Juan Pinto and David Seely, Ancient Scripture
The first chapter of Genesis begins with two Hebrew words that have been the focus of much debate among biblical scholars. The second word, ברא , most often translated as created, has a history and nuanced meaning that has proven particularly difficult to pin down. Though it is clear that this verb refers to the act of creation, other places where the same root shows up—and the different meanings given to those other attestations— indicate a subtle connotation in Genesis with a complicated history. A clear, allencompassing etymology for the root has proven elusive.
The issue derives from Hebrew’s verbal system, which is similar to that of other Semitic languages, such as Arabic. Within the Hebrew Bible, the root ברא is used in four different stems, known as Qal, Niphal, Piel, and Hiphil. The Qal and Niphal (passive form of Qal) refer (generally) to the act of creation, and both always have YHWH / Elohim as agent. This is the form that appears in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” (NRSV) The Piel form, on the other hand, refers to a type of cutting action, such as in Ezekiel 23:47, “The assembly shall stone them and with their swords they shall cut them down.” The Hiphil is only attested once, in 1 Samuel 2:29, “and honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves.”
Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Hebrew lexica separated these various uses into two separate roots: 1- ברא (Qal, Niphal, and Piel) and 2- ברא (Hiphil). The scholarly consensus of the time was that the meanings of creation and cutting are distantly related, leading to certain readings of the Hebrew creation accounts. However, more modern lexica have come to identify the Piel form as its own separate root, 3- ברא . This was largely due to advances in the understanding of cognate languages, and it quickly became the prevailing view. Yet the discussion continues.
My research has included various phases. First, I have gone through the most recent debates on the specific semantic range of ברא as proposed by various scholars. This first stage involved collecting relevant published articles and attending some lectures on the subject by some of the scholars involved in the debate.
I then undertook a thorough analysis of the major Hebrew lexica published since their early days almost one thousand years ago. I collected and organized these lexica, including some in Arabic and many in German, and extracted the information provided on ברא . This has allowed me to observe trends in the various ways ברא has been interpreted over time.
I also began a correspondence with the chief scholar involved with updating one of the most influential Hebrew lexica for future publication. He graciously provided the data he is currently working with for this project.
Lastly, I have been collecting and organizing every instance of the root ברא as it has been found in any Hebrew text, both biblical and extra-biblical. This includes apocryphal works, the Dead Sea Scrolls, inscriptions, and so on. This phase of my research is ongoing.
In a paper I presented at the 2015 Students of the Ancient Near East Symposium, and which was subsequently published in the spring issue of Studia Antiqua, I provide an alternative outlook for understanding the history of this discussion. I argue that scholars today continue to follow one of two models developed well over a century ago: a model that identifies the Qal/Niphal vs. Piel forms of ברא as homonyms, and one that interprets them as polysemes.
A true linguistic homonym is simultaneously a homophone and homograph. This means that the two or more words in question sound and look the same, but they vary in meaning. The difference in meaning is caused by the fact that these are etymologically unrelated words, and have normally come to be homophones and homographs only in their latest forms. A polyseme, on the other hand, varies from a homonym in that its different meanings have never been separate words from separate etymologies, but rather come from a single word that developed different meanings. This then becomes strictly a question of etymology.
The research I have been able to do thus far has proven to be an incredible learning experience. I have found new directions in which to further what I have begun— directions that will take me into cognate languages in order to better dive into the etymology of the attested roots. Based on what I have found so far, I believe the Qal/Niphal vs. Piel forms of ברא to be a case of polysemy, not homonymy. Only further research can provide sufficient evidence to definitively lean one way or the other.