AWESOME CREATION, A Study Of The First Three Verses Of The Torah

The first three verses of the Torah are perhaps the best-known sentences of the Hebrew Bible. They may also very well be the least understood. In Awesome Creation, Rabbi Yosef Bitton delves into these verses with an open mind and an open heart. Drawing on classical Jewish sources as well as current scientific data, Rabbi Bitton offers a fresh reading of the initial words of Scripture. Among the subjects covered are the coincidences and differences between the Big Bang theory and the Biblical Creation story, the unexplored consequences of Creation ex nihilo, the controversies surrounding the age of the universe, the state of our planet upon its creation, the natural forces used by the Creator to reshape His world, and the enigma of the nature of primeval light. Throughout his book, Rabbi Bitton emphasizes the importance of an accurate comprehension of Biblical Hebrew, as explained by the Rabbis of the Talmud and the classical Torah commentators. Through a precise understanding of each word of these verses and thanks to today s modern scientific knowledge we are able to appreciate, as never before, the beauty and sophistication of the Biblical story of Creation.
By Ruth Sher, January 7, 2015
For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by the mystery of creation. I used the creation story as the topic for my Bat Mitzvah speech, and I took a course in astrophysics at university. As a religious Jew, I believe in the Torah’s creation narrative, but as a scientist, I believe in the Big Bang. According to Rabbi Yosef Bitton, that is no contradiction.
In Awesome Creation, Rabbi Bitton presents my favourite consolidation of the creation narrative with Big Bang theory. Rather than trying to find Torah sources to support modern scientific thinking, Rabbi Bitton focuses on trying to understand the simple meaning of the Torah words. Only once he has established clearly what the Torah is saying does he present modern scientific theories for support. Rabbi Bitton is coming from the perspective of a ‘grammarian’, not a scientist, so he does not accept any scientific explanations (compelling though they might be) that break the precise rules of Hebrew grammar.
The backbone of Rabbi Bitton’s approach is the idea that creation was a gradual, yet accelerated, process. He derives the concept of gradual, accelerated creation from a midrash explaining the events of the sixth day of creation, and uses an analogy to explain it: If someone showed you two pictures of a watch, one in which the hands were pointing to 12 o’clock, and the other in which the hands were pointing to 2 o’clock, and asked you how much time had passed between the two pictures, the simplest answer would be that two hours had passed. That is based on our knowledge of how watches work under normal circumstances, without external influences. However, it is possible that someone manually wound the watch forward by two hours, in which case the two pictures could really have been taken seconds apart. The external influence caused the process to be accelerated, but it is still gradual in that the hands of the watch passed through every position between 12 o’clock and 2 o’clock.
In the creation story, science can describe the gradual process that had to take place, as well as the time that would have had to pass for that process to be completed naturally. But the Torah assumes the presence of an outside influence, namely G-d, which could cause the acceleration described in the Biblical narrative. This accounts for the difference in timing for creation, according to the two views. However the acceleration would only speed up the process, not change it. Rabbi Bitton explains the gradual process of creation as described by the Torah as follows:
• In the beginning, all the building blocks of matter were created (in a Big Bang event).
• The young Earth was formed with a toxic atmosphere, but it was equipped with wind and water.
• Intense sunlight penetrated the atmosphere and began to heat the water. (Day 1)
• The water evaporated, and the wind helped to begin the water cycle. (Day 2)
• The wind and rain together shaped the land into its current structure, and plants were able to emerge. (Day 3)
• Plants produced oxygen which cleared the toxic atmosphere and formed into an ozone layer, blocking out the intense sunlight so that the sun could become life-sustaining. (Day 4)
With the presence of a life-friendly environment, the creation of animals and humans (in days 5 and 6) would be possible. Although Rabbi Bitton does not discuss the emergence of life in any detail, he does mention in a footnote that it would be interesting to explore that in a separate book.
The book is laid out as an analysis of first three verses of the Torah. As each verse, and each word, is explored in detail, a view of the creation process emerges that is uncannily in line with current scientific thought.
By Michelle Cohen , March 21, 2013
Awesome Creation is really a fantastic work. Highly recommend it to anyone interested in delving into the biblical story of creation. The work is divided into three parts, each analyzing a different verse from the beginning of Genesis. The verses are analyzed using Hebrew grammar, clsssical commentaries, modern Jewish thinkers, scientific findings, relevant biblical parallelisms and philosophical ideas.
I would say that there are three aspects which make this work stand out.
First, the attention given to Hebrew grammar. Often, modern Biblical commentaries are not versed enough in Dikduk to be able to give over a sophisticated and traditionally accurate reading of the Hebrew text. This is something which was always indicative of classical Sepharadic biblical scholarship and which Rabbi Bitton does a fantastic job of integrating in his work.
Second, the way the book integrates science and scientific findings to explicate the words of Bereshit. This is not a book which directly deals with the science vs. religion question. It does not seek to solve that dilemma. What Rabbi Bitton does instead is to highlight how modern science sheds new understanding on some biblical/talmudic ideas and concepts.
Third, this book brings to life many, many Rabbis which are to often absent from normative Jewish literature in America. He features writers like R Moshe Chefetz, R’ Menashe Ben Israel, R’ Morris Raphall and many others. These voices add nuances and new understandings which are currently not being heard in the scholarly and religious discourse around Biblical exegesis.
Overall, I found the book great. It presents very complex subjects in an accessible manner (especially since it has a summary to every chapter) and is also filled with inspiration of the divine genesis. I very much recommend Awesome Creation.