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 anotation of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, Isaac Asimov carefully and even-handedly compares the two accounts, pointing out where they are similar and where they are different.
Similarities and differences both exist. For instance, both the Bible and modern astronomy picture a universe which began in a single flashing moment. It came into existence by the word of God, according to the Bible; by the shattering explosion of the “big bang” in which a blob of matter blew outward to form the galaxies, according to astronomers.
That’s a similarity. But as nearly as we can tell from the vague chronology of the Bible, the Biblical moment of Creation took place six or seven thousand years ago. On the other hand, according to modern astronomical estimates, the big bang took place perhaps fifteen billion years ago. That’s a difference.
Some Biblical items which have sounded peculiar in the past have been upheld by science. According to the Biblical account, light was created before the sun, which sounds odd. However, we know from modern astronomy that the universe was in existence, and ablaze with light, for ten billion years before the sun came into existence in its present light-radiating form.
On the other hand, the Bible specifically denies any form of evolution, whereas the evolutionary development of all life, of the stars, of the whole universe, is absolutely central to modern sceintific thought and cannot be abandoned.
What does Asimov make of all this? He says, “There is no version of primeval history, preceding the discovery of modern science, that is as rational and as inspiring as the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis.” However, human knowledge does increase, says Asimov, and if the Biblical writers “had written these early chapters of Genesis knowing what we know now, we can be certain 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. He is the author of over 200 books of both fiction and nonfiction, the latter including works on every branch of science, on history, on literature, and on homor. For adults, he has written the two-volume Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, and for young people, four other books on the Bible.
This is the last book Asimov wrote on the Bible, and the first to handle squarely the conflict between a literal reading of the Bible and modern science.
Indeed, Asimov’s goal here is to prove that the two are irreconcilable, that the early parts of Genesis must be taken as myth and at best a highly poetic version of how things happened. Asimov isn’t trying to directly undercut the theological perspective that “God created the Universe”—his point is more that even if God did create everything, modern science is the better place to go for information on the how and when of that process than the Bible.
This is in fact an annotation of the first section of Genesis, dealing with the Creation, Adam and Eve, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. Asimov thus quotes the text and discusses what it appears to be saying and what science has to say on similar subjects. He does a pretty thorough analysis, too, and a good job of it.
This book is an excellent vehicle for looking at Asimov’s perspective on the scientific value of the early part of Genesis and science itself—and for anybody interested in trying to reconcile Genesis with modern science.
(It also performs one very useful service that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Asimov actually separates one of the source strands which underlies the account of the Flood in Genesis and prints it by itself without the other source strands. This is amazing, because the account produced is simpler and a lot more coherent than what exists in the current MT or other OT versions—an excellent, practical demonstration of the value of the source theoretic approach to Pentateuch authorship.)