The majority of people throughout history have held the belief that the universe as we know it has always existed. As late as 1917, even Albert Einstein published Cosmological Considerations in the General Theory of Relativity which proposed that the universe was temporally infinite.
It has only been within the last 70 years or so that observational evidence (like the Cosmic Microwave Background or CMB) strongly suggests that the universe as we know it is temporally finite.
The book of Genesis promotes the idea that the universe as we know it had a beginning. Rare among origin legends, this finite time universe concept has drawn criticism to its supporters from religious and non-religious people alike throughout history. But with recent advances and theories in cosmology and paleontology, could it be that this ancient tale is the most accurate early writing on those topics?
What follows is an objective analysis of select passages in Genesis. I make an effort to consider the history and original language of the book and draw parallels to advances made in physics, cosmology, and paleontology over the last 100 years. For brevity, only verses being directly analyzed are included here. To view the chapters in their entirety, the World English Bible (WEB) translation which is freely available on the internet or whatever version of Genesis you prefer can be referenced.
Although many interpret this statement to mean that Earth was the first thing created, considering the chapter as a whole this reads as the chapter introduction.
This is supported by the subsequent pattern of:
1. God Says.
2. Then it happens.
As He has not made any declarations in verse 1, we can assume that nothing has happened.
Cosmological Event: Prior to the Photon Epoch
Age of universe: 0
The audience of this tale 3,000 years ago would have no concept of space let alone the absence of earth beneath their feet at all. A paraphrase of this exposition could be, "Imagine that where you're standing is an empty black pit that you cannot see beyond." Or "What do you see when on a boat on still water on a starless night?" In other words, trying to convey the image or feeling of nothing below you.
"The surface of the waters" could refer to anything with a fluid property. Although it may not seem to match the ancient context, cosmology and quantum mechanics describe the invisible early universe in surprisingly “liquid” terms.
It is as though the author is describing an unseen potential waiting to be set loose. Something formless waiting to take a form.
Cosmological Event: Photon epoch
Age of universe: ≈10 seconds
The Higgs Boson (often labeled the “God particle”) is a theorized quantum particle that would have been abundant in the universe before the Photon Epoch. In 2014, researchers at CERN believe they have produced this primordial particle as evidenced by its theoretical decay products which include photons.
Visible light is believed to be among the first known particles and dominated the infant universe.
Cosmological Event: Recombination
Age of universe: ≈379,000 years
Scientists theorize that around 379,000 years after the Photon epoch, enough matter was in the universe to absorb the photons. There was now something to separate "light and darkness".
The remaining "decoupled photons" are absorbed and the entire universe goes visibly "dark" again for roughly the next 250-650 million years.
Cosmological Event: Photon Decoupling (Dark Ages)
Age of universe: ≈150,000,000 years
Interestingly, the Hebrew root for "Evening" or "עֶרֶב" is also a root for "to mix, confuse" which implies a kind of homogenized disorder. "Morning" or "בוקר" shares root meaning with the terms "controlled, audited, reviewed".
Even the word for day ("יום" or "Yom") may represent any period of time. This means linguistically there is no requirement that each "Yom" needs to be interpreted as a 24-hour time period.
By using collateral meanings for several of the terms, the second sentence in verse 5 could read:
There was "disorder" (עֶרֶב) and there was "order" (בוקר), the first "era" (יום).
This is also the first example of God naming a creation which implies that it did not exist until then.
It seems odd that an ancient origin story would claim that there was a time that light did not exist, and then light was "divided" from space to again show dark. However, this cosmic scale "day" parallels current scientific theory for the initial 400 million years of our universe.
1:7 God made the expanse, and divided the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so.
Cosmological Event: Earth Forms
Age of universe: ≈9,259,000,000 years
As the Earth formed within the solar accreditation disk, "waters" to describe the thick swirling gasses and matter seems like an appropriate description. The “waters” under the expanse would be the ground below the sky (Earth), and the “waters” above include the moon, sun, and other objects in our solar system.
At this time the accreditation disk and the thick early atmosphere had the early Earth shrouded in an opaque cloud of gas until the Sun main sequence ignition. Even if the Earth was illuminated to some degree by starlight, the light would be diffused making it difficult to identify any objects or stars.
15 and let them be for lights in the expanse of sky to give light on the earth;" and it was so. 16 God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He also made the stars.
Cosmological Event: Sun main sequence
Age of universe: ≈9,299,000,000 years
In a relatively brief time after the sun’s main sequence ignition, lighter gasses and dust are blown away from the inner solar system by solar wind. It not only illuminates the moon and planets, but also unveils the stars and galaxies beyond our solar system for the first time. This delayed reveal may explain why stars seem to be an afterthought in verse 16.
Planetary Event: Formation of oceans
Age of universe: ≈9,999,000,000 years
Even as the protoplanetary disk dissipates from the solar winds, earth would for a time still have an opaque lower atmosphere which would give it a Jovian appearance until it eventually cleared or precipitated revealing the ground below. An observer of these events time compressed might perceive this to be the settling of liquid to oceans and lakes.
Alternatively, some geological theories propose that our planet was largely covered in liquid shortly after the mantle formed. The earth may have been formed mostly flat with major geological features emerging over time.
Planetary Event: Earliest trees
Age of universe: ≈13,414,000,000 years
Although there is ongoing research on what plants or animals evolved first, there is a good estimate regarding some of the larger examples we’ve uncovered. The eras mentioned in this tale would need to be visible by the naked eye from a location on or above the earth's surface. Plant life would have been the first notable addition on land while most everything else was still evolving beneath the surface of lakes and oceans.
Planetary Event: Earliest flight birds
Age of universe: ≈13,629,000,000 years
Most evolutionary theories and evidence supports the idea that life began in water. As far as birds being the next creature mentioned, most current research on dinosaurs shows that many are closely related to avian species. In a very literal way, the surface of Earth and skies above it were dominated by the ancestors of birds for millions of years.
Also, there were many flying creatures that could fit a "bird" description. Pterosaurs are believed to have predated birds by 80 million years. Even some large insects, like meganeuropsis permiana which lived nearly 300 million years ago, were as large as a medium-sized modern bird. One could certainly find examples of large flying creatures at any time in history since then.
Planetary Event: Grazing Mammals
Age of universe: ≈13,774,000,000 years
Mammals are believed to be the last of the animal classes to evolve. As eventual changes to the environment of Earth makes it prohibitive for the larger dinosaurs to survive, the highly adaptive mammals and other “creeping things” thrive.
Planetary Event: Anatomically modern man
Age of universe: ≈13,798,800,000 years
When read plainly, this passage appears to be referring to "mankind" as opposed to a specific "man" or “woman”. We are also still in the 6th age as the mammal dominated era.
The term “day” or “Yom“ (יום) is again used here, but this time to refer to the time period of creation overall. This further supports a flexible interpretation of the period defined by each “day” being the intention of the author.
Additionally, the rationale for this creation story being told as 7 “eras” is possibly for poetic structuring. From antiquity, the only universal method used to denote groups of days is by movement of the moon with the quarter moon phase (7 days) being a common subdivision. As a grouping of seven would be easily remembered and related to days of the week, it would facilitate recollection in an oral tradition.
2:5 No plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for Yahweh God had not caused it to rain on the earth. There was not a man to till the ground,
2:6 but a mist went up from the earth, and watered the whole surface of the ground.
Planetary Event: End of the last ice age
Age of universe: ≈13,798,988,300 years (apx. 9,700 BCE)
Plant cultivation (farming) was not common among early man. Known paleontological evidence shows evidence of some farming roughly 12,000 to 23,000 years ago, however the largest shift towards cultivation was after the end of the last ice age. Until then, humans have been almost exclusively hunter gatherers.
Additionally is the mention of no rainfall during this time. Although that sounds like an unusual thing to mention, it is emphasized here and later during Noah’s tale in chapter 7. Today even the most arid regions of the world have at least an occasional or seasonal rainfall, so it seems entirely fictional that there could be no rainfall at all.
However, since this passage is already set to take place prior to the end of the last ice age, we need to consider the global environment at around 10,000 years ago. During that time it is believed that globally there was roughly 10% less rainfall than is typical today. Although this seems like a modest difference, most of this precipitation is projected to have taken place over the ocean. Liquid rain over inhabited areas of land would be notably rare during this time.
Despite the lack of rain, plant life likely thrived across the inhabitable regions world. Even today there are climate regions where rainfall is infrequent but morning dew or thick fog provides significant daily moisture.
For example, the central and northern coastlines of California receive a modest amount of rain. However, much of the area has thriving plant life year round including a variety of grasslands and forests. Among them is the sequoia national forest that features the world's tallest trees. Frequent fog and dew accumulations accounts for as much as 80% of the annual moisture accumulation in this region.
Based on our current understanding of the last ice age and the history of human plant cultivation, these few verses provide insight to the environment experienced by ancient cultures as recent as 10,000 years ago.
2:15 Yahweh God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
Biblical Event: Rosh Hashanah
Age of universe: ≈13,798,994,222 years (based on generally accepted Torah interpretation)
Scholarly interpretation of this chapter is clear that creation of Adam takes place after creation and is not a retelling of the 6th "era" as is a common misconception. Also, putting Adam into a "garden" to "dress and keep" suggests that cultivation was an emerging practice at this time.
With the creation of Adam we have completed the story's progressive narrowing of narrative scope:
1. The entire universe filled with the first light.
2. The condensation of nebulas that form into galaxies like our own.
3. Planetary bodies of our solar system and main sequence ignition of our sun
4. Major geological features of Earth and Vegetation
5. Sea and air creatures that would be around most of the Earth
6. Landlocked animals and then specifically mankind
7. An individual human
Adam, being the smallest narrative unit, is where the story of creation officially ends.
Although the term “shânâh” (שָׁנָה) is largely translated as “year”, the ancient root meaning is “to repeat”. My hypothesis is that, even if our written examples are accurate, the contextual usage of “shânâh” (שָׁנָה) may have evolved over the centuries. Instead of referring to a solar year, it could have also been used in pre-flood societies to refer to the lunar month.
Recording ages in “moons” was a common practice in prehistory. This would be especially common with nomadic communities during the ice age, and is still practiced by some Eastern Mongolian and native American cultures in recent history.
One’s age in lunar cycles is about 12.36 times their age in solar years, which would make ages in the plural 100’s commonplace. For example, if Adam’s reported age of 930 is counted in “moons”, he would have lived to be a still notable 75 years old. Dividing all the numbers in this chapter by 12.36 may not work out perfectly for all pre-flood ages in Genesis, but it largely fits prehistoric and nomadic practice.
“The largest floods known to have occurred in human history are those from the end of the last ice age, between 13,000 and 8,000 years ago. As the world's great glaciers began to melt, they left large freshwater lakes behind that had been precariously confined by retreating ice dams. When those ice dams failed, the floods that resulted were almost beyond comprehension.”
Whether or not Noah's tale is fact, we now know that massive flooding and a notable rise in the global sea level did happen in a relatively short time.
After the flood recedes, the rainbow is introduced as though it was a previously unobserved event. Of course, rainbows are a prismatic effect caused by water droplets in sunlight. Although we have all seen this visual phenomenon, there was a limited range of cloud coverage, precipitation, and sun position to create this effect.
Back in Genesis 2:5 the author made it clear that rain was not common at the time of Adam, and there is no mention of it until verse 7:11. As discussed earlier, before the end of the ice age, over land liquid rainfall was notably less. The probability of witnessing a rainbow would have been significantly lower at that time.
NOTE: This is an interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis that, although I find supportable by the various sources I've mentioned, the real value is in finding an interpretation that speaks to you.
Here is a site that has a very different but also compelling and immensely thorough analysis: https://reachingadventistschristiansandothers.com/genesis-commentary/
My hope is that you find an interpretation that speaks to your sensibilities and faith as the one I've written here has strengthened my convictions.
To learn more about this multidisciplinary contextualized analysis of Genesis, contact us at questions@WhetScience.com.
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