Science Battling Genesis: How Old is the Universe?

I have been teaching recently the first chapters of Genesis. As expected, these chapters raise huge controversy, more than any other chapter in the Bible. It is easy to understand. After all, while most of the Bible deals with society, morals, or spirituality, the first few chapters of Genesis deal with the creation of the physical world, presenting a very different view than modern science. This is particularly true when questions about the age of the universe are concerned.

Naïve reading of the Bible will tell us that the world is about 6,000 years old. Science, on the other hand, has a different view. By combining data from different disciplines, scientists believe that the age of the universe is about 13.7 billion years, and the age of earth is about 4.5 billion years.  

This is huge, hardly imaginable, difference. The age of the universe according to science is about a million times larger than the age according to the Bible.  To make these huge numbers easier to comprehend, let’s scale them down. If, for instance, the world according to the Bible was scaled down from 6,000 years to 6 hours (in other words, if the Biblical world was created 6 hours ago) then the world according to science was formed nearly 700 years ago. That was during the Spanish inquisition, before Columbus discovered America.

Of course, there are many religious scientists who are familiar with the two versions of creation and find no contradiction between them. How can they do it?

A common interpretation bridges the gap between the two, seemingly unbridgeable, ages by recognising that the word ‘day’ in the Bible (יוֹם, yom) does not necessarily mean a period of 24 hours, but can indicate an unspecified period, or an era.

This is a the most common explanation of the difference. But today I want to present a different one, which claims that God creates and destroys worlds. That is, our world is only one of many that God has created and destroyed – and probably it is not the last one either. Those who subscribe to this interpretation claim that many of the ancient relics found, like fossils, which are used to prove the antiquity of the world, come from the remains of old, now destroyed worlds.

I like this interpretation for many reasons. But the question we must ask ourselves is if the Bible gives us any hints that support it.

I would like to present three clues from the book of Genesis that I believe support this claim. For the sake of transparency, I want to tell you that this is my own interpretation, and that I did not find any other work that connects these three to the age of the world. Still, I believe that this is exactly what they are.

Genesis 1:1

Genesis 1:1
In the Beginning

The first clue is the most subtle one, as it requires understanding of some aspects of the Hebrew language. So, as I do not assume any knowledge of the language, bear with me while I take you through a few grammar points relevant to our verse. This, by the way, is completely missed in translation.  

The first things you should know about the Hebrew language is that it does not have vowels. The vowel sound of each letter is determined by the marks (dots and lines) below, above, and inside it. This is called NIKUD.

Let’s, for example, look at the letter BET (the equivalent in sound to B or V). If it appears with a line under it, בַּ, it will be pronounced as BA (like in the word button). But if it appears with two dots under it, בְּ, it will be (mostly) pronounced as BE (like in the word bear).

The second thing to know is that in Hebrew you attach the preposition (those little grammar words like in, to, from) to the beginning of the word. When you do so, it becomes part of the word itself. For example, if the word for a garden is גָּן (GAN), in a garden will become בְּגַן (BE_GAN).

The third point is about the definite article the.  In Hebrew, the by itself will be הַ (HA). To continue with our previous example: garden is גָּן (GAN); the garden will therefore become הַגָּן (HA-GAN).

However, when we use it with prepositions, such as in, to, for, etc, הַ is merged into them. That is, it disappears as a letter, but will change the sound of the preposition following it. In our example: if in a garden will be בְּגַן (BE-GAN), in the garden will be בַּגַּן (BA-GAN). I hope you can see the difference. It is the first letter that changes it sounds from BE to BA, and that changes the meaning from in a garden to in the garden.

So now you have all the knowledge you need to tackle Genesis 1:1. 

The very first word of the Bible is בְּרֵאשִׁית (BE-RE-SHIT). In all translations I have read, it is always translated as in the beginning.  But now, with your new Hebrew knowledge, you already know it is not correct. In the beginning would be בַּרֵאשִׁית (BA-RE-SHIT). But as it is בְּרֵאשִׁית (BE-RE-SHIT) it means in a beginning.

So, what is the difference between in the beginning and in a beginning? The former indicates one and only beginning; the latter indicates that it is one out of others. So, reading the Hebrew we can get our first clue. The Bible is hinting that there were (and maybe will be) other beginnings.

*Note for those who have higher level of Hebrew and want to take it even further. The discussion above can be expanded. The word רֵאשִׁית is actually SMICHUT, in which we are missing the SOMECH. That is, it actually telling us in the beginning of … but it deliberately hiding from us a beginning of what.

Genesis 1:2

Unlike our first clue, this one does not need any Hebrew, as any translation will give us the clue.  In Genesis 1:1 God creates heaven and earth. But in verse 2 we are told that the spirit of God hovered above the water.   וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים,מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם 

Where did the water come from if it had not yet been created? For me it is a clear clue that the Bible is hinting the water had already existed before this creation.

Genesis 2:5

From my experience of teaching the Bible, I know that the hint in Genesis 2 is the most controversial from the three. So, bear with me for a bit longer.  

In Genesis 1 we are told clearly that God created the vegetation on day three, and man on day 6.  The order is clear. Vegetation first, man later.

But in Genesis 2, the Bible tells us a different story. For this story we do not need the Hebrew, so I will use the JPS translation:

  • Verse 5 tells us that no vegetation grew: No shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up;
  • Verse 7 tells us of God creating man: Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground;
  • Verse 9 tells us about God creating vegetation:  And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food;

If we forget Genesis 1 for a moment and read only Genesis 2, we would have no problem understanding it. First, there was no vegetation. Then God created man. Then God created vegetation. However, when we put the two stories together, it becomes obvious that the two do not agree on the order of things. Recognition of this paradox is not new and I cannot take credit for it. This paradox has perplexed scholars for generation, for over 2000 years.

Q. Why would the Bible tell us the same thing twice?
A. To hint that we must pay attention to it … more than normal.

Q. Why would the Bible tell us different accounts of the same event?
A. To hint that it is not the same event we are talking about.

So, unless you believe that there is a mistake in the Bible, that the two version are coincidental, or that the difference was unintentional, there is no other conclusion other than to read these are two different events the Bible is telling us about. Two different creations, similar but not the same. 

And with these three hints, I believe that the Bible is telling us that we are not the first creation, and probably not the last one either.

How amazing it is to discover that many Eastern religions, too, tell us about our world forming and destructing over and again, many times, maybe forever. However, while for them it is the heart of the religion, in the Bible it is hinted, hidden for everyone to find. The other difference is that while in the other religions the circle repeats itself, the Bible is telling us that although the creations are similar, they are not identical. We will never be reborn.

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