God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How God Makes Peace

A question arrived via e-mail about the different Hebrew verbs that mean “create” or “make” and how they relate to “peace.”

There are three Biblical Hebrew verbs that all mean roughly the same thing: asah, yatzar, and bara.

Later Jewish thought would differentiate them, giving asah the most basic meaning (like “do” or “make” in English), yatzar the more specific meaning of “fashion” or “form,” and bara the most specific meaning: “create in the way that only God creates.”

The question was why, when God creates peace (shalom), the verb is asah and not bara.

For example, we read in Job 25:2 that God asahs shalom on high (a passage that would later form the basis of one of the most common Jewish prayers). In another famous line, also co-opted into the Liturgy (with a huge modification),* Isaiah 45:7 notes that God yatzars light and baras darkness, asahs shalom and baras evil.

While it’s true that bara is almost always reserved for God’s work, there may be exceptions, like Ezekiel 21:24, where Ezekiel does the baraing. (Ezekiel there, as in other places, is called “son of man.” The combination of “son of man” and a verb usually reserved for God raises all sorts of interesting interpretations.) On the other hand, some people think that the verb in Ezekiel doesn’t mean “create” but rather is a homonym with a different meaning.

Either way, I think this is a good opportunity to revisit how parallelisms work in Hebrew. The poetry of Isaiah 45:7 doesn’t come from the way the verbs match up with their objects. Rather, the poetry lies in the pairs that are created when phrases are juxtaposed. In this case, the three verbs are so commonly put in parallel that they blend into the poetic background. The poetry comes from starting with an obvious pair of opposites (light and dark) and then a non-obvious pair: peace and evil. The message is that peace is to evil what light is to darkness. The verbs are just there to create grammatical sentences.

Though it’s always tricky to draw general conclusions from the stylized writing in Job, we do see another lesson in Job 25:2. Even if bara is reserved for what God does, it doesn’t follow that everything God does gets the verb bara.

Finally, “makes peace” in English has two meanings: “create peace” and “work things out.” I think the Hebrew may have been similarly ambiguous.





(*) The early Jewish rabbis, perhaps not wanting to admit that God creates evil, changed the line — and (“with all due respect”) watered it down — in the liturgy, replacing “evil” with “everything.”

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March 9, 2010 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , ,

5 Comments »

  1. The “evil” that God “creates” is, to my understanding, “calamity” rather than the abstraction. He “causes calamity.”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | March 9, 2010 | Reply

  2. Wonderful. Informative. Engaging. Thanks.

    Comment by Paul Kipnes | March 10, 2010 | Reply

  3. What do you think of Ellen van Wolde’s assertion that bara originally meant “separate,” as in “In the beginning God separated the heavens and the earth”?

    Comment by Aaron | March 12, 2010 | Reply

    • I don’t think she’s right. I have a complete review of her paper here.

      Comment by Joel H. | March 12, 2010 | Reply

      • Nice, thank you.

        Comment by Aaron | March 12, 2010


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