Tag Archives: God’s Action

Believing in a Creator God (Part 5): Science and Faith

It has been some months since I last contributed to my series on the meaning of creation. Now, at last, I bring to you my fifth and final post for “Believing in a Creator God.” The reason I have written this series is to share the fruits of private studies and, more importantly, to provide clarity to my readers on what the Old Testament’s word bārā’, “create,” does and does not mean.

This clarity is important to me because numerous Christians in the United States use the language of “create” (e.g., “creation,” “creationism,” “creationist,” etc.) to talk about their faith, and about science, in ways that actually misrepresent what this word meant to Israel. In my view, if Christians are going to use Israel’s words as holy Scripture, as God’s words to them, then they should expend significant energies to understand those words — all the more so when they presume to respond to science on the authority of God.


If Christians are going to use Israel’s words as holy Scripture, as God’s words to them, then they should expend significant energies to understand those words.


Brief Review of bārā’

In Part 1, we met our word bārā’ in overview. Since bārā’ is a verb, in Part 2 we sampled some passages in which it occurs to look for clues to the kinds of action being conveyed. Especially helpful in this connection was seeing other verbs used alongside of bārā’. Beyond the kind of action itself, the meaning of verbs includes the time dimensions involved: when it is that the actions occur. In Part 3, then, we looked at the tenses of bārā’. In Part 4, we discussed direct objects: what kinds of things are acted upon by, or are the results of the action of, the verb bārā’.

I consider several important lessons to have emerged. First, Israel used bārā’ to denote the act of God making and forming things, both entities and events. Second, we learned that Israel quite regularly used bārā’ to refer to occurrences in the world in which agents other than God were fully active at the same time. In other words, “create” was not a way of saying that God had acted alone. Nor was it a way of saying that God did part of the action and something or someone else did the other part (50% God + 50% nature). It was more like overlapping ways of referring to the same occurrences.

Third, Israel used bārā’ in ways that denote past, present, and future action: God created, God is creating, and God will create. God is always active creating, and thus God is always a Creator. New events, ongoing occurrences of regular processes, new generations of living things, etc., are all God’s creative work.

Fourth, Israel identified a fairly comprehensive scope of objects with God’s creating. God creates the universe and everything in it. He creates humans and animals, not just in the past, but in ongoing generations. He creates Israel as his special, covenant people, including their experiences of judgment and destruction and of hope and deliverance. God creates the wind and other regular, mundane features of the larger natural world. It is thus difficult to detect anything that is off limits for the creating action of God.

To support my summary, I quote a summary of bārā’ that appears in a professional theological dictionary of the Old Testament: “Both human and cosmic, natural and historical entities are brought into existence by God; temporally, creation includes not only acts of origination but the ongoing succession of entities and conditions within the cosmos up to the present of the biblical writers. Finally, the OT can describe the same creative events as occurring both by God’s word and by natural means and processes over time (Stek). The OT does not separate, though it may distinguish, divine and ‘natural’ causality in creation” (Van Leeuwen, 1997, p. 730).


The OT does not separate, though it may distinguish, divine and ‘natural’ causality in creation.


Before I proceed with the implications of all of this for Christian thinking about science, I should address what, in biblical studies, is called the overload fallacy. The overload fallacy is a fallacy that occurs when a person (1) sees one word used in different places, (2) observes different meanings for that one word in those different places, and then (3) combines many or even all of those meanings for each individual occurrence of the word.

In the present case, the overload fallacy would occur if we took all of the meanings we have seen for bārā’ and then argued that each use of bārā’ contained all of those meanings. We would be overloading bārā’ with more meaning that it could possibly contain for a single use of the word. That is not how language works. Just because a word can mean different things in different contexts does not lead to the conclusion that a word means all of those things at once.

Here is my point: By summarizing the uses of bārā’ in the Hebrew Old Testament, I am showing the scope of the word, learning how extensive and flexible the word was. This enables us to draw better conclusions about Israel’s beliefs about God as one who creates. I am not, however, trying to suggest that all possible nuances of bārā’ are present with each use of the word.

Christians, Creation, and Science

Given all of the foregoing, I would like to make some suggestions for how Christians think about God’s creating, especially as such thinking relates to scientific investigations of the world.

First, we have seen how Israel often used bārā’ as a way of focusing on God’s action on occasions that still involved fully the actions of other agents (humans, animals, etc.). Since scientists study natural occurrences and try to explain them in terms of natural, observable causes and effects, science will focus on natural agents, and not on the action of God. Science as such is neither equipped nor qualified to make definitive claims about God’s action or inaction. Sometimes, scientists forget this limitation on their part.

Often, though, Christians are the ones at fault here, expecting science to uncover proof of God’s action. When it comes to creation, some Christians want to use science to prove that God must have created something, and, by this, they mean that God must have acted alone, without anything or anyone else being involved or fully active. In light of how Israel actually used bārā’, this is not a defensible use of the Old Testament.

Christians should think of create as a faith claim about God’s action: a way of stating belief that God is the ultimate, sovereign, governing agent acting in and through the world.

“God’s relationship with the world is comprehensive in scope: God is present and active wherever there is world. God does not create the world and then leave it, but God creates the world and enters into it, lives within it, as God. … God is present on every occasion and active in every event” (Fretheim, 2005, p. 23, emphasis in original).

Christians should not look for evidence of God’s action by looking for (currently) scant or nonexistent evidence of the actions of other agents. We may not yet have good understandings of how other agents are involved in the world’s events, but this shortcoming on our part does not somehow constitute evidence of God.

Second, we have seen how Israel used bārā’ for God’s action in the past, present, and future.

Thinking about science and time, science studies the way the world works, and thus conducts its studies in the present. However, since science continues from generation to generation, it builds upon past studies and can preserve ongoing observations of the world, keeping a running record. In addition, science can use its insights from the present to give plausible interpretations of the past, as, for example, in scientific interpretations of rock layers and fossil remains. What is more, scientific methods often make short-term predictions of the future to test hypotheses, as well as make long-term predictions about future occurrences in our world and universe.

Christians who think that God created in the past and ceased creating are mistaken. And, as we have seen already, it is also a mistake for Christians to think that a lack of scientific explanation for things in the past or present are markers of God’s special action then and now. Why? Because, according to Israel, God is always creating. Therefore, any time in the history of the universe is a time during which God is active in creating.


It is a mistake for Christians to think that a lack of scientific explanation for things in the past or present are markers of God’s special action then and now.


Third and finally, we have seen how Israel identified so many direct objects with bārā’ that it seems they saw everything as God’s creation. (This is clear in Gen 1:1-2:3.) If the earth, universe, humans, animals, wind, human morals, and human social and political events are all objects of God’s creating, then it would be remarkable if there were things that Israel did not regard as created by God. At the empirical level, then — the level where science takes place — everything constitutes evidence of God’s creating.

Perhaps some Christians would respond, Now, hang on, Daniel: If everything is God’s creation, then how can we prove God’s creating? This is a good question, but does it not start with the prior assumption that the objects of God’s creating were meant to bear some sort of special mark — a divine signature that might as well say, “Made by God”? Israel did not use bārā’ to divide the world into (A) Objects Made by God and (B) Objects Not Made by God. This whole mode of thinking misunderstands the emphasis of God’s creating.

No, Israel seems to have faced their world, in all of its wonderful and dizzying variety, with all of its complexities and ambiguities, with a fundamental belief about God: No matter what has happened, is happening, or will happen — no matter what has lived, is living, or will live in our universe and world — God is the sovereign Creator, the Maker of the universe and all that it contains and does. bārā’ is a faith word, a courageous statement of belief about the world: courageous because so much of what happens in the world offends or troubles us, and to associate these offenses and troubles with God takes courage — provided this belief is confessed, not as a cop-out, but as a response to rigorous engagement with the world.

Israel was not naïve. Their faith was hardly childish or underdeveloped. In fact, the biblical writings evince a theological maturity and courage that put many modern American Christians to shame (myself included). If we think that scientific discoveries so easily threaten the theological claims of bārā’ in the Old Testament, it is perhaps because we modern readers have a less mature belief about creation than Israel did, not because Israel failed to think about the impact of future discoveries on their faith claims. Perhaps Israel’s comprehensive creation faith is meant to push us readers, to pose questions to our precious assumptions.


If we think that scientific discoveries so easily threaten the theological claims of bārā’ in the Old Testament, it is perhaps because we modern readers have a less mature belief about creation than Israel did.


Believing in a Creator God does not have to be an alternative to practicing scientific investigations of the world. Believing in a Creator God does not have to function as a stand-in explanation when we lack a naturalistic one. Believing in God can be a willful, insistent, even experimental mode of engaging the world, choosing to see God in all of the life forms past, present, and future, to see God in all human lives and human events in all their messy and disturbing variety, to see God as intimately and dynamically interactive with a world that he enjoys seeing be and become as it acts with its own integrity, will, and power.

Believing in a Creator God is the choice to see the world and its happenings as God’s masterpiece, a work of art that is itself fully alive and interactive with God — whether it knows it or not — to see ourselves as God’s creations and our lives as blessings and opportunities to contribute to something bigger than we are, to a world that is not ours but within which we’re grateful to play a part.


References

Fretheim, T. (2005). God and world in the Old Testament: A relational theology of creation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.

Van Leeuwen, R. (1997). ברא [br’]. In W. A. VanGemeren (Ed.), New international dictionary of Old Testament theology and exegesis: Vol. 1 (pp. 728-735). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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

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

Believing in a Creator God (Part 2): Kind of Action

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.

“Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:20 NRSV).

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.

Ultrasound of My Daughter Months before Birth

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.

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


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