How Old is the Earth: 6,000 Years, or 4 Billion? Rabbis Offer Biblical “Proof”

August 10, 2016

4 min read

After successfully debating Bill Nye, a celebrity scientist, Ken Ham built a $92 million theme park in Kentucky with a full-size replica of Noah’s Ark as a centerpiece to promote his belief in Biblical Creationism. People are flocking to the park, and its Biblical message of creation seems to be gaining popularity. This belief has not caught on in Judaism, but the reasons may surprise you.

A Pew poll in February showed that 34 percent of Americans choose creationism over evolution, and another 25 percent believe in evolution guided by a supreme being (intelligent design). The poll went into detail, showing that 57 percent of Evangelical Christians believe in creationism, with another 25 percent believing in natural processes guided by a supreme being, leaving only 11 percent who believe in evolution.

On the other hand, the Pew poll showed that 58 percent of Jews believed the world came about through natural processes, another 18 percent believed these processes were guided by a supreme being, and only 16 percent believed the world has always existed in its present form.

Noah's Ark replica built by Ken Ham. (Twitter @ArkEcounter)
Noah’s Ark replica built by Ken Ham. (Twitter @ArkEcounter)

It may seem paradoxical that the People of the Book, who received the Torah directly from God, would reject a belief based on a literal reading of the Bible. But although many see creationism as a choice of belief and Bible over science and data, Jews have worked hard to live successfully in both worlds.

In its purest form, creationism understands the world as coming into existence, fully formed, in six calendar days of 24 hours each, with man created separately as the pinnacle of God’s work. It precludes evolutionary theory and theories about the origin of the universe, leading to a conflict on estimates of when the earth and the universe were created.

Scientists generally agree the earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago. Most scientists claim the Big Bang that brought the universe into existence occurred approximately 14 billion years ago. Young Earth creationists believe both events occurred simultaneously between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.

As director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, Rabbi Natan Slifkin embodies the ideal of a Biblical scientist. He doesn’t see any contradictions between the worlds of Bible and science. Judaism, he explains, has always been able to accommodate science and theology. He quoted the Rambam, a preeminent medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher.

“As Rambam said, accept the truth from wherever it comes,” he told Breaking Israel News.According to the rationalist approach, it is preferable to explain creation in scientific terms, because it is always preferable to see God working within nature and a system of law. “

Conflicts do arise between Torah and science. The Hebrew calendar, presently standing at 5776, is, in theory, based on the creation of the world. Rabbi Slifkin again quoted the Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed, in which the rabbinical scholar wrote, “The account of creation is not all to be taken literally.”

The Rambam went on to explain that the Six Days represent a conceptual rather than historical account of creation. Rabbi Slifkin cited Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman (1843-1921), a member of Agudath Israel’s Council of Torah Sages, who suggested that the Six Days of Creation were lengthy eras rather than 24-hour periods.

Evolution, the impetus for Ken Ham’s massive Biblical theme park, simply does not seem to be such a big deal for Jewish Biblical scholars.

Rabbi Natan Slifkin, General Director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, in Beit Shemesh, on March 4, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Rabbi Natan Slifkin, General Director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, in Beit Shemesh, on March 4, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“God can work through meteorology, through medicine, through history, and through developmental biology. This is why it makes no difference if the neo-Darwinian explanation of the mechanism for evolution is true or not,” Rabbi Slifkin explained. “All these descriptions were interpreted literally by the Sages of old, and yet almost all recent Torah scholars interpret them non-literally.”

Torah Judaism also differs from Bible-based Christian creationism on the point of the nature of man. Creationism holds that man is distinct from animals, owing to the separate description of his being “formed”. It is partly for this reason that creationists reject evolutionary theory.

Then Hashem God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Genesis 2:7

Genesis describes man’s creation twice, and Rabbi Slifkin emphasized the version in the first chapter of Genesis.

And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. Genesis 1:27

“Classical Judaism has long maintained that man is not qualitatively different from animals in his physical aspects,” the rabbi noted. “Man’s unique identity is in his spiritual soul, not in his physical body and most certainly not in his physical origin.”

Natan Aviezer. (Bar Ilan University)
Natan Aviezer. (Bar Ilan University)

Professor Natan Aviezer of Bar Ilan University, a physicist and religious Jew, deals with this issue in his book Modern Science and Ancient Faith. He quotes Charles Darwin’s parting words in his manifesto on evolution, On the Origin of Species.

“There is a grandeur in this view of life, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one, and from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.” Charles Darwin

Aviezer also cites Samson Raphael Hirsch, an influential German rabbi and contemporary of Darwin, bringing a Rabbinic concept of Olam Ke’Minhago Noheg (the universe goes its accustomed way). God did not simply create the world and step back. Aviezer explains that God works within nature.

“This important principle explains how God interacts with His world,” wrote Professor Aviezer in his book. “It follows from this principle that no scientific discovery can cast doubt on the existence of God.”

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