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.
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.
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.
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