Does Genesis 1:1 Teach That God Created the Heavens and the Earth?

At LXX Studies we will more than likely never be the first to break a story to the public, but hopefully we will be able to offer sound reflection on some of the more newsworthy items from the perspective of the Ancient Versions.

This past week, there was some hype due to an announcement that Ellen Van Wolde has made an argument that concludes something to the tune of “the traditional view that God is creator is untenable now.”  As I understand it, a major part of Van Wolde’s argument concerns the translation of the Hebrew word ברא in Genesis 1:1.  Of course the traditional translation of this word is “to create,” but Van Wolde has suggested that the word in this context should be translated “to separate,” so that the text is not teaching the original creation of the heavens and the earth, but only the separation of the heavens from the earth (see Chris for an apt critique of Van Wolde’s analysis of the Hebrew usage).

What Van Wolde means by the “traditional view” is not clear, but one may safely assume that she has in mind the traditional exegesis of Genesis 1:1 which supports the traditional Jewish and Christian view of creation that God created the heavens and the earth ex nihilo.  I simply want to list the evidence of the Ancient Versions in order to present the traditional exegesis of this verse.

LXX: ᾿Εν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν.  The text can be translated: In the beginning God created/made the heavens and the earth (see LSJ s.v. αρχη for anarthrous examples with prepositions, where the sense is still clearly definite probably because the lexical item naturally assumes only one beginning).  The LXX, then, uses a verb which does not mean “to separate,” but means “to make” or “to create” ( for the latter meaning see s.v. ποιεω A.2 LSJ).  For a thorough listing of translation equivalents for bara’ in the LXX and for what equivalents one would expect to see if the translators wanted to communicate the sense “to separate” see here.  This translation comes from the 3rd century BC (c. 280 BC) and some might wonder if the translators intended to convey that God only formed the heavens and the earth from existing matter by their use of ποιεω.  Although this is possible, only about 120 years later, we see clearly that the Jews are praying to the LORD God as ο παντων κτιστης (“the creator of all”) among other appellations in 2 Maccabees 1:24.  The Jews clearly have an understanding that God created all things in this period of their history and this theology must come from texts such as Genesis 1:1.

Aquila: ἐν κεφαλαιω εκτισεν θεος συν τον ουρανον και συν την γην.  Aquila employs the very specific verb κτιζω “to create” in order to render the Hebrew text.  Note that Aquila is not using the συν preposition in the normal sense “with” so that someone might be tempted to translate the text: God created with the heavens and with the earth or something like this.  Rather, Aquila uses συν characteristically to translate the Hebrew marker of the direct object את.

Symmachus: Not extant

Theodotion: Not extant

Vulgate: In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram.  Jerome uses creo to communicate the idea of creation, not separation.

Peshitta: ܒܪܫܝܬ ܒܪܐ ܐܠܗܐ܂ ܝܬ ܫܡܝܐ ܘܝܬ ܐܪܥܐ܂  P uses a cognate (bra’) to translate the Hebrew text in this verse.  According to the CAL in the G stem this verb may mean “to create” or “to get well.”  The former is clearly the meaning in this context given that the verb is transitive in this context.

Targum: בֲקַדמִין בְרָא יוי יָת שְמַיָא וְיָת אַרעָא׃  The Aramaic Targum uses the same cognate (bra’) as P, which has the same range of meaning in this dialect according to the CAL.

The Ancient Versions speak with one clear voice that God did indeed create the heavens and the earth, not simply the “stuff” in the heavens and the earth, and they certainly did not understand the text to mean God separated the heavens and the earth.

Therefore any argument to the contrary will have to be established firmly on the basis of the analysis of the Hebrew text of Genesis and the Hebrew Bible as a whole, which is Van Wolde’s project apparently.  However, see John Hobbins’ initial critique of Van Wolde’s analysis of the Hebrew Bible here.

HT: Charles

6 thoughts on “Does Genesis 1:1 Teach That God Created the Heavens and the Earth?

  1. You are absolutely correct. The Hebrew, the Aramaic Peshitta and the Aramaic Targums, as well as the Latin Vulgate and everything else, can only be understood to be “created” in the sense that we normally understand it. This is the way that all Biblical Scholars of all faiths (Jews & Christians of all sects) have always understood it. Ellen Van Wolde is either trying to grab a bit of media fame to boost an obscure career, or is just trying to stir up controversy.

  2. It needs to be brought into the discussion the role that Gen 1:1 plays in the larger discourse. There are discussions as to whether Gen 1:1 is: (1) a summary statement of what follows; or, (2) a distinct creative act preceding the seven day creation. English translations, of course, vary in their rendering of the Hebrew on this matter (often by leaving ambiguity).

    With regard to Hebrew “bara,” the English word “create” carries enough nuance to do justice to the Hebrew term. But we should be careful to infer too much into the term. If you follow number one (1) above, bara would not refer to any creative act itself, but would simply function within the summary statement of the seven day creative act. Thus, bara would only refer to the actions undertaken in Gen 1:2ff. It would be a semantic stretch to infer creation ex nihilo from bara in this understanding. (To be clear, I’m not denying creation ex nihilo, but I am denying it from this passage in this conception.) In this sense, bara takes on a significance of ordering and bringing function to the cosmos. There are strong arguments for reading bara as functional, i.e., “functional creation” (the reader is referred to the work of John Walton in Genesis NIVAC commentary or “The Lost World of Genesis One”).

    If you follow the second (2) above, then it seems bara refers to God’s creation of all matter in Gen 1:1. In the seven day schema which follows, God appears to be ordering the things (which we are told he created in Gen 1:1) and assigning functions to different things.

    Regarding the understanding of bara as “separating” or “dividing,” this seems to be too heavily influenced by pagan creation texts. Bara is only used of God in the Hebrew bible, meaning that it is something that only he does. It refers to various objects such as: wind, Jerusalem, peoples, etc. The meaning of bara as “separate” or “divide” does not make good sense of the data of scripture.

    • Thanks Seth, for clarifying the matters. I lean towards the second option, but I need to think about some things before offering a full response.

      Thanks again for presenting the two options.

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