Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

In the Beginning

Isaac Asimov






  In the Beginning …

  Science Faces God in the Book of Genesis

  Isaac Asimov

  “The notion of an eternal Universe introduces a great many difficulties, some of them apparently (at least in the present state of our scientific knowledge) insuperable, but scientists are not disturbed by difficulties—those make up the game. If all the difficulties were gone and all the questions answered, the game of science would be over (Scientists suspect that will never happen.)

  There, then, is perhaps the most fundamental disagreement between the Bible and science. The Bible describes a Universe created by God, maintained by him, and intimately and constantly directed by him, while science describes a Universe in which it is not necessary to postulate the existence of God at all.”


  Dedicated to:

  Izzy and Annie Adler,

  who have advanced degrees in lovability.


  In the Beginning…


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11



  In the Beginning…


  The beginning of time.

  The origin of life.

  In our Western civilization, there are two influential accounts of beginnings. One is the Biblical account, compiled more than two thousand years ago by Judean writers who based much of their thinking on the Babylonian astronomical lore of the day. The other is the account of modern science which, in the last century, has slowly built up a coherent picture of how it all began.

  Both represent the best thinking of their times, and in this line-by-line annotation of the first elever chapters of Genesis, Isaac Asimov carefully and even-handedly compares the two accounts, pointing out where they are similar and where they are different.

  Similarities and differences both exist. For instance, both the Bible and modern astronomy picture a universe which began in a single flashing moment. It came into existence by the word of God, according to the Bible; by the shattering explosion of the “big bang” in which a blob of matter blew outward to form the galaxies, according to modern astronomers.

  That’s a similarity. But as nearly as we can tell from the vague chronology of the Bible, the Biblical moment of Creation took place six or seven thousand years ago. On the other hand, according to modern astronomical estimates, the big bang took place perhaps fifteen billion years ago. That’s a difference.

  Some Biblical items which have sounded peculiar in the past have been upheld by science. According to the Biblical account, light was created before the sun, which sounds odd. However, we know from modern astronomy that the universe was in existence, and ablaze with light, for ten billion years before the sun came into existence in its present light-radiating form.

  On the other hand, the Bible specifically denies any form of evolution, whereas the evolutionary development of life, of the stars, of the whole universe, is absolutely central to modern scientific thought and cannot be abandoned.

  What does Asimov make of all this? He says, “There is no version of primeval history, preceding the discoveries of modern science, that is as rational and as inspiring as that of the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis.” However, human knowledge does increase, says Asimov, and if the Biblical writers “had written those early chapters of Genesis knowing what we know today, we can be certain they would have written it completely differently.”

  Isaac Asimov brings to this fascinating subject his wide-ranging knowledge of science and history—and his award-winning ability to explain the complex with accuracy, clarity, and wit. He is the author of over 220 books of both fiction and nonfiction, the latter including works on every branch of science, on history, on literature, and on humor. For adults, he has written the two-volume Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, and for young people, four other books on the Bible.


  The Bible is the most-read book that has ever existed, and there are uncounted millions of people in the world who, even today, take it for granted that it is the inspired word of God; that it is literally true at every point; that there are no mistakes or contradictions except where these can be traced to errors in copying or in translation.

  There are undoubtedly many who do not realize that the Authorized Version (the “King James Bible”), the one with which English-speaking Protestants are most familiar, is, in fact, a translation, and who therefore believe that every one of its words is inspired and infallible.

  Against these strong, unwavering, and undeviating beliefs, the slowly developing views of scientists have always had to fight.

  Biological evolution, for instance, is considered a fact of nature by almost all biologists. There may be and, indeed, are many arguments over the details of the mechanics of evolution, but none over the fact—just as we may not completely understand the workings of an automobile engine and yet be certain that a car in good working order will move if we turn the key and step on the gas.

  There are millions of people, however, who are strongly and emotionally opposed to the notion of biological evolution, even though they know little or nothing about the evidence and rationale behind it. It is enough for them that the Bible states thus-and-so. The argument ends there.

  Well, then, what does the Bible say, and what does science say? Where, if anywhere, do they agree? Where do they disagree?

  That is what this book is about.

  It does not argue one way or the other. It offers no polemics. It merely considers the verses of the Bible, line by line and, indeed, word by word, discusses the content and meaning, and compares them with the scientific view that pertains to the passage.

  Nor does it do this for the entire Bible, for the chief area of dispute lies in the very beginning of the Bible—the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis.

  The Bible, as a whole, deals with the legendary Abram (called Abraham later in life) and his descendants, but in the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis, there is a quick overview of earlier events from the creation of the Universe to the birth of Abram about 2000 B.C.

  This period of primeval history is based on two documents, according to those who have most carefully studied the Bible: the J-document and the P-document.

  The J-document, which is the older, contains dramatic early legends that were current among the people of Israel and Judah. The tales of the J-document may have been written down and reached their present form some time before 700 B.C., when Assyria from its base in the Tigris-Euphrates valley (modern Iraq) was the strongest kingdom in western Asia.

  Even before Assyria became powerful, the culture of the Tigris-Euphrates dominated western Asia, even as far back as 3400 B.C., when the Sumerians (who lived there then) invented writing. The Sumerian legends and their theories of the creation of the Universe and of early history spread to all the surrounding peoples and exerted a strong influence on them (just as Western theories of the creation of the Universe and of early history have spread to and influenced surrounding non-Western peoples today).

  The P-document is later and was gathered and put together during the time when the people of Judah (the Jews) were in captivity in the Tigris-Euphrates region in the sixth century B.C. At that time, the domi
nant tribe of the region was the Chaldeans, and their capital was in Babylon, so that the P-document picked up what we might call Chaldean or Babylonian views of cosmic history—which in turn were based on nearly three thousand years of thought dating back to the Sumerians.

  The two documents were combined by reverent editors, concerned to do as little damage to either as possible. The first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis reached their present shape by the time the Jews returned to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile-say, 500 B.C.

  All through the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis, there is a strong tinge of the Tigris-Euphrates; a Sumerian/Assyrian/Babylonian thread that is unmistakable.

  This is not necessarily bad. The people of the Tigris-Euphrates region were the most sophisticated people in the world at the time and had elaborated the closest approach to what we might call science. They were ahead of other civilizations in this respect—the Egyptian, the Indian, the Chinese, the Cretan—from the time when writing was invented to the time when the Bible took on its present shape, a period of three thousand years.

  What’s more, the Biblical writers and editors were thoughtful men who borrowed selectively, choosing what they considered good and rejecting what seemed nonsensical or unedifying. They labored to produce something that was as reasonable and as useful as possible.

  In doing so, they succeeded wonderfully. There is no version of primeval history, preceding the discoveries of modern science, that is as rational and as inspiring as that of the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis.

  Nevertheless, humanity does progress. Succeeding generations learn more and deduce more. If the primeval history of the Book of Genesis falls short of what science now believes to be the truth, the fault cannot lie with the Biblical writers, who did the best they could with the material available to them. If they had written those early chapters of Genesis knowing what we know today, we can be certain they would have written it completely differently.

  And having said all that, we will now turn to the Book of Genesis and begin our task.

  The First Book of Moses,1 Called


  Chapter 13

  1. By ancient tradition, the first five books of the Bible were written by Moses, the folk hero who, according to the account given in the second through fifth books of the Bible, rescued the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.

  Modern scholars are convinced that this theory of authorship is not tenable and that the early books of the Bible are not the single work of any man, and certainly not of Moses. Rather, they are a carefully edited compilation of material from a number of sources.

  The theory of multiple authorship of the Bible dates only from the nineteenth century, however.

  In 1611, when King James I of England appointed fifty-four scholars to produce an English translation of the Bible suitable for English-speaking Protestants, no one questioned the tradition of the Mosaic authorship of the five books. The Bible produced by these scholars is the “Authorized Version” (authorized by the king, that is, in his capacity as head of the Anglican Church). The Authorized Version is commonly referred to as the King James Bible. It is the one I am using in this book because, even today, it is the Bible in the minds of almost all English-speaking people. There have been better translations, since to be sure, but none can match the King James Version for sheer poetry.

  In the King James, the initial book of the Bible is referred to as “The First Book of Moses.”

  2. The First Book of Moses begins, in the original Hebrew, with the word bereshith. It was not uncommon in Biblical times to refer to a book by its first word or words. (Papal bulls, to this day, are named for the two Latin words with which they begin.)

  The Hebrew name for the First Book of Moses is therefore Bereshith. Since the word happens to mean “in the beginning,” and since the First Book of Moses starts its tale with the creation of the Universe, it is an apt name. (In fact, I use the phrase as the title for the book you are holding.)

  The Bible was first translated into another language, Greek, in the third century B.C. In the Greek version of the Bible, the Hebrew habit of using the first words as the name was not followed, and descriptive names were used instead. The First Book of Moses was named Genesis, a Greek word meaning “coming into being.” This is also an apt name, and the Greek Genesis is commonly used as the title of the first Book of the Bible, even in English translation.

  3. Early manuscripts of the Bible did not divide the various books into chapters and verses. It was only little by little that such divisions appeared. The present system of chapters and verses first appeared in an English Bible in 1560.

  The divisions are not always logical, but there is no way of abandoning them or changing them, for they have been used in reference, in commentaries, and in concordances for four centuries now, and one cannot wipe out the usefulness of all these books.

  1 In the beginning 4 God 5 created 6 the heaven 7 and the earth. 8

  4. The very first phrase in the Bible states that there was a beginning to things.

  Why not? It seems natural. Those objects with which we are familiar have a beginning. You and I were born, and before that we did not exist, at least not in our present form. The same is true of other human beings, of plants and animals and, in fact, of all living things, as far as we know from common observation.

  We are surrounded, moreover, by all the works of humanity, and all these were, in one way or another, fashioned by human beings; before that, they did not exist, atleast in their fashioned form.

  It seems natural to feel that if all things alive and human-fashioned had a beginning, then the rule might be universal, and that things that are neither alive nor human-fashioned might also have had a beginning.

  At any rate, primitive attempts to explain the Universe start with an explanation of its beginning. This seems so natural a thing that it is doubtful if anyone ever questioned the concept of a beginning in early times, however much disagreement there may have been over the details.

  And in the scientific view, there is also considered to be a beginning, not only for Earth, but for the entire Universe.

  Since the Bible and science both state that heaven and earth had a beginning, does this represent a point of agreement between them?

  Yes, of course—but it is a trivial agreement. There is an enormous difference between the Biblical statement of beginning and the scientific statement of beginning, which I will explain because it illuminates all subsequent agreements between the Biblical and scientific point of view; and, for that matter, all subsequent disagreements.

  Biblical statements rest on authority. If they are accepted as the inspired word of God, all argument ends there. There is no room for disagreement. The statement is final and absolute for all time.

  A Scientist, on the other hand, is committed to accepting nothing that is not backed by acceptable evidence. Even if the matter in question seems obviously certain on the face of it, it is all the better if it is backed by such evidence.

  Acceptable evidence is that which can be observed and measured in such a way that subjective opinion is minimized, In other words, different people repeating the Observations and measurements with different instruments at different times and in different places should come to the same conclusion. Furthermore, the deductions made from the observations and measurements must follow certain accepted rules of logic and reason.

  Such evidence is “scientific evidence,” and ideally, scientific evidence is “compelling,” That is, people who study the observations and measurements, and the deductions made therefrom, feel compelled to agree with the conclusions even if, in the beginning, they felt strong doubts in the matter.

  One may argue, of course, that scientific reasoning is not the only path to truth; that there are inner revelations, or intuitive grasps, or blinding insights, or overwhelming authority that all reach the truth more firmly and more surely than scientific evidence does.

  That may be so, but
none of these alternate paths to truth is compelling. Whatever one’s internal certainty, it remains difficult to transfer that certainty simply by saying, “But I’m sure of it.” Other people very often remain unsure and skeptical.

  Whatever the authority of the Bible, there has never been a time in history when more than a minority of the human species has accepted that authority. And even among those who accepted the authority, differences in interpretation have been many and violent, and on every possible point, no one interpretation has ever won out over all others.

  So intense have been the differences and so unable has any one group been to impress other groups with its version of the “truth” that force has very often been resorted to. There is no need here to go into the history of Europe’s wars of religion or of the burning of heretics, to give examples.

  Science, too, has seen its share of arguments, disputes, and polemics; scientists are human, and scientific ideals (like all other ideals) are rarely approached in practice. An extraordinary number of such arguments, disputes, and polemics have been settled on one side or the other, and the general scientific opinion has then swung to that side because of compelling evidence.

  And yet, no matter how compelling the evidence, it remains true, in science, that more and better evidence may turn up, that hidden errors and false assumptions may be uncovered, that an unexpected incompleteness may make itself visible, and that yesterday’s “firm” conclusion may suddenly twist and change into a deeper and better conclusion.

  It follows, then, that the Biblical statement that earth and heaven had a beginning is authoritative and absolute, but not compelling; while the scientific statement that earth and heaven had a beginning is compelling, but not authoritative and absolute. There is a disagreement there that is deeper and more important than the superficial agreement of the words themselves.