Creatio ex nihilo, Hebrew, and Greek

In my PhD one of the themes that reoccurs is that God creates from nothing, ex nihilo. Scripture gives witness to this but one thing that keeps bothering me is when people say that this is proven by the fact that the word used in Genesis 1:1 is the Hebrew word bârâ. This, it is claimed, means ‘create from nothing,’ and it is distinguished from the more ‘Greek’ notion of forming or making. This is often, it seems to me, invoked to create a distinction between ‘Hebrew thought’ and ‘Greek thought.’

The problem, though, is that baráh does not mean ‘create from nothing.’ It can mean many things: create, form, do, make. I do agree that in Genesis 1 it means ‘create from nothin,’ but that it not because the word is special. The word occurs 54 times in the Old Testament and not all of them include creation from nothing. An example is Joshua 17:15, where Joshua speaks to the tribe of Joseph: “If you are a numerous people, go up to the forest, and clear ground there for yourselves in the land of the Perizzites and the Rephaim, since the hill country of Ephraim is too narrow for you.”

The fact is, we do not do theology purely through textual analysis. We do so through philosophy, metaphysics, tradition. And if you want a direct expression of creatio ex nihilo in the Old Testament, you (perhaps ironically) have to go to the Greek 2. Maccabees 7:28: “I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being.”

The word uses for ‘make’ is poiéō, ‘to make, do, form.’ It has the exact same function as the bârâ does in Genesis 1. Furthermore, we need to go to the New Testament (again, a Greek text), where St. Paul teaches us that God is the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17).

So no, there is no ‘magic’ distinction between Hebrew and Greek here. Both are perfectly capable of putting into words one of the central themes of the Christian faith; that God creates everything from nothing, ex nihilo, and that He keeps it in existence ex nihilo.

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