The Universe’s Age
BIBLICAL & SCIENTIFIC HARMONY
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Although no Torah source demands such belief (belief is demanded only when proof is available) there are some Jews who defend the 5779-year-old age of the universe. It appears they equate the date of Adam’s first day on Earth to the Big Bang; Adam and the Big Bang occurring just 5 days apart, according to their view. However, while the timespan from Adam’s “completion” to the present totals 5779 years (calculated by birthdates and lifespans in Torah), Maimonides taught that we are not to understand all parts of the six days of creation literally:
First, the account given in Scripture of the Creation is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal. For if this were the case, wise men would not have kept its explanation secret, and our Sages would not have employed figurative speech [in treating of the Creation] in order to hide its true meaning, nor would they have objected to discuss it in the presence of the common people.
(Maimonides, “Guide”, book ii, chap. xxix)
One errs when suggesting that the six days of creation prior to Adam’s completion were each 24-hour periods, since the sun was not set in its position until the fourth “day,” whatever “day” means, nor do we have knowledge of Earth’s rotation at that date.
Jews defending the 5779-year-old universe theory find themselves in conflict with scientists dating the universe at 14 billion-years-old. Scientific thought measures a star’s distance from Earth and thereby ages the universe accordingly: a star seen at 1 million light years away means the universe must be at least 1 million years old, old enough for that star light to reach us. These Jews evade the problem saying when God created stars, He created their light already reaching Earth, removing the need for an old universe. Does God deceive man this way? Does God create the impression that star light traveled for millions of years, making the universe only “appear” millions or billions of years old, if the universe is truly only 5779 years old? Does God lie?
Chullin 60a quotes Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: “All works of creation were created in their full height.” Rashi (Ibid) explains that God created creations in their ultimate chosen form, meaning their targeted perfected design. Man’s ultimate design is not a 6 pound dependent infant, but an independent 6-foot-tall adult, precisely how Adam existed when his creation process completed, a process which could have taken years or millennia—Darwin not discounted. “In their full height” refers to the few creations clearly identified as being created in a mature form, like Adam who spoke and procreated with his wife, which could not have occurred had he been created as a 1-day-old infant. The trees from which Adam could and could not eat of too must have been fully formed trees, mature enough to bear fruit. But Torah itself opposes that all creations were formed in completed states. God clearly says He created the world in a “chaotic” state (Gen. 1:2). Additionally, had creations other than man been created in their completed form, we would not read that it was required that God “gathered all the waters to one location and revealed dry land” (Gen. 1:9). This means Earth is not yet complete. Nor would we read God created a firmament, as that should have been part of Earth’s “completed form.” Genesis 2:5 says, “herbs and grasses were not yet in the Earth and did not yet sprout.” Again, many creations were clearly not created in full maturity.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s words are specific, “All works of creation were created in their full height.” He does not say all works of creation we’re created in an “aged form,” but in their “full height,” referring to man and trees: creations whose mature states are measured in height. But they were not “old” trees, and Adam was only a day old, although maturely tall. The mistake is extrapolating to “age” when Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi spoke only of “form.” Thus, suggesting God created “old stars” and “starlight in travel” is not warranted by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s words.
Such a claim states, in other words, that God lies to man. For when scientists measure the distance of a star to be 1 million light years from Earth, they deduce that seeing that star is proof that the universe existed long enough for that star’s light to reach us: the universe existed for at least 1 million years. Light travels at a limited speed (186,000 MPS), and it takes time to arrive at a given location. Had the sun been created right now, at 93,000,000 miles from Earth, we would not see the sun’s creation for another 8 minutes. Had the sun suddenly exploded right now, we would still see the sun as normal for another 8 minutes, until the explosion’s light reaches our eyes. Vision refers to light reflecting or emanating from an object and reaching our eyes. We don’t see a thing as it is in real time, but as it was when light left it. When we see a star that is 1 million light years from earth, our vision of that star right now is how it appeared 1 million years ago; real time-travel into history. It is quite fascinating, but true.
Therefore, if God does not tell us as that He created things mature—as He did regarding man and trees—there are no grounds to suggest that He created the light from stars reaching Earth together with a star’s creation, obviating millions of years necessary for that light to arrive there from deep space. And scientists are correct to deduce the universe’s age as billions of years old. Again, numerous Torah verses cited above teach that many creations were in fact not created in mature or completed states. We are told that Adam talked, named animals, procreated and trees bore fruit. But we are not told that God created stars together with their light already reaching Earth. Had God done so and did not disclose this to man, God lied by creating a phenomenon man would certainly misinterpret. This is akin to suggesting another incorrect notion that Jews share. Jews say, although dinosaurs never truly lived or roamed our planet, that God planted dinosaur bones in the Earth. Scientific man will certainly determine those bones prove a previously living being, and not assume they were only fabrications. Such ludicrous claims make God deceptive; God forbid. Parenthetically, a rabbi sated that the phrase “taninim gedolim” (great creatures, Gen. 1:21) might refer to dinosaurs.
The rule must be that we trust God. When He reveals that He created something in a mature state, we accept that. And when we derive proofs of dinosaurs—relying on bones, fossils and carbon 14 dating—God wants man to accept that truth as well. God does not fabricate a history that never occurred with falsified evidence to mislead man.
There is no Torah problem suggesting a 14-billion-year-old universe. The six “days” of creation were not 24-hour periods. Again, the sun was not in position until “day” 4. No Torah edict asks man to reject his senses; the converse is true: Moses teaches us to recall Sinai, what our eyes saw, and not distrust our senses:
But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live... (Deut 4:9)
We are asked to trust our senses on many occasions (Exod. 19:4, 20:19, Num. 15:39, Deut. 29:1). And trusting one’s senses without also using reason is not what Moses means. When Moses reminds the Jews “you saw no form, only a voice,” he intends man to deduce as well, that the source of the voice on Sinai’s fiery peak must be divine, as nothing Earthly exists in fire:
The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice. (Deut 4:12)
Senses and reason must work together. For if we see a magician make an elephant vanish, we must use reason to determine the truth: a trap door exists on the stage. We are not to follow senses alone and accept that magicians can make anything invisible or remove its existence. Scientists too follow senses and reason and prove that seeing a distant star means that star’s light traveled for millions of years, and the universe’s age must be at least that old. Maimonides wrote the following:
If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory [eternity of the universe], the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions.” (Guide, book II, chap. XXV, pg. 200 Friedlander paperback edition.)
Maimonides means that nothing trumps proof. A Torah verse too would have to be reinterpreted with evidence against its literal meaning. Had Torah openly stated that the universe is 5779 years old, it must be reinterpreted based on scientific fact dating it at 14 billion years old. However, Torah only says intelligent man is that old, not the rest of the universe. Thus, Torah poses no opposition to science on this point.
If, however, we distrust our senses and our mind, we must be consistent and disregard ever seeing the star, its light, or ever seeing the Torah. You see, once senses and reason are disregarded, we know nothing and should not offer any opinion.