Ibn Ezra was expressing himself carefully because he was taking the philosophical position in one of the great medieval debates between orthodox theology and Aristotelian philosophy � namely, that concerning the question: Was matter created by God, or is it coeternal with him? Conventionally minded Christian, Jewish and Muslim thinkers all insisted, basing themselves on Scripture, on creation ex nihilo, whereas the Aristotelians, like the great Muslim thinker Averroes, held that God fashioned the world out of matter but not matter itself. Ibn Ezra used the reading of bara as bero to come down on the side of Averroes. The next time you are tempted to slight the Hebrew vowel points, reflect that a small difference in a couple of them can change the nature of the universe.
My doctoral student, Sam Giere, is writing a dissertation on the early history of interpretation of Genesis 1:1-5, the first day of creation, so I asked him for his thoughts on the essay. He replies:
My initial reaction is this: The ambiguity of the unpointed text can lead down three paths (helpfully outlined, if I remember correctly, by Wenham in his commentary on Genesis). (1) V.1 is a title and summary for the rest of the account. (2) V.3 is the main clause with v.1 being a temporal clause and v.2 a parenthetic clause - "When God began to create the heavens and the earth, The earth being formless and void, darkness upon the face of the deep, and the breath of God hovering upon the face of the waters, God said, "Let there be light." And there was light." (my translation) One of these first two options seems most appropriate as it is anachronistic to see creatio ex nihilo in Gen 1. Which leads me to option three (3) which preserves the possibility of creatio ex nihilo.
This position understands that v.1 is a statement of the first act of creation. God created the heavens and the earth, so that from that point God has something with which to work. I happen to be looking through Jubilees at the moment for a class I'm teaching and noticed that the author of Jub states unequivocally that on the first day God created the heavens, the earth, the waters, all the spirits, the abyss, darkness, and light effectively taking out of play any difficulties in the first three verses of Genesis. On the genesis of creatio ex nihilo, there is a relatively new article by J.C. O'Neill ("How Early is the Doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo?" JTS 53 (2002): 449-465) which readers may find interesting. O'Neill explores the question stated in the article title by looking at 2 Macc 7, Joseph and Aseneth 12, Philo's perceived interactions between Moses and Plato, Shepherd of Hermas, among others. He suggests that the Shepherd has a credal formulation of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo which is known by the mother in 2 Macc 7 and appropriated by in the New Testament. While I haven't had time to go over O'Neill's argument with a fine tooth comb, if his argument is correct the genesis of creatio ex nihilo is unlikely to date back to the Priestly writer/editor(s). Ibn Ezra aside, the question of the ambiguity of bereshit will not be solved from the perspective of creatio ex nihilo or not...
(His ellipses at the end.) For what it's worth, I lean toward his interpretation 2 as the correct understanding of the original sense of Gen 1:1. In other words, I think Genesis (P) taught the existence of primordial matter alongside of God. You can find roughly the same grammatical construction (noun in construct plus finite verbal clause construed together as a subordinate clause) in the Hebrew of Hosea 1:2.
UPDATE: Apologies for the multiple stuttering of this post, which has now been corrected. Blogger was having a bit of fun at my expense.