The Creation Narrative: Fact or Fantasy?

Rabbi Bernie Fox

And the L-rd said, “Let there be luminaries in the firmament of the heavens to separate between the day and night and to serve as signs, measures of time, and to count through them the days and years.”  (Sefer Beresheit 1:14)

I.  Reading the Torah with an open mind

The Torah opens with its creation narrative.  These passages have been frequently characterized as a primitive mythical explanation for the origin of the universe.  Much of the evidence for this contention is based on the contention itself.  If one reads the account as a myth, it seems mythical.  An open-minded reader will not be so quick to dismiss the account as a fanciful mythology.  

Let us consider one example of the evidence supporting the contention that the account is mythical.  In the narrative, the creation takes place in six days.  On the first day, light is created.  Each day new components of the universe emerge.  On the final day, humanity is created.  Science has proven that the universe evolved over billions of years and not in a period of a few days.  The story of G-d creating the universe in a period of days has the character of mythology.  

This analysis is based upon a biased and careless reading of the text.  It assumes that the days of creation are composed of twenty-four hours.  This assumption is precluded by the text.  Consider the above passage.   It is translated according to Unkelus who lived during the first century of the common era.  The passage explains that the luminaries were created on the fourth day.  These luminaries served two main functions.  They shed light upon Earth.  They provided a means for measuring the passage of time.  This second function would become important when humanity emerged.  Humanity needs a measure of time to order its affairs.  Before these luminaries were created, three days of creation passed.  

The luminaries are the periodic phenomenon by which time is measured.  The narrative uses the term “day” before their creation.  In other words, the days of creation could not be measured by the periodic rising and setting of the sun before the sun was formed.  This means that the term “day” in the narrative does not mean our twenty-four-hour unit.  It doesn’t describe a measurement of time.  It describes a discrete step in the process of creation. (1)

This does not mean that the narrative does not present problems; it does.  One interesting and confusing aspect of the creation narrative is the order in which the elements of the universe emerge.  Let us consider two examples and the comments of the commentators.  

In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth.  Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of G-d hovered over the face of the waters.  (Sefer Beresheit 1:1-2)

II.  Poor translation of the Torah

The above is basically the JPS translation of the first two passages of the Torah.  The translation creates a problem.  According to it, the passages are describing the order in which the universe was created.  First, the heaven and earth were formed.  The next passage explains that water covered the earth.  When was water created?  If the first step of creation was the forming of heaven and earth, then water must have been created after them.  Why is the creation of water not mentioned?  

Rashi responds that this translation of the first passage is incorrect.  The proper translation is, “In the beginning of the L-rd’s creation of the heaven and earth, and the earth was unformed and void…”  According to Rashi, the passage is not saying that heaven and earth were the first objects formed in the creation process.  It is introducing the creation narrative.  It is saying that in the beginning of the process that resulted in the creation of heaven and earth, these were unformed.  The earth was surrounded by water and the heavens were not yet fashioned. (2)  The narrative proceeds to describe the unfolding process.  First, light was created.  Then, the firmament was formed, and the heavens emerged.  Next, the water that covered the earth was pooled to form the oceans.  The land that had been submerged was transformed into dry land.  Earth took form.   Vegetation was created and it covered the newly revealed earth.  The narrative continues and concludes with the creation of humanity.  

In short, Rashi unravels the confusion in the order of the narrative by explaining that the Torah is not saying that heaven and earth were created before water.  The narrative begins after water was already created and covered the yet unformed earth.  It describes how the primordial void was fashioned into the heaven and earth that we know.  

III.  Torah and Science

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno discusses another confusing element of the narrative.  Let us return to and further consider the creation of the luminaries.  According to the Torah, these were formed on the fourth day.  Science tells us that the stars were formed before our planet.  Sforno was not aware of this and did not address this issue.  But his comments are relevant.  

Before considering his comments, let us learn more about him.  Sforno was an Italian Torah scholar and lived from approximately 1470 to 1550.  His observations of the stars and planets were made with the unaided eye.  The telescope was invented by Galileo who lived from 1564 to 1642.

Sforno explains that the passage is not describing the creation of the sun, moon, and stars.  It is describing the creation of the lights that we observe from Earth and that illuminate our planet. He explains that the light that reaches us from these bodies passes through Earth’s atmosphere.  There it is filtered and refined so that the light that reaches us is nourishing and not destructive.  Without Earth’s atmosphere, the light reaching our planet would be different.  It would not be nurturing; it would be harmful.  The Torah is describing the creation of the light that reaches and illuminates our planet.  

He adds that we can observe an analogous process to the atmosphere’s transformation of the light from these distant luminaries.  If we observe a light source separated from us by water, we will note that the light rays are altered through their passage through the water.  The light we observe before its passage through the water differs from the light we observe after its passage.  Sforno asserts that the atmosphere has an analogous effect on the light passing through it. (3)  

Two points emerge from Sforno’s interpretation.  First, the Torah’s objective is not to describe the creation of the universe.  Its aim is to describe the steps that led to the emergence of our Earth.  It is describing the creation of the universe from the perspective of Earth.  It deals with issues that are relevant to Earth and it frames its narrative from this perspective.  

Second, because of this perspective, the Torah does not discuss the creation of the sun, moon, and stars.  It deals with only the light from these bodies that reach and illuminate our planet.  From the narrative’s perspective, fixing the time at which they were created is irrelevant.  

This resolves the contradiction between science and the Torah.  The Torah is not saying that the sun, moon, and stars were created before Earth.  It does not discuss when they were created.  

When the reader carefully considers the Torah’s narrative without prejudice and without an agenda, it is an amazing account!

(1) Rav Yisroel Chait.  My personal notes.

(2) Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 1:1.

(3) Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 1:14-16, Cooperman edition.