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Monday, May 3, 2010

Have Jews always Believed in Creation Ex Nihilo? Does the Hebrew Verb Bara' (ברא) Demand It?

Does the Hebrew word ברא ( bara' ) mean creation out of nothing (ex nihilo)? The word could mean that in some cases but the question is: does the word always indicate creation ex nihilo? The answer is clearly no.

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.


  1. A good article for those who may want to dig deeper into Maimonides teaching on the Creation is Maimonidean Controversy and the Story of Creation by Naomi R. Frankel.

  2. If it isn't creation ex nihlo it seems to be amazingly similar to other creation stories in the region that proceed it. Things like the Sumerian story where heaven and earth are created by the body of Tiamat being separated by the gods.

    In fact, most of Genesis has similarities with earlier Sumerian myths. Kind of like Roman gods came from Greek mythology or Norse gods came from Germanic mythology.

  3. Beamstalk,

    I think you are right. The Hebrew creation myths are not that much different than the other ones in the ANE and none of them taught creation ex nihilo. I recommend Ed Babinski's chapter in The Christian Delusion, which I summarized here.

  4. Genesis 1 is simply speaking about the distant past, "in the beginning," and does not specify where the primeval waters came from. Exactly as other ancient Near Eastern creation myths.

    Genesis 1:1 is an opening and summation of what follows. The Babylonian creation epic also has an opening clause that's similar. See my chapter in The Christian Delusion.

    See also Mark S. Smith's discussion of the first verse in Genesis in his new book The Priestly Vision of Genesis in which he sums up the majority opinion concerning the meaning of the first verse in Genesis.

    That being said, if you DO interpret Genesis 1:1 as creation "out of nothing" instead of out of some eternal pre-created "stuff" that always existed beside God, then that interpretation merely adds to the difficulty of the problem of evil/imperfection/pain/suffering.

    Because in the case of ex nihilo creation everything came directly and solely out of God's perfect will, power, wisdom, love, leaving no room for imperfection or evil since none of those things can ever come out of God.


  5. Evangelical readers may be surprised to learn that prominent Evangelical scholars agree that Genesis 1:1 is not speaking about creation ex nihilo:

    'The narrative', as OT scholar John Goldingay argues, 'indeed presupposes the existence of matter, of raw material for God to use' (Old Testament Theology. Volume 1: Israel's Gospel [Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2003], 80).

    Other Evangelicals jump to passages in Paul to defend creation ex nihilo in the NT (which I suspect only suggest the seeds for a later ex nihilo doctrine), such as Romans 4:17, but compare 2 Peter 3:5:

    'They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water'

    Richard Bauckham (author of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, a work that attempts to prove that the Gospels were not composed anonymously) comments in his Word commentary:

    'According to the creation account in Gen 1, and in accordance with general Near Eastern myth, the world—sky and earth—merged out of a primeval ocean (Gen 1:2, 6–7, 9; cf. Ps 33:7; 136:6; Prov 8:27–29; Sir 39:17; Herm. Vis. 1:3:4). The world exists because the waters of chaos, which are now above the firmament, beneath the earth and surrounding the earth, are held back and can no longer engulf the world. The phrase ἐξ ὕδατος ("out of water") expresses this mythological concept of the world's emergence out of the watery chaos, rather than the more "scientific" notion, taught by Thales of Miletus, that water is the basic element out of which everything else is made (cf. Clem. Hom. 11:24:1)' (Bauckham, R. J., Jude, 2 Peter, p.297).

  6. Ed,

    Thanks for the additonal insights!

  7. God article Ken. I would agree that it can't be proven conclusively that the Old Testament teaches creation Ex-Nihilo. I also think that the New Testament doesn't say it with absolute certainty either. There are a few scriptures that seem to hint at it but I think they are subject to interpretation as well and can't be decided one way or the other.

  8. Ken,

    I agree with this analysis of bara, as long as you don't press the root too hard in interpretation. The flexibility of the semantics doesn't let us get too strict in our translations. Here's a good look at some of the lexical controversy surrounding "bara"

    I'm just wondering why this is a big deal, this isn't really controversial in scholarly Hebrew circles. Ex nihilo is more properly an NT doctrine, especially per Hebrews 11:3

  9. Brad,

    Thanks. I agree that the etymology of to cut or to separate cannot be pushed too far. This would lead to the root fallacy . I think its better to judge its semantic range based on how it is used in the Hebrew scriptures and it is used enough times (around 50) to get a good sense of its range. It seems to be pretty much synonymous with the words "to make" or "to form." There is certainly no necessary idea of creation ex nihilo contained in the word.

    And you are right, its not an issue in scholarly Hebrew circles but I am calling out certain evangelical apologists who seem to be making the argument.

  10. It may seem odd to you, Ken, but I agree that we should not build theology on the basis of one word. You ought to know that proper hermeneutics rejects that line of interpretation anyway.

    This is not to say that lexical semantics do not play into the proper understanding of Scripture; they most certainly do. But that's not the point, is it? You have diligently crafted a straw man argument in this blog. Brad is correct, in a sense. This is not an issue in scholarly Hebrew circles. For you to make an issue out of a non-issue and then take issue with that non-issue is a classic straw man fallacy. You set up bara' in a false light, and then proceeded to knock it down.

    No serious and informed proponent of a young-earth, let alone any honest exegete with good Hebrew training, holds that bara' inherently and exclusively refers to creation ex nihilo.

    Your arguments, my friend, are not new. In light of your post, I found an older, but interesting article reviewing Gerhard May's work on the subject. I believe it has bearing to your overall argument.

    As for Moses' authorial intent behind the use of bara', I would say this. Since bara' is in the Qal it always refers to God's supernatural work. Therefore, it is the best term to use for creation ex nihilo, especially in one context, Genesis 1:1. The apparent semantic conflict you purport is between the Qal/Niphal stem, which emphasizes the subject's action, and the Piel stem, which emphasizes the result of the action taken by the subject on the passive object.

    What bothers me, Ken, is that a cursory reading of NIDOTTE, TWOT, and BDB would have cleared up the whole mess before you even posted the blog.

  11. Pastor Smith,

    I was replying to a comment in the comment sectionof the prior post in which Emet said: The word bara is the only word in the Hebrew language that means creating something from nothing. And also Winston Smith said: Ernst is quite right about the Hebrew word "bara" refering to something out of nothing.

    Everyone does not have the benefit of a seminary education such as yourself.

  12. You are correct, not everyone does. However, there are good sources available for those willing to do some research. I would admit too many evangelical Christians lapse into a proof-text mentality.

  13. Hugh Ross is a good example of the kind of apologist that I wrote this post about. Listen to his statement: The Hebrew verb translated “created” in Isaiah 42:5 is bara’ which has as its primary definition “bringing into existence something new, something that did not exist before.” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, I, 127.

  14. Pastor Smith,

    You are either ignorant of many YEC organizations or just lying.

    From Answers in Genesis, written by Dr. Terry Mortenson:

    "This short study shows that there is no basis for saying that bara only means an instantaneous, out-of-nothing, supernatural creative action but that asah only means a slow, out-of-existing-material, natural process of making (under God’s providence, of course). In the creation account (Gen. 1:1-2:3) both words are used in reference to ex nihilo creation events and both are also used in reference to things God made from previously created material." (emphasis mine)

    From The Institute of Creation Research, Dr. Henry Morris:

    ""The earth, the man and the beast" are the three entities which God is said to have "created" (Hebrew, bara--note Genesis 1:1,21,27) in the Genesis account of creation. However, they are also said in Genesis to have been "made" (Hebrew, asah--note Genesis 1:25-26; 2:4), and that is the emphasis in our text above. Of course both aspects were accomplished in the six days of creation week after which God "rested from all His work which God created and made" (Genesis 2:3). This statement makes it abundantly plain that the present processes of nature do not "create" (call into existence out of nothing) or "make" (build up into more complex forms) anything, as our modern theistic evolutionists and evangelical uniformitarians allege. God has rested from both of these works, except in occasional miraculous intervention in the present laws and processes of "nature." "

    That is two quick, well educated men saying exactly what you say they won't say.

  15. Beamstalk,

    I understand your passion but I would prefer that we all refrain from ad hominem attacks. I don't they do much to further civil discussion. I appreciate your point, though, it is obvious that many evangelicals try to get as much weight out of bara' as they possibly can.

  16. Sorry Ken, this your blog and I respect that, but calling someone ignorant when they are ignorant is not an ad hom. I am ignorant of a lot of things. Ignorant just means lacking in knowledge or training. He is making a claim that is easily refutable, either he doesn't know that it is refutable or he knows and is not telling the truth, there are no other choices. I expect his return reply will be to move the goal posts or claim a no true Scotsman.

  17. Beamstalk,

    I understand. I just don't want to fall into the name-calling that is found on so many other sites. I want to take the high road as much as possible.

    I think what Pastor Smith (who BTW is a former student of mine) meant was that bara' in and of itself doesn't demand creation ex nihilo. He, of course, is correct. What he fails to recognize is that there are people who ought to know better who do make such a claim as my post today shows.

  18. No problem, I won't do it again. :)

  19. Read an interesting post that loosely ties into this discussion.

  20. Might I also recommend

  21. Episkopos,

    Thanks. Yes I have read many of the posts in MacArthur's "The Battle for the Beginning" Series. I posted some things on a couple of them and then the moderator cut me off and lied saying that I could no longer post because I had sent in "nasty" comments. Anyone who has read my blog knows that is not my style. When I challenged him on it, he changed the word "nasty" to "disdainful." He said I was disdainful to challenge the Word of God and the ministry of John MacArthur. He also accused me of being a "con-man" and a sheep in wolve's clothing. I wrote him back an email and told him he reminded me of the famous Jack Nicholson line in the movie: "You can't handle the truth." It seems that many fundamentalists and that is what MacArthur certainly is, are insecure and cannot allow any other opinions. Their motto is: "My mind is made up, don't bother me with the facts."