Genesis: Relic Or Relevant?

We’ve all heard it said a million times—“The Bible isn’t a science book.” We’ve probably even said it ourselves to fend off critics, that it’s not a science book, or not a history book, or whatnot. But when the Bible speaks about science, is it reliable? Can the Bible, a book of wisdom, faith and philosophy, be trusted when it seems to contradict the latest scientific research?

The Bible’s first chapter is possibly its most controversial. It establishes what the rest of the book is about—the ongoing relationship between God and His creation. But it’s several millennia old—what could its author possibly have gotten right about the physical creation of the universe? Has our progress in science, from Galileo to Einstein to Hubble, finally outstripped Scripture?

The short answer to that question is a definite “no.” Genesis 1 is a marvel. Put aside your prejudice for or against it for a moment, and just consider it at face value. Written more than 3,000 years ago, Genesis 1 is an attempt to explain where creation came from. Its tone is remarkably dry and scientific for such an age. Competing theories of our origins from that time ranged wildly, from an earth resting on infinite stack of turtles to an earth that was a giant egg laid by a great cosmic bird, to an Olympian god hoisting it on his shoulders. The sun was a flaming chariot, a literal god, and the stars were diamonds, or mother’s milk, or sand along a riverbank. Genesis 1 has none of those trappings. The most mystical thing it says is verse 1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Then it proceeds to a detailed progression, starting from formless and void and culminating with a life-bearing planet and its human inhabitants. The language there is a marvel, too. Formless and void, just like star-forming regions in space. Take a look at the nebula 30 Doradus. It’s a typical star-forming region, without discernable structure, a roiling cauldron of gas and dust and vapor. It is, as Genesis plainly says, “formless and void.”

In verse 6, an “expanse” is formed, and from that the earth eventually forms. The Hebrew word for expanse is raqiya, which means “to beat out or spread out,” and the intended mental image is of something being beaten flat out like pizza dough tossed in the air. The reigning scientific theory of planet formation today holds that planets form in disks of dust and material that spread out from a cloud with a star forming at the center—raqiya in action. The Genesis text is more than 3,000 years old, yet it shadows the latest science.

Genesis 1 also mentions water several times, and we now know that the Orion Nebula, again a fairly typical star-forming region, is chock full of water vapor—enough to fill the earth’s oceans every minute for 10,000 years according to some estimates. And the progression, from plants to sea life to birds and land life and finally humans, is remarkably similar to the sequence you’ll find in any science textbook. It’s not a perfect match, at least not yet, but consider who got there first. Moses was writing this down when the Pharaohs ruled. More than 30 centuries later, we’re getting to the point where we’re able to come up with enough evidence to create an outline that basically agrees with his. Moses was one of the most educated men of his time, having been tutored as the prince of an imperial superpower, but I doubt the Egyptian scholars knew as much about astronomy and biology as the average undergrad does today. Yet Genesis is remarkably accurate.

But there is still a problem: time. Genesis 1 keeps track of the sequence in days, with the stubborn language “there was evening and there was morning” stuck in between to show a literal passage of time. For most moderate to liberal Christians, this doesn’t present a problem since to them Genesis isn’t to be taken literally. But I take it literally, and physicist Gerald Schroeder, author of The Science of God, shows us why we should. The Bible claims to be the inerrant word of God—if it is, and where the language suggests a literal understanding, it should be correct. There’s nothing mythological about the language of Genesis 1. Read Ezekiel, or sections of Daniel, or Revelation. That’s obvious symbolism, visions and nightmares. Genesis 1 has that dry tone, and spins out time in a straightforward way. Yet from science we know that the planet formation process takes millions of earth years, not a 24-hour earth day. And how can you measure days at all when the planet itself isn’t formed until day three, and the sun isn’t a distinct light source in the sky until day four? The answer is Einstein’s relativity, and was presaged by the 13th Century rabbi Nahmanides, who wrote that the six days of creation “contain all the secrets and ages of the universe.” How can six days contain ages? What was Nahmanides suggesting?

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Nahmanides knew nothing about relativity, but he had faith that someone would come along and make sense of Genesis 1. That someone was Einstein, who found that time isn’t constant, but depends on gravity and velocity. Where mass is unimaginably huge, gravity dominates and time is slowed or even halted, such as in a black hole, a point so massive that nothing, including light, escapes its gravity. Where there is less mass, time moves along at a decent clip. Velocity also influences time—the faster you go, the slower time passes for you. In other words, the passage of time dilates depending on circumstances. Take your Genesis clock off the earth and set it for the whole universe. An hour to the universe, due to the mass and velocity difference, is an epoch to the tiny earth. A day to the universe, an era to the earth. So a day can contain an age, as Psalm 90:4 says, “For a thousand years in Thy sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or as a watch in the night.” To God, omnipotent and omnipresent, the creator of time, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day. Time is relative to your position and scale. In this light, the Big Bang and Genesis agree, and the age of the universe is no longer a point of controversy. And the Bible’s literal language is respected in every detail.

The next time your faith seems contradicted or even disproven by some new scientific finding, remember: a 13th Century rabbi, using Genesis 1 as his guide, previewed one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th Century—Einstein’s relativity. Rather than being an ancient relic, the Bible is still relevant, and offers us wisdom for today as well truth for tomorrow. Who knows what secrets it still holds?

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