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I had once heard that one of the remarkable thing about the creation account in Genesis, as compared to the other creation accounts of the cultures of the surrounding area is that God creates the universe out of nothing, or 'ex nihilio'; whereas the other creation accounts usually had a god or gods forming the created universe out of some sort of pre-existing chaos.

A cursory reading of Genesis in KJV would seem to indicate ex nihilio:

King James Version: Genesis 1:1-2

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

However, reading Young's Literal Translation, it seems that the original Hebrew account was written in the present tense, and the language would actually indicate the formation of the universe out of chaos, using phrases like 'preparing the heavens and earth' and 'the earth hath existed waste and void'.

Young's Literal Translation: Genesis 1:1-2

1 In the beginning of God's preparing the heavens and the earth -- 2 the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness [is] on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters,

My question is how would early Jewish reader/hearer have interpreted this passage? Would the concept creation 'ex nihilo' have stuck out to them, in contrast to the other cultures around them? Is the Young translation wording here just indicative of the difficulties with translating this text's meaning?

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I disagree with Young's there. Hebrew syntax is very different than English, but I have difficulty seeing how Young got there.

Tense in Biblical Hebrew is non-existent (Essentials of Biblical Hebrew, Kyle Yates). It is context that determines the time of the word. Hebrew uses "aspect" (An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Waltke/O'Connor) which is a combination of stem, state, and context. There are seven stems that indicate whether the verb is active or passive (or even both in the reflexive stem) and if it is simple, intensive, or causative.

The inflections of a Hebrew verb indicate state instead of of time. They present the condition as complete or incomplete. The completed states are called perfects; the incomplete states are called imperfects. (Essentials of Biblical Hebrew, Kyle Yates)

Perfect state should not be confused with past tense nor imperfect with future. Most of the verbs that are translated as past tense are imperfects with a waw-consecutive. The waw-consecutive results in a past tense translation. Interestingly, there are prophecies of the future where the verbs are in the perfect state. This is understood as "as good as done."

bara' in Gen 1:1 is a Qal perfect (so is the first "was" in 1:2, the second is implied). That is the simple-active stem and the perfect state. When God created the Heavens and the earth, it is a done deal. Now it has to be shaped. I do understand that as God creating the heavens and the earth from nothing.

The first explicit statement of creation ex nihilo is in 2 Maccabees, a Jewish book but written in Greek. It deals with subjects of 161 BC. So some Jews did understand it as ex nihilo.

"I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise." (2 Maccabees 7:28, KJV)

Isaiah actually uses the word bara' frequently. I can't remember if it is more than any other Hebrew writer or any other outside Genesis.

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Any answer to the OP that presumes that God created something apart from or outside of himself, says that there is something bigger than God... a place that contains God and his creation. But since there is nothing bigger than God, and the heavens cannot contain him , he created the universe within himself.

As the sages say, he created the void within himself in order to make room for us. Then he spoke into the void to create everything else.

This is ex-nihilo.

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The NET Bible notes are helpful here:

tn The translation assumes that the form translated “beginning” is in the absolute state rather than the construct (“in the beginning of,” or “when God created”). In other words, the clause in v. 1 is a main clause, v. 2 has three clauses that are descriptive and supply background information, and v. 3 begins the narrative sequence proper. The referent of the word “beginning” has to be defined from the context since there is no beginning or ending with God.

sn In the beginning. The verse refers to the beginning of the world as we know it; it affirms that it is entirely the product of the creation of God. But there are two ways that this verse can be interpreted: (1) It may be taken to refer to the original act of creation with the rest of the events on the days of creation completing it. This would mean that the disjunctive clauses of v. 2 break the sequence of the creative work of the first day. (2) It may be taken as a summary statement of what the chapter will record, that is, vv. 3-31 are about God’s creating the world as we know it. If the first view is adopted, then we have a reference here to original creation; if the second view is taken, then Genesis itself does not account for the original creation of matter. To follow this view does not deny that the Bible teaches that God created everything out of nothing (cf. John 1:3) – it simply says that Genesis is not making that affirmation. This second view presupposes the existence of pre-existent matter, when God said, “Let there be light.” The first view includes the description of the primordial state as part of the events of day one. The following narrative strongly favors the second view, for the “heavens/sky” did not exist prior to the second day of creation (see v. 8) and “earth/dry land” did not exist, at least as we know it, prior to the third day of creation (see v. 10).

tn The English verb “create” captures well the meaning of the Hebrew term in this context. The verb בָּרָא (bara’) always describes the divine activity of fashioning something new, fresh, and perfect. The verb does not necessarily describe creation out of nothing (see, for example, v. 27, where it refers to the creation of man); it often stresses forming anew, reforming, renewing (see Ps 51:10; Isa 43:15, 65:17).

So it seems that the original readers could have understood Genesis 1 to mean ex nihilo, but the text does not definitively assert that philosophical position. The two things the text does affirm are:

  1. God Himself did not come from something else. (Babylonian and many other creation stories detail the birth and family trees of the gods.)

  2. God Himself created everything.

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+1 this could also be the basis for an answer to my earlier question given that the NET Bible notes seem to address it directly (at least if I'm understanding them correctly) –  Jack Douglas Feb 22 '12 at 19:31
    
@Jack: I was thinking that too. –  Jon Ericson Feb 22 '12 at 19:41
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"(Babylonian and many other creation stories detail the birth and family trees of the gods.)" I compared several in seminary. After reading the Egyptian account of the origin of their gods, I needed to shower. –  Frank Luke Feb 22 '12 at 20:12
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@Frank: The Greek and Norse gods don't win any prizes for purity or good breeding either. –  Jon Ericson Feb 22 '12 at 20:24
    
@FrankLuke Sadly, I know exactly the origin account of which you speak. I too liked it better, when I didn't know jack. –  Affable Geek Feb 23 '12 at 4:06
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This is Rashi's sillyness. The first words in the Hebrew bible are:

בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.

Rashi said that you should relable the vowels on "Barah" and make it "Bro", so that it reads (sort of) like "In the beginning of God's creating the sky and the Earth..." This interpretation is incredibly stretched, you just don't say it that way in Hebrew. It helps to be a native speaker of modern Hebrew tremendously with this.

The correct interpretation as simple past tense "First, God created the skies and the Earth..." is absolutely correct. There can be no argument. The construction "Bro" does not exist except in Rashi's head (although, I have to hand it to him, it sounds convincing and natural to a Hebrew speaker, for about 10 seconds. Bara is the obvious reading, and Bro would have gotten a vav if it existed, and most likely would have been something else, like --- Bereshit Briat Elohim et ha-shamaiim..., which is how you say it).

Still, as far as the ex-nihilo business, it isn't clear. The creation seems to be ex-nihilo, but it could also mean that this is the section-header, this is the creation story, and the tohu-wa-vohu of the next verse was already there.

On Biblical tense

Hebrew has tenses like every other language. I don't know why anyone would say otherwise. It's an absurd thing to say. I read most of the Bible fluently, and understand all its tenses intuitively, without any special training, aside from being a native Hebrew speaker. It is artful, but not strange.

The only unnatural tense thing about the Bible is that sometimes the past tense is used while placing the perspective in a future time (like: and you told your slave "go away" --- meaning, placing your perspective in the future, you will have told your slave "go away"), and sometimes the future tense is used to refer to actions as they unfold, to place you "in the action". These sorts of displacement of perspective are easy to read for a fluent Hebrew speaker, and its totally natural, and can be reproduced in English. It's sort of like:

Pooh was a bear. And Pooh walks to the forest. And when Pooh will arrive at the forest, he will meet Tigger. And Tigger was a tiger. And when Tigger and Pooh will see the fountain, they will jump inside. And they will leave the fountain, and go to the edge of the forest, and they will talk at great length.

Or

And as you see Pharaoh, and you said to him "Come here and wipe my nose", and he wiped your nose as you said. And you said to him "Do it again", and he did.

The tense business is easy to keep in a good translation--- you just do stuff like I did above, and make the reader shift the tense perspective. When I translate, I try to maintain the proper tense.

I think fluency in modern Hebrew is essential for good translation. Without it, you are tone-deaf to nuances of meaning that only come with intimate familiarity with the roots and their variations. The tense thing is not a big deal, and not much different from other artsy writing in other languages.

EDIT: Why does "Bro" fool so many people?

Although "Bro" is a pure fabrication, it sounds really convincing, so that Rashi is a very good coiner of Hebrew. I had to sit and think about "Bro" for a significant amount of time, unlike other Hebrew misreadings, because it sounds just like a way of saying "In the beginning of God's creating", and I didn't know why, because I had never heard the word "Bro" before.

I figured it out. The construction is parallel to another existing Hebrew construction which is irregular, the construction "Ba" to "Bo". If you say "Hu ba", it means "He is coming". If you say "Be-bo-hu", it means "in his coming". It's not something that repeats with other verbs. If you say "Hu kana" (he bought), "Be-kni-ato" is "In his buying", and "Kno" doesn't mean anything at all. and if you say "Hu bara", "Be-briato" is the correct "In his creating".

But the irregular construction leaves a little bit of psychological resonance for the transformation "Bara" to "Bro", because it rhymes with "Ba" to "Bo", and "Bara" is different only in one letter. It is still wrong, because irregular constructions are irregular constructions, and they don't make regular constructions irregular. But it's convincing, like saying "She cleaned her pori" instead of "She cleaned her pores", it is a little convincing because of the pull of "tori".

But this is the reason it sounds so persuasive. Rashi knew his Hebrew.

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