Honest Questions, Deep Commitment

“Replying to troubling texts with honest questions reflects a far deeper commitment to the entirety of Scripture than the cold response of ignoring whatever we don’t like.”

Source: Matthew Richard Schlimm, This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 98.

Believing in a Creator God (Part 4): Direct Objects

If you’ve traversed with me this lengthy tour of an ancient Hebrew verb, thank you, and we’re almost done! If you’re joining me for the first time on this (or any) post of mine, welcome!

To recap, authors in biblical Israel used their verb bārā’ to say that their God formed the world and its many inhabitants. They asserted the sovereignty of the LORD over all the complex occurrences of the world, both in nature and human history. God had created, was creating, and would continue to create. In this post, we focus on the direct objects of bārā’, because the objects of this action will tell us even more about what Israel believed about God creating.

Objects: What does God bārā’?

In case it’s helpful, let’s remember that, in English sentences, direct objects typically occur after verbs and are the nouns on which an action is performed, as in the sentence, God (subject) created (verb) the earth (direct object). “The earth” is the object of the action “created.” Quite often in biblical studies, we can study direct objects to tell us more about the verbs in which we’re interested.

In the Old Testament, then, what all do we find God creating, and what do these objects tell us about bārā’, “create”?

Humans. “So God created humankind in his image …” (Gen 1:27 NRSV). The story of Genesis 1 tells of God creating humans in the past, in the beginning. A similar view of God creating humans in the beginning is expressed in Deuteronomy 4: “For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth …” (4:32). Taken together, these two passages could convey the idea that God only created the first humans, and that bārā’ would not refer to subsequent generations of humans. Those subsequent generations may have been procreated by other humans, but not created by God.

Other passages tell a more complex story, though. In the Genesis flood story, God tells Noah that he created all of the people who are about to die in the judgment of the floodwaters: “So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created …’ ” (Gen 6:7). It is clear that presently-existing humans are the object of God’s creating. Similarly, one of Israel’s psalmists exclaims how God has created all humans who have ever lived: “Remember how short my time is — for what vanity you have created all mortals!” (Ps 89:47). God created the psalmist and all humans, not just the first humans that came into existence in the past.

Think of the implications of this. Once again, we see that God creating does not exclude the will, the choices, and the actions of natural agents — in this case, humans. (1) God creating humans and (2) humans making humans are not mutually exclusive actions, but different perspectives on the same set of actions. This coheres nicely with what we see elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g., babies in Psalm 139). To be clear, the verb bārā’, “create,” is never used to refer to human reproduction. bārā’ is reserved for God. The point is not that both humans and God “create,” but that bārā’ was a way for Israel to look at a perfectly normal part of life, and to do so with an eye on affirming faith in God, and focusing attention on him.

God creating humans does not exclude the will, the choices, and the actions of humans in making themselves.

Human Moral Will. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10). In this prayer-psalm, a petition is made to God for God to create a clean heart. The way I understand the psalm, I hear the person asking God to act in relation to his human moral will, his resolve to do better than he did in those incidents that occasioned his pained confessions of sin (51:1-5). God’s act of creating is linked with human morality.

Israel. According to Israel’s authors, the LORD God was their Creator: he created them, and was continuing to create them and the events that transpired among them. “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel …” (Isa 43:1). Similar statements are made in Isaiah 43:7, 15. What do we know about the origins and history of Israel? Other authors in Israel make it abundantly clear that God took a man that already existed, Abraham, and worked in his life to give him offspring, and to give his distant descendants land (e.g., Gen 12 – Josh 24).

Even descendants living hundreds and hundreds of years after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the man “Israel”) still considered themselves creations of God’s: “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?” (Mal 2:10). The calamities that the kingdom of Judah experienced were parts of God’s creative work among them: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things” (Isa 45:7). Even when the Neo-Babylonian Empire crushed the kingdom of Judah, God was confessed by the prophet to be the great and sovereign Creator of these woes. As an apt counterpart, then, Judah’s deliverance and redemption as a people are also viewed as an object of God’s creating:

Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up, and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also; I the LORD have created it. (Isa 45:8)

The LORD, Israel’s God, created the calamities that destroyed them (as responses to Israel’s sin, I should point out), and he created Judah’s liberation from oppressors and Judah’s rebuilding of its land, its temple, and its life. From the call of Abraham to the enslavement and liberation of his descendants, to their acquisition of the land of Canaan, to their exile from the land and destruction as a kingdom, to their return and rebuilding — God creates the people of Israel.

As we have seen often by this point, God’s creating does not replace the actions of others. God is “the Creator of Israel” (Isa 43:15), but biblical stories themselves tell us how God went about this creating. Isaac and Rebekah made Jacob, the man who would become “Israel” (Gen 25). Israel had twelve sons whose own marriages produced the twelve tribes that settled in Egypt (Gen 29-50). Moses and Israel’s tribes acted to leave Egypt and become the LORD’s nation (Ex 3-24). Foreign empires brought the calamities on Israel that God is said to have created (e.g., 2 Ki 17; 24-25). As a result, what Isaiah 43 calls God’s “creating,” we know from other authors in Israel to be actions and results that involve fully the actions of others.

Animals. In Part 3, we dealt in detail with Psalm 104:27-30. To refresh our memory, though, let’s look at verse 30 again: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground” (Ps 104:30). Animal birth is an act of God’s creating, and thus animals are God’s creations. Much as we saw in our treatment of humans earlier, we see here that God’s creating is not relegated to animals at the beginning, whereafter animals make more of themselves apart from God. No, this psalmist seems to believe that God creates every new animal that is born. Think of the implications of discovering more and more animals, past and present, for a belief that God has created them, and continues to create them.

“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:30).

Natural Processes. When I say “natural processes,” I am already using language that Israel did not use, and so I need to be careful and nuanced here. The prophet Amos describes God as intimately present and actively involved in the natural world: “For lo, the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind, reveals his thoughts to mortals, makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth — the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!” (4:13).

“For lo, the one who … creates the wind … the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!” (Amos 4:13).

The wind is viewed as a creation of God, as are mountains and darkness. How much Amos knew about how wind worked, we do not know. Nor do we know what Amos would say about God if he knew how to explain the wind in terms of physical forces and natural processes. And yet, given what we have seen from other authors in Israel, perhaps we would expect Amos to acknowledge God as the Creator of wind, no matter how much he knew about its operations. After all, we have seen time and time again that Israel used bārā’ to ascribe God’s action to things that they understood perfectly well (e.g., the making of humans, animals, and Israel’s nation).

Other objects. Other direct objects could be added to this selective list: the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1); sea monsters, water swarmers, and flying creatures (Gen 1:21); the north and the south (Ps 89:12); individual persons (“the smith and the ravager,” Isa 54:16); a special cloud, smoke, and shining fire (Isa 4:5); and new heavens, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem (Isa 65:17-18).

Conclusion

What we learn from this survey of direct objects of bārā’ is that authors in biblical Israel could look at most things — maybe everything — in their world and identify it as a creation of God. If God creates all humans — the good and the bad, those in Israel and those outside of it — if God creates every animal — if God creates the heavens and the earth and everything in them — if God creates the good times and the bad times that Israel experiences, the judgment and the salvation — then it seems that we readers are not being given strict boundaries or limitations on what is or is not a creation of God. (I will not delve here into the question of whether God is the Creator of evil.) Given the emphasis of the verb on God’s sovereignty, this comprehensive scope of objects makes sense.

As a personal takeaway, try a thought-experiment: How would your view of the world take shape if you went an entire day identifying everything and everyone as a creation of God’s? Would it convict us? challenge us? confuse us? change us?

In Part 5, we will conclude this series with what I consider to be some implications of our study for the science / faith relationship, especially for Christians and their attitudes toward science.

Comments are welcome!

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

Believing in a Creator God (Part 3): Time

What a rich range of meanings we have found for bārā’, “create,” already! To authors in biblical Israel, God “creating” seems to have referred to God making and forming things, whether human life, the larger natural world, or even human socio-political events. And God’s actions in “creating” clearly overlap and occur simultaneously with the actions of other agents (e.g., humans, natural processes, etc.). The point of bārā’ is not that God acts alone, or uses no natural materials or processes. “The emphasis of bārā’ lies first on the sovereignty of what God achieves rather than on the nothingness from which God starts” (Goldingay, 2003, p. 78).

In other words, assertions about bārā’ are perspectives of faith, are beliefs about God’s sovereign relationship to what is occurring in the world. It is not a way of saying that God does some things and not others, and that we can study life and nature to determine which is which. It starts with a belief about God and works forward, not with events that lack natural explanations and working backward to God as the one who must have created the peculiar occurrence. (bārā’ can be used of peculiar occurrences, but peculiarity and lack of explanation are not the driving meanings of the verb.)

To complete our understanding of bārā’, we now focus on the roles of time and direct objects in its meaning. These aspects will enable us to make better judgments about using the Old Testament’s legacy in claims that people make about God, especially in the relationship between theological belief and scientific findings.

Time: When does God bārā’?

A major way in which we determine the time aspect of God’s creating in the Old Testament is to look at verb tenses: What tenses of bārā’ did Israel’s authors use?

In English we have many verb tenses, but we often simply talk of past, present, or future. The Hebrew verbs of the Old Testament work differently: “In Hebrew thinking, an action is regarded as being either completed or incompleted. Hebrew, therefore, knows of no past, present, or future tenses…” (Weingreen, 1959, p. 56, italics original). So, we English speakers are inclined to talk of “creating” as past (“created”), present (“creates”), or future (“will create”), while Israel’s authors wrote of bārā’ in terms of whether or not this action was, from their perspective, completed.

Despite these differences, there is some overlap in perspective between English past, present, and future on the one hand, and Hebrew completed and incompleted action on the other. With the Hebrew mindset noted and providing guidance, we can use our English views of past, present, and future as a framework for thinking about the timing of God’s action in bārā’.

God created in the past.

One of the most familiar verses in the entire Bible is its first verse: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). The author used the form of bārā’ that indicates completed action, and English versions rightly use a past tense to translate this time aspect. Thus, God created in the past. The same past / completed perspective of bārā’ occurs in 1:21, “So God created the great sea monsters …,” and 1:27, “So God created humankind.”

Now, there are plenty of other verbs used in Genesis 1:1-2:3 (“Genesis 1” for short). Creating is not the only thing God did. Even so, the uses of bārā’ at the story’s beginning (1:1) and ending (2:3) have a way of making “create” an umbrella term for all of the actions God did. What is more, the story’s ending could lead readers to think that God was through creating, that God would not create any more, that creating was something God only did at some point in the past, that God would rest and let creation run itself:

1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. 2 By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made. (Gen 2:1-3 NASU)

Are we being set up to expect that God will not create any more? Did all of God’s creating occur in the beginning? Other passages use the past / completed-action form of bārā’ to refer to God’s past action in bringing the world into existence: “Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?” (Isa 40:26 NRSV). Malachi 2:10 uses the past / completed-action form of bārā’ to refer to God’s past action in creating people: “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?” (“Us” is post-exilic Judah.) A past action is in view, but it is recent, since it includes the author who asks these questions.

We should not miss the significance of this. The author of Genesis 1 wrote that God created the heavens and the earth, including humans, in the past. The author of Malachi 2 wrote that God created the humans of his own generation, namely him and his contemporaries in Judah. In other words, even though God created in the past, he did so on multiple occasions. Combined with what we already know, this means that it would be difficult / impossible — and quite beside the point — to try to pinpoint which moments in the past were times of God’s creating, and which moments were not.


It would be difficult / impossible — and quite beside the point — to try to pinpoint which moments in the past were times of God’s creating, and which moments were not.


God creates in the present.

If Israel’s authors claimed that God had created on multiple occasions in the past, it should not surprise us that they also used forms of bārā’ to indicate that God was continuing to create in their own day, that there were acts of creating that God had not yet completed. To introduce this perspective, take Isaiah 40:26. We already saw the completed / past form of “create”: “Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?” But we cut the verse short. It goes on to say, “He who brings out their host by number” (ESV).

Note the present tense of “brings out.” This is not our verb bārā’, but that is beside the present point. From the perspective of the author, the God who created the stars continues to bring them out. Thus, even though this act of creation is situated in the past, the ongoing existence and function of these creations do not occur independent of God. God continues to act on the things that he created. In other words, the verb bārā’ does not convey the idea that God’s making of something is the end of his active involvement with it.

Perhaps this verse prepares us, then, for present-tense / incomplete-action forms of bārā’. The author of Isaiah 48 speaks on God’s behalf, claiming that God is going to make new events happen in the life of the people of Judah: “They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them” (48:7 NRSV). The events that are created seem to be the repairing of Judah’s total life as a people, but the timing is, from the author-speaker’s perspective, in his own day. I suppose we could argue for the future over the present in this case, but the point is the same regardless: God continues to create new events in the lives of his people.

This emphasis on God continuing to create events in the life of his people accords with Isaiah 43. Most English versions obscure the form of bārā’ used, though: “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel” (43:1). This translation is fine for most purposes, but bārā’ is not in a past-tense form here. A more literal rendering is: “the one who is creating you, Jacob, the one who is forming you, Israel.” The author’s use of the participle (“creating“) indicates that God’s creation of the people of Israel is not just a past event, but is ongoing.

The same form of bārā’ occurs later in the same passage: “I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel [lit. ‘the one who is creating Israel], your King” (43:15). While this chapter is helpful for other dimensions of bārā’, the time aspect is in focus here: God is creating the people of Israel in the days of this prophet-author. So, yes, God created on multiple occasions in the past, but Israel’s authors also claim that God creates in the present.

With our eyes on the science / faith relationship, we cannot depart the present-tense uses of bārā’ without stopping at Psalm 104. The psalmist blesses the LORD for his many ongoing actions in the regular occurrences of the natural world, including animals eating and going hungry, and dying and being born:

27 These all look to you to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.

First, note the many present tenses of God’s action: “you give … you open …. you hide … you take away …. you send forth … you renew.” This alone gives us plenty to think about in terms of God’s relationship to regular — and explainable — occurrences in the animal world. We zero in on verse 30, though: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created.” The English present passive, “are created,” faithfully translates the Hebrew form (passive incomplete) and conveys the idea that God creates animal life in the present.

It is safe to assume that the author is referring to animal birth. It is also safe to assume that the author knew some things about the birth of animals. And yet, the author still describes these occurrences as acts of God. (1) God creating and (2) animals being born are two ways of talking about the same thing. It is not as if God creates some animals, and not others. Neither, then, is the psalmist praising God for the animals that God creates, while not praising God for the animals that make themselves. The psalmist is not separating animals into categories: (1) Animals That God Creates and Merit God’s Praise, and (2) Animals That Make Themselves without God and Do Not Merit God’s Praise.


It is not as if God creates some animals, and not others. Neither, then, is the psalmist praising God for the animals that God creates, while not praising God for the animals that make themselves.


Lastly, and more directly to the science / faith relationship, the psalmist is not suggesting that there are some animals that lack an explanation for their origins, and that these must be the animals that are created by God. It is much closer to the psalmist’s view to say that God creates all animals, and that being able to explain any animal’s origin coexists and overlaps with seeing the work of God in these occurrences and praising God for them. Natural explanation and theological belief and response are not mutually exclusive.

Based on this psalmist’s own words, I cannot imagine him endorsing an approach to nature that tries desperately to find things we cannot explain, then treats them as evidence of God, and expects people to view scientific inquiry as a tool for uncovering where, when, and how God acts in the world. This approach to science and theology is a two-edged sword: some creationists use this tactic to look for proof of God in nature, while some atheists use the other side of the same tactic to show that, since we know how things work, there is no evidence of God in nature — in the present case, since we know how animals are born, they are not created by God.


I cannot imagine the psalmist endorsing an approach to nature that tries desperately to find things we cannot explain, then treats them as evidence of God, and expects people to view scientific inquiry as a tool for uncovering where, when, and how God acts in the world.


My present discussion has gone a little afield from our focus on time, so let’s return to that concern: In the eyes of this Israelite psalmist, animals that are being born in his own lifetime are being created by God. God creates animal life in the present, just as, in the eyes of the prophet-author Isaiah, God continues to create the people of Israel, and new events in their unfolding history. If God continues to create in the present, then those who believe in a Creator God have a lens through which they view the things that continue to unfold  before them. It is a perspective on new life and new events.

God will create in the future.

Finally for this post, we consider uses of bārā’ that state or imply God’s future creating. I should note that Hebrew verb forms for incompleted action can often be translated with either a present or future tense in English. One passage will suffice to illustrate the way in which Israel’s authors looked to God to create more in the future. The incompleteness of the action is supplied by the verb form (participle) in combination with the force of the passage.

17 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. (Isa 65:17-18)

All three uses of bārā’ here are participles (“creating“), but the context of the passage stresses God’s future action: the new heavens and new earth depicted in Isaiah 65:17-25 do not exist yet, and will be creations qualitatively different from past and present creations of God. By this point in our study, it should not surprise us that Israel’s authors claim that God will create in the future. After all, he created in the past and continues to create in the present. “The Beginning was simply one of the moments when God acted as bōrē’ [creator]” (Goldingay, 2003, p. 77). That is, Israel viewed God as the God who was always creating, not just in the past, not just in the beginning. God never stops being the Creator, and Creator is an active word here: God never stops creating.


God never stops creating.


Conclusion

If we are to inherit Israel’s legacy and handle it responsibly, then we do well to let its uses of bārā’ guide our thinking about believing in a Creator God. Israel believed in a God who created in the past, creates in the present, and will create in the future. In the science / faith relationship, then, there is no good reason to believe that our investigations of nature should enable us to determine which times God created, is creating, or will create, and which times God did not create, is not creating, or will not create. Science cannot isolate the times when God acts in this way, so Christians should be careful about trying to use science to “prove” when God creates. This effort just might backfire and diminish their credibility.


There is no good reason to believe that our investigations of nature should enable us to determine which times God created, is creating, or will create, and which times God did not create, is not creating, or will not create.


We will look more briefly at the roles of direct objects in the meaning of bārā’ in Part 4.

References

Goldingay, John. (2003). Old testament theology: Vol. 1. Israel’s gospel. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Weingreen, J. (1959). A practical grammar for classical Hebrew (2nd edition). New York: Oxford University Press.


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