This article is from
Creation 11(2):49–50, March 1989

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Editor’s note: As Creation magazine has been continuously published since 1978, we are publishing some of the articles from the archives for historical interest, such as this. For teaching and sharing purposes, readers are advised to supplement these historic articles with more up-to-date ones suggested in the Related Articles and Further Reading below.

What was the ancient Jewish view of creation?

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The Talmud is a collection of ancient writings by Jewish rabbis which relate to the Hebrew Scriptures. It has been described as “a work wherein is deposited the bulk of the literary labours of numerous Jewish scholars over a period of some 700 years [from 200 BC to AD 500]”.1

Thus it is the oldest Bible commentary in existence. There is, however, a very wide range of views held between the different rabbis. According to Abraham Cohen in Everyman’s Talmud, “Usually we are faced with a variety of views which are often contradictory, and it is by no means easy to achieve a coherent presentation of a doctrine.”2

How did those learned ancient men view the biblical account of creation? Did they take the Scriptures literally? Or did they absorb evolutionary views from their Greek neighbours?

The beginning

first-word-of-genesis
Figure 1. The first word of Genesis. Its first letter (on the right) is open only at the front, indicating that it is pointless trying to consider a time before the beginning.

To the question, ‘Why does the story of creation begin with the letter beth?’, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the Talmud’s answer is given: “In the same manner that the letter beth is closed on all sides and only open in front, similarly you are not permitted to inquire into what is before, or what was behind, but only from the actual time of Creation.”3 (See Figure 1.) That is to say “time is meaningless as far as God is concerned and did not exist until He created the world”.4

Was Adam one man?

Did any of the ancient rabbis believe that ‘Adam was a crowd’? Apparently not. Cohen says that a curious explanation is given in the Talmud as to why the whole human race originated from one man: “Because of the righteous and the wicked, that the righteous should not say ‘we are the descendants of a righteous ancestor’ and the wicked say ‘we are the descendants of a wicked ancestor’.” The moral is that “neither can plead hereditary influence as the deciding factor in their character”.5 “Man was first created a single individual to teach the lesson that whoever destroys one life, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had destroyed a whole world; and whoever saves one life, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had saved a whole world.”6

Eve made from Adam’s rib

The story is told that an emperor said to a rabbi that his God was a thief, because he took a rib from Adam. The rabbi’s daughter made an excellent reply. She told him a story about a thief breaking into her house, stealing a silver ewer and leaving behind a gold ewer instead. When the emperor expressed envy at such a robbery, she replied, “Was it not, then, a splendid thing for the first man when a single rib was taken from him and a woman to care for him was supplied in its stead?”7

fig-2
Figure 2. The order of creation of the three basic elements (see Exodus 20:11) according to the school of Hillel.
fig-3
Figure 3. The translation of day names in Genesis chapter one. (For a full explanation of the pagan names of the days of the week refer to the article The Seven Day Cycle).

Events of the creation week

There doesn’t appear to have been any suggestion that the days of the Creation week were long periods of time, although there was diversity of opinion as to the order of creation of heaven and earth.

Rabbi Nehemiah of Kefar Sihon expounded Exodus 20:11 as indicating three primal elements (heaven, earth and water) in the creation of the universe (in contrast to Greek philosophy which accepted four basic elements). This was expanded by the school of Hillel, to suggest that each of the three elements was created on a separate day, then after three days, each brought forth three species (as shown in Figure 2).

Rabbi Azariah however, believed in only two elements (heaven and earth), on the basis of Genesis 2:4. In other words, he took this verse to refer to the ‘elements’ which were created first, and therefore perhaps not in contradiction of the events of the six days of chapter 1. This was expanded by the school of Shammai to imply that heaven was created on the first day and waited three days until it was completed on the fourth day with the creation of the luminaries; while Earth was created on the third day and also waited three days until it was completed on the sixth day with the creation of man.8

Night and day

The majority of ancient rabbis believed that the creation of darkness preceded the creation of light,9 on the basis of the mention of darkness in Genesis 1:2 before the creation of light in Genesis 1:3. Each day of creation consisted of an evening (darkness) preceding the morning (daylight), on each of the six days of creation. This is why the day begins at 6 p.m. according to Jewish reckoning.

It is interesting to note that days of the week have never been given names by the Jewish people, but only numbers, following the pattern of the six days of creation. Hence, it would be perfectly reasonable to translate Genesis 1 into our Western culture with the words: Monday, Tuesday, etc. (see Figure 3). For example, it was taught, “One born on a Sunday will be wholly good or wholly bad because on that day light and darkness were created.”10

Heavens

It is also interesting to note one explanation given for the meaning of the Hebrew word translated ‘heavens’. It was split into the two words sham and mayim, meaning the place of waters,11 thereby relating the very meaning of the word to God’s act of Creation on the second day, of separating the waters above the expanse from the waters below the expanse (or ‘firmament’ as in the King James (Authorized) Version).

Summary

So how did the ancient rabbis view the Creation account in Genesis? It is fair to say that they never took it other than literally. Perhaps they accepted certain incorrect scientific ideas from the world of their day, but it must be admitted that these false ideas did not come from the sacred text.

However, ‘Adam’ was understood to be a single man, from whose rib God made the first woman; ‘Day’ was understood to mean an ordinary (24-hour) day, consisting of a dark part and a light part; ‘beginning’ meant beginning, and so on.

References and notes

  1. Cohen, A., Everyman’s Talmud, Schocken Books, New York, 1975, Introduction, p. iii. Return to text.
  2. Ref. 1., Preface, p. vii. Return to text.
  3. Ref. 1., p.27., (p. Chag. 2:1). Return to text.
  4. Ref. 1., p.37. Return to text.
  5. Ref. 1., p. 94., (Sanh. 38a). Return to text.
  6. Ref. 1., p. 67., (Sanh. IV 5). Return to text.
  7. Ref. 1., p. 160., (Sanh. 39a). Return to text.
  8. Ref. 1., p. 35., (Genesis R. XII 5). Return to text.
  9. Ref. 1., p. 34. Return to text.
  10. Ref. 1., p. 281. Return to text.
  11. Ref. 1., p. 30. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

Terry W.
While I and the Talmudic rabbi would probably disagree on many things, there is one thing we agree on:

Because of the righteous and the wicked, that the righteous should not say ‘we are the descendants of a righteous ancestor’ and the wicked say ‘we are the descendants of a wicked ancestor’.” The moral is that “neither can plead hereditary influence as the deciding factor in their character”.


I hear from atheists and Evolutionists all the time that the only reason I'm Christian was because I was raised Christian. Since I was not raised Christian, this is easy to refute. God had to prove to me that He was real and He did. Calvin Smith has similar broad strokes in his background, as does Walter Veith (a Seventh Day Adventist in the body of Christ's other foot; CMI and he would probably have intriguing doctrinal debates if they were so inclined, but I'd rather see them together to agree on the science.) On the other hand, we're overwhelmed with stories of children raised Christian turning from the faith of their childhood before adopting it intellectually because they are being raised as Evolutionists in the public school system. (Note: I encourage readers looking for a solution to that to check out Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) to see if there's a local school using their program. The one closest to me is subscribed to Creation magazine and has an impressive stack of them. A point in argument is that one of its graduates did not accept the Christian faith and got into a workplace argument with me that nearly came to blows.)

For those confused by the time issue, imagine reading a novel. You pick it up and read it from beginning to end, but the book is complete: you can open it to any page. Thus is the time dimension to God.
Jonathan Sarfati
Yes, it is high time that atheopaths, including Clinton R. Dawkins, stopped committing that genetic fallacy.
Rabbi Chaim D.
This article is correct. Orthodox Jewish rabbis always have, and still do, take the Genesis account of Creation literally.
I invite Dr Jonathan Sarfati to return to his Jewish roots and scrap his belief in Jesus. Contacting Aish Hatorah or Rabbi Tuvia Singer would be a good place to start. He will be grateful to me in the Afterlife if he heeds my advice. Best wishes, Chaim
Jonathan Sarfati
I have returned to my Jewish roots by worshipping Yeshua HaMashiach prophesied by the Tanakh. For refutations of the christophobic agitprop of Rabbis Tuvia Singer and his ilk such as Rabbi Daniel Asor, see for example this page of videos by One for Israel Ministries. This features two Israel-born Messianic Jews, Eitan Bar and Moti Vaknin, speaking their native Hebrew with English subtitles.
Ryan B.
I have a question about this comment “time is meaningless as far as God is concerned and did not exist until He created the world.” If time didn’t exist until God created it, would God be able to have foreknowledge of the future even when there wasn’t a time dimension to have foreknowledge of yet? Kinda unrelated but I figured I ask.
Jonathan Sarfati
Rather, we don't have foreknowledge precisely because we are created in time, and are thus limited by it. God is the creator of time, so is not limited by time. He even knew, in the timeless state of Eternity Past, that he would create a time dimension and foreknew what we would call the future.

This ability to know the future distinguished the true God from the counterfeits in the Trial of the False Gods:


  • Let them … announce to us what is coming; declare the things that are going to come afterward, that we may know that you are gods (Isaiah 41: 22– 24)

  • “You are My witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and My servant whom I have chosen, in order that you may know and believe Me and understand that I am He.” (Isaiah 43: 10).


It’s notable that Jesus alludes to this as a claim for deity:



From now on I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He. (John 13:19)

This is even clearer in the Greek:


  • hina pisteusēte … hoti egō eimi (Isaiah 43: 10 LXX)

  • hina pisteusēte … hoti egō eimi (John 13: 19)


This identical phrasing (in Greek ἵνα πιστεύσητε … ἐγὼ εἰμί) means:


that you should believe … that I am he

Thus the unique ability of not being limited by the time dimension is a proof of deity in both the Old and New Testaments, and is a refutation to cults that deny that Jesus is God (see James White, The Forgotten Trinity, Bethany House, 1998).

Seathrún M. É.
It is interesting to note that while all the English names of days of the week are pagan, the names in some other European languages are of mixed origin. Italian domenica, and apparently French dimanche, for Sunday come from Latin dominicus [dies] meaning ‘Lord’s [day]’, as does the Irish Domhnach. Italian sabato for Saturday means ‘Sabbath’. In Irish, due to the mediaeval custom retained until recently by the Roman Church, Friday is Dé hAoine (‘fast day’), Wednesday is Dé Céadaoin (‘day of first fast’) and Thursday is Déardaoin, short for ‘Dia idir Dhá Aoin’ ("day between two fasts’). The other Irish day names seem pagan, though Dé Luain (Monday) can be rendered as ‘Day of Judgement’, a double meaning which has been exploited for centuries.
God bless your work,
R. Seathrún M. É.
Tony M.
Please avoid linking Biblical truths to the Talmud. The Talmud is used to discredit Jesus on many pages for example; Gittim 56b, 57a mentions Jesus as being in hell and boiled in feces.

Our credibility as Christians rests solely on the truth of the Bible (Proverbs 30:5–6), not on linking ourselves to ancient Jews.
Ancient Jews rejected Jesus (Matthew 27:22) and so why bother with referencing their beliefs on creation when we have plenty of scientific evidence that disproves deep time?
Jonathan Sarfati
We know that the Talmud is anti-Christian. For example, here are two videos by two Israeli Messianic Jews exposing the Talmud (spoken in Hebrew, their native language, and subtitled in English; off-site):


  1. The Talmud (Oral Law)'s embarrassing oxymoron against Jesus

  2. Woman's Degradation In Judaism vs. Jesus' View



But since the article is entitled: What was the ancient Jewish view of creation?, what should we have quoted, do you think? Or should we not even have such an article?

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