is written in the Bible,” says Aviezer. “It’s good for the Jews.”

Citing Maimonides’ philosophical work, “Guide for the Perplexed,” Aviezer says religious Jews should make an effort to understand what the Torah means, though if a biblical description does not seem to match up to the scientific knowledge of the time, it can be interpreted allegorically – an interpretation that could change if science catches up.

“What’s amazing is how many of the passages in the Torah can be understood literally,” says Aviezer, whose books include “In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science,” a day-by-day look at how the creation story matches up with scientific discoveries.

For instance, though creationism has often been viewed as anti-science, the idea that the entire universe arose from a single moment is precisely what lies behind the current prevailing scientific theory about the world’s origin. “The Torah explanation for the cosmos, that the universe began through an act of creation, used to be considered against the laws of science,” since it posited that something was created out of nothing, says Aviezer. But now there has been a “reassessment in cosmology” that aligns with the biblical perspective, he says: the Big Bang theory (the science, not the TV show).

Gerald Schroeder, another Orthodox Jewish physicist who grew up in the United States and now lives in Israel, says “understanding the science of the universe and its wonders” can help people know God. But though both Aviezer and Schroeder, author of “Genesis and the Big Bang” and “The Science of God,” see the benefits of figuring out where science and the Torah complement each other, both say the study about water predating the sun isn’t “firming up Torah truth,” in Schroeder’s words, about the order of creation.

That may be partly because scientists have long said water was in the universe before the sun. They just thought it bid the Earth adieu when the sun came into existence, and then re-formed later. But it’s also because, according to Aviezer’s theory, the order of creation is not quite what it seems.

And now for a completely different order of creation

The biblical account of Day 4 of creation begins “And God said: 'Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night,” which is typically taken to mean that the sun, stars and moon were created on the fourth day.

But Aviezer posits that the solar system was actually created on the second day. If so, it would mean that according to Genesis, water does not necessarily predate the sun, such that the findings that the water on Earth can be traced back to a time before the sun are irrelevant for the purposes of comparison between Judaism and science.

So what was created on the fourth day then? For Aviezer, the important part of the passage is the continuation: “and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years.” On the fourth day, he says, what was created was not the heavenly bodies per se but the heavenly bodies as we know them today: a sun and moon that determine the seasons, along with the number of hours in a day and days in a year.

As American folk singer Pete Seeger used to sing, “To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” It is, perhaps, notable that the Bible came up with the lyrics first.