God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Review: Professor Ellen van Wolde on bara in Genesis

Professor Ellen van Wolde’s recent paper on Genesis has captured significant attention for claiming that the Hebrew bara ought to be translated as “divided.” That is:

Met andere woorden, onze conclusie is dat het woord bara niet ‘scheppen’, maar ‘scheiden’ betekent.

I’ve already pointed out why I don’t think she can be correct, but I did so with the caveat that I hadn’t read her work. A reader pointed me to a PDF of her paper, so now, having read it, I’m able to offer this brief review. (I think I’ve got it right. It’s not so easy for me to read Dutch.)

The Evidence

Van Wolde’s evidence that bara means “separate,” not “create,” is this:

1. Creation in Genesis comes about only in one of two ways: Jussive speech (as in, “let there be light”), or with the verb asah. She writes:

Telkens wanneer iets nieuws wordt gemaakt in Genesis 1, staat dat aangegeven op een van de volgende twee manieren. 1. “God zei” gevolgd door een directe rede met een werkwoord in de aanvoegende wijs of iussivus […] 2. Zeven keren gebruikt de verteller het werkwoord asa “maken” om het scheppen van God van iets nieuws te beschrijven: God maakte het uitspansel….

2. In Genesis 1:1, the verb bara applies to two direct objects, both of which are definite, and therefore known. (“Het werkwoord drukt een type handeling uit die God uitvoert met betrekking tot twee directe lijdende voorwerpen, de hemel en de aarde….”)

3. We learn from verses 6-7 and 9-10 that the creation story is, at least in part, about transformation of the uniform water into four regions: water above the sky, water in the sky, water below the sky, and dry land. (“De handeling zelf transformeert deze uniforme watermassa in ten minste vier ruimtelijke domeinen: water boven het hemelgewelf, water onder het hemelgewelf, terwijl het water onder het hemelgewelf verder wordt verdeeld in droog land en zeeen.”)

4. Other ANE texts refer to creation stories that feature separation at the beginning.

5. In Genesis 1:21 we find the verb bara for the taninim, which are not mentioned in the previous verse or in the following verse, so the verb bara in Genesis 1:21 refers to separating the taninim from the other animals.

6. In verses 26-27 we first find asah used in reference to the plural “us” and “gods,” then, in verse 27, bara only refers to “him” (God). Further, asah in verse 26 matches up with d’mut and tzelem, “image and likeness” (beeld and gelijkenis), while bara in 27 only has tzelem. Van Wolde uses these facts to posit that verse 27 refers to (a) separating man from the plural god-man construct; and (b) then separating man from woman.

7. Van Wolde points to the word toldot in Genesis 2:4, using its etymology to suggest that it complements bara. Genesis 2:4 for her is about “begetting” and “separating.” (“Aldus blijkt dat vers 2,4a het hele verhaal evalueert en afsluit: het maken of tot stand brengen (‘schepping’) wordt weergegeven door het begrip verwekken of voortbrengen (toledot) en het scheiden wordt weergegeven door het woord bara.”)

8. Van Wolde points to other words (asah and kana) that mean “create.”

9. Van Wolde suggests that the present participle of bara is never used to mean “creator.” (“Een vierde toetssteen voor de hypothese is het opvallende feit dat in de Hebreeuwse bijbel het abstracte woord schepper nooit wordt uitgedrukt door het tegenwoordig deelwoord van bara.”)

10. Isaiah 45:7 reads, “[God] yotzers light and borehs darkness, osehs peace and borehs evil.” Van Wolde points out the theological problem with a text that ascribes the creation of darkness and evil to God, and further suggests that, in part because the words come in pairs, the verb here, too, means “separate.”

My Evaluation

I still don’t think Professor Van Wolde is correct.

Van Wolde’s “evidence” in (1) above is essentially her conclusion. If one assumes that God’s acts of creation are only described in terms of speech acts or with the verb asah, of course it follows that bara doesn’t refer to acts of creation. But (1) is what she’s trying to show, and by assuming it at the beginning she starts off weakly.

I think (2) and (3) are vague, and compatible with too many hypotheses to be helpful.

I think (4) may be interesting, but probably not directly relevant.

Points (5) and (6) also appear vague to me.

Point (7) seems to rely too closely on the etymology of toldot.

Point (8) seems irrelevant, because the same logic could show that asah doesn’t mean “create,” because kanah does.

I may have misunderstood the Dutch that I summarized as point (9), because it doesn’t seem to be accurate. Isaiah 40:28, for example, reads, “Adonai is the boreh of the ends of the earth.”

Finally, (10) is the same sort of reasoning as (2), the theology notwithstanding.

So in the end, Van Wolde’s argument boils down to two arguments: (A) the verb bara is sometimes applied to pairs; and (B) other verbs mean “create.” And her article doesn’t address the numerous other uses of bara where it seems that only “create” is possible.

So I’m not convinced.

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October 15, 2009 - Posted by | article review, translation practice | , , , , , ,

21 Comments »

  1. Most Dutch scientists also are not convinced. But besides that, your interpretation of this Dutch article is rather good ;)

    Comment by JPvdGiessen | October 15, 2009 | Reply

  2. […] 2: I've put together a short review of Dr. Van Wolde's paper.] Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Review: Professor Ellen van Wolde on bara in […]

    Pingback by Professor Ellen van Wolde and bara in Genesis « God Didn't Say That | October 15, 2009 | Reply

  3. […] the Word breishit Professor Ellen van Wolde’s recent article about Genesis has brought the debate about the word breishit to the fore […]

    Pingback by On the Word breishit « God Didn't Say That | October 18, 2009 | Reply

  4. […] There are plenty of problems in the literal meaning of Genesis 1, but I’m not sure that Van Wolde’s approach is the best way of sorting it all out. At best, her interpretation forces us to look again at whether this text is really supporting creatio ex nihilo, which is much more a philosophical necessity rather than a scriptural injunction. A good English interpretation of her Dutch inaugural lecture can be found in Joel Hoffman’s blog. […]

    Pingback by Creationism eats itself, while theology seeks understanding « Ad Fontes | October 19, 2009 | Reply

  5. In considering the recent attack upon Genesis by Professor Ellen Van Wolde; the opening Hebrew words of Genesis “Bereshith bara Elohim eth hashshamayim…” are, according to the noted 19th century Hebrew scholar Dr Adam Clarke (published 1838), revealing for the following reasons;- The verb bara, he created, being joined in the singular number with Elohim the plural noun, exemplifies the unity of the trinity. Moreover Dr Clarke goes on to comment that the particle eth not only denotes the things created but also the sum and substance of the very created things themselves. Thus, I might construct/create a table, but for me to create the substance of the wood itself from nothing is in the prerogative and power only of God.
    Interestingly eth also contains the first and last letters of the Hebrew; or as in the Greek Alpha and Omega so Revelation in the first chapter- “I am Alpha and Omega the beginning and the ending”. Indeed the words opening Genesis may be translated ‘God in the beginning created the substance of the heavens and the substance of the earth’, i.e.the prima materia or the first elements out of which the very worlds were created.Thus confirming Hebrews chapter 11: 3, “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” It fills th is writer with awe to consider that the same words recorded in Genesis with which time began are to be used at the end of the world when the angel draws the final curtain over created time itself; Revelation 10:6.
    It may be that by bringing our attention to these things Professor van Wolde has not only provoked the “robust debate” that she desired; but has rather shot herself in her intellectual foot.
    Michael Hobbis

    Comment by michael hobbis | November 3, 2009 | Reply

    • Indeed the words opening Genesis may be translated ‘God in the beginning created the substance of the heavens and the substance of the earth’,

      That seems like an interpretation, not a translation, to me. (The often-cited connection to et, aleph to tav, and alpha and omega is interesting commentary, but I think it tells us what we can make the words mean, not what they meant.)

      Comment by Joel H. | November 3, 2009 | Reply

  6. For a updated roundup of online discussion, go here:

    http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2010/02/ellen-van-wolde-roundup.html

    Comment by John Hobbins | February 23, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks, John.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 23, 2010 | Reply

  7. >>>…At best, her interpretation forces us to look again at whether this text is really supporting creatio ex nihilo, which is much more a philosophical necessity rather than a scriptural injunction…

    The scriptures clearly and specifically indicate create EX hUDATOS rather than EX NIHILO:

    2Pe 3:5 For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth [dry land] standing out of the water [EX hUDATOS] and in the water:
    2Pe 3:6 Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished:

    Psa 24:1 A Psalm of David. The earth [dry land] 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**.

    Genesis 1 clearly begins with a pre-existent infinite chaotic abyss. Think “Thales.” It is philosophy (as someone pointed out) and dogma that dictate EX NIHILO.

    So the flip side of this whole discussion relates to those who contend that BARA means “create” (as in, “out of nothing”) – which it doesn’t signify, and context protests against suggesting that it does. God BARAed Adm from the dirt, not EX NIHILO.

    Gen 1:27 So God created [BARA] man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

    How was man made? Well, ADM from dirt, and Eve from a bone.

    While I can’t contribute much to the issue of BARA as “separate,” it is, IM[somewhat]HO, crystal clear that it does not suggest or support EX NIHILO “creation.”

    Some have suggested that her reading was an attack on EX NIHILO. I don’t see the dichotomy, but if EX NIHILO and her reading are incompatible, and that is some part of the measure of the worth of her argument in anyone’s mind, then I think they need to give her another listen.

    >>>…The verb bara, he created, being joined in the singular number with Elohim the plural noun, exemplifies the unity of the trinity….

    Not according to the 4th gospel, because there, the one who was “with God” was his utterance, not Jesus and a ghost:

    Gen 1:3 And **God said**, Let there be light: and there was light.

    It is to that that John refers – to “Let there be light.”

    And without this utterance was not anything made (that is, of the things that *were* made, because some things pre-existed):

    Gen 1:6 And **God said**, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

    Everything (that was made), was made through this utterance:

    Joh 1:1 In the beginning [BERESHIT] was the Word [“utterance”], and the Word [“utterance”] was with God, and the Word [“utterance”] was [of the quality of] God[-utterance].
    Joh 1:2 The same was in the beginning [Gen 1] with God.
    Joh 1:3 All things were made by him [it (neuter) – utterance]; and without him [it] was not any thing made ***that was made***.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | March 12, 2010 | Reply

  8. I like Strauss’s focus on seperation as coming into being. I like it even more when I compare it to Jacob Klein’s comments on arithmos eidetikos in his book ‘Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra.’ Then again, I see things from a philosophical point of view. And from here, all hermeneutics is inherently political…

    Comment by Diodotus | July 15, 2010 | Reply

  9. […] I have more on Genesis 1:1 here, here, and here. […]

    Pingback by On Genesis 1:1 « God Didn't Say That | July 19, 2010 | Reply

  10. […] Review: Professor Ellen van Wolde on bara in Genesis […]

    Pingback by The Year in Review « God Didn't Say That | December 31, 2010 | Reply

  11. Leo Strauss gave a talk on Genesis that is quite illuminating in this regard:

    http://www.archive.org/details/LeoStraussOnGenesis

    Comment by Avi Solomon | March 7, 2011 | Reply

  12. well,divide could be organize and organize lends itself to fatten.,e.g.in the head,(the arche,the christ),fattened,(organized..??)the …..earth..????.erets..

    Comment by b r bloomberg | March 10, 2011 | Reply

  13. hmm let me expand….in christ god organized the above waters and the habitations…,, kinda sounds like heb.11.3

    Comment by b r bloomberg | March 12, 2011 | Reply

    • Hebrews 11:3, really reads more like this:

      “By faith we realize [νοουμεν] that the ages [αιωνας] were amended [κατηρτισθαι] by God’s declarations [ρηματι], so that what we are seeing have not come from things extant.”

      You might disgaree with some of the fine points of my translation, but what is clear is that the utterances are not RHMATI are not “Christ.”

      Comment by WoundedEgo | March 12, 2011 | Reply

  14. rhemati aside john 1.3 states,through the logos all things came to be

    Comment by b r bloomberg | March 13, 2011 | Reply

    • John 1:3 makes no mention of Christ, though. And it isn’t an unqualified “all things” but only non-preexistent things, or “the things that were made in Genesis 1″:

      “All things were made by it; and without it was not any thing made that was made.”

      Comment by WoundedEgo | March 13, 2011 | Reply

  15. a defined seperation of identities,e.g.jesus says i am the arche,therefore,john1.1 reads in christ was the logos.so the christ and the word are separate entities. by the way,prove it isnt an unqualified all things!

    Comment by b r bloomberg | March 14, 2011 | Reply

    • It isn’t an unqualified all things because:

      * it gives the qualification “that were made”
      * it refers to EN ARKH, and there we were told that God made the sky and the dry land (“heavens and the earth”), and that when God began to make these, the other things, (bottomless sea, the unformed, unfilled land and the wind) already were there.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | March 14, 2011 | Reply

  16. so through the word in the christ, all things came to be,through the logos,in arche,all things came to be,(egeneto).hence in christ bara elohim eth shamayim,(above waters,aka,heavens???).this is what we read,”on account of whom are ‘all’ things and through whom are ‘all’ things.”heb.2.10.

    Comment by b r bloomberg | March 15, 2011 | Reply


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