Breishit (Genesis) and the Age of the Universe

Article by Shlomo Moshe Scheinman


What Benefit Could G-d Have In Creating and Destroying Worlds Previous to the Six Days of Creation?

Contents of the Article

Are There Any Ancient Opinions of the Sages About the Creation of the World That Also Harmonize Well With Modern Scientific Theory?

    The viewpoint that is probably the easiest to harmonize with modern science is the very ancient rabbinic viewpoint that G-d created worlds and destroyed worlds previous to our world and therefore anything that we find over 6000 years old is just a leftover remnant of previous worlds that were later destroyed. 

What Exactly is the Viewpoint of G-d Creating and Destroying Worlds?

    It is stated in Midrash Kohelet Rabba on the Biblical Verse in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) chapter 3 verse 11:

“Everything he made it beautiful in its time”. Rabbi Tanchuma stated: “In its time the world was created and it wasn’t fitting to be created prior to this, rather according to its hour was it created, for it was stated, “Everything he made it beautiful in its time”. Rabbi Abahu stated: “from here we deduce that the Holy One Blessed Be He, would build worlds and destroy them, create worlds and destroy them until he created these and he said this is pleasing to me, those are not pleasing to me. Rabbi Elazar states this entrance is open to the depth, for it was stated (Breishit/Genesis chapter 1):”And the L-rd saw that all that he made behold it was very good”.

In Maharzu’s commentary to the Midrash, he explains, “this entrance is open to the depth”, means that this verse is an open proof and revealed to the eyes of all and there is no rebuttal at all.” And the L-rd saw that all that he made behold it was very good”, these are pleasing to me, those were not pleasing to me, and so this was stated explicitly in (Midrash) Breishit Rabba 3:7(end of quote).

To give you a better idea how ancient is this viewpoint, Rabbi Abahu and Rabbi Elazar lived somewhere in the time period between 2 – 2 and 1/2 centuries after the destruction of the 2nd Temple.

More on the Idea of Created Worlds and Destroyed Worlds

    I can only rely on the viewpoints of Rabbi Tanchuma, Rabbi Abahu and Rabbi Elazar to reconcile Torah with current scientific evidence, if the term “Created Worlds and Destroyed Worlds” does not necessarily imply a total eradication or removal of the older world, before the new one is created or built, for ancient fossils, if and I stress if, they are correctly dated imply some element of an older world remained with us to this day.
The reasons that lead me to my interpretation are:

    1] Rabbi Abahu first stated, “He would build worlds and destroy them” and then repeated his statement in a slightly different way, and stated, “create worlds and destroy them”. This is to inform us that the definition of creation, when speaking in general about the Six Days of Creation as a unit, is to be interpreted to mean, building. This is in contrast to the first verse of the Torah, “In the Beginning, the L-rd created the heaven and the earth”, where there, the verse is referring to Creation Ex Nihilo, creation from total nothingness. The fact that only the creation in the first verse of the Torah was a Creation Ex Nihilo and the rest of creation, involved just a rebuilding of all that was created at the very beginning is indeed the opinion of many of the well known Rabbis of Judaism, for example, Rambam (Maimonides) and Ramban (Nachmanides).

Now if the Six Days of Creation indeed means six days of building, we have to look for precedents in Hebrew, to see if building something new, first requires the total eradication of the old, and so too, we should look for a precedent to see if the concept of “destruction”, always denotes, total elimination of the what previously existed.

Now let’s examine the precedent of the Second Temple, which the sages describe as having been built and then centuries later destroyed in secular year 70 or 3830 on the currently used Jewish Calendar (as explained by Baal Hamaor’s commentary to the 1st chapter of tractate Avoda Zara).

From Tractate Zevachim, page 62a it appears that the general shape of the First Temple, was still recognizable decades, after its destruction, when they started the building process for the Second Temple.  So too, after the Second Temple was officially destroyed, certain elements continued to exist. So for example, Rabbi Yehuda Zolden brought a number of sources, that up to 54 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, an altar was still present there  (based on Netziv, Ha’amek Davar, Dvarim 16:3 although this point about the altar is not universally accepted) or at the very least elements of the main Temple Building (called the Heichal), were removed at that later time period by the Roman Tyrant Turnus-Rufus (tractate Taanit 29a, see also the Yerushalmi on Taanit and Eicha Rabba where the Tyrant’s name is shortened to Rufus).

Furthermore as Rabbi Rogin, head of Mercaz Har Habayith, (an organization that promotes activism on behalf of the Temple) points out that the non-Jewish theologian, Cyril indicated that some stones of even the Holy of Holies were still blatantly visible even 280 years after the 2nd Temple’s official destruction.

To quote Rabbi Rogin:

“Most people who have not really studied the issue understand that when the Temple was destroyed, it was completely destroyed and there was nothing left. However, we have a number of indications that the ruins of the Temple were still visible on the surface for hundreds of years for after the time of the destruction. The Nazarite, Y.S.V. cursed the Temple and said there will be a time that there won’t be one stone standing on the other. Cyril was the bishop of Jerusalem around the year 350 was trying to explain this prophecy to his students as it was clear that it hadn’t been fulfilled. He said that it’s true that it hasn’t been fulfilled yet, but still in the future you will see a time where there won’t be one stone standing on another not only in the place of the Kodesh Kodashim but even on the outer walls. It clearly means that the ruins of the Kodesh Kodashim were still visible in the year 350, two hundred and eighty years after the destruction of the Temple”.

Furthermore despite all the evil intentions and deeds of the Muslim Waqf, on the Temple Mount, even in our times, we are still finding remnants of the First and Second Temples being unearthed on this holy site.

To sum up my point, Rabbi Abahu, equated the phrase Create Worlds and Destroyed Worlds to the phrase “Build Worlds and Destroyed Worlds”. And there is a precedent to prove that a process of building and destruction, does not require total removal of remnants from an older period.

    2] The Bible in the verse, Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 31:21 states: “for G-d has created a new thing in the land, a woman shall court (lit. surround) a man”. Clearly, the concept of creation in that verse is not a reference to Creation Ex Nihilo, but rather to something new emerging out of an already existing universe.

    3] Rabbi Yisrael (Israel) Lipschitz, author of the famous Rabbinic commentary on the Mishna, Tifferet Yisrael, when faced with the fossil evidence already in his time, that life existed on Earth more than 6000 years ago, also understood the Midrash, which talks of Created Worlds and Destroyed Worlds, as a source to explain what we have found. And so too, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, (in Igrote Haraaya, Volume 1, Lettter 91) used Rabbi Abahu’s statement as a possible (but not a definite) explanation of the geological record. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s article on the Age of the Universe, currently found at http://www.simpletoremember.com/faqs/Kaplan-SimpleToRemember.com.pdf (page 14 and 15 of this online article) also seems to back “the Created Worlds and Destroyed Worlds” interpretation of the Torah to explain the findings of science. 

What was G-d’s Purpose in Creating and Destroying Worlds Before Our Current World?

    G-d often acts as a role model for us to mimic. So for example, just as G-d built the world for 6 days and then rested on the seventh, so too, the Bible tells us, we are supposed to mimic G-d and rest on the seventh day of the week. Similarly, it says in Talmud Yerushalmi, Peah 3a, chapter 1 halacha 1: Aba Shaul says, “I will be like him, just as he is merciful and gracious, so too, you should be merciful and gracious”.

    Therefore once we see that G-d created and destroyed worlds, before he found the current one pleasing to him, so too, when we create, we should be prepared to create in stages, and then periodically monitor the results of our efforts. Namely, to review what needs to be improved or changed, and what needs to be discarded entirely. In short, G-d was teaching us the methods of experimentation and the ideal of progress.

    I will add that this good character trait of willingness to evolve to a better ideal is specifically needed as we get closer to the full redemption; for Ohr Hachayim to Vayikra (Leviticus) 25:25 points out that our striving for a more complete fulfillment of the Torah, by the means of striving to rebuild the altar and the Temple, where we will partake of the “table of G-d” will hasten the redemption; while laziness in this matter brings upon us the sufferings called the “birth pangs of Messiah”, which reduce our incentives to retain the lazy “old way” of doing things. Maharal in his work, Netzach Yisrael also stresses that the birth pangs of Messiah are needed to break the old way of doing things in order to make room for the messianic ideal (although he places no particular stress on striving to build the Temple as the means to this end).

    I have also read an entirely different justification for G-d’s creation and destruction of previous worlds that states the following. We appreciate in a better way, the good that we have, when we first realize, the chaos, fault, and destruction that could have been. Therefore, the created and destroyed worlds that came before ours, were first made, to give us a greater appreciation of the good we indeed possess and to counter the temptation towards haughtiness and denial of G-d that often comes with material success (see Dvarim/Deuteronomy 8:11-18 as an example). The more mankind achieves greater material advances than ever before, the more mankind needs reminders of his ultimate vulnerability via new evidence coming to light for past worlds that were ultimately destroyed.

Is There a Biblical Precedent that G-d Would Allow Major Destruction of Animals and Plants Merely to Teach Mankind Lessons of Morality?

We see in the Bible that G-d is perfectly willing to allow for some major destructions and rebuildings in nature in order to teach men, moral lessons. For example, when the ten plagues were brought upon Egypt, G-d caused all the fish in the Nile river (at least in the Egyptian part) to die after the first plague (Shmot/Exodus 7:18), he caused most of the frogs of Egypt to die after the 2nd plague (Shmot/Exodus 8:9); and as a result of the 5th plague, the Egyptian cattle died (Shmot/Exodus 9:6) and at the end of the eighth plague of locusts, all of them were swept by the wind into the Red (or Reed) Sea (Shmot/Exodus 10:19). We see clearly teaching mankind moral lessons by means of the ten plagues was a much greater concern to G-d then preserving his creations from destruction. We see this principle on an even greater scale during the flood of No’ach (Noah). Namely, G-d was willing to wipe out, a huge portion of his creation in order to teach the survivors a lesson how abhorrent according to G-d, is the rampant violation of his universal moral code. For a very brief outline of today’s universal moral code that G-d expects all mankind to observe, go to http://www.aish.com/w/nj/For_Non-Jews.html

Why Wasn’t G-d  Worried About Giving Support To Heretics When He Left Evidence For Previous Created and Destroyed Worlds?

Our rabbis have taught that G-d prefers to teach us good character traits, even at the expense of having individuals who desire to be heretics, abuse the wording of the Bible that teaches us the good character traits, as support for their heretical notions. See my article (at https://vilnagaon.org/let-us-make-man/) on “Let Us Make Man” (Breishit/Genesis 1:26) for an example of this principle. In the same way we can say that G-d left scientific evidence for previous created and destroyed worlds to teach us good character traits and was notworried about heretics who would seek to abuse such evidence for their heretical notions.

The Order of the Creation Days

The viewpoint of G-d creating and destroying worlds previous to ours, has at least 2 advantages. It doesn’t require a person to believe that there is a conflict between the apparent age of the universe and its actual age. It also provides a reasonable explanation, why we seem to be finding fossils that are more than 6000 years old. Although I will not hide the fact that the “ancient dinosaur fossil” argument has suffered a setback, since soft tissue and red blood cells have surprisingly been found within about half of the bones of dinosaur fossils by a research group led by paleontologist Mary Schweitzer. A finding that was very unexpected for bones that are supposed to be over 65 million years old.

For those that seek a biblical interpretation that minimizes the disagreements with the assumptions of modern science (based on the precedents of Moreh Nevuchim II:25 and Sanhedrin 91b, where Rebbe agreed to change a Biblical interpretation based on a scientific objection from a non-Jew) there is one more important issue that has to be addressed when studying the first chapter of Breishit/Genesis. Namely, Breishit does not merely tell us about the creation of the world in six days. It tells us the events of what happened on those days. So for example, if you understand the events of the 4th day of creation in a certain way, you still are going to have a major conflict between the Torah and astronomy, even if you do accept that the universe is more than 13.8 billion years old.

In a separate article, I will G-d willing offer science friendly or at least science neutral interpretations concerning the six days of creation. From my experience, I have found if I concentrate too much information in one article few people will be willing to read the article.

To access that article, press here

This Article was written in Jewish Year 5774 (Secular Year 2014).