The English word “created” that appears in the Bible’s first verse is the Hebrew bara (pronounced baw-raw). No one questions that this verb has always meant “created” or “to create,” though few sources go so far as to show the varying levels at which that could be applied.
One source that has is the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament). The scholars behind this resource are not casual in their approach to defining words. Quite to the contrary, these linguistics experts understand the importance of etymology (studying the roots, origins, and meaning of a term at its earliest use), history (how a word or term was used in biblical and other literature and, therefore, what it means in its proper context of ancient texts), and peer review (what other experts in the Hebrew language have discovered about its early use). The result of this approach is a transparent, honest, and unbiased study of the original language of the Old Testament.
According to this group of scholars, the verb bara encapsulates more than one way of bringing something into existence. It can refer to making “something that has not been in existence before” (i.e., making something out of nothing), as well as to “form or fashion something out of elements that [already] exist”[i] (i.e., making something out of something else).
Many scholars weighing in on this issue use Isaiah 65:17–18 as an example: “For, behold, I create [bara] new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create [bara]: for, behold, I create [bara] Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy.” This reference to the yet-to-come New Jerusalem of the end times describes a moment when God will take the rubble of Earth after the mass destruction outlined in the book of Revelation and make the New Heavens and New Earth from those formerly existing planetary and space elements. In other words, God will “create something [a beautiful New Earth] out of something else [the destroyed remains of Earth after the future apocalypse].”
In the first of these two verses, we see that the people of the New Earth will not remember their former home (“the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind”). This passage also implies that, during this process of re-creation, there will be limited (or completely absent) “remembrance” of the former creation by the joyful souls who inhabit the latter, better home. Most scholars, theologians, and commentators acknowledge that this seeming forgetfulness is not happenstance, as if God zapped their memories for some enigmatic reason, but it’s a natural side effect of being delivered into a new land so wonderful that it eclipses any memory of the former. This takes place after we have transcended into the eternal state with perfection of the body and mind. So, if we, even while we’re perfect in the future state of eternity, cannot look back and recall what the world looks like right now…
…could the humans alive after Adam’s time be equally unaware of what came before them, too? Of course, the context is different: In the future we will forget the past because of glory; in Adam’s day, people “forgot” the former world because they hadn’t existed during the “void years” that came before their time. Nevertheless, does this passage in Isaiah—perhaps even indirectly, by showing the character of God’s modus operandi—give us a reason for why humanity today can’t nail down what our earliest times looked like in the great “what came first” cosmological question despite all scientific advances? Could this be why there are no witness accounts or divine revelations that describe in detail what happened between the “void” and “good” worlds?
Maybe, like the future-perfect humans of the New Earth, we’re not supposed to “remember” or know what happened to our former Earth. We’re not explicitly forbidden from trying to parse it out, but if God’s way of doing things presents the possibility that the answers to our questions regarding an old Earth aren’t easy for us to sort out, then at the very least some of us should be more open-minded to alternative interpretations of Scripture in this area.
Naturally, this part of our study is purely theoretical, but the next part is not.
Because bara can mean both “creation” and “re-creation” (or “transformation”), it forces at least the theological possibility that Genesis 1 could be describing an initial formation of Earth and a re-creation of Earth at some later point from the rubble that was left after the planet became “without form, and void,” regardless of whether there is a detailed record of that seemingly missing period between the two creative events.
But readers need not take only my word for it.
One of the most prolific theologians of this century—and a vast majority of today’s Bible scholars agree, to the point that his opinion has widely become the litmus test of whether a new biblical theory is viable—is the late Dr. Michael Heiser. Until his journey to be with Jesus a mere three weeks before the time of this writing, Heiser consistently illustrated his expertise in many biblical languages and dialects, speaking fluent Hebrew and Greek, as well as many extinct languages/dialects from the regions of early Mesopotamia (including Sumerian, one of the first languages ever spoken that we know of and paramount to Old Testament biblical interpretation). One of the grandest positions Heiser attained was becoming the resident theologian for the enormously popular Logos Bible Software (a program dedicated to proper exegesis of Scripture, containing hundreds of thousands of books, lexicons, commentaries, interlinear word studies, and other media files all weighing in on what the Word of God says from Genesis to Revelation).
Throughout his years as a professor of Hebrew whose teachings are repeated all over the globe, Heiser frequently pointed out to his students an obvious, yet often overlooked, point concerning the original language of the Old Testament: Hebrew vowels did not exist in the beginning. Even the Dead Sea Scrolls—religious texts discovered in the Qumran caves, dated from the third century BC to the first century AD and involving more than 225 of the earliest copies of Old Testament writings—do not contain vowels.
To give an English example of the general idea, try reading the following “sentence” and pretend for a moment it was written by Solomon in a book like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes (I’ve chosen examples that are not in the Bible so we can consider this idea with fresh eyes): “Lt th ws mn tch th yng mn.” After a bit of struggling, you may work through these consonants and conclude that Solomon wrote, “Let the wise man teach the young man.” Or, say the following was written by Moses in a book like Exodus: “Nd thy jrnyd nthr frty dys dn nghts vr lnd nd wtr, fstng nd pryng fr Gd t drct thm t th lnd h prmsd.” Again, after some problem-solving, you may come to understand Moses wrote, “And they journeyed another forty days and nights over land and water, fasting and praying for God to direct them to the land he promised.” The unadulterated biblical Hebrew reads similarly.
If you had been a scribe alive anytime up to the era of Christ, you wouldn’t have been intimidated or confused by this. You would have known from oral traditions; prior familiarity with scriptural stories, characters, writings, and sayings from your parents and elders; and scribal teaching at the weekly synagogue that vowels aren’t necessary for being able to comprehend what the writers of the Old Testament intended. Although the following isn’t a perfect illustration of this concept (because English does have vowels), think of how often we hear the phrase, “the gift that keeps on giving.” Our parents said it as we were growing up; friends say it at birthday parties; commercials repeat it during the holiday season; pastors say it in reference to Christ’s sacrifice; or a neighbor sarcastically says it about his car that’s died for the third time in a month… Whatever our personal experience, we hear this adage so often that, if English did not have vowels and our eyes were adjusted to consonants-only text, we would know what “th gft tht kps n gvng” means.
After the diaspora—when the Jews were scattered all over the known world after the stoning of Stephen—they gradually took on the languages (both spoken and written) of their new cultures, and being literate in written Hebrew became far more important for younger generations forward, in order for them to understand and keep the traditions of their Jewish forefathers. The Hebrew vowel system (most often called niqqud or neqqudot) was invented sometime around the seventh or eighth century AD by the Masoretes (a group of scribes from Tiberias, Jerusalem, and Babylonia [modern Iraq]). Because they wished to take the greatest care and show the utmost respect in updating the letters to reflect intonations of a spoken language without changing the authoritative, written Word of God, they elected to keep the consonants intact and, instead of adding additional letters, they added small dots, short lines, and squiggly marks under, above, or next to each letter. Therefore, some words in the Hebrew can and do have more than one possible meaning and/or application. (By the way, we don’t have to take Heiser’s word for this. Google “Masoretic Hebrew” to see hundreds of articles showing this unique and clever invention by the Masoretes circa AD 600–700. I mention Heiser because he taught about this subject frequently and because what he says next in our study of bara is crucial.)
But I heard a presentation from [scholar/teacher so-and-so] that placed a huge emphasis on these dots and squiggles. He said they forced a specific definition over another. How can he claim this if the dots or marks didn’t exist at the time the books of the Bible were written?
It’s not uncommon to see a scholar responsibly show the niqqud system at work in modern interpretations of ancient texts for one crucial reason: The Masoretes were from the region in which and time when the traditions and sacred, scriptural teachings of the Old Testament were still being passed down orally in society, culture, and families. They were experts (literally) in what the Old Testament said, not only because of their linguistic training (although they had that in abundance), but because their parents told them what the texts meant, and their parents before that told them, and their parents before that. Masor means “tradition,” and “Masorete” means “master of tradition,” so if they said a word needed a dot or squiggle to produce one vowel sound over another (changing the meaning of a verse from an irresponsible to a responsible interpretation), it’s definitely worth our consideration. This is the central reason many Hebrew scholars open their statements with the phrase, “According to the Masoretic Hebrew” (Many scholars assume their audience knows the history behind the term “Masoretic,” but that’s simply not the case. So, listeners can easily be swayed by a subsequent presentation by a scholar who pays no attention to the Masoretic text, citing conclusions to be “from [such-and-such] Hebrew word,” therefore creating an interpretational fallacy that the listeners aren’t trained to recognize. And then, as is the case today, there are countless possible interpretations of verses, leading people to construe the words of Scripture to say whatever they want, since “the Hebrew says…”).
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Relevant to this discussion is what the Masoretic text concludes about the clause structure (more on this in a moment) surrounding bara in Genesis 1:1–3. Young Earthers most often insist that bara describes God, in the beginning of all time (not just the beginning of a new era), creating Earth from nothing. This, combined with the “day” issue addressed in the last section, forces Earth to have been newly formed for the first time in six literal days only thousands of years ago, so it’s important to see whether bara could have referred to a re-creation event.
First, let’s review what these verses say in the most popularly read translation of the past several hundred years (kjv):
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”: and there was light.
(Since the details regarding the water aren’t related to our review of “create,” for now we’ll omit the latter portion of verse 2. It will come back into play later.) One of two interpretations is possible thus far:
- In the beginning, God created the heavens and Earth out of nothing. The Earth He just created was, at first, “without form and void.” So, God quickly or immediately proceeded to say, “Let there be light,” and there was light (followed by the formation of everything else during Creation week).
- When God created the heavens and Earth—Earth having already been present, though it was “without form, and void” (for an undeterminable length of time)—God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light (followed by the formation of everything else on a formerly existing planet that would no longer be “without form, and void”).
Which interpretation is more likely?
Before I give away the answer, it may help to explain clause structure, or, what Heiser refers to in his presentation on this passage as “the key to understanding why Genesis 1:1–3 can be taken a variety of ways.”[ii]
In Hebrew grammar, as in English, there are independent clauses and dependent clauses. An independent clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb that express a complete thought, such as Heiser’s example: “Jim studied in his room for his chemistry exam.”[iii] Nothing else is needed for this sentence to be understood. A dependent clause is a group of words that also contains a subject and a verb, but that doesn’t express a complete thought, as in Heiser’s follow-up example: “When Jim studied in his room for his chemistry exam.”[iv] The “when” at the beginning of the sentence is a cue to expect something to be added to the beginning or end, so Heiser illustrates on-screen with underlining: “When Jim studied in his room for his chemistry exam, he was able to concentrate,” or, “His brother stayed away when Jim studied in his room for his chemistry exam.” In both cases, Heiser points out that we can intuitively feel whether we need more information in a sentence for the thought to be complete, even when we have no idea what a clause is.[v] He then goes on to explain that, in Genesis 1:1–3, there is a series of clauses; readers must establish which of those can stand alone—as complete thoughts—and which ones depend on the clauses around them to clarify their meaning.
Our first clause—“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”—is independent; it stands alone without issue, and everyone can see it’s a complete sentence. If this is where it ended, we wouldn’t have an issue. The problem is introduced when we see the first English word in verse 2: “Now” in some translations (or “And” in KJV), which appears just before “the earth was without form and void.”
“What is the role of verse 2?” Heiser asks. “Does it proceed from verse 1? Or does it do something else?”[vi] One could see a linear sequence: Verse 1 happened, then verse 2 happened, then verse 3 happened; each verse is the result (and therefore follows) the former.
But is that what the writer of Genesis intended to say? Or was the writer—as a number of Hebrew scholars attest—using verse 2 to describe the object of creation in verse 1?
As Heiser points out, Hebrew Bible translations that stick closest to the earliest forms of Hebrew—such as the Jewish Publication Society Translation—go back to the Masoretic text…and suddenly, the clauses shift to render a sequence that looks foreign to many of us today. Genesis 1:1 becomes: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth…”. As with the “Jim…studied” example, this “When” makes the first verse of the Bible a dependent clause, an incomplete thought that relies on additional details to become a complete sentence.
The difference between “In the beginning, God created” and “When God began to create” boils down to—you probably guessed it—a vowel mark that did not exist at the time Genesis was written. The former expression requires the addition of a vowel mark that looks like a capital T under the last letter of the phrase, while the latter expression requires two dots under the same letter. In its earliest form, without the vowel mark, there was no definite article, so the word “the” in the phrase “In the beginning” is a scholarly interpolation (an attempt to clarify something by adding words that weren’t there in the original) by later translators to help us better understand it. The first syllable of bara in Hebrew would have either been pronounced “bah” or “beh,” meaning two completely different things, as we’ve outlined prior: 1) God created a world that was initially void and He immediately proceeded to bring it to life further (Young Earth view); 2) when God began to create Earth, it was void already, and He brought new life to it (what Heiser calls the “Hebrew Syntax View,” because “this is strict Hebrew syntax”[vii]).
Well, since the vowels didn’t exist, it could mean either one, so I’ll pick “bah,” supporting Young Earth and a single Creation event, and Donna can have her “beh,” supporting two Creation events—a “void” world re-created or transformed into a “good” world later on.
Not so fast. Picking and choosing biblical interpretations is what leads to a culture of embracing and justifying unthinkable acts and disregarding solid orders put in place by God, Himself.
I’m going to go to the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia [he pulls it up on-screen]…it’s beh… The translation, “When God began to create”…more accurately reflects the Masoretic texts.… Now, you could just as well say—and trust me, some do—“Well, it didn’t have vowels to begin with, so we should put ‘bah’ in there and be definite: ‘In THE beginning’; the first creative act!”… Yeah, you can, but there is no [scribal] tradition that supports it, and that’s what we have for the Hebrew Bible; we have scribal tradition for the way it’s vocalized. So, let’s go back here [he pulls up the beh/bah comparison again]. We have two possible translations. If we opt for the “when” translation…now we have dependent clauses. We don’t have a series of independent ideas. We have two full verses of clauses [verses 1 and 2] that are leading up to something, and that “something” is verse 3, and that is the main idea, that is the independent thought.[viii]
On the screen behind Heiser, we see he’s utilized English characters called “em dashes” (they look like this: — ) as a visual aid to more responsibly and appropriately make the Hebrew flow in our language. He also bumped the middle verse over to offset it from the first and third. The first three verses of the Bible are now rendered:
1When God began to create the heavens and the earth—
2Now the earth was without form and void…
3Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
In this sequence, whatever appears between the em dashes is describing or qualifying the independent clause that occurs at the end of one total, complete thought.
This may still be complicated for readers who may not be familiar with rules of grammar (regardless of whether it’s English or Hebrew, though in this case, it’s both). So let me repeat this once more and simplify it by inserting what could be the Hebraic implications of both a former and latter Earth:
When God began to create the [current] heavens and the earth, the [former] earth was without form and void…but then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
“Now catch this,” Heiser emphasizes regarding the first two verses:
The writer is describing conditions that already exist before God actually creates anything, before God actually speaks anything into existence. In other words, you have a situation where verses 1 and 2 lead to verse 3, and they set it up. The first creative act—the first thing God does—in Genesis 1, [verses] 1 through 3, in this view, is not verse 1, it’s verse 3.… This is strict Hebrew syntax. Syntax is sentence structure, sentence relationships. If you’re going to just go by what the Hebrew says like a zealot, strictly obeying the rules of Hebrew grammar, that is what you get. And that’s why some English Bibles have [this wording].[ix]
On a slide shortly following a profound moment when Heiser explains that Earth was “already formless and empty,”[x] he shows two “ramifications” of this rendering:
- Genesis 1:1 is not the absolute beginning
- Genesis 1:1–3 describes an ORDERING or refashioning of matter (“heavens and earth”) that was ALREADY EXISTING when God got to work.[xi]
To conclude the portion of this word study that involves Heiser’s presentation, pay close attention to what he says about why most Hebrew scholars (including himself) say that time sequences, day-age interpretations, or talks of “millions of years” don’t matter at all:
Because, if you have indefinite time going on in the first two verses…and the Creation only starts in verse 3…we have no time sequence before verse 3. You could very easily argue, “Sure! Once Creation starts—once verse 3 starts—you got six, twenty-four-hour days, [and] you got a Sabbath Day. Great! But you got eons of time before that, because there was something there already.” That’s why they don’t care.[xii]
Again, although it might be interesting to ruminate over whether or not “days” mean “age,” if there were millions of years between “void” Earth and “good” Earth—and since we know this was “a” beginning, but not “the” beginning, since the definite article was never present in the original manuscript and the likelier interpretation points to verse 1 starting with “When”—it could be either, and it’s certainly not important enough to fight about.
But if God re-created or transformed Earth from matter that was already there, then who made the first planet before it became void? Couldn’t this open a door to a heretical teaching that identifies God as only the re-Creator of Earth, while “void Earth”—and for that matter, the rest of the universe—was made by some other god or force?
It’s a valid question, but the biblical answer is “no.” It isn’t possible in light of many other Scriptures that, in proper context for both Hebrew and Greek, still acknowledge Jehovah as the only Creator God. In Isaiah 66:2, His is the “hand” that “made all things” and from whom “all things came into being”; in Isaiah 44:24, Ephesians 3:9, Colossians 1:6, 1 Corinthians 8:6, and Revelation 4:11, He created “all things”; in Psalm 96:5 and Jeremiah 10:11, He is the Creator of the heavens and earth as contrasted against false gods or idols; in Isaiah 45:18, He is the One who “formed the earth and made it”; in Proverbs 3:19, it is He who “founded the earth”; and on the list goes (all emphasis added).
One can research the word “all” in both Hebrew (kol) and Greek (pas) as it comes up so many times in this list, but no matter the context of a given verse, it simply means “all.” Or, as Derek and Sharon Gilbert of SkyWatch Television have said on occasion during their teachings, “‘All’ means all, and that’s all ‘all’ means.” (That one has stuck with me for years.)
Both the “void” Earth of old and “good,” possibly re-created, Earth fall under God’s creative work, with one crucial caveat: God may have created an Earth that became void, but He did not create it that way at first (as we will address in chapters 6 and 7). But perhaps the most convicting verse—so direct that it leaves no room for alternative-creator theories—is John 1:3: “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” To rephrase in modern English: “Every single thing was made by Him, and not a single thing that exists can be said to have been made by someone else.” (Note, however, that this doesn’t mean something God created cannot be destroyed, warped, manipulated, or wickedly redesigned from the living matter He made. That’s crucial to remember in the coming pages.)
Because this is such a new idea for some just entering the discussion, I will recap the Hebrew Syntax View that sets up the rest of this series: What has frequently been interpreted as a single Creation epic is likely to have been two separate events: God 1) created heaven and Earth at some point far before Creation week; sometime later, He 2) re-created/transformed Earth (from Genesis 1:3 forward), this time bringing about the first human, Adam, from dust (1:27; 2:7).
Yet, when it comes to the subject of man, some Old Earth dating theories—especially those from my Old-Earther fellows in the Theistic Evolutionist camp—are simply not sustainable when held against the integrity of the biblical narrative. (Hey buddies, if you’re reading this, we can still break bread together even if we don’t agree. Promise.)
UP NEXT: Adam from “Dust”
[i] Swanson, James, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), entry 1343, בּרא “bara.”
[ii] Heiser PhD, Michael, “Genesis 1 1 3 Michael Heiser PhD NEW,” YouTube video, uploaded by Naked Bible on January 26, 2016, last accessed March 13, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diEzuGvDjU0 8:29–8:57; emphasis added only on words that were emphasized in Heiser’s own verbal presentation; open and limitless permission to quote granted by Heiser to Tom Horn prior to Heiser’s death.
[iii] Ibid., 10:11–10:27.
[iv] Ibid., 10:48–11:00.
[v] Ibid., 11:55–12:48.
[vi] Ibid., 16:30–16:42.
[vii] Ibid., 26:41–26:50.
[viii] Ibid., 23:05–25:15.
[ix] Ibid., 25:54–27:12; emphasis added only on words that were emphasized in Heiser’s own verbal presentation.
[x] Ibid., 28:27–28:29; emphasis added only on words that were emphasized in Heiser’s own verbal presentation.
[xi] Ibid., 28:43–29:12; all-caps in original.
[xii] Ibid., 47:17–48:16; emphasis added only on words that were emphasized in Heiser’s own verbal presentation.