In the Beginning

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2389

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.

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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 text.

It may be arguable that Asimov purposely is ignoring such nonliteral factors as the religious message, genre, and the interpretation of the meaning intended by the mythic language and legends. He would ignore these in order to speak on a common ground to fundamentalist readings of the Bible. A fundamentalist view of the Bible does indeed seem to focus on the conflict between the Bible and science on matters of concrete fact, rather than looking for a deeper meaning which renders the mode of expression quite secondary. If it is Asimov’s intent to meet the fundamentalists on their own ground in this way, then again his book fails for a number of reasons. Such an encounter takes on exactly the polemical character he wishes to avoid, with science scoring points for all agreements and disagreements with the Bible while the biblical text only scores for coincidental agreements with contemporary scientific knowledge. Whatever determined attempts he might make at an objective discussion, he shows his true attitude in statements such as this about the flood:It is a horrible death by drowning that is thus unemotionally dismissed in the Bible. One can imagine drenched people trying to find high ground, trying to keep their heads above water. We can imagine animals fleeing uselessly. Whatever their sins, a more merciful deity, one might imagine, would have simply swept them painlessly out of existence with a word, and begun over again.

In this case, he will be most unlikely to gain any hearing among people inclined towards fundamentalism. On the other hand, by keeping his book to the simplest level of biblical study, he sidesteps much of the complexity of modern biblical scholarship. Thereby he fails to address adequately most of modern and contemporary liberal theology—which is a great deal of religious knowledge to ignore. Finally, by assuming the most fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis, he does a grave disservice to those unfamiliar with the alternatives. Rather than adequately examining the presuppositions of literal interpretations, he has unquestioningly adopted the same presuppositions—that the Bible may be treated as a document expressing simple matters of fact, and that science and religion are dealing with the same aspects of, or approaches to, reality. This is rather like comparing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) to a specialists’ handbook on motorcycle repair. By assuming the fundamentalists’ literal reading of Genesis, Asimov would make it appear to be the primary, or even the only, way that the Bible has been read. This is not true now any more than it has been throughout the history of reflection upon the Bible. It would seem only fair at least to mention the most contemporary biblical research when making comparisons to contemporary scientific theories.

Beyond these fundamental problems, there are numerous flaws in style, organization, and content. The style is poor because of the book’s lack of continuity. By proceeding a verse or two at a time, Asimov produces a disconnected work which falters most obviously when he reaches the genealogies of the tenth and eleventh chapters. There is no sustained argument or thesis to the work, and it reads like an atlas of biblical and scientific trivia. Some of the “scientific” discussion is merely silly and irrelevant, such as his comparison of the Jahwist account of Eve’s formation out of Adam’s rib with modern speculations about the cloning of an entire human being. He follows the sixth chapter’s reference to the giants in the earth with a digression upon dinosaurs and giant gorillas. Then he comes to the incident of chapter nine in which Noah gets drunk and his son “saw the nakedness of his father.” When Noah awoke from his drunken stupor, he saw what his son had done to him and cursed him for it. In this context, Asimov choose to go beyond the normal speculations about voyeurism and incest to a discussion of castration myths. He admits that the biblical text gives no evidence for the crime of castration, yet in this instance, as in others, Asimov engages in his speculations anyway. (The speculations about Noah are particularly idle ones since it is most probable that such a thing would have awakened Noah long before he had slept off his binge and awoke to see what his son had done.) Lastly, Asimov gives his readers no assistance in pursuing the issues of the Genesis text. He gives no notes or references for any of the ideas to which he refers, leaving the reader in a vast sea of puzzling details and wild speculations with no directions for further investigation. There is also no corroboration that Asimov has gotten his facts straight. It would be helpful for him to mention even a few starting points for additional reading, such as the first volume of The Anchor Bible or perhaps even Gerhard Von Rad’s Genesis: A Commentary (1961).

In some areas Asimov shows himself to be rather trustworthy. He demonstrates a broad knowledge of the background of history and legends from which the Old Testament writers drew. (He does not, however, always seem to apply this knowledge with equal appropriateness or judiciousness.) He also shows the ability to simplify the complex arguments of modern scientists about such things as cosmogony and evolution so that the average reader can understand them. Here again, however, there are no aids to deeper reading in the field.

Asimov’s book does contain some good reminders on the dangers and errors of certain views of the world which some have defended on the basis of the Bible. He points out that the dominion over nature apparently given to humanity by God must be a thoughtful caretakership and not a capricious or absolute imposition of human will, if mankind is to avoid ecological and technological devastation. He warns against a literal application today of God’s blessing “Be fruitful and multiply.” Under the new global conditions of increased energy depletion and ecological strain, this blessing has become a curse. Further, he reminds his readers that it is only one of the two versions of the creation story—and the more primitive one, at that—which lays any apparent grounds for male chauvinism. The “more sophisticated” Priestly document places male and female on the same level, both equally at the climax of creation.

In the Beginning also points out some of the problems with the most literal interpretations of the Bible’s details which will perplex the reader who also wishes to accept the work of modern science. In some places, Asimov shows how these problems are mitigated by the recognition of two different groups of writers and by the knowledge of the myths which they appropriated from their culture. Unfortunately, Asimov never solves the larger issues because he assumes that the writing of the Bible is the same type of endeavor as science. If one assumes that, then of course the Bible’s primitive attempts at scientific explanation would be surpassed by modern knowledge. It is only through a wider view of the role of the Bible in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and the history of its interpretation—including the most recent forms of textual interpretation—that the real relation of the Bible and science may be examined.

A work of this sort obviously is needed in order to explain the complex problems of the Bible at a popular level helpful to the average reader of Scripture. The encounter with the text of any section of the Bible, perhaps especially with Genesis, often leads to much confusion in the scientifically oriented modern world. Recent debates such as the well-known “creationist controversy” emphasize the fact that the specialists are not effectively reaching the general public. This popular type of work could be, then, of great value. Unfortunately, Asimov’s book does very little more than graphically illustrate this continuing need.

In general, In the Beginning is an uneven work which should be read with some skepticism. It offers some clear explanations of certain myths and scientific theories with some interesting and playful speculations about them. It includes just as well some dull researches into minor geographical and genealogical details. Helpful caveats against common misinterpretations of biblical teaching are mixed with unsound comparisons to popular scientific thought. The superficial appearance of some knowledge of biblical exegesis is not supported by any basis of theological expertise or sophisticated biblical interpretation. This work should perhaps best be read as a collection of scientific poetic ruminations occasioned by an unskilled reading of Genesis.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39

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.

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