Jewish Belief on How the World Was Created

God waited for three days to create the Sun.
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The Hebrew calendar counts years from the time the world was created. In 2012, the world turned 5,773 years old. This number flies in the face of physics, which dates the Earth at approximately 4.5 billion years old and the universe, 10 billion years older. Is the youthful Earth something that Judaism takes seriously? Jewish beliefs about the origin of the world are confusing and often contradictory, making it impossible to pin down a definitive Jewish belief about creation.

1 Not One Creation Story, But Two

The Torah offers back-to-back accounts of the origin of the world which contradict each other. In the first, God creates the world in six days, finishing by making man in his own image. He rests on day seven. In the second, the world is created in one day. The first man is formed from mud, woman from his rib. Rabbis have argued over this conundrum for centuries. Medieval Rabbi Rashi reconciled the two stories by saying that the Torah is not chronological, and that the two stories were really one. Another classical rabbi, Maimonides, asserted that the Torah wasn’t meant to be taken literally, but interpreted in accordance with science.

2 A Proliferation of Creation Stories

God created Eve in the second Biblical creation story.
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Over the years, rabbis wrote their own interpretations of how the world was created. They debated the question of whether anything was created before the world. The Torah itself was created before the world existed, some said. Because nothing material existed, God wrote the book in white fire. Other rabbis held that God created the world out of nothing and that not even the Torah pre-existed the world. The Midrash, a collection of stories meant to explain points of the Torah, held the view that God created the world from a combination of fire and water. That was in one tale. In another, God wore a garment of light as he created the world from snow gathered beneath his throne.

3 Other Puzzles in Jewish Creation Beliefs

The most glaring paradox is God's creation of light. God’s first act on the first day is to create light. But God does not create the sun and stars until the fourth day. So where does the light come from? One rabbinical explanation: the original light was a special kind of light. God kept it hidden from the corruption of the world. Then there is the problem of God’s name. In the two creation stories, God has two different names. While rabbis have explained the second as a “completion” of the first, Biblical historians think that the discrepancy is one of many indications that the Torah is not the work of one author but many, whose writings were compiled into one book.

4 Jewish Belief and “Creationism”

“Creationism” is the belief that modern science has it all wrong. The Bible tells the true story of creation. Without a single Jewish doctrine on what the Bible actually says, creationism is uncommon among Jews. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews reject scientific explanations, sticking to the belief that the Torah explains it all, though they argue over what that explanation is. But even some Jewish thinkers who reject creationism endeavor to reconcile the Bible and science. They finesse the Biblical timeline to fit a scientific chronology. God’s time moves far more slowly than Earth time. The seven “days” of creation are actually 15 billion Earth years. Then there is Maimonides' view, popular with Jewish thinkers today: The Bible is allegory, not fact. The Torah is full of truth, but not scientific fact. Its truth is spiritual.

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.