BACK TO THE BEGINNING
One of my Sunday School students asked me a plausible question: On what day did God create the dinosaurs?
Plausible, and for an elementary school student, totally understandable; and yet, resting on a wrong assumption. That assumption is that the Biblical story of Genesis ought to be read as a scientific account.
To understand why this is a wrong-headed assumption, let's conduct the following scenario. Mom and daughter are walking home from the park. Mom is singing "Somewhere over the rainbow". Daughter, who had science class today, puts two and two together, and says, "Mommy, in science class we learned that all the weather takes place in the lowest layer of the atmosphere, the troposphere. (She is very proud of herself for pronouncing "troposphere" correctly!) Is Oz in the troposphere? Or is it in the stratosphere?"
Our precocious (albeit hypothetical) fifth grader did indeed put two and two together, which is one of the goals of education, but in this case, she was adding a real number and an imaginary number.
Mommy smiles and praises her child for being so smart, and then goes on to explain that Oz is a make-believe place.
With a bit of a frown, daughter continues: "So why sing about it"?
Now it's Mommy's turn to frown: "Because, first of all, it is a wonderful story, and we can enjoy stories because that's part of the joy of being human. Second, this story, The Wizard of Oz, tells us some important morals, such as, 'there's no place like home'-- speaking of home, we are almost there, and as soon as we get inside, I need you to sit down and write a thank you note to uncle Zack for that great birthday present he sent you, a whole two weeks ago!
Now, Genesis is not just "The Wizard of Oz". It is far more important, spiritually as well as culturally. But it's importance is not in the realm of science. Getting that wrong has cost people who care about religion, and cheapened the cause of religion, ever since the Church persecuted Giordano Bruno and Galileo, four centuries ago.
So: if Genesis is not to be read literally, if it is not science, what, then, are its messages? Of course, its first message is the reality of God. But there is much more:
Genesis teaches that reality is a universe. Ultimately, it is the expression of one consistent set of laws. Genesis is not science, but it conveys an attitude towards the world that makes science possible.
Genesis teaches us to affirm this world. Over and over again, God surveys the latest addition to creation and pronounces it good. We are not meant to escape this world, so as to get closer to God. We are meant to affirm this world and continue the process of bringing out the good in it.
Genesis teaches us that reality grows over more complex and variegated. We need to preserve the complexity of the world. When God surveys everything made, God pronounces it "very good". The mass extinctions caused by our human-induced climate change are a sin against God's creation.
Genesis teaches that the human is of great worth. Contrast Genesis with the Babylonian creation myth, in which humans are created from the gory droplets of the carcass of Tiamat, the sea monster defeated by the god Marduk. Again, in the Mesopotamian creation story Enuma Elish, humans are created to be robots, to free the gods from work. In Genesis, God's creation is done by fiat. There is no need for humans to ease God's burden. Rather, humans are created to bring into actuality the spiritual potential that is not yet actualized by the other creatures.
Genesis teaches that God blesses the humans by saying they will rule over the other animals, and yet grants them only a vegan diet. This already conveys the lesson of self-control, self- mastery, which is the sign of a great soul. Self-centered exercise of power, such as we see in the daily headlines, is an offense against the divine mandate given to all people. Use your power wisely and compassionately.
Finally, Genesis teaches that creation is not complete with the sixth day. The seventh day, the day of rest, is the crown of creation. That means, we must strive to exceed the natural tendencies implanted in us. They are necessary, but not sufficient. A day of rest stands in for the spiritual accomplishments of which we are capable; not further dominion over nature, but rather an emulation of God.
On what day did God create the dinosaurs? That, my student, is a different story.
Rabbi Michael Panitz