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In the beginning…

Posted by nebula0 on August 29, 2008


In the beginning God created… or, in the beginning of God’s creating… the translation could go equally either way.  But what about the word traditionally used in the translation: to create, how accurately does that capture the Hebrew?

According to Joseph Smith we learn the following (from the King Follet Discourse): 

“You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing; and they will answer, “Doesn’t the Bible say He created the world?”  And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing.  Now, the word create came from the word barau which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and 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.”

This is an essential point for Joseph to push in the discourse, because it is essential that the matter out of which the world exists, and the rules by which it is organized, exists eternally.  This must be because according to Joseph God wasn’t always God, there was a time in which he was a man, and during that time where did the materials come from for his body and his earth?  Well, his God (God’s God) created them?  But that would mean that God’s God is then the ultimate God… no, God’s God in turn was fashioned by a God using pre-existing materials, and so it goes, forever.

So how about it, is Joseph right that bara means ‘fashion’ like a boat?  I’m afraid not.  According to Marc Zvi Brettler (Professor at Brandeis University) in How to Read the Bible (Jewish Publication Society, 2005), p 41:

Much of the activity of God throughout this story is described using the verb bara [bet, resh, aleph], typically translated “to create,” a word used more than fifty times in the Bible.  Unlike other creation words, however, it always has God as its subject.  That is, so to speak, God may bara but humans can never bara (at least according to the attested evidence).  This verb appears to be part of a small class of Hebrew words that are used in reference to God only, thereby suggesting that in certain respects, God is totally other.”

Looking up the root bet, resh, aleph in the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon confirms this.  As rendered into the qal paradigm, bara is used only with God as the subject.

The significance of this is devastating to Joseph’s argument.  Not only does bara not mean to organize as to organize a ship, it is a word reserved solely to describe God’s actions.  That implies that God’s creating the world was unlike anything we humans do, any word we try to come up with in English to translate this will be inadequate, what verb is there in English that only God can be the subject of?  Create?  No, humans can create.  Form?  No, humans form things all of the time.  Assemble?  Certainly not.  The use of bara accentuates exactly what Joseph thought it shouldn’t– the unique creative activity of God, completely unlike anything a human is capable of doing.  That is, as Professor Brettler pointed out, “God is totally other.”

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8 Responses to “In the beginning…”

  1. Seth R. said

    “using the verb bara [bet, resh, aleph], typically translated “to create,” a word used more than fifty times in the Bible. Unlike other creation words, however, it always has God as its subject. That is, so to speak, God may bara but humans can never bara (at least according to the attested evidence).”

    According to the people I’m reading, there are at least three instances in the Old Testament where humans, and not God, are the subject of the verb “bara.”

    First, there’s a couple instances in Joshua 17:15, 18:

    “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…. The mountain shall be thine; for it is wood, and thou shalt cut it down (bara) ….”

    The subject of the verb bara here is clearly the people of Israel.

    Then there’s Ezekiel 23:47 where the verb bara is used to denote a command to a company of people to “hack to pieces (bara) with swords” those who had committed adultery. The subject of the verb bara is once again humans.

    The verb bara is also used in 1 Samuel 2:23 and Ezekiel 21:24 where humans might be the subject, but it’s too ambiguous to say for certain.

  2. nebula0 said

    Seth, check the verb paradigm. Only God is used as the subject for bara when it is in the Qal paradigm.

  3. Seth R. said

    So, let’s make sure I understand your position correctly.

    I looked into what “Qal paradigm” means, and basically it appears to be a method of Hebrew verb conjugation (let me make it clear that I do not pretend to be a student of Hebrew – I just read commentary). Your argument, and Brettler’s is that the fact that Qal conjugation of “bara” being reserved only for God suggests that the word is for something other than human activity. Correct?

    But I’m still not seeing why this means that “bara” cannot mean “divide” for God. Obviously God would “divide” or “organize” in a different manner from mere mortals. Isn’t that “other” enough to satisfy the Qal paradigm argument?

  4. nebula0 said

    It’s more than how the verb is conjugated, by conjugating a root in a different paradigm the root the meaning is changed dramatically. An example- what is ‘count’ in the qal becomes ‘recount/tell’ in the piel. Very different meanings… so we can’t at all just go from from conjugation to the other to discover meaning. The qal paradigm represents the most ‘basic’ meaning of the verb, making go ‘backwards’ from another paradigm to get that meaning not a very good strategy. The best we can do is look at all the instances that the root is used in that particular verb paradigm to extrapolate the meaning.

  5. Seth R. said

    But doesn’t this ultimately just boil down to an argument from silence?

  6. nebula0 said

    Not at all. It is actually very stricking that only God is the subject of all of the incidents of the verb (in the Qal). Considering that this particular verb was chosen in the creation story then means that it was a well thought out choice meant to communicate something significant to the audience. Brettler argues that one of the points of Genesis 1 is to be an antithesis to the common creation myths to which the ancient Hebrews were familiar (such as the Babylonian creation myths). The Genesis creation is a lot like these myths… but then it differs in key ways. It seems to be setting up the audience to expect ot hear something familiar so that the parts which are different really drive home a point. Whereas in the other creation myths creation comes about as a result of a struggle between gods, only one God is involved in the Genesis account and everythign is done very orderly. Unlike the gods who seem to need to form things by say, cutting others in half, God of Genesis is so powerful He can speak things into existence- and this point is reiterated by the use of the unusual verb.

  7. Seth R. said

    “Considering that this particular verb was chosen in the creation story then means that it was a well thought out choice meant to communicate something significant to the audience.”

    Yeah. Sure. But what? That’s where your argument isn’t connecting. Just saying that a word use is special isn’t the same as saying what it means.

    And I’ll need more detail on why Brettler makes this connection. A bare assertion that he makes such a connection is not enough.

    Especially in light of Brettler’s other statements on the subject. Your OP quoted Brettler’s remarks in “How to Read the Bible” page 41. A friend provided me with the paragraphs preceding and following your quote (you probably ought to independently verify them to make sure I’m getting it right):

    “The opposite of structure is chaos, and it is thus appropriate that 1:1-2 describe primeval chaos – a world that is “unformed and void,” containing darkness and a mysterious wind. This story does not describe creation out of nothing (Latin: creatio ex nihilo). Primeval stuff already exists in verses 1-2, and the text shows no concern for how it originated. Rather, it is a myth about how God alone structured primordial matter into a highly organized world. Only upon its completion is this structure ‘very good’. And only then can God ‘rest’ (2:1-3).” (p. 41)

    Preceding paragraph:

    “The opposite of structure is chaos, and it is thus appropriate that 1:1-2 describe primeval chaos – a world that is “unformed and void,” containing darkness and a mysterious wind. This story does not describe creation out of nothing (Latin: creatio ex nihilo). Primeval stuff already exists in verses 1-2, and the text shows no concern for how it originated. Rather, it is a myth about how God alone structured primordial matter into a highly organized world. Only upon its completion is this structure ‘very good’. And only then can God ‘rest’ (2:1-3).” (p. 41)

    And the following paragraph:

    “Language that sets God apart is usually difficult to translate. In most cases, when biblical authors ascribed actions to God – like “to see,” “to do,” “to hear,” “to fashion” – they used the same verb typically used for people: they modeled their understanding of God after their real-life experiences. Where the authors avoided depicting God through human analogy, they pointed to the incomparability of God – whom normal language cannot portray. Thus, Genesis 1:1 might (awkwardly) be translated: “In the beginning of God’s creation (which is different from human creation, but ‘creation’ is the closest English word to describe this action) of heaven and earth …”” (p. 41-42)

    My friend also provided me with an excerpt from the “Jewish Study Bible” that Brettler edited:

    “This clause [verse 2] describes things just before the process of creation began. To modern people, the opposite of the created order is ‘nothing,’ that is, a vacuum. To the ancients, the opposite of the created order was something much worse than ‘nothing.’ It was an active, malevolent force we can best term ‘chaos.’ In this verse, chaos is envisioned as a dark, undifferentiated mass of water. In the midrash, Bar Kappara upholds the troubling notion that the Torah shows that God created the world out of preexistent material. But other rabbis worry that acknowledging this would cause people to liken God to a king who had built his palace on a garbage dump, thus arrogantly impugning His majesty (Gen. Rab. 1:5). In the ancient Near East, however, to say that a deity had subdued chaos is to give him the highest praise. (pg. 13).”

    Now, maybe you have a better overall grasp of Brettler’s message than I do (or my friend does), but it seems a bit tenuous, after remarks like these, to argue that he supports a creation ex nihilo paradigm, no?

  8. nebula0 said

    I don’t have a problem with that. My intention with this post wasn’t to defend ex nihilo creation from these verses, my point was to show that God baraing something isn’t at all like somebody building a ship. The use was an intentional setting apart of God’s activity of creating from the mundane activities of humans. If the authors of that verse had in mind some kind of formation out of chaos, that’s fine, they still chose words and phrases to set apart God from other mythologies and show how unique He is (who else can speak things into existence? who else baras things?). I argue that by setting God apart as a totally other, unique being this goes directly against the grain of the thrust of Joseph’s argument, that God fashioned the world like ‘building a ship’ or something of that sort because God is fundamentally, in Joseph’s theology a part of the natural order.

    The creation ex nihilo argument and whether or not it can be supported by Genesis is a separate argument as far as I am concerned. Either way, the use of bara still implies a unique act by a wholly other God.

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