Does the Hebrew verb bara‘ mean “assign a function” rather than “create”?

In this series of posts, I’ve been reviewing John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One. After summarizing his interpretation of the Bible’s opening creation account in my first post, and discussing some concerns that his interpretation raises in my second post, I’d now like to address the issue that led a reader of Paradigms on Pilgrimage to call attention to Walton’s book in the first place. What precisely does the Hebrew verb bara‘ signify?

The word is usually translated “create” in English. However, one of Walton’s crucial arguments to support the idea that Genesis presents an account of “functional origins” rather than “material origins” is that this word actually means to give something a function, rather than to bring something into existence materially.

To support this claim, he surveys all fifty occurrences of bara‘ in the Hebrew Bible and concludes that “no clear example occurs that demands a material perspective for the verb, though many are ambiguous” (41). That is, in his view, many instances could describe either bringing about material existence or assigning a function. He adds in a footnote that “in a large percentage of the cases where the usage is ambiguous, a further explanation is offered that indicates a functional interest” (175–176). However, giving something a material existence out of functional interest, that is, so that it can fulfill a function, nevertheless constitutes a material creation. It’s not the same thing as assigning a function to an already-existing entity, which is the meaning required by Walton’s interpretation of Genesis as describing “days that concern origins of functions not material” (94).

I personally find that many of the uses of bara’ that Walton lists fit the meaning of material creation quite well. For example, Psalm 104 describes how animals “die and return to dust,” but it then says to God, “You send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” This is certainly not a case of previously existing animals being assigned the function of renewing the ground, because the previous animals have died and decayed. So new animals are being brought into existence materially. And it’s not precisely their function to renew the ground; rather, this is a function that God fulfills by making them.

But whatever the significance of bara‘ throughout the Bible (and the verb could indeed cover a range of meanings), we need to be most concerned with what it means in the Genesis account. As he makes his argument for a functional connotation there, Walton addresses the cases where it appears that things are being brought into existence materially. However, it seems to me that to do this, he actually departs from his commitment to read the text through the eyes of the ancient audience it was composed for.

Walton acknowledges, for example, that “day two has a potentially material component,” the firmament (raqi‘a), that is, the dome of the sky. But, he argues, “No one believes there is actually something material there . . . If the account is material as well as functional then we find ourselves with the problem of trying to explain the material creation of something that does not exist” (93). Actually, everyone acknowledges that there is something material there: Earth has an atmosphere. While it’s gaseous, it’s still composed of matter (and so “material” in that sense), and it indeed provides a habitation for life on earth, by contrast with other planets that lack atmospheres. The fact that Genesis regards the sky as solid rather than gaseous can be attributed to its observational perspective.

Walton grants that “raqi‘a had a meaning to Israelites as referring to a very specific object in their cosmic geography.” But he insists that “in the functional approach, this component of Old World science addresses the function of weather, described in terms that they would understand” (93–94). It seems to me that he actually slips into a “concordist” approach here: A detail that would have meant one thing to the original audience (the solid dome) is taken to represent something different from a modern scientific perspective (weather), and that is said to be its true meaning. I think it would be more consistent to say that when understood from the perspective of the original readers, the creation of the raqi‘a would indeed have constituted bringing something into existence materially. That being the case, Genesis was not for them strictly an account of functional origins.

The same issue arises with Walton’s treatment of the creation of light on the first day. Noting that the text says that “God separated the light from the darkness,” he insists that “this statement does not make any sense if light and/or darkness are viewed as material objects . . . because by definition they cannot exist together in any meaningful scientific or material way” (54). However, the issue once again is not what sense the statement makes from a scientific perspective. We may well expect that an ancient reader could imagine all the light God made being “gathered together into one place” (or perhaps, more accurately, into one time), just as the waters were gathered together into one place on the next day.

Walton encounters a similar problem with the creation of humans. He acknowledges that their creation appears to be material because the material from which they are made is actually specified—the dust of the earth. To address this difficulty, he draws a distinction between a “prototype” (“an original item that serves as a model for later production”) and an “archetype” (“a representative for all others in the class”). He then argues that “the fact that the ancient Near East uses the same sorts of materials to describe all of humanity indicates that the materials have archetypal significance.” Specifically in the case of Genesis, being made of dust “is an archetypal feature that describes us all.” It “therefore cannot be viewed as a material ingredient. It is indicative of human destiny and mortality, and therefore is a functional comment, not a material one” (69). Once more a pre-scientific detail of the text is being given a representative meaning.

In this case there is a problem as well with the proposed functional connotation itself. Genesis depicts God forming humans from the dust of the earth before they became mortal and were destined to die. Even if returning to dust is indicative of mortality, being formed from dust in the first place cannot be a reference to that. There was no function in the original creation that humans were meant to fulfill by dying.

Later in the book Walton seems to describe an actual material creation of humanity. He states that there was “substantive discontinuity” between “the creation of the historical Adam and Eve” and whatever processes brought about the elements that were already in existence when the Genesis account opens and are only assigned a function there. “Rather than cause-and-effect continuity, there is material and spiritual discontinuity” (138). If that is the case, then when God says, “Let us make mankind in our image,” God is certainly bringing something new into existence materially. If we instead see this statement as describing only functional origins—“let us give an already-existing pre-human hominid the function of bearing the image of God”—we have to admit that the Genesis account is misrepresenting how God actually made image-bearing humans, because it would be suggesting that this happened in a continuous rather than a discontinuous way.

Indeed, in Walton’s final analysis, Adam and Eve appear to be much more prototypes than archetypes. He acknowledges that the Bible differs from other ancient Near Eastern texts in depicting the creation of individuals, rather than the “mass of humanity.” He observes that Adam and Eve’s identity as historic individuals is “indicated by their role in genealogies” (138). But this means that they are the actual progenitors of the human race, and so they are not just “representative of all others,” but “original items” that are not just the models but the source of “later production.”

And if that is the case, then humans, along with light and the sky, are all depicted as material creations in the Genesis account. There is no reason, therefore, not to see everything else in the account as being brought into existence materially when God “creates” (bara‘) the heavens and the earth.

In my final post in this series, I will reinforce this point by briefly examining the word ‘asa (“make”) in the Genesis account. I will then address a few remaining concerns and offer some general conclusions.

The prototype for the Corvette, created in 1953, which served as a model for all later production. Were Adam and Eve “prototypes” for humanity—the beginning of all later production? Or does Genesis describe them simply as “archetypes,” as representative examples of their class?

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