Genesis 1 Through the Eyes of a Rabbi

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Both Jews and Christians grapple with how to reconcile the opening chapters of Genesis 1 with ideas like Big Bang cosmology and the theory of evolution. From my rabbinic perspective, the potential conflict comes when we try to look at Genesis and science through their various content claims, trying to reconcile how to match the verses with modern science. It’s often very challenging, and even the most satisfying responses may leave us a bit wanting.

But what if, instead of the content, we look at the process. Let’s reframe the question. Instead of asking: are Genesis and science in conflict? And if so, how? Let’s ask: what process, method, or style was used to write Genesis? What about a scientific treatise?

If we look at Genesis and science that way, the conflict seems to melt away. Of course they aren’t written in the same style. First, science as we know it today didn’t arise until the 1500s and 1600s and didn’t fully come to fruition until the ideas of peer review, data analysis, and instrumentation that emerged in the 1900s and 2000s. Those methods simply didn’t exist when Genesis was written.

Second, and more important, peer-reviewed scientific papers don’t cause our souls to soar in the way that reading Genesis does.

Poetry Inspires Us – But Why?

The opening words of Genesis touch our souls because the author intended to use poetry to move us emotionally. So how should we read poetry?

Hebrew poetry, like all poetry, is filled with specific and particular words, phrases and imagery. As author (and my cousin) Matthew Zapruder said in an interview on his book “Why Poetry?”:

…[t]o read poetry is to look for that transcendence poetry can give, the way it can bring us out of ordinary experience, into different levels of understanding, or more exciting, even magical realms. But in order for that to happen, a reader has to at first be completely attentive to the words on the page, and read, at least at first, in the same way we would a piece of prose or any writing. Otherwise, there can be no meaningful encounter with a poem…

[Yet t]here’s also something else, which is that poems have an inherent strangeness to them…the formal qualities of poetry are not merely decorative accessories to meaning, but themselves the source of meaning.

Reading Genesis in this way means that we shouldn’t read it like a journal on astrophysics or biology. Rather, we should look at the word choices, the phrasing, the evocations, the allusions, and the questions they raise.

The Poetry of “There Was Evening, There Was Morning”

Looking at the opening verses of Genesis, we can see that the text repeats phrases of “and God said,” “and God saw it was good,” “and there was evening, and there was morning.”

Let’s focus on that last phrase through a poetic lens. Why does each day end with the phrase “va’y’hi erev, va’y’hi voker” – “there was evening, there was morning”? If this was simply a narrative story, we would expect the text to say, “there was morning, there was evening,” since our daily rhythm begins when we wake up and ends when we go to sleep. So why is the order reversed?

The word choices here matter, as well. It doesn’t say, “there was night and day,” or “there was darkness and light.” Yes, those two words come up on the first day of Creation, but those words could easily have been swapped out, saying, for example, “There was night, there was day.” Why “evening,” erev, and “morning,” boker?

Well, the word erev (“evening”) is also used to mean “chaos” (as in the phrase erev rav, a “mixed multitude,” in Exodus 12:38). And the word boker (“morning”) may be connected to (or at least a reference to) the word livaker, which is related to either “split” or “investigate,” as in “putting things in order.” With the repetition of the words va’y’hi erev, va’y’hi voker, “There was evening, there was morning,” the story rhythmically evokes an idea of chaos, then order, at the end of each day of creation.

But the universe’s natural tendency is to go from order to chaos! We know that from the second law of thermodynamics, but we can also see it in our own lives—laundry is going to pile up, not clean itself. We get sicker as we age, not healthier. When food is left out, it rots rather than getting fresher. The only way to combat that tendency is to invest time and energy in correcting for it—that’s why we sort the laundry, go to the doctor and have a refrigerator. That’s one of the key messages from the opening chapters of Genesis: if we do nothing, the world will remain tohu va’vohu, “wild and waste.” God brings order out of chaos, and if we see ourselves as created in the image of God, that is our job, as well.

  • BioLogos has several resources on reading Genesis 1.
  • Sinai and Synapses hosts an interfaith fellowship program for clergy, scientists, and others committed to elevating discourse around faith and science. Apply here.

Not Just the First Verse or First Word, But the First Letter

Let me share another example, literally at the very beginning. In Hebrew, the Torah begins with the words, “Bereshit bara Elohim… / In the beginning, God created…” In Judaism, we engage not only with the verses, not only with the words, but even the letters themselves. Rabbinic interpreters raised the question: why does the Torah start with the letter beit, which is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and not aleph, the first?

Two responses in particular speak to the way we engage with science. One is what the letter beit looks like – ב. In Hebrew, since it reads right to left, one Rabbi says, “just as the beit is closed on all [three of] its sides but open in its front, so, you do not have permission to ask: What is below, what is above, what was before, and what is after, but only from the day when the world created and onward.”

In other words, we can never know what came before creation, and we can never know what is happening in places not on this earth. Rather, our ability and responsibility are on what we can actually measure and understand. Similarly, science deals only with the natural world. It is forbidden to use miraculous explanations to provide scientific explanations, but it also means that science is limited to the natural world. Not only that, but it also means we can’t use science to prove (or disprove) God.

The other explanation is that “it alludes to an expression of blessing [berakha]. And why not with an aleph? Because it alludes to an expression of curse [arira].” The word for “blessing” starts with a beit, the word for “curse” starts with an aleph. And so, Judaism teaches, the Torah tells us that even with its problems, challenges and difficulties, the world is blessed. It evokes a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Just to live is holy. Just to be is a blessing.”

So if we look at Genesis as poetry, not science, then we don’t need to do mental gymnastics to fit the square peg of Genesis 1 into the round hole of Big Bang cosmology or natural selection. Instead, we look at the words themselves, their style, and the word choices. The text’s style reminds us that while the universe is naturally chaotic and unpredictable, we, like God, can strive to bring a little more order and a little more blessing in our lives. Most of all, even if Genesis is not a science textbook, as my friend and colleague Cantor Ellen Dreskin would say, “Something doesn’t have to be factual for it to be true.”

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