God the Separator

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An Old Testament professor thinks the translations of Genesis should be rewritten—to accommodate her view on what the text actually means.

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The professor is Ellen van Wolde of Radboud University, and her idea is based on a “re-analysis” of the Genesis Hebrew that “place[s] it in the context of the Bible as a whole, and in the context of other creation stories from ancient Mesopotamia,” The Telegraph reports. Thus, we already see the first flaw in her research: she has assumed other creation stories should be used to interpret the Bible. But since the Genesis creation account (like the rest of the Bible) is the inspired, inerrant Word of the Creator on this subject and the other creation stories of the nations around ancient Israel are not, those stories must be either complete myths or corrupted versions of the Genesis account.

But what is her big idea? According to Van Wolde, the Hebrew word bara translated as “to create” in English should actually be translated “to [spatially] separate.” So she renders Genesis 1:1 as “In the beginning God separated the heavens from the Earth.” The Telegraph offers a peek at her logic:

She said technically “bara” does mean “create” but added: “Something was wrong with the verb. “God was the subject (God created), followed by two or more objects. Why did God not create just one thing or animal, but always more?” She concluded that God did not create, he separated: the Earth from the Heaven, the land from the sea, the sea monsters from the birds and the swarming at the ground. “There was already water,” she said.

Let’s deconstruct Van Wolde’s deconstruction of Genesis. First, if bara “technically . . . does mean ‘create’”—as in, that is the “dictionary definition,” and that meaning is central to understanding where it is used elsewhere in the Old Testament—then what are the grounds for reading it in another sense? The plain reading hermeneutic tells us to interpret the text based on words’ ordinary meanings and, if necessary, select among multiple definitions based on contextual and grammatical clues.

Yet, as we stated above, Van Wolde presupposes that other creation stories can help us “correct” the Genesis account. (In particular, she cites creation myths that speak of an “enormous body of water in which monsters were living, covered in darkness,” The Telegraph reports.) But why must it be that the Genesis account is corrupted and the others correct, rather than the other way around? Essentially, Van Wolde is altering the dictionary meaning of bara to fit her idea that Genesis should mesh with other accounts.

Second, we cannot understand the reasoning behind Van Wolde’s statement that because “God created” is always “followed by two or more objects,” the verb should be translated as “separated” instead of “created.” We’re hoping her actual paper contains a more rigorous argument to support this logic; otherwise, why could God not have created two objects simultaneously or in sequence, and why could Genesis not fairly document such events using bara? For that matter, why wasn’t the verb meaning “to separate” (badal) used, if that is what God wanted to convey? That verb worked just fine in Genesis 1:4, 6 and 18 to describe the separation of light from darkness and the waters into two distinct places.

“[Genesis means] to say that God did create humans and animals, but not the Earth itself.”

Third, this new interpretation creates confusion and inconsistency elsewhere in Scripture. Take Exodus 20:11, for example, which states that “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the Earth, the sea, and all that is in them.” That plainly suggests both (a) that God created, rather than separated, everything listed in Genesis 1; and (b) that whatever God did with the heavens and the Earth, so he also did with “all that is in them.” In other words, if bara actually was better translated as “to separate” in regards to the heavens and the Earth, that must also apply to, e.g., animals and man. Yet what would it mean for God to separate man in His own image (Genesis 1:27)? Furthermore, bara and asah (to make) are used interchangeably in many verses that refer to Creation Week, as this article shows. Right in the Creation account, these verbs are so used with reference to man (Genesis 1:26–27) and regarding the heavens and the earth and all their hosts (Genesis 2:1–3). Finally, the New Testament clearly says that Jesus Christ is God and that He created everything (John 1:1–3; Colossians 1:15–16; Revelation 4:11).

Apparently Van Wolde realizes this, which brings us to our fourth complaint: if much of what Genesis 1 describes already existed, where did it come from? Perhaps Van Wolde is an evolutionist herself, though she noted, “[Genesis means] to say that God did create humans and animals, but not the Earth itself.” Such a reading is confusing and incompatible with other verses confirming that God did, indeed, create more than just humans and animals (see Genesis 2:1–3; Nehemiah 9:6; Psalm 146:5–6). Otherwise, are we to assume God “stumbled upon” another deity’s created universe (a concept which demotes God) and decided to use it for His master plan?

Van Wolde concludes, “The traditional view of God the Creator is untenable now.” We reply, “Dr. Van Wolde’s view of God and Genesis is untenable, for it is based on ancient pagan myths, rather that the sound interpretation of God’s own Word.”

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