Old Testament Word Studies
The word bara’ is at the heart of any study of the account of creation in Genesis. But as is often the case in critical discussion, more is made of the word than usage warrants. The assumption is often made that the word means “creation out of nothing” (creatio ex nihilo). It is one thing to say that the Bible teaches that God created everything out of nothing, and that this word could be used in such statements; but it is another thing entirely to say the word means that. It is therefore important to survey the etymology and usage of the word to determine its range of meanings.
The verb occurs in the basic verbal stem (qal) and its passive stem (niphal).
There are a few cases where the word seems to occur in a different stem (piel) with
the meaning “to cut down” (e.g., a forest [Josh. 17:15]), or “cut out” (Ezek. 21:24).
There is insufficient data to determine how this idea could be related to the verb “to
create.” It is possible that “cutting” was a way of “creating.” But it is more likely
that we are dealing with separate words entirely, even though the older dictionaries
list these meanings under the one root. Holladay lists these as separate roots.
There is another verb bara’ which the dictionaries list as a separate root, “to be fat.” It occurs in the causative stem (hiphil) with the meaning “to fatten” (1 Sam. 2:29). This would mean then that there were three separate words spelled bara’ (as Holladay lists in his dictionary).
The standard dictionaries define the Hebrew word to mean “shape, create, fashion.” The meaning of the English word “create” essentially means “bring into existence, give rise to, originate, design, make” (OED). The English word “create” can be used in statements about creation out of nothing as well as in statements about creation from existing materials. What we must determine is whether or not the Hebrew bara’ has such a range.
The evidence from the Semitic languages provides some helpful information for the general understanding of bara’ and its related synonyms.
Akkadian, according to BDB, has the word baru (a III weak verb
bara’) with the meaning “to make, create.” However, the more up-to-date Chicago
Assyrian Dictionary does not give this as a meaning; rather, it defines baru A as ‘to
look upon, to watch over,” and baru B as “to be hungry.”
BDB also suggests that Hebrew bara’ be compared with Assyrian banu (also a III weak verb) which in the G (= qal) stem means: 1) to build, construct, form,” 2) “to engender, produce,” 3) “to create” (the subject being the deity), and 4) “to devise a plan.” The correspondence of banu with bara’ would involve an interchange between the n and the r. Since both consonants are liquids they could interchange (note Hebrew “son” is ben but Aramaic is bar). The connection may be strengthened in view of the fact that banu is the verb used in the Mesopotamian creation story Enuma Elish: “[Ea] created (ibna ) mankind out of [Kingu’s] blood” (VI. 33).
If banu is a cognate word then more information would be available for the background of Hebrew bara’. But Hebrew also has a verb banah (III He’ verb), which means “to build.” Akkadian banu is most likely cognate to this word, and not bara’. In fact, in Genesis banah is used in addition to bara’: “and he [Yahweh] fashioned/built (wayyiben) the rib into the woman” (Gen. 2:22).
As for Ugaritic, there is no cognate for our verb as far as we know. In Ugaritic Textbook Gordon lists bnw/y, “to build,” as cognate to banah.
As a Phoenician cognate BDB lists a word meaning “incisor, a trade involving cutting.” This would be cognate to the second root bara’ and therefore not relevant to this word study (unless one argued that “cut” was a category of meaning under the verb, and then this would harmonize with that category).
In Arabic we have the cognate word bara’i (bary), which means “to form,
fashion,” and BDB includes the meanings “to fashion by cutting, shaping out, to pare
a reed for writing, a stick for an arrow.” These may be related to the second root.
BDB also list bara’a as a loan word, “to create.” Old South Arabic has a root br’
that means “to build.” And Soqotri has a meaning “bring forth, give birth to.”
Aramaic and Syriac are closer to Hebrew with the verb br’ meaning “to create.” The word is not used in the Aramaic portions of the Old Testament. In later Aramaic and Hebrew the Rabbinical usage carries the biblical meanings forward. Jastrow’s dictionary joins together under bara’ (Heb.) and bera’ (Aram.) The meanings “create, cut, shape, perforate,” and “strengthen, make well, make grow.” This simply represents the way that the literature used the word and expanded its range, and does not attempt to explain the connections of meanings and the roots.
There is only one noun to consider with this study, the feminine noun beri’ah, “a creation, thing created.” The only use of this word is in Numbers 16:30 where it describes something new and unparalleled: “If the LORD brings about something totally new” -- referring to the earth’s swallowing the rebels.
From this survey it seems safe to say that the Hebrew verb bara’, “to create,” is not well-attested in the cognate languages--but it does occur enough to show it is a good Semitic word. Only by allowing for a shift in the letters, or by joining apparent homonyms together as one root, can any substantial cognate material be collected to make a contribution. For example, Bernhardt suggests that the Hebrew root bara’ had an original meaning of “to separate, divide” (TDOT, II:245). This would account for definitions of “cut” as well as “create.” While this is certainly possible, there is no real evidence for it. Even if it could be established, it would be academic, for the basic meanings of the verb bara’ are established by usage--and there are enough uses of the verb to provide that information. This study will proceed on the understanding that there are three Hebrew roots with these same letters, and only the passages meaning “create” or “shape” will be surveyed.
The verb is used in the basic (qal) stem some 38 times, and in the passive (niphal) stem ten times. All of the uses are in contexts where the English translation “create” fits; and in all the contexts it is God who creates. But the separate categories of meaning will further define what this “creation” is like. Here it will be helpful to survey what was created and then determine how it was done. The categories of meaning with selected samples are:
1. The Formation of the Universe and All Its Contents
The most common use of bara’
applies to Godís acts of the creation of the universe (and all universes) and
what is in it. The texts all reveal that Godís creative works are incomparable,
and whatever was created is perfect. We may sub-divide this category for
The Universe. There is no word more appropriate to the dramatic statements about God’s formation of the universe(s) than this word bara’. The term describes exclusively the work of God in producing what to man is unthinkable and impossible. The first verse of the Bible asserts God’s creation rather matter-of-factly: “In the beginning God created (bara’) the heavens and the earth.” The contents of Genesis 1 and corroborative statements such as that found in Psalm 33:9 explain that the means of this creation was the divine decree--God spoke, and it happened. God’s powerful word created everything.
Other passages fit this point as well. Genesis 2:3, stressing that God ceased from his work, summarizes the creation of the heaven and the earth and all the contents with bara’. Isaiah also uses bara’ in this sense, affirming that it is the LORD who created the heavens (Isa. 42:5), the stars (Isa. 40:26), and the ends of the earth (Isa. 40:28). The psalmist also affirms that God created the north and the south (Ps. 89:12 ), which also may be a merism for the whole world.
Cosmic Forces. The verb bara’ is also used to tell of God’s producing the forces of nature. Amos describes the LORD as the one who formed (< yatsar) the mountains and created (bara’) the wind (Am. 4:13). Darkness is also a result of Godís creative power; the LORD says through Isaiah, ďI form (yatsar) the light and create (bara’) the darkness. I make (‘asah) peace and create (bara’ ) evil” (Isa. 45:7). “Darkness” in this passage is parallel with “evil” by virtue of the repetition of the verb. The words may stress the evil forces of darkness, or painful calamity, of distressing situations, in contrast to light and peace. Modern scholarship has detected a reference here to early forms of Persian dualism.
Living Creatures. Bara’ is used in Genesis to express the creation of humans as well as other beings. Three times the verb is used in Genesis 1:27; then in the same sense it is repeated in Genesis 5:1, 2; 6:7; Deut. 4:32; and in Isaiah 45:12. The Scripture thereby stresses that humans are exclusively the product of God’s creative act. Since the account in Genesis 2:7 specifies that mankind was formed (yatsar) from the dust of the ground, it may be concluded that the verb bara’ in reference to humans at least describes a formation using pre-existing material. It was a shaping and transforming of dust into a body that the word bara’ summarizes. The use of this verb yatsar should probably be understood figuratively because creation was by divine decree.
One verse that needs additional attention is Psalm 89:47 , which says, “Remember how short my time is; why have you made (bara’ta) all mankind in vain?” The word is here used for the making of the whole human race. Because God created the man and the woman in the beginning, he is therefore perceived to be the one who created the human race too. In other passages synonyms of bara’ are used to ascribe divine causality to the process of human reproduction (cf. Ps. 139:13 which focuses on the development in the womb as God’s creative work).
Bara’ is also used in Genesis 1:21 for the making of the great sea creatures, every living creature that the waters brought forth, and every winged fowl. Why our word is used in this verse is not immediately clear. It may be that since the great sea creatures were feared and venerated in the pagan religions the writer wished to stress the fact that they were only creatures, the product of God’s sovereign creative decree.
2. The Establishment of the Nation of Israel
A second category for the uses of bara’ concerns the creation of Israel, the people of God. Isaiah records the declaration of the LORD that affirms this: “I am the LORD, your Holy One, the creator (bore’) of Israel, your king” (Isa,. 43:15). The same chapter also uses “Jacob” (meaning the nation) as the object of God’s creation: “But now, thus says the LORD who created you (bora’aka), O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel” (Isa. 43:11). The verb, then, applies to God’s work of forming a nation out of the descendants of Abraham.
The same idea appears to be the point of Malachi 2:10--but the exegesis of the
passage is difficult. Malachi said, “Have we not all one father? Has not one God
created us (bera’anu)?” He bases his message against divorce on the national unity
that they share as the people of God.
Not only does the verb bara’ describe the formation of the nation, but also the inclusion of individual believers within it. Referring to the re-gathering of his “sons” (his people), he said: “everyone that is called by my name, for I have created him
(bera’tiw) for my glory” (Isa. 43:7). Perhaps Qoheleth’s (Ecclesiastes) use of the word stresses something of this idea as well: “Remember now your creator (bore’eka) in the days of your youth” (Eccl. 12:1).
3. Transformation for the Renewal of Things
The third major category includes those passages that describe God’s work of
making something of someone new. That the action is the transformation of
something that already exists can be seen from each of the contexts. Some of the
passages in the first category might seem to belong here, but these passages have
more to do with renewal than creation of an entirely new thing (such as a man out of
the dust of the ground).
For example, the prophets in particular used bara’ to describe the future
transformations, restorations or renovations. Isaiah records, “I create new heavens
and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17). In the same context of anticipated new beginnings he
adds, “But be glad and rejoice over that which I create, for I am about to create
Jerusalem as a rejoicing, and her people as a joy” (Isa. 65:18). According to the
prophet, nature also will be renovated (Isa. 41:18-20). In fact, the entire coming
restoration is called a creation of the LORD’s (Isa. 45:8).
Bara’ can also be used for spiritual renewal. Psalm 51:10  says, “Create
(bera’) in me a clean heart, O God, and renew (khaddesh) within me a steadfast
spirit.” The request is for the renewal (as the parallelism underscores) of the spiritual
attitudes, probably by meditation on the word, much prayer, and guidance by the
priests or prophets. A similar use is found in Isaiah 57:19, which says, “I create the
fruit of the lips.” The point is that when the LORD heals someone he inspires praise
The emphasis of such creation or transformation may be on its being totally
renewed. Jeremiah 31:22 explicitly adds this: “For the LORD had created (bara’) a
new thing (khadashah) on the earth--a woman shall encompass a man.” But in
Numbers 16:30 the “new thing” is expressed by the derivative of the verb: “But if the
LORD make a new thing (we’im beri’ah yibra’) and the earth open her mouth . . . .”
In all these samples the action of the verb bara’ is that of transforming something into a new condition. With the exception of the Numbers passage, that change is always for something far better than the old.
The major synonyms for bara’ are yatsar and ‘asah. The first one, yatsar,
means “to form or fashion” something purposefully, or by design. It is the activity
of the artist, as may be illustrated by the participle from the verb, yotser, “a potter.”
Whereas the emphasis of bara’ is on something new and perfect that is produced, the
emphasis of yatsar is that what is made is formed by design. ‘Asah, on the other
hand, simply means “to do, make,” and is too broad to be helpful in this study.
There is another word that is used a couple of times as well--qanah, “to create.” It is often lost in the meaning of qanah, “to acquire,” but is actually an individual word (another homonym). And, the verb banah, “to build,” also may be synonymous with words of creation, but has a broader range of uses. It may be used for the physical construction of something (such as a house), but may also be used for creation (the forming of Eve) or procreation (e.g., building the house of Israel).
In the ancient Greek translations of the Bible several words were used to
translate bara’, the most common being ktizein (which also translates other words for
creation). In classical use the word meant “to people a place” or “to make habitable.”
But in the New Testament it is used for the creation by God (Col. 1:16; Eph. 3:9) as
well as the transforming of people who come to faith (Eph. 2:10; 4:24).
The second major word used in the Greek is the general word poiein. Hatch and Redpath list over a hundred forms translated by it. Poiein most often translates Hebrew ‘asah, “to make, do,” but it translates bara’ in Genesis 1:1, 21, 27; 5:1, 2; 6:7; Isa. 42:5; 43:1; 45:7, 18; and 65:18. Aquila, however, preferred the precision of ktizein in the creation accounts.
Several other Greek words are used. In Numbers 16:30 we find deiknuein, “to
show, bring to light.” Archein is used in Genesis 2:3--“which God began to do.”
Isaiah 40:28 and 43:7 have kataskeuazein, “to equip, furnish, prepare, build and
furnish a house.” In Isaiah 40:26, 41:20, and 42:15, katadeiknunai, “to introduce,
invent, make known,” is used.
So the Greek translators did not confine themselves to the main words “create”
or “make,” especially when working with the different nuances of bara’ in the
According to the American Heritage Dictionary the English word “create” means (1) to cause to exist, bring into being, originate; (2) to give rise to, bring about, produce. It derives from the Latin creare, “to bring forth, create, produce” (“to cause to grow.” Ceres was the goddess of agriculture, especially the growth of fruits [see also “cereal”]). See also “procreate.”
The word bara’ is used exclusively for the activity of God in which he
fashions something new and pristine. The word could be used for creating
something out of nothing, but that emphasis must come from the context and not from
the meaning of this word (and the Bible does in many places teach that creation was
originally out of nothing).
Bara’ Includes the ideas of creating, shaping, forming, and transforming. Its emphasis lies in the fact that what is produced is new and fresh and good and perfect. It does not produce something imperfect or incomplete. While many English words could be used in the translations, “create” still serves very well because its connotations have been elevated by association with the Creator. We tend to use the word “create” to refer to a work of art, a masterpiece, something new and wonderful. For all the ordinary things, or inferior things, “make” serves very well.