Did God Create the Dinosaurs?

by Joel Lurie Grishaver
[cross-posted to the Gris Mill]

I was doing a workshop on “teaching God” to about sixty San Diego teachers. We get to the point in the conversation where I ask them to bring into our discussion questions about God that their students have asked them. And the winner was, a third grade teacher who had a student ask, “Did God Create the Dinosaurs?” Teachers frequently bring up this question when I do God workshops. They get asked it all the time (especially by precocious eight-year-olds), and they’re not sure that they know the right answer to give.

It is not as simple a question as it might seem. What it represents is a testing of two information sources. For an eight-year-old, dinosaurs are the heart of scientific reality. It is what they buy at science museums and read about in science books. Dinosaurs are a symbol of history that has been reconstructed from bones and fossils and clues. They are the end result of the scientific method, the C.S.I. of history. On the other hand, the Bible (Torah) is God’s truth. In the reality experienced by most eight-year-olds, the Torah is not yet a metaphor. It is literal. The distinction between it being a book of truth rather than a book of history (science) is not yet comprehensible.

For a third grade class, the Torah is either true or not true. And if it is as true as they have been told, and has been ritually demonstrated, dinosaurs should be in it. If we closely read the text we find (Gen. 1:21) “God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm,” and we can claim that dinosaur’s are included in the “great sea monsters” (even though science is more interest in turning dinosaurs into birds these days). But that doesn’t solve the problem. It requires too much metaphoric thinking to go from “sea monsters” to T-rex. It takes us back to our core problem.

Science museums have an overabundance of dinosaurs. The Torah at best has one hidden mention of dinosaurs. Here we have an 8 year old ontological argument. We are being asked what is true, the physical world of science museums or the metaphysical world of the synagogue. Complete in this one naive question is “science verses religion,” “evolution confronts intelligent design,” and even future decisions about stem cell research. For the moment, 8-year olds know that there are dinosaurs that walk, dinosaurs that fly, dinosaurs that live in different geological eras—and kinds of factual information that doesn’t fit easily into “sea-monsters” created on one day. The question which starts out asking, “Where are the dinosaurs in the Torah?” will be resolved in a couple of years and a Piaget developmental stage or two. It takes an ability to abstract.

But the underlying issue of “trust” of Torah won’t be as easily resolved. Is Judaism good in the real world? Does religion tell the truth?

All of this is embedded in the question that almost always arises when 8 year old confront the first chapter of Genesis. They want to see “pterodactyls,” and we want them to know that “God created people in God’s image.” When we tell them that the Torah’s “sea monsters” are pterodactyls, it leads to the same question in a different form: “If we are created in God’s image, how can God be invisible when we are not?” We need to begin helping our students see the metaphor in the text, even when it comes to dinosaurs. That’s because the same kind of abstraction that allows us to read “sea-monsters” as “dinosaurs” can lead us to “God’s image” as an ethical statement.

We almost never help teachers with this. God as God is rarely part of a school curriculum. But in a curricular rather than a theological sense, “God is everywhere.” Or as the Kotsker put it, “God is where we let God in.” This is the point that I realized in San Diego. The seriousness with which we undertake to answer the “dinosaur” question will have a lot to do with our students’ Jewish future. Much future belief rests on this question’s answer. Not the simple “sea monster” answer, but the more difficult truth that the Torah is a metaphor.

If we want the Bible to be true, and we want it to make a difference, we need to be good at threading the needle, good at talking in concrete ways about abstract truths. It means that we have to get our plesiosauruses in a row. We need to struggle at the edge of our students’ ability to abstract, to scaffold them towards more dynamic truths. We want them to know that there is an order to nature. That is a scientific truth. We want them to know that humans have a specific role and a set of obligations. That is a spiritual truth. The practical truth is that none of these get revealed until we reconcile the dinosaurs and the Torah. In order to teach truth we need to teach thinking skills, and not just information. We need to make the Torah something to interpret rather than a book of facts. Those are difficult but critical learning tools. As teachers, we need to be prepared for this conversation.