Some have argued that the word must mean creation ex nihilo because God is always the subject of the verb ברא ( bara' ). It is true that God is the subject when the verb occurs in the Qal stem and in the Niphal stem. However, when it occurs in the Piel stem (Joshua 17:15, 18, Ezekiel 21:19, and Ezekiel 23:47) or the Hiphil stem (1 Sam. 2:29), it has a human subject. Obviously, with a human as the subject it cannot mean creation out of nothing.
What about the majority of cases where it has God for its subject (Qal and Niphal forms)? Even here it is used in ways that clearly cannot mean creation out of nothing. For example, Genesis 1:27 refers to the creation of man and woman. Was this from nothing? Not if Genesis 2 is considered to be accurate. There it says that God formed Adam from the dust of the earth and that he fashioned Eve from a rib taken from Adam's side. In Genesis 5:1, 2 and 6:7, the verb bara' is used to refer to the creation of all the men and women then alive (see also Deut. 4:32; Psa. 89:47; Isa. 45:12). Did God create all of the subsequent generations of man ex nihilo?
In Isaiah 43:11 and 15, Yahweh is said to have created ברא ( bara' ) the nation of Israel (see also Mal. 2:10). Did he create them out of nothing? No. He created them out of the loins of Abraham who was from the Ur of the Chaldees, if the Genesis account is to be believed.
In Isaiah 65:18, the prophecy is given that God will "create ברא ( bara' ) Jerusalem as a rejoicing and her people as a joy." Does this mean that God will create a new Jewish people out of nothing? In Psalm 51:10, the Psalmist prays for God to create a new heart within him. Is this to be understood as creation out of nothing? I don't think so, I think it's a prayer for God to renew and refashion the Psalmist's heart.
Furthermore, the fact that bara' (ברא), is used in synonymous parallelism with other Hebrew words meaning, "to make," (עשה,) `asah) or "to form" (יצר, yatsar) indicates that all three words have a shared semantic range. For example, Genesis 1:26-27 reads:
Then God said, "Let us make (עשה, `asah) man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created (ברא, bara' ) man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (NIV).All through the Genesis creation account the verbs create, make, and form are used interchangeably to refer to origin of the world and its creatures (Also see Isaiah 45:12--I made (עשה, `asah) the earth and created (ברא, bara' ) man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host ).
In Isaiah 45:7, all three words occur together in one verse in synonymous parallelism:
I form (יצר, yatsar)light and create (ברא, bara' ) darkness, I make ((עשה, `asah) well-bing and create ((ברא, bara' )calamity; I am the Lord who does ((עשה, `asah) all these things.(ESV)Maimonides a medieval Jewish scholar contended that the understanding that the world was created from absolutely nothing is the foundation of Jewish belief. However, careful historical study seems to indicate that the Jews did not have a fully developed philosophical understanding of creation until they were forced to do so in the Middle Ages. Gerhard May writes:
To rabbinic Judaism the questions raised by Greek ontology were relatively remote. But the chief reason why it did not come to the formation of a specific doctrine of "creatio ex nihilo" is to be seen in the fact that it was not demanded by the text of the Bible. The mention of chaos in Genesis 1:1 could also support the view that an eternal material existed, which God had merely ordered in creating the world. Jewish thought is in its entire essence undogmatic; in the question of the creation of the world it did not find itself tied down by statements in the Bible and so possessed wide room for manoeuvre for highly variant speculations on creation. It was left for the Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages to develop in controversy with Arabic neoplatonism and Aristotelianism a specific doctrine of "creatio ex nihilo." But even this did not achieve sole validity, but the biblical statements about creation continued to be interpreted in various ways (Creatio Ex Nihilo, pp. 24-25).Another great Jewish thinker who came after Maimonides was Gersonides (1288-1344 AD) Gersonides asked some probing questions like "When were the waters created?" Because there was no mention in Genesis of the creation of water, he rejected the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (Stephen Meyer, Institute for Biblical Scientific Studies).
So, it seems that Jewish thought on the creation reflected the same ambiguity as the Hebrew Scriptures relative to whether God created out of nothing or used preexisting materials. During the late middle ages in response to a revival of Greek philosophy, certain Jewish scholars developed a philosophical doctrine of creation ex nihilo and then claimed that had been the Jewish understanding from the very beginning.
In conclusion, did God (if he exists) create the universe out of nothing? Maybe. Does the word bara' demand it? No. Have Jews always believed that their God created the world out of nothing? No.