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In the Beginning: Science Faces God in the Book of Genesis

In the Beginning: Science Faces God in the Book of Genesis

by Isaac Asimov

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In the Beginning: Science Faces God in the Book of Genesis. 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


In the Beginning: Science Faces God in the Book of Genesis. 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 eleven chapters of Genesis, Isaac Asimov carefully and evenhandedly compares the two accounts, pointing out where they are similar and where they are different. “There is no version of primeval history, preceding the discoveries of modern science, that is as rational and as inspiriting as that of the Book of Genesis,” Asimov says. However, human knowledge does increase, and if the biblical writers “had written those early chapters of Genesis knowing what we know today, we can be certain that 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.

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In the Beginning ...

Science Faces God in the Book of Genesis

By Isaac Asimov


Copyright © 1981 Isaac Asimov
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-2251-7


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 hooks 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.

1In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

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.

And even the superficial agreement of the words themselves disappears as soon as we ask a further question.

For instance, if we grant the existence of a beginning, suppose we ask just when that beginning took place.

The Bible does not tell us when, directly. Indeed, the Bible does not date a single event in any of the books of the King James Version in any way that would help us tie those events into a specific time in the system of chronology we use.

Nevertheless, the question of when the Creation took place has aroused curiosity, and various Biblical scholars have made every effort to deduce its date by using various statements found in the Bible as indirect evidence.

They did not come to precisely the same answer. The generally accepted conclusion among Jewish scholars, for instance, was that the date of the Creation was October 7,3761 B.C.

James Ussher, the Anglican archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, decided in 1654, on the other hand, that the Creation took place at 9 A.M. on October 23, 4004 B.C. (Ussher's calculations for this and for the dating of other events in the Bible are usually found in all the page headings of the King James Bible.) Other calculations put the Creation as far back as 5509 B.C.

Thus, the usual estimates for the age of the heaven and earth from Biblical data run from about fifty-seven hundred to seventy-five hundred years. It is over this point that the Biblical conclusions represent an enormous disagreement with the conclusions of science.

The weight of scientific evidence is that Earth, and the solar system generally, came into being in approximately their present form about 4.6 billion years ago. The Universe, generally, came into being, it would seem, about fifteen billion years ago.

The age of Earth, then, according to science, is about six hundred thousand times the age according to the Bible, and the age of the Universe, according to science, is at least two million times the age according to the Bible.

In the light of that discrepancy, the mere agreement between the Bible and science that there was, in fact, a beginning, loses most of its value.

5. God is introduced at once as the motive force behind the Universe. His existence is taken for granted in the Bible, and one might, indeed, argue that the existence of God is self-evident.

Consider: All living things are born through the activities of previous living things. If there were, indeed, a beginning, as the Bible and science both agree, how then did the first living things come into existence?

If there were indeed a beginning, how did all the natural objects-land and sea, hills and valleys, sky and earth-come into being? All artificial objects were fashioned by human beings; who or what then fashioned natural objects?

The usual manner in which this is presented is something like, "A watch implies a watchmaker." Since it is inconceivable that an object as intricate as a watch came into being spontaneously, it must therefore have been fashioned; how much more must something as intricate as the Universe have been fashioned!

In early times, the analogy was drawn much more tightly. Since human beings can, by blowing, create a tiny wind rushing out of their nostrils and mouths, the wind in nature must, by analogy, be the product of a much more powerful being blowing through nostrils and mouth. If a horse-and-chariot is a common way of progressing over land, then a glowing horse-and-chariot must be the means by which the sun is carried over the sky.

In the myths, every natural phenomenon is likely to have a humanlike creature performing functions analogous to those of the human actions we know, so that nothing in nature takes place spontaneously.

These myriad specialized divinities were often pictured as at odds with each other and as producing a disorderly Universe. As thought grew deeper, the tendency was to suppose one divine being who is responsible for everything, who directs humanity, Earth, and the whole Universe, combining it all into a harmonious whole directed toward some specific end.

It is this sophisticated picture of a monotheistic God that the Bible presentsbut one who constantly engages himself in the minutiae of his creation. Even under a monotheistic religion, popular thought imagines myriad angels and saints taking on specialized functions so that a form of polytheism (under a supreme monarch) exists.

In the last four centuries, however, scientists have built up an alternate picture of the Universe. The sun doesn't move across the sky; its apparent motion is due to Earth's rotation. The wind doesn't have to be produced by giant lungs; its existence arises through the spontaneous action of air subjected to uneven heating by the sun. In other words, a moving sun does not imply a horse-and-chariot, after all; nor does the wind imply the mouth of a blower.

The natural phenomena of Earth and of the Universe have seemed to fall into place bit by bit as behavior that is random, spontaneous, unwilled, and that takes place within the constraints of the "laws of nature."

Scientists grew increasingly reluctant to suppose that the workings of the laws of nature were ever interfered with (something that would be defined as a "miracle"). Certainly, no such interference was ever observed, and the tales of such interferences in the past came to seem increasingly dubious.

In short, the scientific view sees the Universe as following its own rules blindly, without either interference or direction.

That still leaves it possible that God created the Universe to begin with and designed the laws of nature that govern its behavior. From this standpoint, the Universe might be viewed as a wind-up toy, which God has wound up once and for all and which is now winding down and winking itself out in all its intricacy without having to be touched at all.

If so, that reduces God's involvement to a minimum and makes one wonder if he is needed at all.

So far, scientists have not uncovered any evidence that would hint that the workings of the Universe require the action of a divine being. On the other hand, scientists have uncovered no evidence that indicates that a divine being does not exist.

If scientists have not proven either that God exists or that he does not exist, then, from the scientific viewpoint, are we entitled to believe either alternative?

Not really. It is not reasonable to demand proof of a negative and to accept the positive in the absence of such a proof. After all, if science has not succeeded in proving that God does not exist, neither has it succeeded in proving that Zeus does not exist, or Marduk, or Thoth, or any of the myriads of gods postulated by all sorts of myth-makers. If the failure of proof of nonexistence is taken as proof of existence, then we must conclude that all exist.

Yet that leaves us with the final, nagging question: "But where did all this come from? How did the Universe come into being in the first place?"

If one tries to answer, "The Universe was always there; it is eternal," then one comes up against the uncomfortable concept of eternity and the irresistible assumption that everything had to have a beginning.

Out of sheer exhaustion one longs to solve everything by saying, "God made the Universe!" That gives us a start, at least.

But then we find that we have escaped eternity only by postulating it, for we are not even allowed to ask the question, "Who made God?" The question itself is blasphemous. God is eternal, by definition.

If, then, we are going to be stuck with eternity in any case, there seems some advantage to a science that lives by observing and measuring, to choose an eternal something that can at least be observed and measured—the Universe itself, rather than God.

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.)


Excerpted from In the Beginning ... by Isaac Asimov. Copyright © 1981 Isaac Asimov. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Isaac Asimov was a Russian‑born American writer and the author of nearly five hundred books. He is credited as one of the finest writers of science fiction in the twentieth century. Many, however, believe Asimov’s greatest talent was for, as he called it, “translating” science, making it understandable and interesting for the average reader.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
January 20, 1920
Date of Death:
April 6, 1992
Place of Birth:
Petrovichi, Russia
Place of Death:
New York, New York
Columbia University, B.S. in chemistry, 1939; M.A. in chemistry, 1941; Ph.D. in biochemistry, 1948

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