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.


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