Before the Beginning: Between Ancient and Modern Cosmology
The Anti-Theistic Critique of Genesis 1
Lawrence M. Krauss is a particle physicist whose innovative research and popular publications about cosmology have earned him an international reputation. He is also a skilled writer, entertaining speaker, and a public anti-theist. On July 17, 2013, in a lecture at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Kraus introduced his topic by saying that he was interested in the beginning of the universe and told his audience that he would explain how it came about by asking “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” He continued his introduction, combining cosmology and anti-theism, saying that there are two ways of answering the question:
to write “In the beginning” and then have a whole book that doesn’t explain anything about anything, or you can actually turn to the universe and try to figure out the answer.
Apart from considering Krauss’s answer to his question, we will look at the very different one provided in the first three verses in the book of Genesis “that doesn’t explain anything.”
Despite many differences, both answers are informed by senses of wonderment, aesthetic delight and a desire to understand creation scientifically within the knowledge base and worldview of their times. Of course, the author of Genesis 1:2 could not do what Krauss could because the author was born more than two and one-half millennia before Krauss, well before the creation of telescopes, physics, and calculus. Nevertheless, both undertake to explain reasonably by means of an attention-grabbing narrative what their authors inferred from what they observed. Considered in tandem, both can generate interesting questions and induce stimulating conversations.
Two Translations of Genesis 1:1–3
The opening sentence of Genesis, comprising three verses, is surprisingly difficult to translate, and many translations misunderstand it. Yet the best translations do capture the point correctly; this may be seen, for example, in both the Tanakh translation of the Jewish Publication Society and Everett Fox’s “English with a Hebraic voice” translation, which render Genesis 1:1-3 as a single grammatical sentence:
|NJPS Translation||Everett Fox’s Translation|
|בראשית א:א בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. א:ב וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. א:ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי אוֹר.||Gen 1:1 When God began to create heaven and earth— 1:2 the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water— 1:3 God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.||Gen 1:1 At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, 1:2 when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters— 1:3 God said: Let there be light! And there was light.|
In many ways, both of these modern translators follow Rashi, who in his second comment to verse 1, notes:
ואם באת לדורשו כפשוטו, כך פרשהו: בראשית בריית שמים וארץ, והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחשך, ויאמר הקב״ה יהי אור. ולא בא המקרא להורות סדר הבריאה לומר שאילו קדמו, שאם בא להורות כן היה לו לכתוב: 'בראשונה' ברא את השמים וגו׳.
[I]f you come to explain it according to its plain, literal meaning, explain it this way: “At the beginning of the creation of heavens and earth and (or when) the earth was unformed and void and darkness...” Scripture does not come to teach the order of [the acts of] creation... for had it come to teach that, it should have written, “At first (ba-rishonah), he created the heavens…”
Despite the seeming concreteness of the sentence, the contents of verse 2 are unclear. What are readers expected to imagine?
According to the translations offered above, verse 2 offers some background, by describing the prevailing circumstances in the cosmos before any creative act affected it. In other words, this verse describes what existed before God undertook creating the heavens and the earth. The first act of creation occurs only in verse 3, when light is called into existence.
The Ordered Construction of the World: Understanding Creation: Days 2-6
Reading the rather straightforward descriptions of what occurred during days two through six raises the following question: How did the ancient author of Genesis come up with this schema? I propose that the speculative process underlying Genesis 1 began with the a priori assumption that humans are the most important beings in the world and worked back from humans to what must have existed for humans to thrive in the world.
Most obvious would be the large, domestic and undomesticated animals that humans exploit (day 6), preceded by all manner of live creatures that swarm, creep, swim, walk and fly (day 5). There would need to be the regular cycle of day and night, complete with sun, moon and stars that governed longer and shorter days and dry and wet seasons (day 4). For all this to have occurred required that there be gathered waters, and a sky, and earth, and victuals for all the creatures (days 3 and 2).
On these days God either manipulates existent material elements in the world by fiat (verses 9, 11) or, after deciding what each particular stage of his world construction project required, he makes it for the world (verses 7,16-18, 21, 25, 27). The sense of deity projected in these verses is not that of a magician spouting words and waving his wand, but of a thoughtful master artisan at work, involved intimately in his own project (verses 6, 14-15, 20, 24, and see 26).
The ordered presentation of the world constructed from raw materials that had to be prepared and manipulated to provide for an infrastructure and then a complicated superstructure, a self-sustaining biosphere, is presented as a logical, comprehensible progression. Its conclusion, describing the settlement of the world by creatures, each in its proper ecological niche, reflects the ideas of someone— to paraphrase Krauss—who looked at the world and undertook to discover an answer to the audacious, original, and retrospective question: “How did the world that I know come about?”
Understanding What Came Before Creation
This thought process has a certain amount of common sense, as it is an attempt to describe what is. A major problem, however, arose with imagining what existed before the world emerged in its recognizable shape or, to paraphrase the author, before God set about creating it. At this point, the ancient author stopped reasoning like a philosophical scientist and began to think in terms of cosmology.
He concluded that the raw stuff, earth and water, out of which the world’s infrastructure had been made, must have existed as a shapeless, flowing slime that would later be divided into component parts (verse 9). The tehom (תהום), an unbounded sea of fresh water (see Proverbs 8:27-28) translated as “deep” and “ocean” that would eventually be contained under the surface of the earth (Gen 7:11, 8:2), also existed, but was restrained from splitting apart by a covering of “darkness.”
This darkness was understood to be something real and palpable, not merely the absence of light, as in the Egyptian darkness plague (Exod 10:21). Other waters were kept from rising up by a horizontal wind or rushing-spirit of God (see also Gen 8:1 where a wind sent by God drives flood waters off the land and Exod 14:21 where such a wind drives back sea waters, exposing the dry sea floor). Thus, before the creation of the world, different types of matter moved in an otherwise empty void. Balanced, powerful forces in relational adjacency co-existed in a cosmos that had no light. The pre-creation cosmos was filled with matter, energy, and motion.
“Let There Be Light” – What Was This Light?
All this began to change in v. 3, “Let there be light” (verse 3). This light, a new element in the primeval soup, began to exist. It apparently mixed into the dark stuff immediately. That is why God’s second activity during the first day consisted of separating out the light from the dark stuff to establish daytime, nighttime, and thereby, a measurable day (verse 4).
God later improved on the light of the first day by creating the heavenly luminaries on the fourth day and designating their functions. The author’s unlikely conclusion that disembodied light must have been created before anything else appears to partake in the common ancient Near Eastern conception that light was associated with comprehensible order and structure, darkness with disorder and anti-structure.
The Challenge of Describing Primal Matter
According to this story, God co-existed with primal matter. Since no world even partially recognizable to humans existed before what the narrative refers to as “the first day,” the author imagined that the raw materials of creation had existed eternally in the same void where God later set the earth and the heavens, the world that he had created. His speculations in Gen 1:1-3 suffice to reveal that when unable to infer from direct observations, he drew secondary inferences from primary ones, logically and imaginatively. By exerting his intellect, he pictured a pre-world cosmos in his mind and then described it tersely in his text.
Although unable to articulate it precisely, the author of these verses indicates that he thought the pre-world cosmos and God to be infinite in both time and space. He could not imagine that either of these were measurable before God created the measure and concept “day” at the end of day one and before he established physical limits that created meaningful quantifiable distances between static objects in the world. Once time, chronological and biological, and distance could be measured, the world and its inhabitants were understood to be finite, in the main. The mountains and earth, perhaps everything falling loosely within our category of “mineral” may have been thought of as infinite; but not those items in our categories of “vegetable” that wither away and “animal” that die.
The uncreated cosmos, matter moving in a void, simply “was.” It existed. It had existed always without rhyme or reason until it was turned into raw material for a world. The world, however, created by an intelligent being, God, could be the subject of inquiry and evaluation because it had a beginning, and, therefore, a purpose.
The Septuagint Translation: A Hellenistic Interpretation
In the middle of the third century, ca. 250 BCE, an anonymous Jewish scholar, most likely from Alexandria, who “translated” Genesis 1:1-3 into Greek, provided his readers with an interpretation, not a translation:
In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. Yet the earth was invisible and unformed, and darkness was over the bottomless deep; and the breath of God was floating over the water. And God said, ‘Let light come into being;’ and light came into being.
The translator treated what in Hebrew is a dependent adverbial clause in verse 1, indicating the moment at which God called light into existence, as an independent sentence informing readers when God created the heavens and the earth. His translation/interpretation taught fellow Jews in the Hellenistic Egypt of his day that God, who was pure spirit, as many had come to believe, had never co-existed eternally with primal matter; rather, he created the matter ex nihilo. In this manner, he converted a popular Hellenistic philosophical premise, based on Aristotle’s teachings, into a biblical teaching.
For many Jews since, even those who read and understand Hebrew well, this doctrine is a truism. When they see and read the Hebrew, they think the Septuagint translation. When they read a similar translation in English or any other language, they assume that it reflects the Hebrew accurately. It does not.
But the popular Hellenistic idea was strongly supported by Maimonides on philosophical grounds and remains rooted in the contemporary religious thought of Judaism and Christianity. Even modern physics appears to support it.
Dark Energy – The Cosmology of Modern Physics
Physicists agree that the universe consists of matter, energy, and space-time, and that these interact in particular ways that are described as the “laws of physics” that is, natural laws that scientists discovered, mainly in the twentieth century, following strict methods of data-gathering, experimentation, and quantitative analysis. According to Lawrence Krauss, the origin of the universe as something is to be sought in primal “dark energy”—about which little is known—that still exists in the void, filling almost all of space in our expanding universe.
Krauss explains that dark energy is “vacuum energy,” a force extant in empty space that contains neither matter nor radiation. Under such conditions, the laws of general relativity and quantum mechanics imply that “virtual particles” come in and out of existence in so little time that they cannot be directly observed. Although physicists have access to only some indirect effects of this process, these suffice for them to posit that the interconversion of energy into matter and vice versa is a regular feature of the void. This is because the posited process elegantly accounts for various phenomena that are observed indirectly.
These virtual particles and their corresponding anti-particles, equal to them in mass with an opposite electric charge, become actual particles spontaneously. This electron-positron pair collide and self-annihilate, leaving trace radiating particles and empty space. Consequently, Krauss determines on the basis of what is known in physics today that something can come into existence from nothing.
Cosmology, Semantics, Points of Agreement and Disagreement
Although I lack sufficient knowledge to venture an opinion about virtual particles or Krauss’s use of this idea, I would like to comment on a semantic matter in his presentation. Krauss regularly uses similes and metaphors and non-technical, natural language to translate the meaning and significance of complicated concepts in physics and mathematical distillations of the laws of physics for his popular audiences. He translates science talk into what the classical rabbis call “the language of people (לשון בני אדם).” When, it comes to the term “nothing,” however, he plays loosely with English semantics.
His “nothing” is filled with energy that is quantifiable. This energy that converts itself into or precipitates an event in space-time as a result of which a virtual particle, behaving in accord with complex natural laws, becomes an elementary particle, is different from what “nothing” means in common speech. Thus, in the title of his book and lectures, “nothing” refers to no thing at all; but in his written and oral presentations, “nothing” refers to no thing that is visible but that is none-the-less real and present.
Thus, Krauss’s use of “nothing” as a technical term referring to energy in all its forms including mass compels translating his “something out of nothing” into natural language by “something out of something else.” Correcting this “semantic slippage” affects nothing in Krauss’s learned arguments. It does suggest, however, that his explanation counters rather than supports the position of Maimonides. The correction also raises a question with regard to what he thinks it all goes to teach, especially in comparison with Genesis 1.
Comparing the Ancient and Modern Cosmologist
Taking Krauss and the author of Genesis 1 as responsible cosmologists, separated by almost 2,500 years, we can compare their methods and assumptions.
- Krauss’s presentation illustrates how he applied scientific observations, and made using very sophisticated ideas and instruments to explain how the universe originated from dark matter after the Big Bang. Gen 1:1-3 illustrates how the author of this sentence applied his intellect imaginatively to explain that some specific things must have existed before the world was created.
- Neither author had anything good or bad to say about the pre-existing stuff; it just was.
- When the author of Genesis 1 turns to the observable world, that he explained as having been manufactured by God, divine power affecting matter, he introduces moral, evaluative language into his description of how God perceived what he had achieved. Likewise, Krauss’s scientific descriptions are often accompanied by expressions of appreciation for the aesthetic beauty and clarity of the natural processes that they reveal and the equations that describe them.
- The author of Genesis 1 does not distinguish between physics and metaphysics. Krauss has no interest in or use for metaphysics because metaphysical considerations cannot be shoe-horned into scientific equations.
- The author of Genesis 1 makes use of “human language” and imaginative concepts to describe his theory in ways people could picture in their minds. Krauss also makes use of figurative language to clarify his ideas for his audiences.
Explaining the Universe: First Causes and Intermediate Causes
In chapter 48, Maimonides teaches that, in the Bible natural things, “which always follow their course, such as the melting of the snow when the air becomes warm and waves being stirred...when the wind blows,” are often described as a consequence of divine authority or action (Ps 147:18; Ps. 107:25).
Maimonides insight about the biblical text points to a truism: biblical authors often leave out “the intermediate causes,” those natural causes that result in or precipitate an event and affect its outcome. The authors prefer to jump directly to the First Cause. The approach of modern physics is the exact opposite. Modern physics traces causes as far back as it is able using physics, and most importantly, without recourse to what the ancient cosmologist of the Bible would have considered the original cause: God, his power, and his will. Atypically, however, Genesis 1 does not carry everything back to a First Cause.
The author of Gen 1:2 says nothing about the origin of what he inferred to be the primal stuff in the cosmos because he understood that it was always there. Some modern physicists, like Krauss, would agree on this point. Unlike a modern physicist, however, the author of Genesis 1 was not ethically neutral about the created world. He understood not that it was merely “good,” but that it was “very good” (Gen 1:32).
In short, the author of Genesis 1:1-2:4 is very much like a modern cosmologist in a very important way. The modern cosmologist works with the assumption that the universe that he or she perceives is explicable. The author of Genesis also believed that the world that he perceived and the pre-world cosmos that he inferred were explicable. It is that fundamental premise, that the world and its origins can be explained, that undergirds the project of cosmology, whether today or in ancient times.
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Prof. Ziony Zevit is Distinguished Professor of Biblical Literature and Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at the American Jewish University. He earned his BA at USC, and his MA, Can. Phil., and Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. Among his books are The Religions of Ancient Israel (2001),Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew (2012) (with Cynthia Miller-Naudé), andWhat Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? (2013).
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