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Hebrew Corner 3: "create (bara')"
by John H. Walton

Categories Guest Posts Hebrew and You

We have been discussing in previous postings how there are Hebrew words that still are in need of careful study to discern their particular nuances. Often these words are ones that occur only a handful of times and have not attracted much attention. But sometimes we might also find need to study words that occur more frequently and are fairly significant.

One such word is the Hebrew bara’ (“to create”). In cases like this one we not only have to ask what English word we should use to translate it, but also what the Israelite audience, who used these words, would have meant by using this word. That is, does the concept of “creation” have the same meaning to an Israelite as it would to us? If we are interested in the face value meaning (sometimes referred to as the literal meaning) of a word for interpretation, we cannot be content with studying the English word “create”—we must study the face value meaning of the Hebrew word bara’.

The verb bara’ occurs about fifty times in the Old Testament. As often noted, 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.

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, then the nature of that which has been created is of utmost significance.

The following chart provides a comprehensive list of the objects of bara’:

Gen. 1:1 Heavens and earth
Gen. 1:21 Creatures of the sea
Gen. 1:27 People
Gen. 1:27 (2) People
Gen. 2:3 X
Gen. 2:4 Heavens and earth
Gen. 5:1 People
Gen. 5:2 People
Gen. 5:2 People
Gen. 6:7 People
Exod. 34:10 wonders
Num. 16:30 Something new (debatable)
Deut. 4:32 People
Ps. 102:18 People not yet created
Ps. 104:30 Creatures
Ps. 148:5 Celestial inhabitants
Ps. 51:10 pure heart
Ps. 89:12 North and south
Ps. 89:47 People
Ecc. 12:1 you
Isa. 4:5 Cloud of smoke
Isa. 40:26 Starry host
Isa. 40:28 Ends of the earth
Isa. 41:20 Rivers flowing in desert
Isa. 42:5 Heavens
Isa. 43:1 Jacob
Isa. 43:15 Israel
Isa. 43:7 Everyone called by my name
Isa. 45:12 People
Isa. 45:18 Earth
Isa. 45:18 Heavens
Isa. 45:7 Darkness
Isa. 45:7 Disaster
Isa. 45:8 Heavens and earth
Isa. 48:7 New things, hidden things
Isa. 54:16 Blacksmith
Isa. 54:16 Destroyer
Isa. 57:19 praise
Isa. 65:17 New heavens and new earth
Isa. 65:18 New heavens and new earth
Isa. 65:18 Jerusalem
Jer. 31:22 New thing
Ezek. 21:30 Ammonites
Ezek. 28:13 King of Tyre
Ezek. 28:15 King of Tyre
Amos 4:13 wind
Mal. 2:10 Covenant people

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)
Specific individuals or types of individuals (5)
Creatures (2)
Phenomena (10)
Components of cosmic geography (3)
Condition (1: pure heart)

What is obvious from this listing is that grammatical objects of the verb are not material in nature, and even when they are, it is questionable that the context is objectifying them. What would be the alternative? Is there anything else “creation” could refer to other than bringing something material into existence? Even a quick look at English usage would alert us to alternatives. For example, we might speak of creating a committee; a curriculum; a masterpiece; havoc—none of these are material in nature. We would instead refer to these as the creation of something functional.

It should be noted that a large percentage of the biblical contexts require a functional understanding. If the Israelites understood the word bara’ to convey creation in functional terms, then that would be the most “literal” understanding that we could achieve. The truest meaning of a text is found in what the author and hearers would have thought. Incidentally, analysis of ancient Near Eastern creation literature confirms that ancient priorities were focused on the functional rather than the material.

For more information concerning the implications of this translation and the ancient Near Eastern materials, see my discussion in a variety of publications both current and forthcoming: Genesis (NIVAC; Zondervan); Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Baker); “Genesis” in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament (Zondervan, forthcoming, 2009), as well as forthcoming books on Genesis one from Eisenbrauns and IVP.

John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).

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