God the Separator

Have we been reading Genesis all wrong?
(Sam Wheeler)

Ellen van Wolde, a renowned Old Testament scholar, claims that we’ve got Genesis all wrong:

[van Wolde] claims she has carried out fresh textual analysis that suggests the writers of the great book never intended to suggest that God created the world — and in fact the Earth was already there when he created humans and animals.


She said she eventually concluded the Hebrew verb “bara”, which is used in the first sentence of the book of Genesis, does not mean “to create” but to “spatially separate”.

The first sentence should now read “in the beginning God separated the Heaven and the Earth”


Prof Van Wolde added: “The traditional view of God the Creator is untenable now.”

Not surprisingly, there have been several rebuttals. From Ancient Hebrew Poetry:

Later reflection on God as Creator led to a generalization of the ex nihilo principle. The generalization is compatible with Gen 1.

Gen 1 is concerned with (1) the sequential fashioning of the components of creation and (2) assignment of relative functions — on (2), John Walton has written persuasively. Genesis 1, correctly understood, does not imply that darkness, chaotic stuff, and the abyss existed at an absolute beginning, or non-beginning, co-eternal with an eternal God. The text does not recount an absolute beginning.

From Higgaion:

Van Wolde’s proposed translation (as reported — please apply this important disclaimer throughout this post) of the Hebrew verb ברא (bara’) as “to separate” rather than “to create” in Genesis 1:1 bothers me less — a little bit less — than the ridiculous spin that Van Wolde, her publicist, the spokesperson for the Radboud University in Nijmegen (where Van Wolde will present her research tomorrow), and/or the Dutch media seem to have put on the proposal.


Despite the hype, translating ברא as “separate” rather than “create” in Genesis 1:1 makes very little difference to the overall story. “Traditional believers” have always been able to handle the idea of the divine creative activity in Genesis 1 as a sequence of separations. First, God separates the light from the darkness. Then God separates the “waters above the sky” from the “waters below the sky” by means of the “sky” (שמים, shamayim, translated “heavens” in 1:1). Then God separates the dry land (ארץ, eretz, translated “earth” in 1:1) from the “waters below the sky.” From this perspective — which has never troubled “traditional believers” — Van Wolde’s proposed “retranslation” is not much more than tweaking one verb in Genesis 1:1 to more closely resemble the verbs in the subsequent verses. “Traditional believers” have always accepted “create” in Genesis 1:1 as an “umbrella” term that includes acts of separation. To a “literalist,” translating Genesis 1:1 as “In the beginning, God separated the heavens/sky from the earth/land” shouldn’t look like anything more than a compressed version of Genesis 1:6 – 10. That hardly seems like a dramatic shakeup to me. Indeed, to this extent, the rewrite seems rather trivial.

And finally, Doug Chaplin:

First, irrespective of arguments over the meaning of “bara”, the question of whether the opening Genesis account describes a creation ex nihilo or the organisation of some already present chaotic stuff — that question has been around for a long time. Second, despite the attention given to the opening chapter of the Bible, this is a long way from being the only place in which ideas of creation are explored. It’s not even (at least in the form we have it now) the earliest place. Third, no doctrine rests only on a single verse, far less a single word. The Christian doctrine of creation is a rather richer and more pervasive theme of Scripture than a mechanistic understanding of a verb in a fairly carefully crafted polemic retelling of an ancient creation myth.
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