A Major Divergence: Is Genesis 1 Creatio Ex Nihilo?

Genesis“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)

See also: A Minor Divergence: Is Genesis 1 Creatio Ex Nihilo?

Footnotes:

[1] 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.)

[2] 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.

[3] Memphite Theology line 55, Enuma Elish IV:135–38, The Song of Ullikummi, Praise of the Pickax line 1–5.

Bibliography:

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

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32 thoughts on “A Major Divergence: Is Genesis 1 Creatio Ex Nihilo?

  1. Genesis 1-4 A Linguistic, Literary and Theological Commentrary says in page 55: However teh sentence of Genesis 1:1 taken as a whole does in fact imply creation from nothing. … Hence if God created everything at the begining then “before the begining” – whatever that might mean – there was nothing. Therefore Genesis 1:1 clearly implies though it does not explicitly state that God created from nothing and the the material universe was an absolute nothing.

    • Thanks Enrique. I am familiar with C. John Collins’ work. The core problem Enrique is that we use Aristotelian worldview to understand ancient Near Eastern worldview.

      From Aristotelian worldview we are bound to think of coming into existence through acquiring material or immaterial properties, thus when we travel backwards in time, things go out of existence when they have not such properties. This is not the case in ancient Near Eastern worldview. For them things came into existence through acquiring teleological role, thus traveling backwards, things go out of existence when they have no teleological role. Creatio ex nihilo is presupposed, or more correct taken for granted, in teleological creation accounts.

      Now, when we read Genesis 1, which contextual background would you read it within? Ancient Near East or Greco-Roma?

  2. Pingback: SCATTERED DEBATES | Citizen Tom

  3. I agree that Genesis 1 doesn’t support the notion of creation ex nihilo. Rather it seems to pretty clearly give the picture of God (or perhaps “the gods”) bringing order to chaos and creating using preexisting but unordered materials. Creation ex nihilo seems to be a classical Greek concept later imposed on the original Hebrew understanding.

  4. The opening quote from Hume gave me a glimpse into the wonder and awe that must have inspired him. The magic of how he must have felt actually touched me, with the words, “implies a power so great it may be beyond our reach.” I may not agree with all of your discussions here, but there is no denying the raw humanity revealed, in all its beauty.

  5. Hi Prayson, A very well worded post but it reminds me of a story about Buddha.
    A man came to the Buddha and said, “Watch what I can do.”
    He then sat down and meditated for many minutes until his body levitated of the ground some three feet in the air. After a few moments he settled back to the ground and opened his eyes and looked at the Buddha.
    And Buddha replied, “What good is that?”

    You have a great post and a great argument and I am inclined to agree with you but what does that do for us?

    • That is a beautiful question. I did not present the implications of this understanding. What it does for us is set us free to do natural science and follow where the evidence point on the age of our cosmos.

      The tag of war between old and young earth creationism is thus meaningless and the war between contemporary science and Genesis is misguarded.

      Even deeper, is that we get to understand Genesis as original audience, ancient Near Eastern Hebrews, would have understand. Reading God words as it was attended and not as we desire it to mean.

  6. Prayson,
    Perhaps the answer to my question is implicit in the interpretation but it isn’t obvious so I would appreciate your perspective, given the time you’ve put into researching this. Under the functional interpretation, do you see Genesis 1:1 as a discreet act of functional creation, or is it a summary statement of the functional creation that occurs in the subsequent verses?

    • Thanks Travis. The whole Genesis 1 & 2 and some of 3 present what is common yet with its own twists the teleological/functional origin. Genesis 1:1-2:3b is a typical ANE cognitive understand of creation.

      Think of it this way: I have 11 boys sitting in a room. I walk in and separate one boy, call him a goalkeeper and give him the role to stop balls going behind the net. I separate another and call him leftwing defender &c I after finishing all 11 have brought a football team into existence. This is functional genesis of a new team. It is not material origin, since it presupposes 11 boys.

      The whole of Genesis 1:2-2:3b is creation as that of making a functional football team. It is of bring order from disorders. Disorder, sometimes confused with Greeks chaos, is what exists(11 boys) but not yet(football team) exist. In ANE disorder or unproductive entities that where functionless and nameless( e.g. Primeval waters, darkness and desert) did not exist.

      Looking from my example, the football team exists yet 11 boys who are unseparated, with no function, thus no teleological role, did not exist. They did materialistically but without function, according to ANE they did not exist.

      Did I answer your question?

      • Prayson,
        I’m not sure whether you’ve answered my question. Let me rephrase it. Do you think that Genesis 1:1 is closer to “In the beginning, God instituted purposeful existence” or “In the beginning, God assigned a purpose to everything and here are the details”.

  7. Pingback: A Minor Divergence: Is Genesis 1 Creatio Ex Nihilo? | With All I Am

  8. Creation Ex Nihilo, i.e., out of nothing contradicts the Bible, which clearly begins with the words: “In the beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and desolate”. (Gen. 1: 1-2)

    • And what did God create the heavens and earth out of?

      And without form and void says it was incomplete, unfinished, and the finishing was done over the six days of creation.

      • God created the heavens and earth by “commandments” out of the BLUEPRINT in his thoughts of course! That is why “there is nothing that the Almighty God cannot do.” Absolutely nothing!

  9. Hello Prasyon,

    The problem I see is that non-believers also feel the way you do about Genesis 1:1 but they take it to a whole different level, that being the Bible is man-made, not God-inspired.

    If older mythic narrative(s) have served as a template for the author of Genesis then we have a problem. They claim similarities to prior written myths indicate the author obviously had literary precursors, one of which was the old Babylonian creation account the Enuma Elish, which the Israelites would have come into direct contact with during their captivity in Babylon in the 6th century BCE.

    Genises 1:1 is very plain, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

    In the Relative world of “Cause and Effect”, of Time and Space, all things that are “created” (take on form) have a beginning. They may also be temporary and eventually change into another form, the elements will be transmuted into something else. The Sun had a beginning and sometime in the future it will have an end and when the Sun expires the Earth will follow.

    Science speculates about the Big Bang, when the Universe Began.

    Everything begins, ends, or transforms.

    When I read Gen 1:1 I read that at the beginning God created the Universe, which includes the Earth. When I read Gen 1:2 and onward I read how God goes about making this newly formed Earth into a suitable home for us.

    Roy

    • Thank you LeRoy. I follow your concern. I don’t think other ANE cosmogonies serves as template but that all ANE cosmogonies, including Genesis 1-3, share a common cognitive environment. If you have took time to explore these literature you would discover ANE science. Similarities does not necessarily mean copying or borrowing. E.g. Say a child in Tanzania in 1880 knows 2 + 3 = 5 and later a child in 2008 Kenya also know 2 + 3 = 5. This does not mean the Kenyan child is copying or borrowing the Tanzanian. It simply show common knowledge.

      Genesis 1 is very plan to ANE Jews, but for us in modern world, their understanding is lost. We think how we view creation is how they viewed it. That is a mistake. The simplisity ” in the beginning God created..” is there because translators have helped you through their presupposition to understand the Hebrew terms.

    • Roy,
      I detect a disconcerting sentiment in your comment. It would appear that you are, at least in part, endorsing rejection of an interpretation simply on the grounds that it is in conflict with our current ideology. Is this your intent, or have I misinterpreted?

      • No, I don’t think so Travis. Look, I’m just a simple man. The Genesis account of creation was not written, nor intended, to be a comprehensive technical description of how the Universe and life was created. The first sentence in Chapter one is God created the heavens and the earth. A worthy introduction since nothing else can happen until the Universe and Earth have been formed. The first sentence in Chapter 2 states, “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.” In between these two sentences we have simple statements…”God was hovering”, “God said”, “God saw”, “God called”, “God made”, “God created”, “God set”. It goes on and on like this, many more.

        I believe the Bible was written by men but inspired and revealed by God. Then, as now, God works in the life of each person individually. He can move in my life where I am, where I am is different than where you are, and where we are is different than where everyone else is. He interacts with his children on an individual basis, taking us where we are and working in our lives, the lives of the faithful.

        Each of us are on our own individual path. All chosen come with different degrees of education, perspective, incomes and each are given a talent according to a plan we are not asked to help create. The mystery we will not fully solve in this life is why God does what he does, or why he doesn’t do what we think he should.

        The point I’m trying to make is I can see within the Bibles pages how God also interacts with each individual person on a personal level. Genesis contains no technical explanation on how God created the universe or the earth, how could it, or after the creation why he would allow sin to corrupt an otherwise perfect creation. We can speculate and deduce but we can not know Gods mind. All I can do is praise him for loving me and know in my heart I live and walk day-by-day in his loving grace.

        • Not a subject I would have thought of as interesting, but it is.

          Roy, I think the point Prayson is making is that to understand the Bible we have to put ourselves in the shoes (or the skin since some these people were barefoot) of the folks its pages were originally written for. From that point of departure, we can reach conclusions they never would have considered, like creatio ex nihilo. Nevertheless, we cannot go backward. If there is no basis for believing those in the ANE considered the possibility of creatio ex nihilo, there is no point in saying they did. That doesn’t, however, stop us from realizing and believing that God created everything from nothing.

          • That is absolutely true. God did created everything. Space-time had a beginning, and thus from Aristotelian worldview, there was a creatio ex nihilo. The case I am making is that Genesis 1 does not offer that story though. It would be reading into the text a foreign worldview, Aristotelian, into ANE.

          • I’d have to respectfully disagree Tom. You reference “the folks its pages were originally written for.” My understanding is God’s Word was revealed and written by those “folks” for us all. It speaks to us ALL, it finds us where we are, broken and in need of the thing that whispers to our hearts that, “you who are weary, here is the living water, drink.”

            The message the Bible gives us unfolds over many years, through many lives, and reveals many truths about how and why we are created, and why we need God, his Son, and his Spirit, to make us whole. It is very simple for those tuned in to understand, then, now, and one thousand years from now. It matters not when or where you were born, or what your nationality is, thousands of years ago, now, or ten thousand years from now, it will belong to everyone who God has chosen.

            So, if you refuse to restrict God, refuse to place limits on God, and accept the Message is for everyone (then, now, future) you might begin to glimpse how I understand Gen 1. That is to say in my mind, it is more than sufficient for me that the first sentence in the Creation Story be, “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth.” There is no foreign worldview, it is God’s book, not man’s, not Aristotelian, not ANE, not IGX, or EIO.

            Let God speak to you, read his word and let him move you to be the person He created you to be.

        • Restrict God? An infinite Being. The One whose name is “I AM.” How could I have been born soon enough? 🙂

          I doubt our disagreement is as serious as you seem to think. We agree that God created everything from nothing. We just disagree as to how God uses the Bible to tell us that.

          You know the difference between finding the truth and manufacturing the truth. Because we are insufficiently righteous, when we have the opportunity to manufacture the truth, we have great difficulty rejecting the temptation. Hence, if we don’t humbly listen to the Holy Spirit, we can cherry pick verses from the Bible and “find” the truths we want.

          The Bible says we must not tamper with it. So when we read the Bible, we should strive to find no more and no less than God intended for us to find.

          The Bible says it is God’s Word, and so I must agree the Bible was written by men who were divinely inspired (2 Peter 1:16-21). Yet the fact remains that men did write the words, and those men wrote to other men, men of their time. Some of the books (Luke and Acts, for example, are addressed to a specific person) make it unambiguously clear the author had a specific person or group of people in mind as his reader(s).

          Nonetheless, even though the 40 men who wrote the Bible knew nothing of us, God does, and He inspired the Bible. So even if its writers wrote to someone else, we can agree God speaks to us through the Bible. Through the men wrote it, God created the Bible for us too.

          1 Peter 1:24-25 New King James Version (NKJV)

          24 because

          “All flesh is as grass,
          And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.
          The grass withers,
          And its flower falls away,
          25 But the word of the Lord endures forever.”

          Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you.

          Therefore, we have a distinction many think important (perhaps you as well). To make sense of what each author intended to say, we must read the words of each book of the Bible in its appropriate context: the time, the place, and the people to whom it was written. Furthermore, we must read the whole Bible. We must put each book in context with respect to the other books.

          The Bible, not just a portion of it, tells the story of how Jesus redeemed us, and latter books often help us make sense the former.

          Fortunately, for the most part we do not differ greatly from our ancestors. With a little effort, we can imagine being the people who first heard each book read aloud the first time. Thus, we can put each book in its historical context without straining our brains too much. Moreover, most of us also have the capacity to read the whole Bible. We just have to make the effort. With a little careful study, we can answer the important question. How does God want us to apply these ancient words of the Bible to our lives?

        • I have hope that I have been saved, but it is a small thing. It is like the faith upon which it is based, the size of a mustard seed. My faith is like Jacob’s. I cling to our savior, and I beg for His Blessing.

          1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 English Standard Version (ESV)

          13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.

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