Sunday, 11 October 2009

God Did Not Create the World in the Beginning?

Gustave Dorén: Creation of Light. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

Ellen van Wolde, a Dutch professor of Old Testament studies, claims that the first verse of Genesis has been mistranslated. In her view, the Hebrew word bara (‘to create’) does not mean what we think that it means.

Professor Van Wolde, who used to work with novelist Umberto Eco, concedes that bara does technically mean ’to create’. However, she explains that the writers of the Bible did not mean that God would have created everything but that he only created people and animals.

According to her, Earth already existed in Genesis 1:1. She believes that bara refers to separating. She suggests that the verse should read, "In the beginning God separated the Heaven and the Earth." He also separated the dry land from the sea and the sea monsters from the birds and land animals.

Van Wolde says that her view stems from what the Bible as a whole and other ancient creation stories say about the beginning. She rejects the traditional Judeo-Christian creatio ex nihilo (‘creation from nothing’) view as erroneous.

In reality, the expression heaven and earth in Genesis 1:1 is a figure of speech called merism in which individual parts refer to the whole. Thus, by heaven and earth the writer of Genesis means the entire universe.

Van Wolde’s view differs diametrically from that of other Old Testament scholars.

James Barr (1924-2006), who was Oriel Professor of the interpretation of the Holy Scripture at Oxford University, wrote:

"Probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that:
1. creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience
2. the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story
3. Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark."

According to professor Barr, bara in Genesis 1:1 means exactly what we believe it to mean, i.e. God created everything from nothing by His word.

In contrast, van Wolde reads into the Genesis text something that is not there. She says that according to other ancient creation writings, it was dark in the beginning and sea monsters dwelt in the big waters.

Bible scholars call this kind of interpretation eisegesis. Exegesis is an explanation that rises from the Bible text. In contrast, eisegesis (’bringing into’) means that the reader brings his or her own ideas into the Bible text.

Skeptics have occasionally brought naturalistic explanations into the Bible. During the past few years we have heard the following stories: ”Jesus walked on an ice floe , ”Moses suffered from hallucinations” and ”Jesus’ family tomb was discovered” that all made headlines.

Re-interpreting the first verses of Genesis belongs to the same category. While one might make headlines with wild hypotheses, they have little if anything to do with academic Bible research.


Alleyne, Richard. 2009. God is not the Creator, claims academic. (8 October)

Barr, James. 1984. Letter to David C. C. Watsonille, 23 April 1984.