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.
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.
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).
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).
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!