And on the Eighth Day, God Created Scholars


And on the ninth, colleges to keep them away from others.

Update: A better Hebraist than I ever was or will ever be has called my attention to the panoply of uses by the author of Isa. 45. 12-18, where bara’is used alongside other verbs meaning collectively to refine, shape or complete: asah (made); bara’ (fashioned); nata (stretched), yasar (fashioned), kun (founded), and sawah (brought together). The difficulty is in finding a use of the verb to refer specifically to the act of separating as an aspect of fashioning. Here is the text from Isaiah:

12 I created the world
and covered it with people;
I stretched out the sky
and filled it with stars.
13I have done the right thing
by placing Cyrus in power,
and I will make the roads easy
for him to follow.
I am the LORD All-Powerful!
Cyrus will rebuild my city
and set my people free
without being paid a thing.
I, the LORD, have spoken.
The LORD Alone Can Save
14My people, I, the LORD, promise
that the riches of Egypt
and the treasures of Ethiopia will belong to you.
You will force into slavery
those tall people of Seba. They will bow down and say,
“The only true God is with you;
there are no other gods.”
15People of Israel,
your God is a mystery,
though he alone can save.
16Anyone who makes idols
will be confused
and terribly disgraced.
17But Israel, I, the LORD,
will always keep you safe
and free from shame.
18The LORD alone is God!
He created the heavens
and made a world
where people can live,
instead of creating
an empty desert.


There is a buzz about a discovery by a certain Ellen van Wolde who is a professor of Old Testament in the Netherlands. It focuses on Genesis chapters 1-3, the most overworked piece of mythology in the world.

That is precisely why any claim to have “discovered” anything previously unknown about any verse of the book called Genesis (in Greek: the Beginning) should be treated with extreme skepticism. I humbly offer my services.

Van Wolde claims she has carried out “fresh textual analysis” that proves it was not the writer’s intention to say that God actually created the cosmos.

One review touts, “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.” Er, well…yes. That’s what it says alright, and unless she has just read the book for the first time, the discovery she claims to have made looks a little shy of an exegetical breakthrough.

Van Wolde claims she has “re-analyzed the original Hebrew text” and placed it in the context of the Bible as a whole, and in the context of other creation stories from ancient Mesopotamia.”

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.”

According to her, Genesis 1.1 is not a “creation” story at all but a story about God separating the heaven and the earth–both being in the cosmic room, so to speak, when the roll was called. Think of God as a cotton gin, sort of, or a French chef who knows his way around eggs.

I don’t envy her chances when she presents her “discovery” to a room of Hebrew Bible experts in a few weeks.

In fact, if I had been privileged to sit on her thesis committee I would have said she should really go back to the drawing board because what she has uncovered is merely the peculiarity of a verb that has vexed philologists and translators for a very long time. A short list of eminent Hebraists who have played with the syntax includes Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ewald, Dillmann, Humbert, Skinner, Speiser, Francis Andersen and Robert Alter. Probably also the translators of the King James Bible.

The choice to translate bara as “separate” misses the point about what “separation” means in the material culture of the period. The suggestion that her find makes: “the traditional view of God the Creator…untenable now” seems a little…extravagant.

Scholars of the ancient Near East have known for more than a century that other ancient creation stories assume the pre-existence of material things–water, mud, light, primal seas, monsters, fogs and abysses to name a few.

The most famous of these, the Enuma Elish, and the Atrahasic epic make similar assumptions about “pre-existing” matter. Creation is not a question of creation ex nihilo in the ancient Near East but the act of organizing what already exists.

Everybody knows that.

Christians and Jews did not begin to talk about the biblical text as an instance of “something from nothing” until speculative theology began to squeeze the poetry out of the ancient narrative.

Van Wolde’s argument is really with the church fathers and later writers rather than with the Bible. And with deference to a few others who have already commented on her claims, creation ex nihilo is not the same as what they are calling creation by divine fiat. Kings in antiquity create (cause to happen by divine command), but the wherewithal to execute their commands is already there for the taking.

God in Genesis is behaving like a king, not like a magician.

But even if she is wrong about the “newness” of her attempt to locate the biblical narrative in the context of other Near Eastern poetry where “separation” of organized mass from disorganized (usually watery) chaos is the rule (I am literally unaware of even one reputable Old Testament scholar who does not know this pattern), is she right about having cracked a linguistic enigma?

Da Vinci Code time.

Probably not. A former research associate to Umberto Eco who liked mystery and intrigue as much as the next writer, van Wolde seems simply confused about the syntax.

J. Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry has already recounted her confusion concerning the reworking of Gen 1.1. His main point is that the act of separating and the act of making are basically the same whether the author is thinking of creation by divine fiat (“Let there be light!” when light may be there for the taking) or not.

The ancient poets were working with human models and patterns of kingship. A strong but somewhat troublous king like Gilgamesh achieved his reputation not by making bricks (they were there already) but by causing a wall to be built around his city of Uruk.

The God of Genesis works in the same way: he brings something about as a fashioner of materials that prove his organizational skills. Not something out of nothing. Something out of a mess of possibilities.

Hobbins cites the New English Bible as an example of how a good English translation can clear up some of the confusion: creation is a process (and, by the way, God is not actually called “creator” but the one who instigates a process): The temporal framework is so vague, despite the writer’s use of “days” to separate phases of the process, that even Augustine wondered what existed before there was something to exist:

In the beginning of creation,
when God made heaven and earth,
the earth was without form and void,
with darkness over the face of the abyss,
and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters.
God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.

It’s a nice touch because it separates (that word again) the process of creation from the making that brings it all together–which clearly is the writer’s intention.

But also: it is pretty clearly the writer’s intention to show God as architect-in-chief, designer, and completer. Not sure what to do about the most troubling bit of Genesis 1, the creation of man in God’s image since we can’t precisely be sure what image the writer was working with.

But in part this was solved by the (different) author of Genesis 2.6ff., where God uses water and dirt to form clay and “fashions” Adam from the mixture. In other words, like most ancient cultures, when asked how they began, the answer of the Hebrew writer was “We came from the ground.” or “we sprang from seed.”

The meaning is, We have been here a very long time. From the beginning.

It’s high time someone stopped defending this sort of crass sensationalism as “revolutionary” and called it what it is: Unoriginal.

In the long run, it may be less van Wolde’s fault for trying to sell this reading as revolutionary than the media’s for buying, or at least for not asking a half-dozen biblical professionals what they think about her claim.beresgeet

3 thoughts on “And on the Eighth Day, God Created Scholars

  1. Pingback: And on the Eighth Day, God Created Scholars (via The New Oxonian) « The New Oxonian

  2. I remember this media expose which merely exposed the unprofundity of scholarship slavishly seeking originality when actually there’s nothing new under the sun, in order to fulfill ‘ninth day’ colleges’ beaurocratic publication requirements… if only there were not that need. It might lift the sufferance of others as they wade through pages of fantastical invented theories, published because nobody had invented such ridiculous inventions before.

    It’s a shame the media never asked you and several others before they published her … and it’s a shame she had an ivory tower to come up with something everybody already knew. Except the media, that is. Poor John wrote his prologue innocently unaware of the looming speculating theologians ahead.

    Even in Maori mythology from the Pacific … although possibly originating in Taiwan … ‘creation’ was already there – in the beginning was the love embrace between Ranginui (sky) and Papatuanuku (earth) when sky and earth became joined. They bore six children, Tane (forest) Tangaroa (sea) etcetera, but when the suffocating children spied sunlight in a gap between their parents’ arms, they wanted more. They declared war on their parents and cut them apart, they declared war on each other, and created us. Then they shed tears for rain … ex nihilo, squeeze the poetry out of that one and you’ll lose the story.

  3. The Bible is not a book of science.
    For notions of the “how” of creation we look to science the souce for the “how”. There was never any pre-scientific knowledge revealed by some Diety. The Bible contaains the greatest variety of so-called knowledge of all sorts. Any “how” is necessarily pre-scientific.
    The Bible also contains authentic “Why” knowledge – mysticism – true religion – Ultimate Knowledge – all “Why” knowlege which in no way depends on science. With the appearanc of species Homo “why” knwledge became available to whatever extent a human consciousness was prepared to receive it. The discussion for me seems irrelevant. The only issue is the fact of “why” knowledge. “Physics can be learned by the study of facts and mathematics, but mysticism can only be learned by a profound change in consciousness.” Ken W

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