Did God Create Heaven and Earth—or Just Separate Them? An Analysis of Ellen van Wolde’s “Hypothesis,” Part 2 (of 2)

Did God Create Heaven and Earth—or Just Separate Them? An Analysis of Ellen van Wolde’s “Hypothesis,” Part 2 (of 2)

In last week’s article, we analyzed the claim by Ellen van Wolde, a professor at Radboud University in The Netherlands, that God did not “create” the universe, but rather “spatially separated” preexisting materials. Van Wolde asserts that she used the scientific method to “test” her “hypothesis.” So we analyzed her methodology to see if she did so correctly. In part 1, we reviewed deficiencies in her analytic process as well as some of her arguments. In this article we critique the remainder of her arguments, mostly those based on Hebrew linguistics.

In addition to bereshith (“in a/the beginning”) and bareshith (“in the beginning”) (discussed in part 1), Van Wolde’s linguistic arguments for translating bara in Genesis 1 as “separate” seem to boil down to two. First, she observes that bara is often applied to pairs,1 especially in Genesis 1: heaven and earth (Genesis 1:1); sea creatures and birds (Genesis 1:21); male and female (Genesis 1:27). A word study of bara shows that most of the time it does not apply to pairs. Nevertheless, she seems to miss an important point: the pairs she refers to all reflect a common construction in biblical Hebrew called a merism, in which the borders of a category are used to represent its totality. In Genesis 1, heaven and earth represent the entire cosmos; sea creatures and birds represent the initial phase of the animal kingdom; male and female represent all humankind. Hence van Wolde’s reasoning in this case has much greater significance that merely redefining bara; she is suggesting invalidation of a common construction of Hebrew grammar,

Van Wolde’s second argument is that other biblical Hebrew words—such as ׳asah and yatsar—are translated “to make/form/create something.”2 She is correct, but synonyms are common in all languages. Moreover, the use of parallelism is a popular grammatical construction in biblical Hebrew for both prose and poetry. Repetition with a synonymous word phrase or sentence helps emphasize an idea. For example, Isaiah 41:20b says, “The hand of the LORD has done [׳asah] this, and the Holy One of Israel has created [bara] it” (NASB); these two clauses say essentially the same thing. When bara appears in such a parallel construction, the words most often used as its synonym are as ׳asah (Genesis 2:4, 5:1–2, 6:7; Exodus 34:10; Isaiah 41:20, 45:7, 45:12) and yatsar (Isaiah 43:1, 43:7, 45:7, 45:18; Amos 4:13)—words which van Wolde and traditional translators agree mean “make” and “form,” respectively.

Another word used in a parallel with bara is hadash (Psalm 51:10, 104:30)—typically translated “renew,” with implications similar to “create.” Furthermore, the Hebrew word badal conveys the concept of “separate” in Genesis 1:4, 7, 7, 14, and 18, and badal never appears in a parallel with bara. In fact, bara is never used in a parallel with any other Hebrew word which has the primary connotation of separation. All this makes it especially difficult to justify translating bara as “separate.”

Since van Wolde makes no effort toward falsification, her arguments fail to prove anything. She claims plausibility,3 but her reasoning mostly consists of unconvincing linguistic and/or interpretational gymnastics which fail to reach even the level of plausibility. The examples she cites to justify her position include Numbers 16:30 (Korah’s rebellion), but her interpretation of this verse stretches credulity.4 Numbers 16:30 emphasizes that God will bring about a miracle to destroy Korah and his followers; it is incidental that the miracle is an opening or separating of the ground to swallow of the rebels. Yet van Wolde focuses on the opening of the chasm and uses it as a basis to retranslate bara in Genesis 1 as “separate.”

Van Wolde also cites Isaiah 45:7 for justification.5 In this verse, she interprets bara as “separating light from darkness.”6 This interpretation seems plausible at first, but it  falls apart under analysis. First, if bara means “separate,” then darkness is separated from light in Isaiah 45:7—the opposite of Genesis 1:1–3, in which light emerges to dispel darkness. Second, Isaiah 45:7 is a poetic parallel, in which bara is used twice, each time paired with ׳asah and yatsar. Lastly, to buttress her position that bara means “separate” in Genesis 1:21, van Wolde claims that certain creatures, such as sea monsters (tanninim), “existed before creation.”7 The biblical text, however, does not support this argument.

Yet even if van Wolde’s arguments were convincing, the small number of biblical examples used to support her claims would still undermine her point. The Old Testament has more than forty uses of bara in various forms beyond Genesis, many for which “separate” is an implausible translation. What, for example, does Psalm 51:10 mean, translated this way: “separate in me a pure heart, O God?” Van Wolde’s analysis must address these issues in order to be credible.  

Nevertheless, although van Wolde fails to falsify over 2,000 years of scholarship translating bara as “create,” she concludes her article with the demand that scholars must now falsify her work. She proclaims her research so definitive that further investigation of bara must begin with the assumption that it means “separate” and not “create.”8 This makes no sense. It’s like proclaiming the Moon is made of green cheese, despite comprehensive scientific studies to the contrary, and then demanding this new opinion be considered scientific fact unless and until astronauts return to the Moon and prove it false.

Van Wolde also makes a weak attempt to retranslate tohu and bohu. Traditionally, tohu and bohu are translated as “formless and void” (Genesis 1:9, NASB), but van Wolde asserts they should be translated as “unfounded” and “groundless,”9 respectively. This is another example of misreading Genesis as a science text. Based on Isaiah 48:13, 51:13 and 16, Zechariah 12:1, Psalm 24:2, and Job 38:4, she claims the earth was literally built on “columns” or “pillars.”10 Hence, she interprets Genesis 1:911 to mean the earth was put on columns by pushing land upwards from amid the seas.12 She then translates Genesis 1:1–2 as: “In the beginning when God separated the heavens and the earth and the earth was baseless and without foundation.”13

Yet, it is van Wolde’s analysis that is unfounded and groundless. She proposes her hypothesis then sets about to justify it, without raising any issues that might falsify it. Not only is this a faulty analytical process, but her use of carefully selected, often obscure, texts and her implausible interpretations fail to justify her hypothesis.

Van Wolde has drawn grandiose conclusions with little or no factual basis. She claims to follow the scientific method, but her research shows a gross disregard for it. Instead, she seems to base her conclusions on her opinions alone while providing scant factual support.

One should refrain from making conjectures about the author’s intent, but in this case it’s hard to avoid. With the discovery of many ancient Near Eastern (ANE) texts containing creation myths during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a tendency has sprung up among negative critical scholars to assume Genesis shares a common oral background with the ANE texts and, consequently, that these texts can be used as a basis to interpret the Bible. Van Wolde takes this tendency to a new level. She definitively asserts that Genesis is just another Mesopotamian creation myth and retranslates it accordingly.

Ironically, van Wolde’s work provides great encouragement to those who hold to the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1. In order to retranslate Genesis 1 to read like an ANE text, van Wolde found it necessary to cherry-pick texts, engage in linguistic gymnastics, use obscure and unsupported arguments, and make great leaps of faith—all of which stretch credibility. Genesis 1 just does not fit the mold of a Mesopotamian creation myth—a point which is affirmed by Gordon Wenham in his comprehensive analysis of Genesis 1:1–3. 14 By contrast, the traditional translation, based on two millennia of biblical scholarship, flows simply and naturally. Using the logic of Ockham’s razor alone, one can feel confident in rejecting Ellen van Wolde’s retranslation of Genesis 1:1, and reaffirming the correctness of the traditional translation: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Dr. Hugh Henry, Ph.D.

Dr. Hugh Henry received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as Lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.

Daniel J. Dyke, M.Div., M.Th.

Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.

Part 1 | Part 2
  1. Ellen J. van Wolde, Terug Naar Het Begin (Nijmegen, the Netherlands: Thieme Media Center, 2009), 7–8, 10–14.
  2. Ibid., 7, 15.
  3. Ibid., 16; literally: “De betekenis van ‘scheiden’ is daarentegen zeer plausible.”
  4. Ibid., 15–16.
  5. “The One forming [yatsar] light and creating [bara] darkness, Causing [׳asah] well-being and creating [bara] calamity; I am the LORD who does [׳asah] all these” (Isaiah 45:7, NASB).
  6. van Wolde, Terug Naar Het Begin, 16.
  7. Ibid., 10; literally, “voorafgaande aan de schepping bestonden”.
  8. Ibid., 10; literally: “Totdat nieuw materiaal gevonden is waaruit het tegendeel kan blijken, kunnen we dus uitgaan van de hypothese dat bara ‘scheiden’ en niet ‘scheppen’ betekent en deze voor verder onderzoek hanteren.”
  9. Ibid., 18; literally: “ongefundeerd en grondeloos.”
  10. Ibid., 18; literally: “De aarde ontstaat in deze visie doordat God haar fundeert op zuilen of pilaren.”
  11. “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear” (Genesis 1:9, NASB).
  12. van Wolde, Terug Naar Het Begin, 18; literally: “De voorstelling is dan dat de aarde, wanneer deze op zuilen wordt gezet, als het ware omhoog wordt geduwd temidden van de zeeen, zodat in het midden van de zeeen het droge continent ontstaat.”
  13. Ibid., 19; literally: “In het begin waarop God de hemel en de aarde scheidde, en de aarde ongegrond was en zonder fundament.”
  14. Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary 1, Genesis 1–15 (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), 12.