When King David cried out to the Lord, "Create in me a clean heart, O God," he did not use the Hebrew word yatsar, which means to "fashion" or "form" something from pre-existing material, but instead used the word bara, a verb exclusively used to refer to God's creation of the cosmos (Gen 1:1).
The poetic beauty of such an insight, predicated on the notion of God creating ex-nihilo, is beautiful; yet the critical part of me wonders whether this is correct. My understanding of linguistic research in Genesis reveals that there is some dispute concerning the intended meaning of the verb “bara”. Ellen van Wold, a scholar in Hebrew Scriptures argues that “bara”, at least in the Genesis narrative, does not mean to create but to separate.
Quoting van Wold a London Telegraph (2009) article notes:
“(Technically) bara" does mean "create" but added: "Something was wrong with the verb.
"God was the subject (God created), followed by two or more objects. Why did God not create just one thing or animal, but always more?"
She concluded that God did not create, he separated: the Earth from the Heaven, the land from the sea, the sea monsters from the birds and the swarming at the ground.”
This in no way changes the meaning of “bara” meaning to create in the psalm but it does question the idea of creation ex-nihilo.
Personally, I am attracted to the idea that matter pre-existed creation and the consequent implication for the use of the verb “bara”. “Bara” in the context of Hebrew scripture concerning human beings, I believe, locates God as existing within the consciousness of the human person. A change in consciousness, effected by the activity of God creating (“bara”) changes the perception of the subject of the phenomenol world. It accords with Kierkegaard’s famous line that God does not think, God creates - God does not exist, God is eternal. The separation of creation occurs in our minds as we perceive the world. The natural order of creation is consistent with the natural order of cognition (e.g. light and darkness, shapes etc.). The birth of human consciousness is the birth of the world. The foregoing description of the subject in relation to the world is referred to as phenomenological which means that the source of meaning lies in the human person not in the phenomenal world (i.e the world of appearances). The world of appearances has no meaning outside of the perceiving subject.
Schillebeeckx, the recently deceased Catholic theologian once pursued a phenomenological understanding of spirituality arguing that the notion of transubstantiation where the bread and wine literally turn into the body and blood of Christ, could be interpreted as a transignification, meaning the signification that we bring to the event changes the reality. God is acting in us to bring about the change as opposed to acting in the world to bring about a change in the substance of the created object. While Pope Paul VI, opted to retain the tradition Aristotelian/Thomistic notion of transubstantiation, history may yet vindicate Schillebeeckx
A phenomenological spirituality dovetails nicely with the notion of the Hebrew “bara” as David uses it in the psalm. It allows freedom for God to move within the consciousness of the human person allowing their perception, indeed their whole being to be quite literally created anew. This “new person” (St. Paul’s designation), in Christ is what Parson argues David was praying in the psalm.