Re: Something from Nothing

From: David Moore (
Date: Sun Feb 11 1996 - 22:34:17 EST

Subject: Re: Something from Nothing

"Carl W. Conrad" <> quoted and wrote:

>On 2/10/96, Will Wagers wrote:

>> David M. Schaps wrote about Gn 1 in "Re: Accuracy in Translation":
>> "It misses the fact that the three first letters of the first word are
>> themselves the second word. It misses the distinction between the
>> verb actually used, "bara" ("created") and the more common verb
>> "asa" ("made") -- the difference usually being explained as being
>> one between making something out of nothing (bara) and something
>> out of something else (asa)."
>> It is my impression that the ancients, and particularly the Greeks,
>> didn't think anything came from nothing, i.e. no creation ex nihilo.
>> In Genesis for example, the wind and the waters, at least, seem to
>> pre-exist the creation. Many ancient creation myths seem to create
>> the cosmos from the body of a god, as Marduk from Tiamat.
>> Is this supposed use of bara to mean creation from nothing limited
>> to divine contexts ?
>> Does anyone have textual references supporting or contradicting the
>> notion of creation from nothing in ancient Hebrew (or other Middle
>> Eastern) sources ?
>> Is it Christian thought that Jesus created the world from nothing ?
>> (Jn 1:1) If so, what would be the textual evidence for this position?
>With regard to Genesis 1, an alternative understanding I've seen in at
>least one serious discussion (E.A. Speiser's Anchor Bible Commentary on
>Genesis) takes the initial B'RESHITH BARA ... verse to mean something like,
>"At the beginning of God's creating the heaven and the earth, ..." and then
>understanding TOHU W/BOHU as a primeval chaos that is the raw material
>transformed by the creative action into a cosmos. Of course, the second
>creation narrative beginning at Genesis 2:4b makes no assumption whatsoever
>of a creatio ex nihilo; it is a nomadic herdsman's myth of the planting of
>an oasis in the desert, whereas the Genesis 1 myth is rather apparently an
>agricultural myth of the emergence of dry land from water.
>Of course, that has nothing to do with b-greek, but the second part of your
>question does. I would think that the clearest suggestion of a creatio ex
>nihilo in the NT might be Romans 4:17: KATENANTI hOU QEOU EPISTEUSEN TOU
>understood this to mean that Abraham put his trust in the God who is both
>redeemer and creator, who makes the dead alive and calls into being things
>that do not have being.

        Carl's comment on Gen. 1:1 brought to mind a conversation on
b-hebrew from December of 1994 and especially a post by Joe Abrahmson
which seems to effectively answer the objections to the translation "In
the beginning..." for Gen. 1:1.

        To justify this as a b-greek post, I'll also add that both the LXX
and John 1:1 - if the latter is an echo of Gen. 1:1 as most commentators
think - also support the translation "In the beginning..."

All the best,
David Moore

Quoted material follows:

Subj: Gn1:1
Date: 94-12-01 12:57:16 EST

From: (Joe Abrahamson)
Reply-to: (Joe Abrahamson)

On Wed, 30 Nov 1994, Stephen Carlson wrote:
> Genesis 1:1
> b:re'$iyt bara' ':elohiym ...
> In the beginning God created ... (KJV)
> Genesis 1:1 is quite known, but quite a few sources I've read say that
> the usual translations (KJV, LXX et al.) are incorrect, because "bara'
> ':elohiym" sets up a relative clause.
> What is going on here? What is the proper syntactical rule? Does it
> have to do with Hebrew;'s VSO word order? Which of the following
> translations best render the sense of the original?
> In the beginning when God created ... In the beginning of God's
> creating ... When God began creating ...

I would like to offer a tentative explanation in a slightly different vein
than the others on the board have so far.

Alviero Niccacci has noted that introductory temporal clauses which describe
the background information for a narrative episode typically begin with a
propositional adverb (Gn 7:11; 1 Kn 15:1; 2 Chr 13:1; Is 6:1; Is 14:28; cf
Niccacci 1990:60-62).

Moreover, if you notice, the prepositions for these temporal clauses are
typically unarticulated.

We have two other narratives which begin with b:re'$iyt . These are in
Jeremiah at 26:1 and 27:1. In both of these passages we have the temporal
phrase begining with b:re'$iyt and continuing with a Qal Suffix Conjugation
verb (hyh) phrase to expand upon that background material.

In Gen 1 as well as Jer 27 & 27 the narrative soon follows with a waw-
consecutive Prefix Conjugation verb.

In each of these cases the backgound material is initiated by b:re'$iyt
which is twice followed by a non verbal specification (Jer) and once without
(Gn). All of them are then followed by a Suffix Conjugation verbs in Qal
which specify the time indicated by b:re'$iyt. After the temporal/locational
background material is sufficient for the narrative, the narrative follows
with a waw-consecutive Prefix Conjugation.

The texts of Jer 26 and 27 use their b:re'$iyt formulae to refer to a greater
framework of time measuring, but both indicate the time at the beginning of
which the ensuing narrative took place.

Gen 1 does not, by its implication, have a greater framework of time
measurment to which it may refer. The writer is implying an absolute
beginning and would therefore have no object to use for b:re'$iyt as Jer 26
and 27 do. But the writer can use background events to help frame the time of
the ensuing narrative as Jer 26 & 27, so the Suffix Conjugation Qal is used.

Some works on Hebrew grammar at levels greater than that of one or two
sentences might help on issues like this. Try these:

Bandstra, Barry L.
1992 "Word Order and Emphasis in Biblical Hebrew Narrative: Syntactic
Observations on
Genesis 22 from a Discourse Perspective." In Bodine 1992a:
[A very enlightening corrective to much of the discussion about the
notion of emphasis and the position of words in the Hebrew sentence."

Bodine, Walter R.
1992a (editor of) _Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew._ Eisenbrauns, Winona
Lake, Indiana.
1992b "How Linguists Study Syntax." In Bodine 1992a:89-107.
[A fairly good introduction to some of the fields of linguistics as
applied to the Hebrew text. His article gives a good overview of the history
of linguistic syntactical studies which provides a nice background for all
syntactic study of Hebrew.]

Longacre, Robert E.
1983 _The Grammar of Discourse._ Plenum, New York.
1989 _Joseph: A Story of Divine Providence: A Text Theoretical and
Textlinguistic Analysis
of Genesis 37 and 39-48._ Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake,
1992 "Discourse Perspective on the Hebrew Verb: Affirmation and
Restatement." in Bodine
1992a: 177-189.
[Longacre brings a wealth of experimental field linguistics to bear
upon the Hebrew Text. Unfortunately, his encyclopaedic approach in his
_Joseph_ is a bit overwhelming. Read his 1992 article first for a good, brief

Niccacci, Alviero
1987 "A Neglected Point of Hebrew Syntax: Yiqtol and Position in the
Sentence." _Liber
Anuus Studii Biblici Franciscani 37:7-19.
1989 "An Outline of the Biblical Hebrew Verbal System in Prose."
_Liber Anuus Studii
Biblici Franciscani 39:7-26.
1990 _The Syntax of the Verb in Classical Hebrew Prose._ Number 86 of
the Journal for
the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series.
Sheffield Academic Press,
Worcester, England. Translated by W.G.E. Watson, form
the original _sintassi del
verbo ebraico nella prosa biblica classica._ (Jerusalem:
Franciscan Printing Press,
[Niccacci's work is very interesting, though I feel he neglects
some of the significance of wayyihi constructions which Longacre highlights
in his scheme (also in this bib.). The 1990 translation of his _Syntax_ has a
number of consistancy problems and style problems, as well as misdirected
footnotes, but altogether it is a fairly well presented work. One should
probably read his papers before this book]

Talstra, E.
1978 "Text Grammar and Hebrew Bible. I: Elements of a Theory." _Biblica
et Orientalia
35:169-174, Pontifico Istituto Biblico, Roma.
1982 "Text Grammar and Hebrew Bible. II: Syntax and Semantics." _Biblica
et Orientalia
39:26-38, Pontifico Istituto Biblico, Roma.
[Talstra takes Wofgang Schneider's _Grammatik des biblischen Hebraish
(Claudius Verlag, Munich) as a starting point and refines some aspects of
macrosyntactic analysis (syntactic analysis of larger portions of text than
the sentence).]

These are all specifically directed at the study of the Hebrew text, but a
general introduction to discourse analysis is also helpful. I enjoyed:
Brown, Gillian & George Yule
1983 _Discourse Analysis._ Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

I hope this bibliography helps. And I also hope for feedback on the B-Hebrew
list regarding the viability of my analysis.

At your service,

Joe Abrahamson
Above quoted material sent by:

David L. Moore Southeastern Spanish District
Miami, Florida of the Assemblies of God Department of Education

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