Believing in a Creator God (Part 2): Kind of Action

Has God created everything that exists? Is God creating anything right now? Does God create features of our life and world that we understand and can explain, or do we reserve the word create for those things we can’t seem to explain? And how would your view of God shape up based on the answers you give to these questions? What would you be saying about God and about how God relates to the things that constitute your life and world?

How about biblical Israel? When, in the Christian Old Testament, we find Israel’s authors writing about God bārā’, translated “create” in English, did they think of things in the past, or did they include God’s action even in their own day? Did they reserve bārā’ for the unexplained, or did they think that bārā’ referred to things they did or could understand and explain? Here we follow in their footsteps, trying to understand what they were saying, so as to discern how best to use and not use their language in speaking for them, and making theological claims for ourselves.

Two quick language notes. First, we pronounce bārā’ with two soft-As in English. (The lines above the As here designate, not an English long-A, but the type of Hebrew A being pronounced.) Second, other Hebrew words can be translated “create” in English as well. Thus, seeing the word “create” in your Bible does not necessarily mean that bārā’ stands behind it. Chances are good, but not certain. The present study starts with bārā’ and works forward, not with the English “create” and working backward.

What does God do when God bārā’?

Think of all the ways we use “create” in English: we create art, buildings, websites, programs for people, programs for computers, companies, etc. You can think briefly about what “create” means in each case. What we want to know, however, is what authors in ancient Israel meant when they used bārā’. What were they saying about God when they wrote that God did the action bārā’?

The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon

Now, you can consult biblical Hebrew dictionaries (lexicons), but their definitions are given based on how a word is used in biblical passages, and based on any cognate words in sister languages from the time period. We focus on the first effort here: to learn what bārā’ means, we look at passages in which authors used it and look for clues from these passages, in terms of the force of the passage itself and of other words used in parallel with bārā’.

For now, our focus is on the meaning of the action itself. Soon enough, we’ll consider other dimensions of the action (e.g., the time of God’s creating). What follows is a sampling of useful passages. In Genesis 1, the author uses bārā’ to describe God’s action in relation to water creatures and flying creatures:

20 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:20-21 NRSV)

Note that both the waters and God act.  The author does not, in this case, have God saying, “Let there be water creatures and flying creatures.” Instead, both God commands the waters to act, “Let the waters bring forth,” and God himself acts, “So God created.” The author seems to imply that (1) waters bringing forth and (2) God creating are two ways of referring to the same event. To “create” (bārā’) in this case is to bring forth, to bring about, to originate. But God’s bringing-forth is the same as the waters’ bringing-forth.

So, God and nature partner in creating. God is the superior partner, of course: he is the one who commands. But the author implies that nature responds. Nature listens to God’s command and brings forth life. This is how God creates life: God commands nature to make it. (The same thing is said of plants, 1:11-12, and land animals, 1:24-25, and without the verb bārā’ in either case.) Apparently, the author wants us to see God as a God who does not do everything himself, whose creating does not exclude nature acting.

“Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:20 NRSV).

We can note something else missing here: the author does not suggest that God determines what forms of life the waters will bring forth. For all we know, the author may be implying that the waters have the freedom and integrity to act (to make decisions?), to give shape and form to the varieties of life that will populate them. Does God’s creating include permission for nature to do what nature will do? If God is genuinely relational with the world, then perhaps he does not need to control everything that happens, to make every decision, to perform every act, to dictate each form of life.

When the time comes for God to create humans in Genesis 1, the author uses “make” and “create” in parallel ways, suggesting that “creating” is an act of making something.

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:26-27)

Here, to be sure, God does not command nature to bring forth humans, as he did with plants and animals. The author does not say whether God used natural materials or not. There is an instantaneous feel to this act of creation, much like the feel that pervades this whole story. For now, we simply note that the act of creating is equivalent enough to the act of making: “Let us make …. So God created.” “Created” fulfills the plan to “make.”

Before our next passage, I note two things about Genesis 2:4-25. First, it is a distinct and different, but not contradictory, story of creation. Second, it depicts God making a single human, but does not use the verb bārā’ to describe it. Instead, the verb “form” is used. Thus, a Hebrew story (seemingly) about the origin of humans does not require the verb bārā’ to describe what God did.

Next, let’s consider what we learn from one of the psalms. In Psalm 102, the person speaking anticipates that God will deliver and restore ancient Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem (102:12-17). The psalmist hopes that a future generation will read this prayer, see God’s positive answer to it, and praise God for it.

Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet unborn may praise the LORD. (Ps 102:18)

“A people yet unborn” is literally “a people to be created.” The verb is passive, and passive uses of bārā’ in the Old Testament seem to imply that God is the agent of the action: someone is created by God, even if this is not so stated. Here, the verb clearly refers to normal human reproduction. That is, (1) “being created” is the same thing as (2) males and females acting to have sexual intercourse with each other and conceiving as a result, and female bodies nurturing the developing baby and birthing the baby when the time comes.

Ultrasound of My Daughter Months before Birth

In other words, “create” is not reserved only for an act of God that is direct, instantaneous, and unexplainable. (Pregnant couples are not really serious when they ask each other, “How did this happen?”!) In ways that cohere nicely with what we saw in Genesis 1, “create” can include the decisions and actions of humans to make more humans, and indeed a whole sequence of actions that take time, involve process and growth, and are explainable in natural terms.

You can discover similar meanings in Isaiah 45. Through the prophet, God says the following to his people:

I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things. (Isa 45:7)

First, note that “form” and “make” occur in parallel with “create”: “I form and create … I make and create.” Again, we see that bārā’ refers to an action in which God makes something. Second, in the first line, we see light and darkness as the objects of God’s forming and creating. These were normal, daily, natural features of their world, just as surely as they are for us today. Natural occurrences are God’s doing, are results of God’s creating. The same point is made in the book of the prophet Amos, where God is the one who (in the present tense!) “forms the mountains, creates the wind … makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth” (4:13).

In the second line of Isaiah 45:7, we see weal and woe as the objects of God’s making and creating. The experiences that Israel enjoyed, and the experiences they did not — occurrences of peace, calm, and well-being, and occurrences of devastation, destruction, and exile — these all were God’s doing, were results of God’s creating. The normal-enough turbulence of human and national life, which is often quite explainable in human terms, is a product of God’s creating. What this clarifies for us in our understanding of bārā’ is that the verb emphasizes God’s sovereignty over all things that occur.

This is not so much a hardened, inflexible predestination, as it is to stress that God provides the boundaries within which nature and people can will and choose and act. In Israel’s (or in particular, Judah’s) historical situation, this verse made a significant theological claim: Just because our kingdom and livelihood have been upended and destroyed, this does not mean that our God is dead or has lost to the gods of Babylon. Our God is as sovereign in our destruction and exile as he is in our independence and prosperity. When the day turns dark and we experience horrible woes, we do not find ourselves in the unraveled outskirts of God’s authority, but fully within the wise and understanding hands of the Creator.

When the day turns dark and we experience horrible woes, we do not find ourselves in the unraveled outskirts of God’s authority, but fully within the wise and understanding hands of the Creator.

The sovereignty of God’s creating surfaces also in the claim that even kings of foreign and hostile nations are the results of God’s creating, as occurs in Ezekiel 28:13, 15, referring to the king of Tyre (28:12). The king “was created” just as surely as, in Psalm 102, future generations of humans “will be created.” It is not just the kings or people of Israel and Judah who were created by God. Foreign peoples and kings were, too. When you think about it, what else would you expect if it is, in fact, true that all humans, regardless of national, ethnic, and racial developments and differences are ultimately created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27)?

It is indeed significant that the humans of Genesis 1 are created in God’s image before they have the chance to develop and form differences from each other. And even when these differences do develop, God is still the one who continues to create them, in ways that preserve their differences, because, again, God creates them by allowing them to will and choose and act to make themselves. The king of Tyre surely had parents, and God created him, too.

What we are discovering, then, is that Israel’s word bārā’ is rich with complexity and meaning. God’s creating includes and overlaps with the decisions and actions of nature and humans. God creates normal features of daily life in the world and among humans. God creates the good and the bad. God asserts himself in sovereignty: commanding nature to do things, and allowing nature to do them, judging his sinful nation, and allowing the decisions and actions of foreign nations to bring about this judgment, liberating his people from oppression, and allowing people to make decisions and perform acts that bring about this liberation.

bārā’ is dynamic, kaleidoscopic. It pushes our bounds in thinking about God, and stretches us into some uncomfortable positions. It poses questions to us and doesn’t always give us answers. When it does, it gives us answers we might not expect or want. Believing in a Creator God is more interesting than we thought. And it’s certainly more complex than certain forms of Christian belief in creation would lead their adherents to believe. What’s exciting is, we have still more to learn from it, as we will do in Part 3 of this series.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Comments are welcome! If you like this blog, please subscribe to it, and if you like this article, share it on social media.

Thanks for reading!

Believing in a Creator God (Part 1): Introduction

Is God done creating, or does he continue to create? Did God create you and the people you know and love? How about the people you don’t know and the people you don’t love? Is God creating the babies that are being born in hospitals and elsewhere all over the world at this very moment? Is God creating the animals that are born, both the wild and the domesticated? Did God create the birds my wife and I saw perched on a dock in Amelia Island, Florida?

I pose all of these questions to set up this one: Just what does it mean for God to “create,” and what does it mean for a person to believe in a Creator God? These questions about God “creating” are really a subset of a larger question about divine action: Just what is it that God is or is not doing in our world and in our lives? It is this question about God’s action that is one of the most fundamental concerns in the science / faith relationship, and in all thinking about God (i.e., theology). Even the debate about creation and evolution is, among other things, a debate about God’s action.

Just what does it mean for God to “create”? What is it that God is or is not doing in our world and in our lives?

In conversations about science and faith, the words “create” and “creation” have special currency. People who believe that God has created often call themselves “creationists”: there are young-Earth creationists (e.g., Answers in Genesis), old-Earth creationists (e.g., Reasons to Believe), and evolutionary creationists (e.g., BioLogos). You might hear the terms “creationism” and “creation science.” You find organizations dedicated to “researching creation.” There is even a young-Earth-creationist effort at classifying Earth’s life forms, “baraminology,” dedicated to discovering what its adherents believe to be the “created” kinds of life that God originally made.

Given the importance of “create” terminology, then, and since it is derived largely from the Bible, it would be helpful to examine how passages in the Bible actually use the terminology. Our earlier question was, What does it mean for God to “create”? This question now becomes, What do various biblical passages mean when they state that God “creates”? Some people who care about these things might be surprised to learn what these passages do and do not say, and what implications might follow from the meanings of these passages. Believing in a Creator God might become more nuanced, interesting, and complex than previously imagined.

Some people might be surprised to learn what biblical passages do and do not say about God “creating.”

For several reasons, my focus will be on the Old Testament. In Hebrew, the original language of most of the Old Testament, the verb of our focus is bārā’, normally translated “create.” (I will not go into details of Hebrew verb forms and tenses, but those who know Hebrew will find notable differences of meaning corresponding to the Piel and Hiphil forms of br’. I will focus on the Qal and Niphal.) We are seeking to understand what kind of action bārā’ is, and since God is, for our purposes, the sole subject of this action, we are seeking to understand what God does when God bārā’.

The basis for what follows is a study I just conducted on bārā’, a study organized into a Word document table to assist my thinking. I am also consulting Old Testament scholars for their expertise on bārā’. Much good-quality work has been done on this word, and I will commend their work to you along the way.

What I will do next to complete Part 1 of this series is give a brief overview of bārā’ and pose some questions and implications that follow from this overview. Part 2 will begin sampling passages that display ranges of meaning and relevant implications for theology, and especially for science / faith relationships.

bārā’: An Overview

The verb bārā’, “create,” occurs in 13 Old Testament books (or 11, depending on the forms included). As you might expect, it occurs in Genesis (11x) and Psalms (6x), books that readers frequently associate with God creating. What you might not expect is that the verb does not occur in other books with passages that are commonly (and rightly) regarded as creation passages: neither Job 38-41 nor Proverbs 8:22-31 uses the verb bārā’. You might also be surprised to learn that bārā’ occurs most often, not in Genesis, but in Isaiah (21x). Isaiah has more to say about God creating than Genesis does.

The larger framework for these many occurrences of bārā’ in Isaiah is the fate of the Kingdom of Judah before, during, and after its destruction and exile. The governing concern is what God is or is not doing in relation to the complex sequence of experiences that Judah has during this period of its history. Statements about God creating fit within this larger, basic theological interest. They, like all other theists, wonder what God is up to.

For the forms of bārā’ that are most relevant to our questions, God is always the subject of the more basic, active mood of the verb: God (subject) creates (verb) something (direct object). In what we would call the more passive mood, entities other than God are always the subject of the verb, but subjects function differently for passive verbs: Something / someone (subject) is created (verb).

When God creates in Old Testament passages, then, what do we find him creating? Here is a partial list of direct objects: God creates the heavens and the earth; the great sea monsters; the water swarmers; the flying creatures; humans; the entirety of the natural world; a clean heart; the north and the south; individual persons; a special cloud, smoke, and shining fire; the people of Israel; redemptive care for Israel; and new heavens, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem.

In short, we find that aspects of just about every dimension of life are touched on as occurring by creative acts of God. We have not yet clarified what kinds of acts these are; we have simply noted the objects of God’s action. If we start to feel a comprehensive weight to the verb bārā’, we are feeling its weight accurately. Whatever else we discover about God creating, we can expect that Israel saw God’s creating as something that related to the totality of their world. This will be important as we continue to revisit our first question: Is God done creating, or does he continue to create? After all, in the totality of Israel’s world, events are constantly starting and ending, and life forms are constantly coming into and going out of existence.

Whatever else we discover about God creating, we can expect that Israel saw God’s creating as something that related to the totality of their world.

As I lean into what’s to come, then, we can go ahead and begin asking this question: If God’s creating relates somehow to the totality of the world you inhabit and the totality of the life you live, then what are the implications you can already start detecting for such a belief? How do our imaginings about God start to shape up in response to such a comprehensive view of God?

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5