God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Professor Ellen van Wolde and bara in Genesis

The Dutch Trouw has an article about Professor Ellen van Wolde’s notion that:

Zo stuitte ze op de openingsverzen van het bijbelboek waarop ze ooit promoveerde. Preciezer: Op het werkwoord bara. Dat betekent volgens iedereen ‘scheppen’, maar voor Van Wolde voldeed die vertaling niet meer. “Het klópte gewoon niet.” Bij het werkwoord was God het onderwerp (God schiep…), gevolgd door ‘steeds twee of meer lijdende voorwerpen’. Waarom schiep God niet één ding of dier, maar steeds meerdere? Omdat, stelde Van Wolde vast, God niet schiep, maar scheidde. De aarde van de hemel, het land van de zee, de zeemonsters van de vogels en het gekrioel op de grond. [Emphasis added.]

That is, according to Van Wolde, bara means “separated,” not “created.” Her evidence is that the verb applies to more than one thing at a time: “heaven” and “earth,” for example, which she takes as “separated heaven from earth.”

I don’t see it.

There’s enormous evidence from elsewhere that bara means “create,” not “separate.” And even though Genesis starts out by things that are created in pairs or groups, we don’t have to look far to see counterexamples: The first part of Genesis 1:27 (“God barad adam“), Genesis 5:1 (similar), Isaiah 43:1 (“…Adonai, who barad you…”), Malachi 2:10 (“[we are all the same because] one God barad us”), Amos 4:13 ([the one who “forms the mountains and baras the wind”), Ezekiel 21:35 (“in the place where you were barad … I will judge you”), etc. Even her own example from Genesis 1:21 (“sea monsters,” and “birds”) seems barely to fit her thesis.

And for that matter, there is a verb “separate” (hivdil) in the creation story.

I wouldn’t want my own work judged from a newspaper account of it, but in this case we all have the lexical data. It’s true that bara sometimes applies to more than one thing. But even without the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I think it would be an unwarranted leap to therefore assume that the verb means “separate.”

[UPDATE: For more, see here, here, and here.]

[UPDATE 2: I’ve put together a short review of Dr. Van Wolde’s paper.]

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October 9, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , ,

12 Comments »

  1. Hi Joel,

    Nice post, to the point. I’m just discovering your blog now. Very nice. Here’s one more link for your readers:

    http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2009/10/a-response-to-ellen-van-wolde-on-genesis-1.html

    Comment by John Hobbins | October 9, 2009 | Reply

  2. Joel,

    The evidence from the LXX is posted on my blog:

    http://alternate-readings.blogspot.com/2009/10/genesis-one-does-bara-mean-seperated.html

    Comment by c. stirling bartholomew | October 9, 2009 | Reply

  3. The opening words of Genesis “Bereshith bara Elohim eth hashshamayim…” are according to a noted 19th century Hebrew scholar Dr Adam Clarke (1838) revealing for the following reasons;- The verb bara,he created, being joined in the singular number with Elohim the plural noun, so the unity of the trinity is exemplified. Moreover the particle eth not only descibes 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 Alpa and Omega I AM the beginning and the end.Therefore 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 seems to me 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.

    Comment by michael hobbis | October 10, 2009 | Reply

    • Therefore 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.

      I think this is more of an interpretation than a translation.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 11, 2009 | Reply

  4. Hi, “Ezekiel 21:35” should it not be “Ezekiel 21:30”.
    Anyway I was reading your reply , because you use a lot of scripture to prove a point and not just one verse.

    Comment by Dan | October 11, 2009 | Reply

    • Ezekiel has two numbering schemes. According to one, nivreita is in 21:30; according to the other, 21:35.

      Thanks for checking. Spell check lets me know when I type a word wrong (usually) but there’s no verse checker, and it would be really easy for me to type a number wrong and never know it.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 11, 2009 | Reply

      • the verb ”bara” has the meaning to separate, to mark boundaries besides the meaning to create. Ibn Ezra noted that the verb ”bara” in Genesis 1 means marking the limits of earth and water. the ”heavens” ”shamayim” in the text, is a scribal corruption of the word ”mayim” – waters.

        Comment by Zamir | December 5, 2011

  5. It seems bad style to guess from a report by a journalist what a scientist has to say. Her original text is available (search for oratievanwoldedef.pdf) and answers many of the above concerns.

    Comment by Andy W. | October 13, 2009 | Reply

    • This ended up marked as spam, so I just saw it this morning. Thanks for providing the link! I used it to create a review of her paper here.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 15, 2009 | Reply

  6. […] already pointed out why I don’t think she can be correct, but I did so with the caveat that I hadn’t read […]

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

  7. Ibn Ezra said the same in his commentary to the text of Genesis centuries ago. ”Bara” has the meaning ‘to separate’ to mark boundaries’…

    Comment by Zamir | December 5, 2011 | Reply


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