It’s a well-known principle of Torah study that one cannot simply read the plain text of Torah without explanation, particularly the Book of Genesis, and have it make obvious sense. The extreme example of this is where plants are created on the Third Day, but the sun, which would be necessary for the growth of the plants, is not created until the Fourth. It would seem that it should be the other way around.
It strikes me that by making a relatively small re-emphasis in the way the text is read, it can go a very long way to solving these kinds of problems. To begin with, we note that this body of knowledge is called Torah, which means Law or Instruction. If we bear in mind that the Torah is indeed telling us about Law(s) rather than about physical events, many things suddenly fall into logical place. For example, suppose we are from Nepal or Mars or somewhere Torah has never been seen, we open a Torah and start to read:
GEN. 1:1-2 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. [Jewish Pub. Soc. 1917 Translation]
If we just read this plain text, we are perplexed: if the earth was unformed and void, that is a description of a Nothing. Did He create Something or Nothing? If the earth was “void”, how was there water? How did hovering over the face of waters work? And if the sun didn’t exist yet, it would have been very cold and the water would have had to be ice. Well, we are told that comets are largely ice, but they orbit around the sun, and without the sun, this is still mysterious.
But let’s reread the passage with the idea in mind that we are being told about law: GEN. 1:1-2 IN THE beginning G-d created [the law by which] the heaven and the earth [would come into existence]. Now the [law of] earth was unformed and void [i.e., initially without specifics], and [without further details of the law] darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of G-d hovered over the face of the waters. [I think this is a hint that here is where Elokim establishes the laws governing gravitation, a very fundamental component of the universe, and also an indication of the importance of water, which will be further dealt with later.]
The idea here is that in creating laws by which various things will exist, Elokim is, by implication, creating the things. I.e., the potential for the things is created through the laws, and at the proper time, they can actually come into being.
GEN. 1:3-4 And G-d said: 'Let there be light.' And there was light. And G-d saw the light, that it was good; and G-d divided the light from the darkness.
The plain text doesn’t say why He created light, and if the world was empty, except for some water, it’s hard to understand why He would go to the trouble. And why would light be “good”? What would be the connection between light and morality?
But in our view: GEN. 1:3-4 And G-d said: 'Let there be [the law by which] light [can exist].' And there was [the law for] light. And G-d saw the [law for] light, that it was good [consistent with His purposes]; and G-d [made law that] divided the light from the darkness.
The existence of light is a fundamental building block of existence. The theory of Special Relativity tells us that the speed of light is an invariant constant, the same for all observers regardless of their motion with respect to the source of the light, or each other. Speed is the ratio of distance (space) divided by time. So, by establishing the law for the existence of light, Elokim was also necessarily creating the laws by which both space and time would exist. This ties together with the laws of gravitation, and all of these are dealt with in the theory of General Relativity.
GEN. 1:5 And G-d called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
This seems completely arbitrary, and again is problematic in view that the sun doesn’t yet seem to exist.
But in our view: GEN. 1:5 And G-d [created law governing time periods, in which are] called the light Day, and the darkness [He called] Night. And there was [the law of the] evening and [there was] morning, [defining] one day.
Here, it seems, Elokim is planning ahead for the existence of living things, whose operation, as it were, will include a necessity for circadian rhythms, which will allow them to use time as a control mechanism for their lives.
GEN. 1:6-10 And G-d said: 'Let there be [the law of] a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.' … and the gathering together of the waters called He Seas; and G-d saw that it was good.
In our view, Elokim is here establishing in some detail the laws by which air and water will exist and operate in the world. Why should He be so concerned with water at this point?
Water is very special stuff. It has the very unusual property that when it cools from liquid to solid (ice) its density decreases, and the solid floats on top of the liquid. Other materials that have this property are relatively rare in the universe, such as bismuth, antimony, gallium, and plutonium. But water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, among the most common elements in the universe. This property of water is instrumental in the support of life: among other things, it allows life in the sea to survive when the temperature becomes so cold that water freezes. The ice floats and the water below retains enough heat to remain liquid and allow life to continue.
Once the laws for the existence of water are established, the laws of plants can be developed.
GEN. 1:11-12 And G-d said: 'Let [the law exist to allow] the earth [to] put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.' And it was so. And the [the law was established so that the] earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind; and G-d saw that it was good.
Since water is critically important for the life of plants, it is eminently logical that the laws governing plants are now developed. We see that there is a particular emphasis on the laws of genetics, which are instrumental in allowing the life of the plants to continue over time.
Plants are truly amazing in that they combine such things as water, air, chlorophyll, soil and sunlight to produce food that other life can consume for sustenance. So, now that the laws for the existence of plants are established, including the specification for the sunlight, this is the logical place for the laws governing the sun to be developed, so that the sun will produce the correct kind of light.
GEN. 1:14-19 And G-d said: 'Let there be [laws for] lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; … And G-d made the [laws of] two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; and the stars.
The physical laws governing the existence of the sun are far too complex to enumerate here, but suffice it note that the sun produces its energy through the process of thermonuclear fusion, the same process that makes the hydrogen bomb work. In fact, the sun is essentially composed by billions of hydrogen bombs continuously exploding, for billions of years. (It’s truly miraculous that such an object could continue to exist for longer than a microsecond, let alone billions of years!) Yet, the sun is placed just far enough from the earth so that only just enough energy reaches the earth to support life, not more, not less (Scientists call this “The Goldilocks Zone”.). And the spectrum of that energy centers on visible light, having just the right characteristics to allow plants to operate. So, logically, it makes sense that the laws governing the sun would be developed in view of (in a sense, following) the laws necessary for the plants.
But, how about the moon and the stars: how do they fit in here? For the moon, we were told in GEN. 1:14 “and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years”. The moon is a spherical object which just happens to appear to be the same size as the sun. Yet, based purely on physical principles, there is no reason that this should be the case. After all, the moon is actually much smaller than the earth, and the sun is far, far bigger. Yet the distance of the moon from the earth is just right to make it appear to be the same size as the sun, from the earth. And the orbit of the moon revolving around the earth causes it to show phases as time goes on. This, I believe, is part of Elokim’s plan for having the moon influence the calendar that man will use for guidance (for signs, and for seasons) on conducting many observances.
And the stars? Modern science tells us that these are objects rather like our sun, some larger, some smaller, that are all also giant hydrogen bomb furnaces. But they are so far away that their light takes many years to reach us, even though light travels at about 186,000 miles per SECOND. Consequently, they all appear as tiny points of light. They are so far away that their gravitational attractions are so attenuated due to their distances from earth that any such effects are truly infinitesimal and inconsequential. So, why would Elokim bother with generating laws to govern their existence?
It turns out that stars have life cycles: they are born through processes we don’t fully understand having to do with gravitation of clouds of hydrogen and some influence of the “big bang”; they form furnaces where hydrogen atoms undergo fusion to form helium atoms; eventually, they burn out, then collapse, then explode (novas and supernovas). During the collapse, gravity and pressure become so great that the helium atoms crunch together and fuse to form heavier elements, all of the residents of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements. This fusion process generates enough energy to cause the collapsed star to explode. The resultant heavier elements are thus scattered across the universe.
But, there have been so many such collapsed star explosions that large amounts of these heavier elements were able to gather together due to their own gravitational attractions, to form objects like planets and asteroids and comets. Now we can see how all the laws that Elokim developed come full circle, i.e., the laws of the creation of the stars are part of the laws of the creation of the earth.
Next, (GEN. 1:20-25) Elokim ordains the laws governing animal life, in the sea, in the air, and on land. Again, He specifies that the laws of genetics will apply to animal life, just as they would to plants. And again, we realize that these laws governing animal life logically should come after the laws which defined how plant life should exist, and how sunlight should support that plant life, since all animal life would be completely dependent, either directly or indirectly, on plant life.
Finally, for the laws of Creation (GEN. 1:26-31), comes the creation of Man. At this point, we need to note a couple of Midrashic statements.
First, “Elokim looked into the Torah and created the world.” In the ordinary understanding of Torah as having described physical creation, this is impossible to understand. I.e., it says that Elokim looked into the Torah to see how to create the world, which has already been created according to that Torah. But in our understanding, that Torah contains the laws of creation, the statement makes perfect and obvious sense. I.e., Elokim consulted, as it were, his laws and recipes for operating Creation, and proceeded accordingly.
Second, from RASHI, “The world was created for the sake of Man.” This, I believe, tells us when actual physical creation occurred. I.e., physical creation occurred when Elokim said “Let us make man…” This takes us into some rather difficult conceptual areas.
In particular, how do we square the whole process of physical creation, which appears to have taken some 14 billion years according to scientific observation, with the six days of Creation cited in Torah, and the concept that Man was created at the beginning of the current Hebrew calendar, only almost 5,800 years ago?
We can start with the well-known concept that G-d exists outside, or above, what we perceive of as time. I.e., all time, our past, present, and future are always accessible to Him simultaneously. To proceed further in this discussion, we need to find some way to visualize this … no simple matter!
Imagine the top of a long dining room table. Imagine that one end of the table represents the Beginning of Time (BoT), and the other end represents the End of Time (EoT). All of history lies between these two ends. Now, imagine an ant standing somewhere near the middle of the table top.
If he looks toward the BoT end of the table top, he sees his past. If he looks toward the EoT end, he cannot see the future, but he can imagine that the future will largely resemble the past and the present. After all, that exercise has always pretty much worked before.
If he looks toward the sides, he sees the present world around him. In real life, he would see his present world in three dimensions (left-right, up-down, forward-back), but in our illustration here, the three dimensions are collapsed into one, so the ant would see just one spatial dimension.
The point behind setting up this ant-on-the-tabletop scenario is to allow us to imagine how Hashem/Elokim sees our world. To Him, the ant’s past, present, and future are all visible and accessible simultaneously. I.e., not only does He see the ant in the ant’s present state, but He sees all of the ant’s past and future states, again, simultaneously. And if He chooses, He can make changes to any and all of those past/present/future states.
The point here is, we may visualize G-d as existing in a space and time outside of our own space/time world. In mathematical conceptions, we could think of G-d as dwelling in space/time dimensions outside (or “above”) our own four-dimensional space/time continuum (three dimensions of space plus one dimension of time). These higher dimensions of space and time may well correspond to the higher Spherot discussed in Kabballah.
It also can explain how it's possible that "man is created in G-d's image", yet individual humans can look very different from each other. The idea here is that man is a 4-D projection of a higher dimensional G-d. Projections of higher dimensional objects onto lower dimensional spaces can easily have very diverse appearances. E.g., full face and profile photographs (2-D) of a person (3-D) look very different from each other. (A space alien who never before saw a human might not be able to guess that those two photos are of the same being.) Hence, the image (projection) of G-d onto our space can easily appear as man or woman of any race, etc.
So, back to the question of 6 days vs. 14 billion years vs. 6,000 years. If, indeed, “The world was created for the sake of Man”, then logically, there would be no purpose in having the physical world exist before Man would exist. So, when G-d ordained that Man should come into existence, that’s the point at which the 14 billion years of previous existence also came into actual existence. This comports with the idea that G-d created an “old earth” when He created Man, but actually, the two views are just two sides of the same coin. I.e., in creating an “old earth”, He actually also created all of the 14 billion years of prior physical existence.
But, what about the six days of Creation? We can understand this if we accept the concept the G-d operates, as it were, in a different time dimension than the one that we experience. That time dimension does not necessarily need to resemble or operate in the same way that ours does, any more than our time dimension resembles any of our space dimensions. When Torah tells us that G-d did his various steps of Creation over a period of six days, this is merely an instance of “Torah speaking in the language of Man”. Actually, I believe, they are merely a mechanism for demonstrating the logical order in which the Laws of Creation were established; they really have nothing to do with any actual time duration needed to create them. But, as mentioned above, they serve as a conceptual model of our own days and nights.
Thus, on the sixth “day” of Creation, Man, along with the entire physical world around him, including all space, and all past and future time, are created. I.e., this happens on the sixth day of Creation in G-d’s time dimension; but all of our space and time dimensions are created at that point. And from the point of view of us people living today, this all occurred approximately 5800 years ago.
Now, through our scientific observations, we can only see the effects of the physical creation, which appears to have begun about 14 billion years ago, with the “big bang”. We scratch our heads trying to figure out just how, physically, the big bang could have happened, since it appears that all of physical creation emanated instantly from a single infinitesimal point.
But, with the understanding that G-d can operate in other space and time dimension beyond what we experience, we can propose a model of how the big bang worked. Let’s return to that table top with the ant in the middle.
Imagine that right at the Beginning of Time end of the table there is a sphere floating above the table. Now imagine that the sphere floats down toward the table until it just touches it. Right then, the ant looking through his telescope toward that event would see a mere point, where the sphere just touches the table top. Now, imagine that the sphere continues piercing the table top; the ant would see the point expanding. Now, imagine that that piercing process happened rather quickly; the ant would see that as a big bang. Interestingly enough, some theoretical physicists are beginning to adopt ideas similar to this. In other words, if we just generalize the concept that G-d exists outside of our world of space and time, we can understand the process of the Creation of the Laws of Existence, and the process of the physical creation of the world.
Now, we can tackle the question of why G-d took the trouble to tell us these details of His process of creating the Laws governing the existence of the world. After all, He could have just as well left out all the information contained in verses GEN. 1:2 through GEN 1-31, and continued with GEN. 2, and that would have sufficed to provide all of the moral instruction contained in Torah.
We note that Torah makes a point of telling us that the seventh day (in G-d’s time dimension) marked the completion of the laws of the Creation process. For a long time I wondered why G-d ordained the seventh day, Shabbat, to be a special holy day, rather than the sixth day, which marked the final acts of Creation; after all, we normally make siyum celebrations at the time when we complete mitzvot. I believe that in hallowing the seventh day, when no more creations were being done, that this was a signal to us to understand that these laws were now complete and permanent; that they will never change within our space/time world. This understanding of the completeness and permanence of G-d’s Laws is, I believe, central to the understanding of the importance of our observance of Shabbat.
We also note that Torah now starts using G-d’s name of Y-H-W-H (rendered as “LORD” in our translation.) Traditional Torah learning explains that the name Elokim refers to His attribute of judgment (or law-giving in our context), whereas LORD refers to His attribute of mercy and His propensity to consider mitigating circumstances. Now that Man exists with his imperfections and yetzer horas, this additional attribute of G-d would be necessary in order for Man to continue to survive. And Torah would be necessary to guide Man in dealing with his defects.
I once attended a shiur in which a young rabbi from South Africa explained a concept which I believe might be the most difficult concept with which to deal in Torah learning. He said that if you see something in Torah which seems wrong to you, then you must understand that Torah is not wrong, but you are, and you need to do some additional Torah learning. This is indeed a tough pill to swallow.
For example, Torah tells us not to eat the meat of pigs. As a rational person, I realize that billions of people have been eating pig meat for thousands of years, and (as long as they cook it well) there have been no problems with that. OK, let’s posit that eating pig meat has a negative effect on one’s morality. Then we further note that the soldiers of ISIS, who are Muslims who don’t eat pig meat, are still capable of the worst atrocities, so abstaining from pig meat doesn’t seem to help in that regard. So, on a purely rational basis, eating or abstaining from pig meat apparently has no effect one way or the other. So, why does Torah tell us not to eat it?
Ultimately, the answer is: we don’t know. So, why should we heed Torah when it tells us that? This is why Torah explained the process of the Creation of the Laws of Existence. By looking at the day by day sequence of the creation of these laws, we can understand the fundamental logic of the order of the creation of these laws. Then, through the study of science, we can understand the phenomenal success of the operation of these laws in maintaining the continuing operation of existence.
In other words, the scenario of the day by day Creation of the Laws of Existence, as expounded in GEN. 1, together with our own scientific understanding of the operations of the universe, establishes G-d’s credentials as a Law Maker. When it comes to making laws, we can trust that HE KNOWS WHAT HE IS DOING. So, for example, if He tells us not to eat pigs, we can trust that there is a good reason for it, even if we don’t understand it.
This is why the days of Creation are telling us about the Creation of Laws, rather than the Creation of things, and why this was disclosed to us. So, as so often happens with Torah Learning, we come full circle: Torah tells us how G-d created the laws governing the existence of the world; science exposes the details of how these laws operate; human intellect seeks to know why these laws exists as they do; Torah tells us the logic behind the creation of these laws. And in doing so, explains how G-d is the Ultimate Expert at creation of Laws. And thus, we can understand on an intellectual level the value of cleaving to His Laws; they are all for our benefit.
Ronald Sones is a senior computer systems analyst and rocket propulsion engineer. He studied physics and mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and Purdue Graduate School. He is the author of Fusion Threshold.