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forms, “baraminology,” dedicated to discovering what its adherents believe to be the “created” kinds of life that God originally made.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?