It’s All in a Day’s Work

In the beginning the L-rd created the heavens and the earth.  (Sefer Beresheit 1:1) 

Science and the age of the universe

Much has been written about the perceived contradiction between the Torah’s account of creation and the scientific evidence seeming to contradict this narrative.  The narrative describes the universe being formed in six days, achieving its completed form on the seventh day.  The scientific evidence demonstrates that the universe emerged over billions of years.  Also, the Torah narrative identifies the descendants of Adam and Chavah, the first human beings, and the development of humanity.  Based on this information, the age of the universe can be derived.  According to the Torah, our universe was created less than six thousand years ago.  The scientific evidence indicates that the universe is billions of years old.

Questioning the validity of scientific conclusions

Most efforts to resolve this apparent contradiction can be grouped into three approaches.  The first approach rejects the accuracy of the scientific data or its interpretation.  From the perspective of the scholars promoting this approach, the Torah – in its literal meaning – is a revealed truth.  Conclusions that we develop based upon scientific research and interpretation of data are not as trustworthy.

This approach appeals to those who accept its premise.  Those who reject it, argue that our traditions are revealed; however, we must interpret them to accommodate scientific conclusions.[1]

Creation produced an aged universe

The second approach accepts, on a whole, the accuracy of the scientific data.  This approach seeks to resolve the conflict between this evidence and the literal interpretation of the Torah’s creation account.  It posits that the universe was created less than 6000 years ago as an aged universe.  In other words, when Hashem created the universe, He endowed it with the characteristics of a much older universe.  For example, He formed Earth along with fossils.  These fossils suggest a prehistoric Earth upon which dinosaurs roamed.  This misleads us into believing that the universe is much older than 6000 years.  In fact, the universe was created as described by the Torah but complete with fossils and other components suggesting its creation eons earlier.

The often-mentioned criticism of this approach is particularly interesting.  This approach acknowledges that the scientific evidence does contradict the Torah narrative.  This means that Hashem created the universe inclusive of components that are misleading.  Hashem concealed and even misrepresented the actual age of the universe by creating it with these components.  The critics of this approach reject this possibility.  Hashem does not conceal Himself in His creation; He reveals Himself. [2]

The creation narrative understood allegorically

The third approach abandons the literal interpretation of the creation narrative.  The “days” described in the narrative are not composed of twenty-four hours.  Instead, “day” represents a stage of or step within the process of creation. A “day” may encompass millions or even billions of years.[3]  This approach is reasonable.  However, because it characterizes the creation narrative as figurative, it is often perceived as apologetic and arbitrary.

And the L-rd called the light day and the darkness He called night.  And it was evening and it was morning – one day.  (Sefer Beresheit 1:5)

Understanding the literal meaning of the creation narrative

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l suggests that one need not resort to a figurative interpretation of the Torah’s narrative in order to reconcile it with scientific data.

Rav Soloveitchik’s approach is based upon a careful analysis of the passages.  He notes that the Torah does not introduce each day and then describe the elements of the universe or of Earth created on that day.  It does not state, “On the first day, Hashem created light and separated between night and day.  On the second day, He created a firmament partitioning the waters in the heavens from those on Earth.”  Instead, a set of components or steps of creation is described and then the Torah states "And it was evening and morning – one day" and "And it was evening and morning – the second day". Each day is enumerated only after describing the creative process of that day. Why does the Torah describe the days in this manner?

The first day described as “one day”

An insight important to answering this question emerges from considering a related issue.  After the first day, all the days of creation are identified using ordinal numbers; they are described as “second day”, “third day” and so on.  The first day is identified with a cardinal number.  It is described as “one day”. Why is the first day described differently than the others?

There are a number of approaches to addressing this issue.  A simple possibility is that the Torah is describing the events from a real-time perspective – as they are occurring. In a real-time framework, the initial day cannot be described as the first day.  No other days have yet emerged.  There is no series of days for which this day is the first.  In real-time this day can only be described as one day.

The meaning of “evening” and “morning” in the creation narrative

With this insight, let us return to our original question.  Each day is enumerated only after describing the creative process of that day.  What is intended by this treatment?  The answer lies in considering what makes a day complete.  In other words, why does the first day not also include the events of the second or even the third?  The above passage suggests that the transition of evening into morning ends each day. What does this mean?

It is not possible to understand “evening” and “morning” literally – that each day concludes with the setting of the evening sun and rising of the morning sun.  The sun and moon emerge on the fourth day; the first three days do not feature a setting and rising sun. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra explains the meaning “evening” and “morning” contextually. These terms describe the emergence of order from chaos.  Each day, some element of creation emerges and takes form out of the preceding chaos.  The “evening” refers to this preceding chaos; “morning” describes the emergence of order.[4]

Now, the phrase "and it was evening and morning – one day" is understood. The day is completed with the emergence of order in an element of creation from the preceding chaos.  This process establishes the parameters of a “day”.  Also, the enumeration of each day after the completion of its creative process is explained. It is the completion of this creative process that defines the day.  Only after the process has been completed – evening has given way to morning – can the process be described as a “day” of creation.

The meaning of “day” in the narrative

Let us now summarize and combine our two observations.  First, the Torah describes the creation process from a real-time perspective.  This is the reason that the initial day can only be described as “one day.”  Second, each day is completed with the emergence of some element of creation from the preceding chaos.  It is this emergence of order from chaos that defines a day and not our contemporary astronomical measure of sunrise or sunset.  These two observations are inter-related.  The Torah describes creation from a real-time perspective; its definition of a day reflects this perspective.  From a real-time perspective “day” cannot refer to an astronomical phenomenon not yet in place.  Instead, during the process of creation, “day” is defined by emergence of order from chaos. That is the literal meaning in of “day” in the creation narrative.[5]

Two valid views on the age of the universe

Based on this discussion, the contention that science contradicts the Torah’s creation account is reduced to an absurdity. The supposed contradiction results from imposing a post-creation definition of “day” and its measurement upon the Torah account.  The Torah describes the process of creation from a real-time perspective and does not use our contemporary definition and measurement of “day”.  Furthermore, the Torah tells us that its day is the period of time during which some element of creation emerges from the preceding chaos.  The time that passed during the creation process can accurately, and literally be described as billions of years or as six days.  From our post-creation perspective, we describe the period as billions of years.  In real-time, the period was six days.

The power of this response is that it is not subject to the criticisms brought against the other approaches.  It does not deny the validity of scientific data.  It accepts the validity of science’s view on the age of the universe.  Also, it does not claim that science is misinterpreting data or that Hashem intentionally misleads us by creating an aged universe.  Finally, it does not treat the creation narrative as an allegory.  It demonstrates that the literal meaning of “day” in the creation narrative accommodates the passage of millions or billions of years.

[1] For an interesting variation of this approach see, Rav Moshe Meiselman, A Question of Time

Rav Meiselman’s article addresses the criticism against this approach.

[2] See, for example, Rav Meachem M. Schneerson, The Age of the Universe,  Rav Shneerson acknowledges and then dismisses this criticism.

[3] See, for example, Rav Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu, vol. 2, p. 151.

[4] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 1:5.

[5] Based on Rav David Holzer, The Rav Thinking Aloud, pp.76-80 and footnotes. See note 112 and reference to RaN.