The obvious answer is both. John Walton, however, argues that Genesis 1 is concerned only with the assignment of functions to things. He suggests that the Hebrew verb ברא, translated in the past as ‘create,’ with the object of the thing created following, means instead to ‘establish a function, assign a role,’ with the object of the thing whose function and role have been established following. I doubt that other scholars are going to agree with Walton’s redefinition of ברא. Still, Walton’s arguments are receiving a lot of attention, perhaps especially from those who espouse evolutionary creationism (Mike Beidler, for example). Below the fold, I briefly re-examine what we know about ברא as attested in the Bible and beyond. For an introduction to Walton’s views, and links, see ElShaddai’s post here.
I understand what John Walton is attempting to do: bypass the debate between young earth creationists, old earth creationists, and creationists who consider evolution to be God’s method of creation. Walton goes so far as to suggest that Genesis 1 is not concerned with the formational history of the things of which the universe is made. In so doing, however, Walton goes too far. It seems to me, as it has seemed to just about everyone up until now, that the opposite is the case.
To be sure, Genesis 1 should not be used to support or preclude any of the three forms creationism tends to take in today’s context. Genesis 1 affirms a single, all-powerful creator God and describes God’s role in the formation of the universe and its parts, with particular emphasis, as Walton rightly points out, on the function and role of each part. Creation is understood to be an orderly, intelligible, and positively splendid whole, a prepared context in which humankind is given awesome responsibilities by the author of all. It is not too much to say that the text is a cosmological treatise. It also provides cogent grounds for pursuing science in every imaginable direction.
Still, insofar as Gen 1 describes the creative process as occurring over six days, it cannot be assumed that the text was meant to state an opinion on matters which were not yet debated. The text does not imply something like this: “You say the universe was created over millions and billions of years; I say it was created in just six days.” That would be a a gross overreading of the text which flies in the face of everything we know about the ancient Near Eastern context in which Gen 1 was written. Instead, the text implies something like this: “You say the universe, and humankind’s place in it, is the result of a struggle between immoral and amoral deities the end-result of which is not favorable to humankind at all; I say that a single all-powerful God created a universe that is good and reflects well on its Creator, who made it as a habitat for humankind, the object of his blessing.”
According to BDB, ברא Qal means to ‘shape (by cutting),’ and by extension ‘form, fashion, make’; ברא Niphal, idem; ברא Piel means to ‘cut down, cut out.’ This is compatible with הברא in Phoenician, which occurs as a nomen professionis in reference to a craftsman of some kind. BDB’s glosses and the Phoenician datum are consistent with the usage of the verb in Genesis 1. For Walton’s redefinition to be plausible, he would have to show that all the ancient versions and the historical memory of the Hebrew language itself, which continues to use ברא Qal in reference to acts of creation, are fundamentally mistaken.
ברא Qal in ancient Hebrew probably has the specific concrete sense of ‘shape, form, fashion’ in Gen 1:27 and in Isa 43:1, 7; 54:16. A more generic concrete sense of ‘fashion, make’ is plausible in all other occurrences of ברא.
ברא Qal is found exclusively with God as subject in the Hebrew Bible. ברא Niphal is also used impersonally (Ezek 21:35; the subject here is a ‘sword,’ and Babylon under the figure of the sword). ברא Piel, on the other hand, is found exclusively with human beings as subject. If the corpus at our disposal were more extensive, it is likely that examples of ברא Qal with a human subject and ברא Piel with a divine subject would turn up, though it is impossible to be sure. Theologoumena in support of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo based on the exclusive occurrence of ברא Qal with God as subject have often been pronounced by Old Testament scholars. But ברא Qal occurs with a double accusative in Gen 1:27 (fashion the human into male and female) and Isa 65:18 (fashion Jerusalem into a joy). Creatio ex nihilo is not described in these cases. Nor is that the natural sense of Gen 1:1-3. The syntax of Gen 1:27 and Isa 65:18 is identical to that which one often finds with עשה Qal ‘make,’ for example, in Gen 27:9 (make two choice kids into tasty entrees) and Psalm 104:4 (make winds into his messengers).
According to Walton, when Gen 1:21 says that ‘God created the great sea monsters,’ “the point need not necessarily be physical manufacturing as much as assigning roles (Genesis, p. 70). But this is strained. Physical manufacture is the primary sense of ברא. Everything that God creates in Genesis 1 also is assigned a role, but such is made clear by supplemental assertions.
UPDATE: Tim Bulkeley weighs in here.
John H. Walton, Genesis (NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001); “Genesis and Cosmology” (lecture, 2003, go here); Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006)
The 2006 volume is reviewed by Alan Lenzi here. I concur with Alan’s chief points.