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Word Study Wednesday

God bless in the name of Jesus Christ which is praised in every language.

Sometimes Hebrew words don’t have precise equivalents in English.  Take the Hebrew word bara for instance.  The English word “create” often does a good job capturing it, but there are two unique features to bara, that “create” and other English words fail to capture.  First, the objects of bara are remarkable and bring glory to God (Isaiah 43:7).  One scholar calls the things brought into existence as “special, extraordinary, new,” noting they include the heavens, the earth, people, and wonders. (W. H. Schmidt, TLOT, 1:253-256)

Second, only God can bara.  Biblically, humans don’t bring into existence what has never existed before.  There are synonyms that can have humans as subjects, such as the Hebrew verbs for “make” (asah) and “form” (yatsar).  But bara is reserved for God alone.  When bara appears in the Qal conjugation (the one in which 67% of all Hebrew verbs occur) only God is the subject.  However, there are other conjugations in which bara does appear with subjects other than God.  This unique occurrence is more than coincidental.  It’s not just by chance that bara only appears with God as its subject. 

Bara appears in the Qal 37 times; the Niphil 12 times, the Piel 4 times; and the Hiphil once.  Every occurrence in the Qal has God as the subject.  The 12 times it appears in the Niphil (simple passive) it has other subjects that received the action, but the context clearly shows that God was the One Who acted upon them.  Bara is only translated “create” or “Creator” in the KJV when occurring in those 2 simple conjugations.  When it occurs in the Piel and Hiphil it is translated “choose,” “cut down,” “dispatch,” or “make fat” in the KJV

Although “create” comes close in meaning to “bara,” it doesn’t capture the remarkable, astonishing nature of that which was brought into existence, nor does it communicate that God is the only One who can do it.  Bara means to cause to come into being, as something unique and remarkable that would not naturally evolve or that is not made by ordinary processes.  It requires God to act.  That’s hard to communicate in one English word.  In English “create” has a much broader meaning.  We have computer aficionados creating software and programs.  We can even take classes on “creative writing.”

To communicate bara properly would require more than one word.  Perhaps that’s why English translations tend to be much longer than the original Hebrew and Greek texts.  (The NIV has 33% more words than the combined Hebrew Masoretic text and the Nestle -Aland Greek text (27th ed), and the NRSV has approximately 64 percent more words than the same.)  Adding more words of explanation may give readers a better idea of the biblical text, but they also make it awkwardly swollen or clumsy.

Nevertheless, there are times when there’s no better word than bara.  For example, Isaiah 44-45 addresses a group of Israelites returning to their homeland.  Decades earlier, Babylonians conquered their homeland and brought them into captivity.  These refugees were told that Jerusalem fell because Babylon’s god was supreme.  God didn’t like that, and He had Isaiah address the affront in no uncertain terms.

Some of the Israelites were still messing around with idols, and God spoke up for Himself.  In Isaiah 44:9, idol-makers are dressed down, noting that the smiths can’t make idols without growing hungry and thirsty (44:12).  The absurdity that a carpenter uses part of a tree for firewood, part for sitting, and part for a god to worship is noted in (44:13-20).  The idol that emerges can neither see nor understand anything (44:18), and its maker has been deceived by lies and has made an object of disgust (44:19-20).

In sharp contrast, the God of Israel stretches out the heavens and hammers out the earth (44:24).  This Creator declares His supreme uniqueness (45:5-6).  His people who have long endured disgrace will know humiliation no longer!  Instead, the taunting idol-makers will find themselves ashamed, confused, and exposed as the frauds that they are (45:16).

Isaiah 45:18:
For thus says the LORD, Who created [bara] the heavens, Who is God, Who formed the earth and made it, Who has established it, Who did not create [bara] it in vain, Who formed it to be inhabited: “I am the LORD, and there is no other.

Isaiah 44-45 contrasts Israel’s God and foolish idol-makers.  In this context, what could be more appropriate than bara which can only take God as its subject?  The devastated Israelites are given strength and hope and are assured that they have a God who is with them, despite all they have endured.  He is not just any god; He alone can create remarkable things.  No human, no idol, no idol-maker can do what only the Lord, the God of Israel can do.  Such a messages reinforced by the unique nature of the Hebrew verb bara show us what a magnificent God we serve.

Although bara does occur six times in Genesis 1, there are only three times when God’s omnipotent word brought something into existence which had never been before.  The first is in Genesis 1:1 when God brought into existence the heavens and the earth (the great space/mass/time cosmos which we will look at further in the next six days).  This is the domain that is now studied in the physical sciences.  The second is in Genesis 1:21 when God brought into existence soul life.  This is the domain of the life sciences.  Soul life had to be created in addition to the space/mass/time cosmos.  Because life required a separate act of God, we realize it will never be possible to describe living systems solely in terms of physics, chemistry and the other physical sciences.  The third is in (Genesis 1:27when God created spirit in man.  It is said with great emphasis repeating bara three time although all three are spoken of one unique act.  “God created [bara] man in his own image, in the image of God created [bara] he him; male and female created [bara] he them “  This additional act of creation was necessary because spirit will never be possible to describe by the physical sciences or the life sciences.

Human beings can be analyzed chemically and our living processes biologically, but the exceptional, extravagant, and extraordinary effulgence of mankind can only really be understood and appreciated in terms of our relation to God, whose image we share.  Apart from knowing Who He is and reflecting His image as we live and move and have our being, we will never grasp the full magnificence of how remarkable we really are.

Next Wednesday we will handle the third tip:  The word in the original language may have a multiple meanings.