Dear Father Angelo, thank you for the work you tirelessly do for us all.
I would like to ask you a question: in Genesis it is written that God created the world and its creatures in six days and rested on the seventh day. In reality, we know that about two billion years passed between the creation of the Earth and the appearance of the first living organisms. Furthermore, in Genesis it is also written that a mighty wind [Translator’s note: this expression is translated as “the Spirit of God” in the Italian translation of Genesis.] swept over the waters, which therefore seem not to have been created, but instead to be existing contemporaneously with Him. The Earth also “appeared” after the waters had been separated and gathered, as if it was existing already. In fact, “bereshit barà elohim”, where actually “barà” is commonly translated as “intervened” or “modified” and not as“created”.
I found valid answers both in St. Augustine (Confessions 22.8) and in Origen (Homily 11 on Gn 1 n.3 P 4 53.25-30), however, in light of modern science and because of the esteem I have for you, I would appreciate your opinion. I thank you and send you my best wishes with affection.
1. There are two questions you ask me: the first about the fact that the waters were separated and gathered as if they were existing already.
The second on the meaning of the verb barà, which would mean: to intervene. Therefore God would have intervened on a pre-existing reality.
2. Well, about the first question, many times I have had the opportunity to report what the Pontifical Biblical Commission wrote to Cardinal Suhard about the first 11 chapters of Genesis: “The first eleven chapters of Genesis…refer in simple and figurative language, suited to the intelligence of a less advanced humanity, the fundamental truths underpinning the economy of salvation and at the same time the popular description of the origin of mankind and of the chosen people” (16.1.1948).
3. Likewise, several times I have also reported what the Catechism of the Catholic Church also affirms in speaking of the creation of man: “The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that «then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being» (Gn 2,7)” (CCC 362).
4. Coming to your question, the word “in the beginning” (beresith) must be taken in an absolute sense and indicates that before there was nothing except God, as it also arises from Jn 1,1: “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word was God”.
5. About the expression “the earth was a formless wasteland” (Gn 1,2) the Jerusalem Bible notes: “The metaphysical notion of creation ex nihilo (“from nothing”) to which we are accustomed due to Western philosophy, will not be formulated before 2 Mac 7:28, when the mother of the seven Maccabee brothers says to the last and youngest one: «I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things; and in the same way the human race came into existence» (2 Mac 7:28)”.
It should not be forgotten that the ancient tales of the genesis of the world (the cosmogonies) were conceived to be more about the organization of the world than about an absolute beginning.
6. Regarding the second question about the meaning of the verb barà, the same Jerusalem Bible states that “this verb barà is reserved in the Bible for the creative action of God or for his grand interventions in history”.
And it adds: “The text states that there was a beginning: creation is not a timeless myth, it is integrated into history of which it is the absolute beginning”.
So when you write “where actually «barà» is commonly translated as «intervened» or «modified» and not as«created»”, it is not correct.
Even the Bible of the Italian Conference of Bishops does not translate “intervened” or “modified”.
7. Even Marco Sales, in his monumental Commentary to Genesis, writes about barà: “In the «Kal» form it always expresses an action proper to God and is never applied to man.
Ordinarily, it means creation in the strict sense, that is, the passage from nothingness to existence, since it is never found in conjunction with a name indicating the matter of which the thing is made”.
8. It should be noted that the first verse “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” can also be translated as follows: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth”.
The Jerusalem Bible notes about this: “The two versions are grammatically possible.
The one adopted, with all the ancient versions, better respects the consistency of the text”. [Translator’s note: the Italian translation of Genesis adopts the first version, while the English translation adopts the second one.]
I hope I have brought you clarity.
I thank you for your questions, I remember you in prayer and I bless you.