In the Beginning

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)
ph_0111207059-Asimov.jpg Isaac Asimov. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The book of Genesis has been one of the most widely read and discussed books of the Old Testament since ancient times. To the multitude of commentaries, Isaac Asimov now adds one from the viewpoint of a science writer. For those who interpret the Bible literally, and who see it as the infallible Word of God in its slightest details, the book of Genesis has been held to be the most radically in conflict with the views of modern scientists. For this reason, Asimov chooses to discuss the ways in which such details of the first eleven chapters of Genesis agree and disagree with the results of science. He proceeds verse by verse, matching the biblical text with scientific discussion and speculation.

In taking this approach, Asimov tries to assume the position of his audience. He is evidently addressing this work to people who read the Bible literally and who find puzzling the apparent conflicts with science. Others who read the Bible casually may also be struck by its differences from those scientific views which modern culture finds so commonplace and acceptable. In speaking to these readers, the author keeps his book at a nontechnical level. He uses the familiar (and matchless “for sheer poetry”) King James translation of the Bible, with only occasional references to the more scholarly Revised Standard Version. He attempts to treat the King James Version fairly and uses modern biblical scholarship when it seems necessary to explain apparent contradictions within the text itself. Many internal discontinuities are explained by the differences between the two groups of writers (“Jahwist” and “Priestly,” or “J” and “P” strands) responsible for the early chapters of the Genesis text.

The writers, or perhaps “collectors,” of each group expressed themselves in terms of different myths absorbed from the surrounding cultures. Because the Priestly writers were from a later time and influenced by the more “scientifically” advanced Babylonian culture, they tended to use more sophisticated legends or cosmological speculations. Asimov finds that the views of modern scientists can more often be harmonized with the Priestly document than with the earlier Jahwist text. A major exception to this is the two accounts of the order of creation. In that case, the Jahwist account of water being formed after the land more nearly accords with the contemporary view that only after the earth had cooled for a while could water begin to accumulate on the surface of the globe.

Asimov brings to this book a wide-ranging knowledge of the ancient Near East and its legends. He has written a number of historical and geographical books dealing with such subjects as Greece, Rome, the Near East, and the Bible. He has also written numerous books on science for the lay reader. Thus Asimov would seem to have the requisite knowledge to support this recent enterprise in the correlation of Bible and science.

With his technique of line-by-line comparison, Asimov hopes to avoid all polemics and simply compare the scientific and historical claims of the biblical writers to contemporary knowledge. This intent itself, however, clearly shows two major problems with Asimov’s book. First, it seems that he entirely misses the issue of the genre of the biblical text. The Bible is not primarily a scientific document or a history textbook from the ancient world. To treat it as such is to trivialize its importance. It is rather a literary document which gives a mythically-expressed account of the origins of a religious group. He does not seem to recognize that the Bible is not primitive science but that it does use primitive science and legends to express a message and purpose which is primarily religious. The details of how and when the world factually began are subservient to the fundamental questions: by whom, for whom, and for what purpose and meaning was the world created? Asimov’s failure to address the issue of the biblical message is shown clearly in the absence of any comments whatsoever on the repeated phrase “and God saw that it was good.” Here, however, is one of the keys to the explanation offered by Genesis regarding the order and meaning of the universe.

Second, Asimov fails miserably at his express desire to avoid polemics. This desire is belied by the fairly evident assumption, embedded within the approach itself, that the mere statement of a conflict with science shows a biblical passage to have “no basis in fact” or to be “the reverse of the truth.” He admits that scientific reasoning is not the only path to truth, but it is the only compelling one. A rather revealing statement of Asimov holds thatIf the primeval history of the Book of Genesis falls short of what science now believes to be the truth, the fault cannot lie with the Biblical writers, who did the best they could with the material available to them. If they had written those early chapters of Genesis knowing what we know today, we can be certain they would have written it completely differently.

Equally revealing are his “translations” of certain biblical passages. For example,In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

becomes, in modern scientific language,To begin with, fifteen billion years ago, the Universe consisted of a structureless cosmic egg which exploded in a vast outpouring of energy.

This assumption that the biblical writers were writing a cosmological account, which has now been superseded, is an assumption which is closely tied to Asimov’s failure to account for the religious message, the purpose, and the literary genre of the Genesis...

(The entire section is 2389 words.)

In the Beginning Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Best Sellers. XLI, April, 1981, p. 31.

Booklist. LXXVII, February 1, 1981, p. 734.

Choice. XVIII, June, 1981, p. 1430.

Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, January 1, 1981, p. 47.

Library Journal. CVI, March 1, 1981, p. 565.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, March 15, 1981, p. 16.

Village Voice Literary Supplement. IV, December, 1981, p. 40.