The Verb bara’: To Create or to Separate?

In a previous post, Devastating News for Traditional Believers, I wrote about the work of Professor Ellen Van Wolde, an Old Testament scholar and member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, who “said that Genesis 1:1 has been translated incorrectly and that a correct translation of the first verse of Genesis negates the view that God is the creator of heavens and earth.”

Professor Van Wolde also said that the conclusions of her findings “will be devastating to traditional believers.”

Chris Heard at Higgaion has a good study of the word bara’ in which he concludes that the use of bara’ by the biblical writers “just speaks too strongly against her proposal.”

Read Chris’s article and consider his argument against Van Wolde’s proposal.

J. P. van de Giessen has informed me that Professor Van Wolde’s lecture is available in PDF format here (the lecture is in Dutch).

James Spinti at Idle musings of a bookseller wrote me a note and said that Van Wolde expands this argument in her forthcoming book from Eisenbrauns, Reframing Biblical Studies: When Language and Text Meet Culture, Cognition, and Context. The book will be published in December 2009.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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12 Responses to The Verb bara’: To Create or to Separate?

  1. >If "bara" does not mean invoke "creation out of nothing" then the cosmological element for the existence of God fails. I think we would be hard pressed to find Ellen Van Wolde's understanding of "bara" outside of Mormonism.


  2. >I wish I knew Dutch! I imagine the lecture will be translated into English soon enough, though.Marcus, I suspect that Dr. Van Wolde has overstretched her evidence, though I can't speak about that with certainty. However, your comment represents an "argument from consequence," which is a logical fallacy. We can't define the meanings of Hebrew words and verses based on the effect that a different translation would have on Christian theology. We have to do the best we can to understand the words and sentences linguistically, and then move toward theological conclusions based thereupon (if we're doing Bible-based theology).I must also add that there are lots of non-Mormon Bible readers who conclude that Genesis 1 does not speak of "creation out of nothing." Many of these readers are quite orthodox; some even affirm "creation out of nothing," but not on the basis of Genesis 1:1. It's a very old question and I can't yet see that Van Wolde's argument makes much of a difference, really. But I stress that I haven't read her paper, because I can't read Dutch.


  3. >The Nijmegen University is notorious for this kind of media-hyped lectures. And as far I can see (and as other Dutch theologians said) it's just a promotion stunt, there are no new things in it and only a waste of time to read this bad exegesis.


  4. >J.P.,It is great to know that what has been promoted is "bad exegesis." This way, we do not have to wait in antecipation for the lecture to be published in English. If I understand you correctly, the lecture in English we will as bad as the original in Deutch.Claude Mariottini


  5. >I don't know about the forthcoming English article. The lecture, or more correct oration (she is newly employed at the university) is an example of bad exegeses. This is not only my opinion, but also from some others whom are more authorities as me on this subject. See following quote I got in private mail with someone from the University of Utrecht:"The lecture is very disappointing. We planned from Utrecht to write a reply, but as someone earlier research just ignores than it's getting very difficult. In any case it's not shocking, it's more tragic. If this is called exegesis, I have to do with all Bible readers, …"


  6. David says:

    >Dr MariottiniI stumbled across your blog whilst doing a search for Prof van Wolde’s article which was mentioned in a British newspaper yesterday. It seems we will all have to wait for a full English translation.I am Jewish but would describe myself as a God fearing atheist! I have great difficulty in accepting the concept that the entire universe was created by a single supreme being. I am not, however, averse to the idea that a higher life form created life on earth as we know it.But faith in God does not mean that you have to accept every word of the Old Testament literally. Everything is open to interpretation. If not, Rabbis (and other religious leaders) would all be out of a job!


  7. >I did not mean that scripture should be interpreted to save our own theories. I believe that the universe was created out of nothing for two reasons1. Genesis 1:1 2. The universe is not eternal…in the finite past it began to exist. There is not a physicist/cosmologists working today that would dispute that. I'd be be interested to hear from other orthodox Christians who do not hold that the universe was created out of nothing. I can't find a lexicon or concordance that says "bara" does not mean "ex nihilo" outside of Mormon sources.


  8. >I wrote fuller comment on my own blog. Dr. Mariottini, as a professor of Old Testament, what do you believe and teach what the English definition of "bara" is?


  9. David says:

    >Since posting my comment above, I asked a Rabbi for his opinion and his reply was:Actually the text literally translates 'When God began to create the heavens and the earth.' You cant get out of the creation bit ( of course you can argue about process ) but the text does allow you to extend the timing to satisfy modern theories. In the end the bible is poetry not science.


  10. Joe Matos says:

    >David,I would challenge your assertion that everything is open to interpretation. However, everything requires interpretation. That goes for any kind of discourse, written or spoken, sacred or secular.In the United States a red light at an intersection means stop. There is no "open to interpretation" about that. Should someone interpret that as "go" there are legal consequences (if caught running it) and quite possibly mortal consequences.How does this apply to the Bible? It applies because when its words were recorded, there was an intended meaning. Our job as readers centuries and millennia removed from their original composition is to attempt to understand what the text meant. The Biblical text is not under our authority. I am not saying you must blindling accept the Bible as the Word of God. I am saying, however, that as any text, you must take it at face value. Read it in the way it was intended to be read. That means we read according to the rules of its composition. Thus, the Bible is not "open to interpretation" such that we can interpret it however we want. But it does "require interpretation." We need to follow the rules to arrive at the proper interpretation. Some times that is easy, sometimes that is very difficult. That goes for the meaning of bara' as well.Still, your final comment is correct. We need those trained in interpretation. Rabbis and ministers at times are necessary to aid in conveying meaning. But they are not free to interpret as they please. They must be responsible with the text.


  11. Steve says:

    The English version of Van Wolde and Rezetko is at
    I like the exegesis. It solves much Old Testament conflict with bara. Please do not focus on ex nihilo, but the immediate context of the word bara ‘in situ’.


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