I have addressed the first and second propositions on Genesis 1 put forth by John Walton in The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Today I present proposition three: the Hebrew word ברא (bara) concerns “functions”. The word is translated “created”, which for many means ex nihlo, but Walton suggests that this is misleading.
Walton notes that is used fifty times in the Hebrew Bible and deity is always the subject or implied subject (v. 38). It is something a god can do. The things that result are the cosmos, humans, groupings of humans, particular individuals, creatures, particular phenomena (like light and darkness), “components of cosmic geography”, and condition (pp. 39-41). Walton provides a chart of references and it is true that these passages can be understood as being primarily about function. He is right that it is a “functional activity” (p. 42). That being said, I am not convinced that it excludes the idea of material ontology.
In my estimate this chapter fails to show why we should read this word as either/or. Sure, many references do not carry the idea of coming into existence materially, but not all. I am sympathetic to Walton’s understanding of ברא, because I think his basic argument makes sense, but standing alone it is not as black-and-white as he proposes, at least not in my mind.
For instance, in Genesis 1.26-27 the “creation” of humanity may be merely functional, describing how God endowed them with the functional role of being “in the likeness and image of God”, but it doesn’t seem to automatically disqualify the idea that this is when humans come into physical existence as well.
At the end of the chapter Walton makes one more point that I find to be a bit stronger. He notes that בראשית (bereshit) doesn’t have to mean the very, very beginning of all things, but rather the start of a certain period of time (p. 43). Therefore, the “beginning” of Genesis 1 doesn’t have to be the beginning of the space-time universe because בראשית can be used of the beginning of any period of time, and therefore it refers merely to the beginning of the seven day period. I tend to agree that Genesis 1 doesn’t have to be about the very, very beginning of all things.