Q. How can we square Jewish tradition, which says the world is 5774 years old, with the scientific view that posits a vastly longer period?
A. There is definitely a problem, which was already recognized in Tanach itself, especially in the Psalms. It was widely debated in the Aggadah (for example in Midrash Bereshit Rabba). As we expect, the medieval philosophers (e.g. Maimonides) addressed it in a sophisticated way.
The crucial issue is how to interpret the units of time – the seven days of creation – listed in Genesis 1-2. Do we interpret such units literally – or allegorically? If we take them literally, we have seven times 24 hours and a relatively short period of history – millennia and not eons – thereafter.
If we read them allegorically, which Jewish commentary tends to do, learning from Psalm 90:4 that “day” can denote a thousand years, then Genesis 1-4 becomes a long, majestic poem of beginnings. In that case, the expressions of time need not be taken literally and Genesis 1-2 is not a scientific analysis but (to use Aboriginal-type language) a “narrative of the dreamtime”.
But problems remain, for example:
• The material is not mathematically verifiable, since mathematics was not yet developed.
• When did time begin? The Creation story happened before the science of time, though it was recorded in an age of time.
• If we can treat the “Creation” parts of the Tanach allegorically can we do this anywhere, regardless of the consequences? Not if we distinguish between poetical (Aggadah) and legal texts (Halachah), and insist that halachic material may not be allegorised.
Whatever our theory as to the age of the world, the really important verse is Gen. 1:1, “In the beginning, God created”, which says there is a God, a creating God, and His wish for His world is that His creatures should live by His moral law.