Saturday, November 03, 2007

Creation

There is a longstanding controversy regarding the second word of the Hebrew Bible, bara. Some hold that the word should be translated "created," and that the term means "ex nihilo" or "out of nothing" creation. Others point out that the word is reserved for the "creative" activity of God and, even if it does not mean ex nihilo literally, it refers to the creation of the world and all things in it. Thus it is held that even if the verb bara has no explicit connotation of ex nihilo, that it is linked only with the creative power of God suggests that something more than use of preexistent matter is in view.

However, a careful reading of the Hebrew Bible along with a basic understanding of the root of the word will show clearly that the word does not imply ex nihilo, and is not exclusive to God's activity. A look at Ezekiel 21:19 will show both propositions to be false.

"As for you, son of man, make two ways for the sword of the king of Babylon to come; both of them will go out of one land. And cut out (bara) a signpost; cut (bara) it out at the head of the way to the city. (NASB)"
Clearly, this command to the prophet does not require that he make a signpost to mark the way to the city "out of nothing." Additionally, it is the prophet himself that is to be the subject of this imperative. Some have argued that the verb in Ezekiel 21:19 is in the piel stem, while the qal stem is reserved for God's action, but this "logic" goes against all other Hebrew verbs in which the piel intensifies the action of the qal verb or sometimes introduces a nuanced meaning. Elsewhere in the Bible the verb bara means "to cut down," or "to cut out."

Genesis 2:3, in Hebrew (transliterated) says:

"m'la`k'TO `a$er ´ bara` `elohiyM la,aSOT"
This is an interesting Hebrew construction that links the verbs bara and asah (aSOT)" ("making"). It is similar in form to Genesis 1:22:

"vay'VareC' `oTaM `elohiyM la`mor" - "and God blessed them, saying..."
which links the verbs "to bless" and "saying," indicating the process by which God blessed them. Likewise, Genesis 2:3 indicates the method ("making") by which God performed the act described by "bara." This essentially equates the two words.

It is insightful to understand that the verb habar derives from the same root as bara and means "to divide." The most likely cognate of both of the Hebrew words (bara and habar) is the Phoenician word habara, which describes an artisan's trade involving cutting (perhaps stone-cutting, but also likely wood-cutting and wood-carving). Also derived from this word is the Arabic bara, which means "to fashion by cutting." A good English translation would be "to carve," and it is similar in meaning to the Hebrew pasal, "to hew out." But, in Genesis, as in its Phoenician use, the focus (in the qal) is on the craft itself and not the action of cutting.

2 Chronicles 2:14 describes a man who:

"...was a man of Tyre, skilful to work in gold, and in silver, in brass, in iron, in stone, and in timber, in purple, in blue, and in fine linen, and in crimson; also to grave any manner of engraving, and to find out every device which shall be put to him, with thy cunning men, and with the cunning men of my lord David thy father."
1 Kings 5:6 takes up this story:

"...And now, command and they shall cut down for me cedars out of Lebanon. And my servants shall be with your servants. And I will give you hire for your servants according to all that you say. For you know that there is not a man among us knowing to cut timber like the Sidonians."

The extraordinary mechanical skill of the Phoenicians - especially of the Sidonians - was universally famed in the ancient world. Similarly, the best materials were at their command. On the slopes of Lebanon, which belonged to their territory, grew those world-famed cedars with which the palaces of Assyria were adorned, and, close by, at Gebal were the most skilled workmen (see Ezekiel 27:9).

The passages above demonstrate the Hebrew focus on the skilled artisan. And it is in a similar context that God is referred to in Genesis 1 where he is described, as "fashioning by cutting" (bara), "accomplishing" (asah), and "fashioning by squeezing" (yatsar). He commands existence by "speaking" (asah), and directing things to "spring forth" (dasha). He commands his creations to "bear fruit" (parah), "bear many" (rabah) and "fill in" (mala). All of these works are also described as "his work" (m'lakto).

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the verb craft: " To make or construct (something) in a manner suggesting great care or ingenuity." It is in this sense that the verb bara is used of God.

God is the crafty artisan or "craftsman" of the world.

No comments: