David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
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Parshat Noach: Fear of fossils

Did the Flood confuse scientific dating of the age of earth?
Painting of Mary Anning from the National History Museum, London. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Painting of Mary Anning from the National History Museum, London. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

She sells seashells by the seashore.

Some have claimed, without evidence, that this famous tongue-twister was written about Mary Anning, one of the 10 most influential British female scientists. Of course, since she lived from May 21, 1799 – March 9, 1847 in a world totally dominated by men, she got virtually no recognition during her lifetime. Men stole her discoveries as their own, and she had no scientific papers published.

And though Anning lived and worked by the seashore, it wasn’t seashells she sold but fossils. She walked the beaches of Lyme Regis, her home, and discovered (and sold) fossils from the Jurassic Age, which influenced the way the world thought about its pre-history.

She discovered ichthyosaur, plesiosaur, and pterosaur fossils, and was the first to suggest that coprolites were fossilized dinosaur feces. Her discoveries were among those that proved that the world was much older than the 6,000 or so years implied by the Bible.

Her discoveries were not acknowledged in her lifetime, and many of her discoveries were claimed by others (i.e., men). She wrote in a letter: “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”

But her discoveries, and the entire field of paleontology, caused difficulties for some religious thinkers.

Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (March 7, 1809 – September 18, 1879 — better known by his initials as “Malbim”) explains that fossils are not evidence of creatures that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, but were actually animals that were destroyed by the flood, which we read about in this week’s Torah reading.

He writes in his commentary to Genesis 7:23 that not only were the prehistoric animals all destroyed in the flood, with only their fossilized bones remaining, but also the ground was disturbed so that scientists, who date fossils based on the layer of rock in which they are found, are misled by the effects of the flood.

The skeleton of a pterosaur on display in the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa Arizona. (CC BY-SA Marine 69-71, Wikimedia Commons)

[For a different approach by a contemporary of the Malbim see Drush Ohr Hachaim 3 (printed at the end Nezikin vol. 1 in a standard Mishna) by Yisrael Lifschitz (1782–1860), the author of the Tiferet Yisrael commentary on the Mishnah. He refers to wooly mammoths, iguanodon and megalosaurus and explains that all are evidence of the 974 generations that God created and destroyed (alluded to in Shabbat 88b) before He created the current world.]

Today, we have overwhelming evidence that the earth is far older than the biblical account. Planet Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old, based on radiometric dating, and the Jurassic Period lasted for 56 million years, from 201.3 million years ago until the beginning of the Cretaceous Period, 145 million years ago.

Rambam points out that there are many things in the Torah that are not to be understood literally (especially, according to Rambam, all physical descriptions of God which are clearly metaphorical).

In fact, Rambam writes (Guide for the Perplexed (Friedländer translation) 2:25):

We do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in the Bible confirm the creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the incorporeality of God… But the eternity of the universe has not been proved. A mere argument in favor of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument.

[See there for Rambam’s distinction between Plato’s version of changing eternity which he would accept if proven and Aristotle’s concept of unchanging eternity, which Rambam says contradicts principles of faith.]

In other words, dinosaurs and fossils need not be rejected by religious Jews based on the literal reading of the Torah.

Yet even today, some rabbis (and religious leaders of other faiths) refuse to accept that dinosaurs roamed the world millions of years before Homo sapiens. However, their reasons may be more fundamental than fundamentalist.

Dinosaurs and an ancient world present a tremendous problem for the believer. If you imagine the entire history of the earth compressed into a single 24-hour day, dinosaurs were partying from 10:40-11:40 p.m. Whereas Homo sapiens only appears as the clock strikes midnight.

The message of Parshat Noach is that the entirety of creation is dependent on human actions. When mankind sins, not only are all people wiped out but also every living thing and the very ground upon which they stand.

Fossils give the opposite message. That humanity is barely a speck on the timeline of existence.

Religion is about giving meaning to human actions. If our existence is so fleeting compared to the age of the earth and if there were species that lived for millions of years before we came into existence, why should human actions be important?

It was for a similar reason Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church in 1600, when he expanded upon Copernicus’s cosmological theories. If the earth is not the center of the universe, and if instead there are millions of suns and planets in the vastness of space, then how can we say that God cares specifically about the lives of a few ape-like creatures on a single planet.

Yet, just as both the church and Judaism (with very few exceptions) have, over time, come to terms with the size of the universe, so they will ultimately come to terms with the age of the world and recognize the greatness of the Creator through His dinosaurs and other information He left for us in the fossil record.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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