BARA/Create in Ancient Israel: What do the Bible and the scholars say?

Critics of Mormonism sometimes argue that Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the Hebrew word for “create” (“bara”) is incorrect. Joseph Smith said:

The word create came from the word baurau; it does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize, the same as a man would organize materials to build a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos–chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had. The pure principles of element are principles that can never be destroyed; they may be organized and reorganized but not destroyed.                                                                                                                                                                     The King Follett Discourse: http://mldb.byu.edu/follett.htm

Many critics argue that the verb bara is only ever used in the scriptures for creations by God out of absolutely nothing. Below is a list of various passages and commentary by biblical scholars that seem to support Joseph’s view. I readily admit that I pillaged every single thing in the following lists completely from Blake Ostler’s magnificent book Exploring Mormon Thought: Of God and Gods, Vol. 3, (Greg Kofford Books, 2008), 4-15.  I also consulted his three part rebuttal to critics of the Church on this issue found here, which I very highly recommend.

I have to start with this first quote, from Blake Ostler himself, because it is too good to pass up:

The verb [bara]must be considered the sexiest verb in the Bible given all the fantasies that scholars in the creedal tradition seem to have about it.

(last paragraph of section 3.1 here)

I. SOME USES OF BARA IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

  • Josh 17:15   And Joshua answered them, If thou be a great people, then get thee up to the wood country, and cut down (bara) for thyself there in the land of the Perizzites and of the giants, if mount Ephraim be too narrow for thee.
  • Josh 17:18  But the mountain shall be thine; for it is a wood, and thou shalt cut it down (bara): and the outgoings of it shall be thine: for thou shalt drive out the Canaanites, though they have iron chariots, and though they be strong.
  • Psalm 51: 10 Create (bara) in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
  • Psalm 102:18    This shall be written for the generation to come: and the people which shall be created (bara) shall praise the Lord.
  • Isa 65: 18 But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create (bara): for, behold, I create (bara) Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. 19 And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying.
  • Ezek 23: 47   And the company shall stone them with stones, and dispatch (bara) them with their swords; they shall slay their sons and their daughters, and burn up their houses with fire.
  • Anchor Bible translation of Genesis 1: “When God set about to create heaven and earth–the world being a formless waste, with darkness over the seas…God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”  E.A. Speiser, Genesis, 13 This translation is significant because it means that chaos preexisted God’s creative activity.
  • “It should seem significant that both the book of Ezechiel, certainly a post-Exilic product, and in the book of Joshua, a product quite possibly some seven hundred years older, one is confronted with the very human connotation of bara, a verb which exegetes love to raise to a quasi-divine pedestal. The significance remains intact whether one takes Genesis 1 for a Mosaic document, or for a post-Davidic composition, or even for a post-Exilic one, the latter being the most likely case. In all of these cases the taking of bara for an exclusively divine action, let alone for taking it for creation out of nothing, can only be done if one overlooks those three uses of it that span more than half a millenium. ”  Stanley L. Jaki, Genesis 1 Through the Ages (Royal Oak, Mich.: Real View Books, 1998), 7

II. SCHOLARLY OPINION

  • E.A. Speiser says, “To be sure, the present interpretation precludes the view that creation accounts in Genesis say nothing about coexistent matter.”   E.A. Speiser, Anchor Bible,  Genesis, 13
  • As Simkins observed: “Creation in the Bible is never ex nihilo, “from nothing.” This doctrine was not formulated until the Hellenistic Age…. In the biblical tradition, and in the ancient Near East in general, God always works with some material that is either primordial or already there when God begins to create, though the ancient Israelites would not have made this distinction…. God creates either through establishing order and fixing boundaries, usually by separating a primordial substance, or through the natural physical processes of birth and growth. In the Yahwist creation myth the earth itself is primordial. God never creates the earth, but the earth without God’s creative activity is barren and lifeless.” Ronald Simkin, Creator and Creation: Nature in the Worldview of Ancient Israel (Peabody, Massachussets: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 178.
  • As James Atwell recently stated, the verb b_r_’ “has a deliberate and considered significance when it occurs in P [the Priestly document], but this falls short of creatio ex nihilo. It is best understood in the context of the alternative verbs ‘separate’ and ‘make‘.” James A. Atwell, “An Egyptian Source for Genesis 1,” Journal of Theological Studies, NS, vol. 51, Pt. 2 (October 2000), 441, n. 1.
  • “The caution which is in order about taking the [Hebrew] verb bara in the sense of creation out of nothing is no less needed in reference to the [English] word creation. Nothing is more natural, and unadvised, at the same time, than to use the word as if it has always denoted creation out of nothing. In its basic etymological origin the word creation meant the purely natural process of growing or of making something to grow. This should be obvious by a mere recall of the [Latin] verb crescere. The crescent moon [derived from crescere] is not creating but merely growing. The expression ex nihilo or de nihilo had to be fastened, from around 200 A.D. on, by Christian theologians on the verb creare to convey unmistakably a process, strict creation, which only God can perform. Only through the long-standing use of those very Latin expressions, creare ex nihilo and creatio ex nihilo, could the English words to create and creation take on the meaning which excludes pre-existing matter. ” Stanley L. Jaki, Genesis 1 Through the Ages (Royal Oak, Mich.: Real View Books, 1998), 5-6.
  • “Luis Stadelmann explains: It has long been recognized by Bible scholars that the Priestly account of creation of the world [in Genesis 1] reveals traces of Mesopotamian influence. This influence is most apparent in the cosmological presuppositions, and in this sense the Priestly account differs significantly in outlook from that of the Yahwist [in Genesis 2]. For example, where as the Yahwist record envisages the primeval state as a desert needing water to make it fertile, the Priestly presupposes the existence of an unformed chaos enveloped in primeval darkness…. The world is pictured as “being then a formless waste, with darkness over the seas,” in short a watery caos (sic). The passage concerned seems to indicate a situation in which the world is envisaged as immersed in the thwm, the ‘seas.’ As further development of the idea shows, the chief features of the primeval chaos were those of the raw material of the universe.” Luis I. J. Stadelmann, S.J., The Hebrew Conception of the World (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1970), 12.
  • As Bernhard Anderson stated:  “Stylistic and contextual considerations … favor the view that Gen. 1:1 is an independent sentence that serves as a preface to the entire creation account. On this view, the story actually begins in v. 2 with a portrayal of uncreated chaos as the presupposition and background of God’s creative work. The notion of creation out of nothing was undoubtedly too abstract for the Hebrew mind; in any case, the idea of a created chaos would have been strange to a narrative that is governed by the view that creation is the antithesis to chaos (cf., Isa. 45:18).”   Bernhard Anderson, From Creation to New Creation, 30.
  • “Although it is now generally recognized that creatio ex nihilo, the doctrine that God produced the physical world out of nothing, is not an adequate characterization of creation in the Hebrew Bible, the legacy of this dogmatic or propositional understanding lives on and continues to distort the perceptions of scholars and laypersons alike. In particular, a false finality or definiteness is ascribed to God’s act of creation and, consequently, the fragility of the created order and its vulnerability to chaos tend to be played down …. and a static idea of creation then becomes the cornerstone of an overly optimistic understanding of the theology of the Hebrew Bible.”  Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), xxix  (Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at the Harvard Divinity School)
  • “Nowhere in the seven-day creation scheme of Genesis 1 does God create the waters; they are most likely primordial. The traditional Jewish and Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo can be found in this chapter only if one translates its first verse as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” and understands it to refer to some comprehensive creative act on the first day. But that translation, subject to doubt since the Middle Ages, has fallen into disfavor among scholars, and the rest of the chapter indicates that the heaven was created on the second day to restrain the celestial waters (vv. 9-10), and the earth on the third day (vv. 9-10).” Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 5    (Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at the Harvard Divinity School)

Other resources include:

  • Shalom Paul, “Creation and Cosmogony: The Bible,” Encyclopaedia Judiaca 5 (1972), 1056;
  • David Winston, “The Book of Widsom’s Theory of Cosmogony,” History of Religions 11:2 (1971), 187-91;
  • Francis Young, “‘Creatio Ex Nihilo’: A Context for the Emergence of the Christian Doctrine of Creation,” Scottish Journal of Theology 44 (1991), 139-51;
  • Gerhard May, Shopfunf aus dem Nichts (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1978);
  • Keith Norman, “Ex Nihilo: The Development of the Doctrines of God and Creation in Early Christianity,” BYU Studies 17:3 (Spring 1977), 291-318.
  • FAIRwiki article: Creatio ex nihilo

Here are some excellent resources by The Yellow Dart from Faith Promoting Rumor:

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11 comments on “BARA/Create in Ancient Israel: What do the Bible and the scholars say?

  1. BHodges says:

    Thanks for breaking it all into the vital parts and putting them together, yes.

  2. James says:

    I should add one important verse I stumbled across today:

    Psa 24:1 [[A Psalm of David.]] The earth [is] the LORD’S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
    Psa 24:2 For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.

  3. […] Lehi’s Library. (To both FAIR and Lehi – Isn’t it James E. […]

  4. Nelson Chung says:

    James, is there a non-LDS source that summarizes the majority opinion of Biblical scholars on creation ex-nihilo? Thanks.

  5. James says:

    Nelson,

    I included 8 quotes from non-Mormon scholars which all summarize the majority opinion of Biblical scholars about the notion of creation “ex nihilo” in Genesis. Genesis does not teach any such thing.

    Does that answer your question?

  6. Iulian Sava says:

    In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, then He continued to finish on the earth. So the heaven and the earth are created by God. If this is a myth or science it’s a problem of believing or not the word of God.
    I think that Gen. 1:1-2:4f.p. speaks of the work of the Father (Elohim) that created by his Word. Than Gen. 2 speaks of the work of the Word by witch everything was created(John 1:1-3), the Son of God (Yahweh Elohim) that realized everything that the Father sad like everywhere in the Bible story.
    Dr. Iulian Sava

  7. Stephen Purdy says:

    Here is a youtube video that explains even more detail about the verb “bara”.

    This video is actually part of a series that goes into significant detail.

    Enjoy.

  8. Nice respond in return of this issue with solid arguments and explaining
    all on the topic of that.

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