Creation and Orthodox Jewish Tradition

After years of agonising over the literal days of Creation in Genesis, I decided to spend time researching this problem in the London School of Jewish Studies in Hendon, England. After all, I thought, why shouldn’t I go to the natural Jewish vine for some answers?

On my arrival, a Yeshiva (religious study group) was in process amongst the Orthodox students, but I was shown to the library where a bearded Rabbi pulled out the best conservative commentaries on the days of Creation, along with the Talmud.

Eager to study, I took notes from these learned works, which had been compiled by some of the most eminent scholars in Jewry. It was a strange experience being surrounded by Orthodox Jews meticulously scrutinising ancient books. After days of careful study of the conservative rabbinical scholars I had my answer: the days of Genesis were literal.

I remember turning to Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Genesis. This scholar from the Middle Ages is highly regarded in traditional Rabbinical circles. Maimonides is considered the key figure in Jewish religious thinking since the Temple was destroyed in AD 70. He recommended Ibn Ezra’s commentary as the best available. In fact, in the preface it says, “Ibn Ezra’s commentary constitutes a major contribution to Biblical Exegesis. One cannot be considered a true student of the Bible without having studied it.”  Ibn Ezra says very clearly, “One day refers to the movement of the sphere” (i.e. earth). The footnote makes sure we get the point when it says, “The heavenly sphere made one revolution. The sun was not yet seen in the firmament; neither was there a firmament.”Commentary on the Pentateuch, Genesis (Bereshit) by Ibn Ezra, translated and annotated by H. Norman Strickman and Arthur M. Silver, p.33

I turned to one of the best commentaries available on Genesis from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic sources. I discovered that virtually all the Rabbis had understood the days as literal days. In fact, some of the Rabbis even tried to work out what happened in each hour of the creation of Adam on the sixth day! In the Talmud it says, “In the first hour his (Adam’s) dust was gathered; in the second it was kneaded into a shapeless mass; in the third, his limbs were shaped; in the fourth, a soul was infused into him…” In the twelfth hour Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden!Bereishis: Genesis: A new translation with a commentary anthologised from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic sources, vol.1 (a); Art Scroll Tanach Series, a traditional commentary on the books of the Bible, general editors: Rabbi Nosson, Sherman and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, p.113, Mesorah Publications Ltd. © 1977

The Rabbis who have compiled this commentary on Genesis write, “The Sages however, tell us explicitly (Yalkut, Tehillim 49; Midrash; Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 11) that all events related here (creation of man and fall etc.) including the birth of Cain and Abel (Tosaf. Sanhedrin 38b excludes Abel; see Maharsha ad. Loc) occurred on the very first day of Adam’s creation.”ibid

We are even told that the ancient Rabbis did not bother to debate about the literal days so much as the actual month in a solar year when the world was made! The commentary says, “It appears that the ancients referred to Tishrei (September/October) as the first month, for in it creation was completed.”ibid p.249

Search as I may, I could not find any reference to a day meaning any more than a literal 24-hour period. Some of the Rabbis did debate about Genesis 2:4, which says, “This is the account of the heavens and earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven.” None of them tried to juggle this day to suit pagan philosophy (the Greek philosophers held to a long-ages understanding). Instead most of them took this day to mean “at the time when” creation took place.ibid p.87

There was a popular prophetic understanding of a “day” meaning the coming of the Messiah at the end of the world, but this had nothing to do with creation itself. The Talmud says, “Six thousand years shall the world exist, and (one thousand, the seventh), it shall be desolate, as it is written, “And the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day ...” It is also said, “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.”Talmud: Sanhedrin 97a and 97b

The Rabbis calculated these six thousand years by basing them on the six literal days of creation. They reasoned that one literal day of creation prophetically referred to a thousand years of history. This reasoning was the traditional approach of most of the Early Church Fathers, too.Examples: Irenaeus (Heresies 5:28:3); Hippolytus (Commentary on Daniel 4); Methodius (Fragments 9); Lactantius (The Divine Institutes 7:14); Augustine (City of God 20:7).

Turning to some of the more modern Jewish scholars I discovered a stubborn refusal to dilute the plain meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures. Professor Ginsberg had this to say:

“There is nothing in the first chapter of Genesis to justify the spiritualization of the expression ‘day’. On the contrary, the definition given in verse 5 of the word in question imperatively demands that ‘yom’ should be understood in the same sense as we understand the word ‘day’ in common parlance, i.e. as a natural day.”P. J. Wiseman, Creation Revealed in Six Days, p.22, Marshall, Morgan and Scott Ltd. © 1948

Professor Nahum Sarna, who was Chairman of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, referred to the days in Genesis as the same kind of days in the regulatory sacrifices in the book of Leviticus (i.e. literal days, Lev 7:15, 22:30).N.M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis, p.80, the Jewish Publication Society © 1989

My conclusion had to be that the traditional Jewish understanding of the days of Genesis are that they are literal. As I left the London School of Jewish studies and passed a Jewish newsagent on the way back to the tube, I glanced at The Jewish Chronicle. It was dated in the year 5,760 since creation.Although this is the date of Creation given by the Orthodox Jewish rabbis, church scholars through the ages have varied on an actual date, but all have accepted less than 10,000 years since Creation, with the exception of the last 200 years of modernist scholarship. I smiled and disappeared into the bustle of the London rush hour.

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