The Why and the How of Creation: Harmonizing Genesis and the Big Bang

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press. 

I’m going to let you in on a secret. The Bible is not a scientific textbook. Now, this might seem obvious on an intellectual level, but when people read the opening chapters of Genesis, emotions come into play. We grapple with the relationship between Genesis and the big bang, a relationship that at its core takes on the question “Where did we come from?” As such, we face a challenge: The Bible says one thing, and science says another.  So how do we make sense of Genesis 1 in light of big bang cosmology?

My organization, Sinai and Synapses, presents four different ways we can talk about science and religion in general: In conflict; in concert; in contrast; and in contact. Before we address how we can better understand both Genesis and the big bang, let’s first take a look at the more problematic understandings of this relationship.

This first model, “in conflict,” is the one that gets the most attention in the media and the blogosphere. Here, either science or religion is correct, and if we accept one, then we have to reject the other. The model of “in concert” is, in many ways, the flip side of the conflict model. The common refrain for this model is “We don’t know how long a day is. The Psalmist even says, ‘A thousand years in [God’s] sight are like a day that has just gone by’ [Psalm 90:4], so I can read the Torah in a way that doesn’t violate my scientific sensibilities.” This model is an attempt to fit science into the biblical narrative, but the problem is the Bible isn’t meant to be read scientifically. In the “in contrast” model, science and religion live in separate spheres, and so we end up bifurcating our sense of identity, keeping our science and our Judaism far away from each other. The “in contact” model helps us to reconcile Genesis and the big bang. Since, as Reform Jews, we shouldn’t read the Bible as a literal, factual, scientific account, we should instead see how scientific metaphors for God can be useful.

The big bang theory tells us what happened immediately after the universe started. This is similar to the classic midrash that asks why the Torah starts with a bet and not an alef. Rabbi Levi answers, “The bet is closed on three sides and open only on the fourth. This teaches that one should not question what is above or what is below, or what came before, but only what transpired from the day of the world’s creation forward” (B’reishit Rabbah 1:10). While the Rabbis might have viewed these as prescriptions, for us they might be descriptions—the only thing we can currently understand is what has happened after all time, space, matter, and energy began. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that from the big bang until today, the natural tendency of the universe is to go from order to chaos. The only way to move from chaos to order is to direct energy toward that task. This is exactly what we see in Genesis 1, where God intentionally moves from chaos to order. And so, if we view ourselves as being “in the image of God,” then our job, too, is to overcome the universe’s natural inclination to move toward chaos and instead strive to create more order.

The key phrase in the Genesis story is one that the big bang can’t address: “and God saw that it was good.” Leaving aside God for the moment, we can all agree that while science can tell us what is, only human intentionality and action can determine what should be. If the universe is “good,” then we have certain responsibilities to safeguard and protect Creation.

Ultimately, we may never be able to scientifically answer the question of how the universe began. Instead, we can read Genesis as a way to remind us to create more order in a chaotic world, and to ensure that the actions we take are “good.”  While the big bang can help us better understand ourselves and our world, it is upon us to use that understanding, in conjunction with Genesis 1, as a way to create more peace, justice, and goodness in our lives.

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation.

Rabbi Mitelman is also the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds, and is being incubated at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He has been an adjunct professor at both the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and the Academy for Jewish Religion. From 2007 to 2014, he served as Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, and he appeared on Jeopardy! in March 2016.