“This is a real creation,” wrote David Hume, “a production of something out of nothing; which implies a power so great that it may seem at first sight beyond the reach of any being less than infinite.”(Hume 1881:343-4) Hume captured our modern and classical material ontology understanding of creation. Coming into being, in our modern understanding, means acquiring material (or immaterial) properties. We intuitively presuppose that an entity was created if prior to the moment of its creation was not there. It is, thus, not surprising that we read this presupposition into Genesis 1’s creation account.
In their co-authored work, Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, And Scientific Exploration (2004), Paul Copan and William Lane Craig also read this presupposition into Genesis 1. They presupposed that ancient Near East (ANE) also understood creation as defined by substance and properties, largely the material (and immaterial) properties. I think Copan and Craig are wrong in their presupposition. So one of the things I have to do is to explain why they are wrong¹.
It is said that any fruitful criticism of any writer must generally begin by finding some common ground. Copan and Craig are correct that the Holy Writ explicitly conveys creatio ex nihilo (John 1:3 and Romans 4:17 cf. 2 Maccabees 7:28 and 2 Enoch 24:2). My criticism ought not, thus, be understood as questioning whether creatio ex nihilo is true. It is true. Where I diverge from Copan and Craig is on viewing Genesis 1 as also teaching such a doctrine.
Copan and Craig are wrong because they read our modern and classical material ontology into Genesis 1. What they failed to notice is that in ANE, as John H. Walton stated, “existence has nothing to do with its material status”(Walton 2008: 57). ANE creation accounts were not defined by substance and properties but by teleological role and purpose an entity played in a deity’s ordered domain. Walton accurately observed that, “[i]n the ancient world something came into existence when it was separated out as a distinct entity, given a function, and given a name”(Walton 2006: 88).
Consider this creation account of Ferguson Football Club as an analogical example to ANE creation account: Sir Ferguson walked into a room of 11 boys. Ferguson separated one of the boys from the rest and called the separated boy, “goalkeeper”. He then gave the separated boy the function of stopping balls from getting behind the net. After that Ferguson separated another boy, and called him “left-wing defender” and gave him the function of defending the goal from the left side. Ferguson continued this task with all other defenders, midfielders and strikers.
This creation account is the genesis of Ferguson FC. It has nothing to do with the material status of the players but teleological role they play in Ferguson’s ordered football club. Ferguson FC creation is analogical to ANE’s creation accounts. They are not material but functional ontology oriented. If this is true then Genesis 1, as one of ANE cosmogonies, does not address material origins, for there to be creation out nothing in the first place, but functional origins.
Bārāʾ, Is It Material or Functional Oriented?
Before asking whether the verb bārāʾ in Genesis 1 implies creatio ex nihilo, our intuitive presupposition ought to be addressed. If it is true that ANE understood creation as giving of function, viz., an entity came into existence when it was given function and role, and not of material (or immaterial) properties then our question is altogether mistaken. Our question would be similar to asking whether numbers have colors.
Copan and Craig² correctly noted that God is always and the only grammatical subject of bārāʾ. They are also not far from truth when they “freely admit[ed] that the verb bārāʾ does not always speak of an ex nihilo creation, but can be used more widely than this.”(Copan & Craig 2004: 49). They came even closer to the truth when they stated:
It is well known that bārāʾ (create) is used elsewhere, as for God’s creation of the people of Israel (e.g., Isa. 43:15) or his creation of a clean heart (Ps. 51:12 [10 ET]). Even after God’s initial creation is complete (Gen. 2:1), God creates indirectly by continuing to create all creatures and to bring about his glorious purposes in history: “When you send your Spirit, they are created” (Ps. 104:30 NIV).(ibid.)
Adding selective and clear examples of grammatical objects of bārāʾ beside the ones Copan and Craig mentioned in the above quote, the objects of God’s creation includes wonders (Exod. 34:10), north and south (Ps. 89:12), ends of the earth (Isa. 40:28), disaster (Isa. 45:7), praise (Isa. 57:19), Jerusalem (Isa. 65:18), and covenant people (Mal. 2:10).
Were Copan and Craig carefully enough to examine the grammatical objects of bārāʾ and not its surrounding contexts nor its clear subject, they would have noted that these objects, as Walton put it, “are not easily identified as material items, and even when they are, it is questionable that the context permits objectifying them.”(Walton 2011: 128). Examining all objects of bārāʾ, Walton appropriately deduced that,
[T]he nuanced meaning of bārāʾ that best suits the data is that it means ‘to bring something into (functional) existence’. It suggests the establishment of order often accomplished by making distinctions as roles, status, and identity are distinguished. In contexts where it may retain some of its latent etymology, it may even concern giving something a distinct (functional) existence. Nothing suggests that it should be considered an act of manufacturing something material. Thus, Gen 1:1 becomes, “In the initial period, God brought cosmic functions into existence.”(2011:133)
The conclusion that “creation ex nihilo is implied in the relevant contexts surrounding bārāʾ” is, thus, not apparently justified. ANE cosmogonies presupposed preëxisting entities. An entity came into existence when it was given function, often when it was separated, given a name and assigned a teleological role it plays in a deity’s ordered domain³. A desert, for example, in ancient Egyptian, did not “exist”. Creation in their worldview was defined by giving entities function, not material (or immaterial) properties (Walton 2009: 33).
Genesis 1, when read through ANE’s eyes, follows a common ancient Near Eastern science that was shared by Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Hittite and Ugarit. Entity came into existence when the deity separated it, gave it a name and the roles it plays in His ordered domain. The reverse of ANE creation is not of entities materialistically going out of existence but of withdrawing of their function. What is prior to ANE creation is not absent of space-time, the philosophical nothing, but absence of function (See Jeremiah 4:23-26 as reversal of Genesis 1:2-2:3b). The Humenian-like understanding of creation would be foreign to the ancient Near East (ANE) worldview. “[T]he greatest exercise of the power of the gods was not demonstrated in the manufacture of matter but in the fixing of destinies”(Walton 2003)
 Merrill F. Unger, as I did, in ‘Rethinking the Genesis Account of Creation,’ also questioned the two presuppositions that are often held without support. He wrote, “[c]ommentators commonly make two assumptions concerning the first verse of the Bible, neither of which is required by the original language. First, the phrase “in the beginning” refers absolutely to the beginning of the material universe denoted by the expression “the heavens and the earth” and second, the Hebrew word bara’ (“create”) in Genesis 1:1 means “not formed from any pre-existing materials, but formed out of nothing.”((1958). Bibliotheca Sacra, 115(457), 26.)
 Copan and Craig believe that there is the utter absence of preexisting material in connection with the verb bārāʾ (Copan & Craig 2004: 51). This is untrue. Consider, for the sake of argument, we grant that Genesis 1 is material creation. Genesis 1:27 and 2:7 present a state of affairs where preexisting material, presupposed by the latter, namely dust from the ground, in the creation of adam. As Walton, I hold that creation of adam has nothing to do with material origins, but identity. Dust simply means mortality. Man is created mortal. Another example is the creation of covenant people (Mal. 2:10). This presupposes the existence of people.
 Memphite Theology line 55, Enuma Elish IV:135–38, The Song of Ullikummi, Praise of the Pickax line 1–5.
Copan, P., & Craig, W. L. (2004). Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration. Grand Rapids, MI; England: Baker Academic; Apollos.
Hume. (1881). The Skepsis. In F. M. Müller (Trans.), Critique of Pure Reason: In Commemoration of the Centenary of its First Publication (Vol. 1, pp. 343–344). London: Macmillan and Co.
Walton, J. H. (2003). ‘Creation,’ in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
_____________ (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (p. 88). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
_____________ (2008) ‘Creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the Ancient Near East: Order out of Disorder after Chaoskampf,’ Calvin Theological Journal, 43:48-63.
_____________ (2011) Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology. Winona Lake, IND Eisenbrauns Inc