Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Shedding ‘light’ on the Torah’s tales

This Shabbat, we begin the annual cycle of readings from the book the comedian Bill Maher refers to as “the Jewish book of fairy tales,” an opinion shared by too many Jews. After all, that “book” begins with the biggest fairy tale of them all—Genesis Chapter 1, which is part of the Torah reading this Shabbat.

The only fairy tale here, though, is how Genesis Chapter 1 has been described to us over the ages, mainly because of a mistranslation of the very first verse and a misunderstanding about how the Tanach, the Bible, often uses metaphor to describe events that otherwise would be unintelligible to its readers.

Popular misconceptions of what Genesis Chapter 1 says have been around ever since the first attempts were made to translate the Tanach, first into Greek, then into Latin, and then into English and other languages. Among the “fairy tale” aspects of this chapter are these:

1) God created the universe in a moment in time (“earth” in verse 1 refers to the universe, not the planet; Hebrew has no distinctive word for universe, or for the Planet Earth, for that matter), seemingly out of nothing, yet we all know that it is impossible to create something out of nothing.

2) God created light. What light? Light, as we know it, comes from the sun, and as the sun’s light is reflected from the moon and stars, and none of these appear until Day 4 according to the text as it continues to unfold. The Torah clearly says Day Four is the “day” these light-producing celestial bodies came to be. How do you have light where there is no light? Besides, the sun came into being before the Earth, not the other way around. That brings us to—

3) God subsequently “separated” the light from the darkness. Talk about not making any sense. How do you separate darkness from light? “Darkness” simply means the absence of light. Period. End of story. You cannot separate out what is not there in the first place. And finally—

4) The universe in its infancy was in a liquid state.

It is generally accepted that the opening sentence of Genesis 1 is “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth,” which clearly suggests that the first things God created were heaven and the Planet Earth, which we all know is ludicrous. It also is generally accepted that two more sentences follow that one, which only intensifies the absurdity. Yet the first three translated sentences are actually one sentence in Hebrew, and the traditional translation of the first sentence ignores a grammatical quirk that exists in its first two Hebrew words (I will spare you a dissertation of that quirk). The proper translation also changes the understanding of what the Torah is saying. Here are those “three” sentences, properly translated:

“In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth, when the earth was unformed and void, with a darkness hovering above the abyss, and God’s spirit floating above the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.”

In other words, the first thing created was a light of some sort, putting everything in Genesis 1 in a new light of its own.

Science today generally accepts that at one point in the very distant past, absolute nothing did exist—until, miraculously, matter and energy popped up out of absolute nothing, bumped into each other, and created the “primeval fireball” that brought the universe into being. We popularly call that “primeval fireball” the Big Bang, but in reality it was a pinprick of light so small as to be almost invisible. All the matter and energy that exists today throughout the universe results directly from the “light” of the Big Bang.

So those first “three” ancient verses and modern science both agree that the universe came into existence when a “light” suddenly appeared out of nothing—something no ancient mind could have conceived of on its own.

Many of our Sages of Blessed Memory actually said bringing this light into existence was all God did; the rest of Creation flowed from that light and all the “And God said…And it was so” verses are merely metaphors for natural processes following an evolutionary pattern.

In the midrash, for example, Rabbi Berachiah, quoting other sages, said that God created the world “only by a word—‘Let there be light.’” Everything else flowed from that. (See the Midrash Genesis Rabbah 3:2) The Zohar said this light was “the medium for the creation of the world”; by this light everything else was created, it said. (Zohar, Part B, 220b)

So much for that “fairy tale.”

Then there is God separating the light from the darkness. Science tells us that immediately after the Big Bang, its light was “trapped,” probably inside the dark plasma it itself produced. Atoms and electrons suddenly appeared, as well. As Dr. Gerald L. Schroeder often explains it in his lectures, articles, and books on the age of the universe, “the ‘breaking free’ of light [occurred] as electrons bind to atomic nuclei….This is described in Genesis 1:1-5 as the creation followed by light separating from the darkness.”

Schroeder, by the way, in line with our Sages, explains the word “Day” as a metaphor for a stage of creation, not a 24-hour day as we understand the word.

Genesis 1 tells us the universe, when it was formed, was in a totally liquid state (”Day Two”). So science tells us, as well, as noted in an April 18, 2005 article by Associated Press science writer Matt Crenson:

“New results from a particle collider suggest that the universe behaved like a liquid in its earliest moments….Between 2000 and 2003 [scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island used a collider to reproduce]…the conditions of the early universe….”The matter that we’ve formed behaves like a very nearly perfect liquid,” [one scientist] said….”

The Torah also tells us that on “Day Three,” God separated the waters so that land would appear. In other words, Earth was a single body of land surrounded by water. Science confirms that. The Continental Drift theory (which is not a theory but a fact) is how they explain the breaking up of that single body of land into continents. As for waters gathering into one place, as the Torah tells it, that is what happens in an Ice Age. The first ice age occurred about 2 billion years ago, meaning sometime on “Day Three,” according to Schroeder’s explanation.

That brings up the most difficult question: The Torah tells us that the Sun was created on “Day Four,” when we know the sun came into being long before the Earth did (the moon came much later). Yet the Torah puts it in Day Four. This is wrong, right?

Right, but also wrong. Let us revisit that liquid universe. The Earth, too, was a liquid mass when it was formed, and when it “probably experienced its hottest temperatures,” according to the website climate.gov. The Earth would have experienced “top-of-the-atmosphere temperatures upward of 3,600° Fahrenheit.”

Eventually, the Earth cooled down and the planet solidified. When liquid cools down, however, it releases vapor into the atmosphere. The cooling down of such enormous heat would have taken a very long time, and it would have released a tremendous amount of vapor, enough to cover the planet for much of its first few billion years, if not much longer, blocking most of the sun’s rays from being of any use to Earth until at least midway in its life—Day Four in biblical terms.

The Torah also claims for “Day Four” that the heavenly lights, among other functions, control the seasons, but that is the sun’s job, not the moon or the stars. Enter a Serbian astronomer named Milutin Milankovitch. According to a NASA website, Milankovitch theorized “that as the Earth travels through space around the sun, cyclical variations in three elements of Earth-sun geometry combine to produce variations in the amount of solar energy that reaches Earth.” (See https://Earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/Milankovitch.)

These orbital changes are now referred to as Milankovitch cycles. What causes them is critical here. Said Milankovitch, they are brought about by the gravitational pull of nearby planets, of which the moon is by far the closest. In other words, the sun needs the moon and other heavenly bodies in order to regulate the seasons.

Again, science and Torah agree.

Then there is “Day Five.” Science tells us life as we know it began in the oceans—and so does the Torah. Genesis 1:20 is quite specific: “And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and birds that fly above the Earth across the firmament of the heavens.’”

There is so much more in Genesis 1 that science has now demonstrated to be true. The only “fairy tale” here is that Genesis 1 is a fairy tale. More to the point, it contains information no human 3,500 years ago could have conceived on his or her own.

As we begin a new cycle of Torah study through its weekly readings, perhaps it is time to see this chapter and the rest of the Torah that flows from it in a new light, as well.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.
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