This post will be a bit late for the subject matter, but I wanted to get the ball rolling on a project that I’ve had in mind for some time: providing some commentary on the Parsha, the weekly Torah portions read in the synagogue. Where I’ve failed in that task before is in trying to provide a complete commentary. Instead, I’m going to just zoom in on some little oddity in the text that fascinates me or something from my personal Bible notes that I’d like to share. Since I missed getting this up in time for the first week following Simchat Torah, when the Torah scroll is rewound to the beginning of Genesis and the Parsha cycle begins again, you’ll be getting some doubled-up entries while I get caught up.
One of the most troublesome passages in the Bible from a scientific standpoint is the fourth day of creation:
And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. (Genesis 1:14-16)
At first glance, these verses seem to contradict literally everything we know about the formation of the universe–knowledge that we have by direct observation via powerful telescopes thanks to the fact that light has a finite speed. The fact that we can even see our own galaxy means that the universe is far older than the 6,000 – 10,000 years young-earth creationists believe the Bible teaches. And, indeed, it is evident that the oldest stars we can see are far older than our own planet. The author of Genesis, it would seem, got it completely wrong?
Or did he?
It turns out that it isn’t necessary to toss out either the creation account of Genesis or the scientific data. We simply have to do some careful exegesis of the original Hebrew text.
Let’s start with the phrase, “let there be.” The verb translated by these three words is y’hi, the imperfect form of the word hayah, which simply means, “to be, is.” The word does not imply in any way that the subject simply didn’t exist before. For example, we read in Ruth 2:19 that when Naomi saw how well Ruth had been taken care of, she said, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be (y’hi) the man who took notice of you.” Obviously Naomi isn’t saying that blessing never existed before, or even that Boaz, a wealthy landowner, had never been blessed before. In the same way, the use of y’hi or hayah in the Genesis creation account doesn’t imply that no light existed anywhere in the universe before the first day or that the sun, moon, and stars did not exist until day four.
“Oh, but Michael,” you’re now saying, “you’re just twisting what the Bible plainly says to make it fit modern science.”
Really? Why then did the ancient Jewish sages, who lived long before modern astronomy, say the same thing?
But the Sages say: It [the original light of the first day of creation] is identical with the luminaries; for they were created on the first day, but they were not hung up [in the firmament] till the fourth day. (b.Hag. 12a)
They were created on the first day, and on the fourth day, He commanded them to be suspended in the sky, and likewise, all the creations of heaven and earth were created on the first day, and each one was fixed in its proper place on the day that was decreed upon it. That is why it is written:“with the heavens (אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם) to include their products,”and with the earth (וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ),” to include its products. — [Gen. Rabbah 1:14] (Rashi to Gen. 1:14)
Genesis 1:16 states that God “made” the sun, moon, and stars. The word “made” is the Hebrew ya’as, the imperfect form of the verb asah, which simply means to make, manufacture, or do something. The perfect form of a word usually indicates simple past action while the imperfect form can be used for the future tense, the future subjunctive (“this might happen”), as a narrative device to move the story along, or to indicate past completed action. The reason why the rabbis state that the luminaries already existed is because they read “God made” as “God had made,” as allowed by the imperfect form of the word.
What does it mean that the “luminaries . . . were not hung up” until the fourth day of creation? It means that they were not visible in the sky before that point. Job 38:9 describes the creation of the primordial ocean that we see in Genesis 1:2, “when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band.” That is, the light and the sun, moon, and stars already existed, but they were blocked out by the thick clouds that enshrouded the earth until God “commanded the morning . . . and caused the dawn to know its place” (Job 38:12), “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Gen. 1:5).
But it gets better. It turns out that the Bible teaches that the sun, moon, and stars that we can see with our naked eyes (the only ones the Biblical authors knew) were not the first sun, moon, and stars (and by extension, planets, comets, and asteroids, since these were also called “stars” by the ancients) that God ever created.
We’ve already noted that the word for “made” is ya’as, imperfect form of asah. This is distinct from the word translated “created” elsewhere in the passage, bara’. To quote the Theological Wordboook of the Old Testament,
“The root bara’ denotes the concept of ‘initiating something new’ in a number of passages. In Isa 41:20 it is used of the changes that will take place in the Restoration when God effects that which is new and different. It is used of the creation of new things (hadashot) in Isa 48:6-7 and with the creation of the new heavens and the new earth (Isa 65:17). Marvels never seen before are described by this word (Ex 34:10), and Jeremiah uses the term of a fundamental change that will take place in the natural order (Jer 31:22).” (Harris, Wordbook, “bara,” p. 127)
Bara’ therefore has the connotation of the creation of something completely new, something the likes of which has never been seen before, while asah means to manufacture something in the likeness of something that already exists. This is why only God is ascribed the ability to bara’, to “create” in the Bible: Men are very inventive, and were made so by our Creator, but everything we make is modeled in some way, shape, or form on that which already exists in the universe.
We can see the difference between the two words by comparing Scripture to Scripture. On the fifth day of creation, we read, “So God created (bara’)the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:21).
In contrast, on the sixth day we are told, “And God made (asah) the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:25). On the fifth day, God created complex animal life for the first time, while on the sixth day he made more of them.
For one, these stars provided the universe with its first source of elements heavier than beryllium. While conditions early on in the big bang were not appropriate for the generation of the heavier elements, such elements could easily be generated at the cores of massive stars and then later expelled into the surrounding universe when these stars explode as supernovae.” (http://firstgalaxies.org/the-early-universe)
One of these days, someone needs to write a new creation psalm with the line, “You make stars your forges and craft all the worlds.”
“The Complete Tanach With Rashi’s Commentary – English Translation with Rashi’s Commentary.” The Complete Tanach with Rashi’s Commentary. Web. 18 Oct. 2015. <http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/63255/jewish/the-bible-with-rashi.htm>
“Halakhah.Com.” Babylonian Talmud Online in English. Web. 18 Oct. 2015. <http://halakhah.com/>
Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980. Print.
“A Resource For Research on the Most Distant Galaxies.” A Resource for Research on the Most Distant Galaxies. Web. 18 Oct. 2015. <http://firstgalaxies.org/the-early-universe>