Sep 12, 2008

John Walton on Bara (Create?)

John Walton has a nice discussion on the Hebrew term
bara. Here is a lengthy excerpt from his post which can be read in its entirety here.

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.

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