Bible Question & Answer
various "creation" words
Q. Does the Bible use different words to indicate that God created different things in different ways?
A. When describing God's creative acts in the Bible there are several different ways of expressing His actions, including the use of different words which have different shades of meaning. For example, different words are often used to describe if God is creating something out of nothing (ex nihilo), or if He is creating something from existing material. There are mainly three different Hebrew words used in the Old Testament to describe God's creative work. They are: ASAH - TO MAKE; BARA - TO CREATE; YATSAR - TO FORM.
ASAH is a very general word; it is used thousands of times in the Bible. I counted almost 100 different English words (not including different forms of the same word, e.g. make, made, making, maker, etc.) used to translate ASAH! The general sense of the word is to MAKE or DO something. Of course, when something is made it must be composed of pre-existing material, i.e. unless God is the One making it! He can make something out of nothing. So we find another word, BARA, that is used much less often than ASAH, but which also refers to God making something.
BARA is translated almost exclusively with the English word, CREATE or one of its forms. BARA tends to indicate ex nihilo creation. So in Gen 1:1, "In the beginning God created (BARA) the heavens and the earth," the use of the word BARA indicates that God made the heavens and earth out of nothing. The term BARA also is used consistently when speaking of the creation of Man, e.g. Gen 1:27, Gen 5:2, Deut 4:32. However, the use of this Hebrew word, BARA, should not be understood to be a code word requiring the meaning, ex nihilo creation. We find it in Exo 34:10, (produced, done KJV) describing miracles which appear to involve supernatural manipulations of the existing world. In Num 16:30 (brings about, make KJV) it describes a miracle, but not technically an ex nihilo event. In Josh 17:15 (clear, cut down KJV) the word has the meaning of cutting down or clearing away trees. There are several similar uses in the book of Ezekiel. In the well-known petition of king David, "Create in me a clean heart, O God." (Psa 51:10); he uses the word, BARA.
The third word,YATSAR, is not too common, and is usually translated FORMED, e.g. Gen 2:7, Psa 95:5, Isa 29:16b. The sense of this word is to make or shape something out of existing material, like a potter uses clay to form a pot. In fact the word occurs in certain forms and is translated, POTTER, cf. Isa 29:16a.
The important thing to remember when interpreting these words is that they do have overlap in their meaning, and are even used interchangeably to a certain extent, e.g. Gen 2:7 cf. Gen 1:26, 27; Gen 2:19 cf. Gen 1:25; Gen 1:21 cf. Psa 104:26. Gen 5:1 uses both BARA and ASAH to describe the making of Man. We even find verses where all three Hebrew terms are used together to describe God's creative activity, Isa 43:7; 45:18. Given these variable and overlapping uses, one should be careful not to force the meaning of these words into a "box" and interpret the Bible in ways not intended by the author, but God did indeed inspire the writers of Scripture to use different words to indicate different nuances in the meaning for MAKE or CREATE when describing God's actions in or on His creation.