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The Lost World of Genesis One-Session 3

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“Create” (Hebrew bārāʾ) Concerns Functions

The previous chapter presented evidence that creation accounts in the ancient world characteristically showed interest in the functional level rather than the material level. Furthermore it proposed that the ancient world defined existence in terms of having a function in an ordered system. This functional ontology indicated that the line between existence and nonexistence was functional, not material.
We now turn our attention to the creation account in Genesis 1 to discover whether it will follow suit or not. Our first matter for discussion is the Hebrew verb

bārāʾ, translated as “create”

in verse 1. What exactly does it mean? Here we cannot be content with delving into the English verb “create”—though that shows an amazing amount of flexibility. Instead we must focus on the verb in Hebrew and how its users would have understood its meaning. If we are trying to understand whether the Israelites thought of existence in functional terms (like the rest of the ancient Near East) or material terms (like we tend to do), one of the places we might expect to find help is in observing what is involved in bringing something into existence. “Create” is the English word for bringing something into existence. If existence is defined in material terms, creating is a material activity. If existence is defined in functional terms, creating is a function-giving activity. We cannot assume that creating is a material activity just because our ontology happens to be material. We must let the word and its usage speak for itself.
It is interesting that many people who discuss Genesis 1 express an interest in interpreting the chapter “literally.” By this they generally mean that it is to be taken exactly for what it says rather than to understand Genesis 1 simply in metaphoric, allegorical or symbolic terms. Of course we recognize that sometimes writers intend to communicate by means of metaphor or allegory. When someone insists that Genesis 1 should be interpreted literally it is often an expression of their conviction that the interpreter rather than the author has initiated another level of meaning. Our interpretive commitment is to read the text at what I will call “face value.” I will have more to say about this in proposition 11. For the moment, let us consider the concept and challenge of “literal” interpretation.
The English reader must face a difficult fact: one cannot comprehend the literal meaning of a word in the Old Testament without knowing Hebrew or having access to the analysis by someone who does. It does us no good to know what “create” literally means—we have to know what bārāʾ literally means. Before that leads to frustration or despair, we can recognize that even those without knowledge of Hebrew can check the data of the Hebrew analyst at some level. A quick review of words and how they work will help us all to see how this is so.
First, we recognize that there is no ancient dictionary of Hebrew that gives us the definitions of all of the words (especially not in English). Instead we rely on the careful work done by commentators and translators over the centuries. How do these scholars figure out the meaning of words? The same way all of us do in whatever language we speak—by usage. The meanings of words are established and determined by the ways in which they are used. This includes the kinds of sentences they are used in, the words they can be compared to (synonyms or antonyms), and the words they are used in connection with. For nouns this means what verbs they take; for verbs it includes what subjects or objects are associated with them. It is context that tells us whether a word is used metaphorically or with an idiomatic or technical sense.3 Consequently a scholar who says that a Hebrew word means this or that should offer evidence from usage to support his or her findings. Having been provided a list of references in such an analysis, even someone who does not know Hebrew can double check the data. So, for instance, when I say that all the occurrences of bārāʾ have God as the subject or implied subject, an English reader can look at all the occurrences and see that this is so.
Now the analysis can begin. What can be said about the Hebrew verb bārāʾ? First, there is no passage in the Old Testament that offers an explanatory gloss for bārāʾ—that is, that says “by bārāʾ I mean X.” So, as usual, we must depend on circumstantial, contextual analysis: subjects, objects and related terms.

Subjects

The verb bārāʾ occurs about fifty times in the Old Testament. As referred to above, deity is always either the subject or the implied subject (in passive constructions) of the verb. It can therefore be confidently asserted that the activity is inherently a divine activity and not one that humans can perform or participate in. This observation is widely discussed, and on this conclusion all commentators agree.

Objects

It is of interest that few commentators discuss the objects of the verb, but this is the most important issue for our analysis. Since we are exploring what constitutes creative activity (specifically, material or functional), then the nature of that which has been created is of utmost significance. If the objects of the verb are consistently material that would be important information; likewise if they are consistently functional. Of course the profile is unlikely to be so straightforward. Ambiguous contexts are bound to exist, so a bit of methodology must be discussed.
Theoretically, the verb could be broad enough to include either material or functional activity. For that matter, we might conclude that it involves (at least in some cases) both material and functional. Assuming that there will be ambiguous cases (and there are), it is important to see if we have any contexts which must be understood in material terms or which must be understood in functional terms. If all occurrences were either material or ambiguous, we could not claim support for a functional understanding. If all occurrences were either functional or ambiguous, we could not claim clear support for a material understanding. If there are clear examples that can be only functional, and other clear examples that can only be material, then we would conclude that the verb could work in either kind of context, and ambiguous cases would have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

There are 47 instances in scripture of the objects of bārāʾ.

The grammatical objects of the verb can be summarized in the following categories:
cosmos (10, including new cosmos)
people in general (10)
specific groups of people (6)[1]
specific individuals or types of individuals (5)
creatures (2)
phenomena (e.g., darkness) (10)
components of cosmic geography (3)
condition (1, pure heart)
This list shows that grammatical objects of the verb are not easily identified in material terms, and even when they are, it is questionable that the context is objectifying them. That is, no clear example occurs that demands a material perspective for the verb, though many are ambiguous.6 In contrast, a large percentage of the contexts require a functional understanding. These data cannot be used to prove a functional ontology, but they offer support that existence is viewed in functional rather than material terms, as is true throughout the rest of the ancient world. If the Israelites understood the word bārāʾ to convey creation in functional terms, then that is the most “literal” understanding that we can achieve. Such an understanding does not represent an attempt to accommodate modern science or to neutralize the biblical text. The truest meaning of a text is found in what the author and hearers would have thought.
This view finds support from an unexpected direction. It has long been observed that in the contexts of bārāʾ no materials for the creative act are ever mentioned, and an investigation of all the passages mentioned above substantiate that claim. How interesting it is that these scholars then draw the conclusion that bārāʾ implies creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). One can see with a moment of thought that such a conclusion assumes that “create” is a material activity. To expand their reasoning for clarity’s sake here: Since “create” is a material activity (assumed on their part), and since the contexts never mention the materials used (as demonstrated by the evidence), then the material object must have been brought into existence without using other materials (i.e., out of nothing). But one can see that the whole line of reasoning only works if one can assume that bārāʾ is a material activity. In contrast, if, as the analysis of objects presented above suggests, bārāʾ is a functional activity, it would be ludicrous to expect that materials are being used in the activity. In other words, the absence of reference to materials, rather than suggesting material creation out of nothing, is better explained as indication that bārāʾ is not a material activity but a functional one. This is not a view that has been rejected by other scholars; it is simply one they have never considered because their material ontology was a blind presupposition for which no alternative was ever considered.
An important caveat must be noted at this point. If we conclude that Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins, we are not thereby suggesting that God is not responsible for material origins. I firmly believe that God is fully responsible for material origins, and that, in fact, material origins do involve at some point creation out of nothing. But that theological question is not the one we are asking. We are asking a textual question: What sort of origins account do we find in Genesis 1? Or what aspect of origins is addressed in Genesis 1? Most interpreters have generally thought that Genesis 1 contains an account of material origins because that was the only sort of origins that our material culture was interested in. It wasn’t that scholars examined all the possible levels at which origins could be discussed; they presupposed the material aspect.
Finally, we must put the verb bārāʾ in its context in verse 1 where it tells us that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” One immediate question that would occur is, beginning of what? The answer is not transparent. We must ask what “beginning” refers to and how verse 1 functions in relation to the rest of the context.

Beginning

In Hebrew usage this adverb typically introduces a period of time rather than a point in time. We can most easily see this in Job 8:7, which speaks of the early part of Job’s life, and Jeremiah 28:1, which refers to the beginning period of Zedekiah’s reign. This usage happens to correspond with ideas that are reflected in ancient Near Eastern creation texts. Egyptian texts refer to the “first occasion,” which implies the first occurrence of an event that is to be repeated or continued. In Akkadian the comparable term to the Hebrew refers to the first part or first installment. All of this information leads us to conclude that the “beginning” is a way of talking about the seven-day period rather than a point in time prior to the seven days.

The Role of Verse 1

If the “beginning” refers to the seven-day period rather than to a point in time before the seven-day period, then we would conclude that the first verse does not record a separate act of creation that occurred prior to the seven days—but that in fact the creation that it refers to is recounted in the seven days. This suggests that verse 1 serves as a literary introduction to the rest of the chapter. This suggestion is confirmed by the fact that Genesis 2:1 concludes the seven-day report with the statement that the “heavens and earth were completed,” indicating that the creation of the heavens and earth was the work of the seven days, not something that preceded them.
Such a conclusion is also supported by the overall structure of the book of Genesis. All commentators have recognized the recurrent transitionary formula

“This is the account (tôlĕdôt) of …”

used eleven times by the author to identify the sections of the book of Genesis. This shows us that the author of Genesis indeed did use initial statements as literary introductions to sections. The first of these occurs in Genesis 2:4 as the first transition from the seven-day cosmogony to the Garden of Eden account. As a transitionary phrase it links what has come before to what comes next. Sometimes what follows is genealogical information that offers information about, for example, what became of Esau or Ishmael. Other times it is followed by narratives that offer information concerning, for instance, what came of Terah’s family (thus the stories of Abram). The point is that this formula can only continue an already established sequence—it cannot begin that sequence.
The word “beginning” would be the logical term to introduce such a sequence. It would indicate the initial period, while the tôlĕdôt sections would introduce successive periods. If this were the case, the book would now have twelve formally designated sections (much more logical than eleven, considering the numbers that have symbolic significance in the Bible).
The proposals of this chapter can be summarized by the following expanded interpretive translation of verse 1: “In the initial period, God created by assigning functions throughout the heavens and the earth, and this is how he did it.” The chapter does involve creative activities, but all in relation to the way that the ancient world thought about creation and existence: by naming, separating and assigning functions and roles in an ordered system. This was accomplished in the seven-day period that the text calls “the beginning.” Genesis 2:3 comes back to this in its summary as it indicates the completion of the bārāʾ activities over the seven-day period.
Technical Support
Stek, John. “What Says the Scripture?” In Portraits of Creation: Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World’s Formation, edited by H. J. van Till, pp. 203–65. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.[2]
[1] Walton, J. H. (2009). The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (pp. 36–39). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
[2] Walton, J. H. (2009). The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (pp. 41–45). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
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