Creation as Novelty

In honor of the new Torah reading cycle, I thought I would explain some thoughts about the parsha as it pertains to the miracle of Creation.

Creation as Novelty

The verb  בָּרָא (bara) = “created”) connotes God’s absolute effortless creativity. In the Tanakh, this term is used exclusively with respect to Divine creativity, for human creativity is limited by the materials it has access to—this is not so with God. This distinction may also explain why many medieval rabbinic thinkers like Saadia[1], Maimonides[2], Ramban[3], Abarbanel[4], Seforno[5] and others believe this verb alludes to the concept of creatio ex nihilo (creation from “nothing”) since only God can create from the non-existent. Elsewhere in the Tanakh, בָּרָא’ introduces something surprisingly novel, wonderful, and awe-inspiring. [6]

However, Ibn Ezra is less convinced and contends that the linguistic evidence does not support such an interpretation.[7] The verb בָּרָא’ may also mean to fashion something out of already existing materials (e.g., the creation of man, whose body came from the dust of the earth, and whose soul issued forth from God’s breath).[8] Ibn Ezra’s comments could also suggest the universe was constructed out of pre-existent matter. However, pre-existent matter need not imply a dualism; it may imply that this ethereal substance is “pre-eternal” only in relationship to the world but not in relationship to God. In conclusion, Ibn Ezra theorizes that the primary meaning of בָּרָא means “to cut down” or “set a boundary.”[9] S.R. Driver supports Ibn Ezra’s perspective and adds that the verb  בָּרָא (bara°) is related to the Arabic barāy “to fashion” or “shape by cutting.” Nevertheless, Driver admits that “in its simple conjugation, it refers exclusively to God and denotes the production of something fundamentally new, by the exercise of a sovereign originative power, altogether transcending that possessed by man.”[10]
[1] See Emunot v De’ot 1:1 and his Arabic translation of the Bible, where he takes Gen. 1:1 as an independent sentence.

[2] Maimonides, Guide 2:30 and 3:10.

[3] Ramban insists that בָּרָא indeed implies creation from nothing, “The Blessed Holy One created everything out of complete nothingness. There is no other word in the Hebraic language for bringing existence out of non-existence other than bara. And there is nothing under the sun or above it to generate a beginning out of nothingness. He alone brought the cosmos into being—out of complete and absolute non-being. At its nascent state of existence, this ethereal matter only possessed the potential to assume form, which the Greeks referred to as hyle. After creating hylic matter He did not create anything; God merely formed and arranged the rest of creation from out of this ethereal substance.”

[4] Abarbanel’s Commentary on Genesis 1:1.

[5] See Seforno’s Commentary on Genesis 1:1.

[6] Gen. 1:21; Exod. 34:10; Num. 16:30; Psa. 104:30; Isa. 48:7, et al.

[7] See Excursus 8: Further Reflections on Creatio ex Nihilo for discussion.

[8] Ibn Ezra’s second interpretation is remarkably similar to the Septuagint’s use of ἐποίησεν (epoiesen) a word that is reminiscent of Plato’s description of God as ὁ ποιῶν, “the creator” (see Plato, Timaeus, 76 c). The term ποιέω (poieo) connotes aesthetic making, broadly designates all craftsmanship, and more narrowly refers to the making of poems, plays, pictures, or sculptures. This usage might seem to mitigate against the belief in a creatio ex nihilo; otherwise the Septuagint would have used κτίζω (ktizō = “create”), which implies “bringing into being.” On the other hand, the Septuagint often uses both expressions synonymously.  See H. R. Balz and G. Schneider’s Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), Vol. 2:325.

[9] Josh. 17:15; Ezek. 23:17.

[10] BDB 135:1. S. R. Driver, The Book of Genesis, 3.

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