The creation of Israel

Contrary to what many believe, the Bible does not teach that God stopped creating (Heb. bara) after the sixth day, though clearly the seventh day, God’s sabbath, draws a line under that special week of work. There are nevertheless a good number of references to God’s ongoing secifically creative acts scattered throughout the Old Testament. Some of those uses of the word relate to the creation of Israel as a nation, in Isaiah ch. 43.

Isaiah writes:

But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.

Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
I will bring your children from the east
and gather you from the west.

I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the ends of the earth—

everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

One task (which I don’t attempt exhaustively here) is to consider how these continuing acts of bara relate to the original creation, especially when, in Ps 104:30, the word bara is used of God’s re-creation of the animals as part of the ongoing life-cycle of nature. Does this indicate that Genesis should not be understood strictly chronologically, or that there is some kind of distinction between the original creation and a creatio continua that persists in his goverment of the world?

Such questions obviously have relevance to both “evolutionary creation” and “progressive creation” viewpoints, but they need to be carefully unpacked, because ongoing creation does not necessarily (or even plausibly) map to modern conceptions of “natural causes”. In Ps 104:27ff God’s activity is contrasted with the natural, for the creatures (acting by their natures) wait for God, are satisfied when he opens his hand, and dismayed when he takes away their spirit and they die and return to dust – from whence he creates them anew to replenish the earth, an act in which they play no part.

“In due season” may fit quite nicely with the regular operation of universal laws created in the beginning, but “hiding your face,” “take away their spirit” and, specifically, “send forth your Spirit” suggests a more direct theology of (ongoing) creation, in which, even if figuratively, the creatures perceive and respond to God’s personal acts.

Although we may naturally think only of the animals in connection with such Scriptures, the psalmist’s purview is actually wider. The context of the “they” to which the above words apply, in Ps 104:27, includes all God’s works and possessions, including clouds, wind and fire, the mountains, valleys and streams, vegetation, land animals and their specific environments, the sea, its swarms of creatures, sea monsters and even ships. His governance is set over against all these, not expressed through their created powers.

Some of the instances of bara refer to the promised new creation, and that helps “square the circle” of God’s creating after Genesis seems to say he has ceased. That is especially true if, as I am coming to understand it, the whole Bible after Genesis 1 is about God’s plan to transform his original, “natural” creation to the spiritual, in which his glory fills both heaven and earth. This is the promised state to be fulfilled at the return of Christ, but already guaranteed by his resurrection from the dead and the new creation of believers.

I have argued before, eg here, that the placing of Adam and Eve in the intimate sacred space of the garden was the first, abortive, movement in that new creation story: to have personal communion with Yahweh, and to gain access to eternal life, is not a natural thing at all, but a spiritual one.

If OT scholar Richard Middleton interprets Gen 2:7 correctly as being related to the Egyptian concept of divine images becoming divinised by the breath of the god in the mïs pî or pït pî ritual, then even the forming of Adam is spiritual, not natural – a part of the new creation, rather than a normal outworking of the laws of the old. Even apart from the Egyptian connection, of course, many interpreters see the breath of God in that passage as the adding of the spiritual to the natural creature. Adam from dust would be part of the natural creation – but Adam receiving the breath of God could not be, on that interpretation. Even the wonders of natural selection have not been shown to produce spirit from matter.

The creation of Israel could actually fit nicely into this “new creation” category, given the tight parallels between their call, mission, and sadly failure, and Adam’s. Whether or not this is the case, however, my question for today is what it is about the formation of Israel, as a nation, that makes it an act of “creation”, rather than of some lower category like providence or mere historical happenstance.

One might argue that it’s quite clear that the people who came out of Egypt were not created ex nihilo, but arose by purely natural generation. Ergo, “creation” can describe entirely natural processes. But true as is the observation that natural processes and ordinary people were involved, that conclusion is actually false at a number of levels. In the first place, Moses emphasizes to Israel the miraculous signs accompanying and enabling the nation’s formation: the uniqueness of a nation arising in the midst of another (Egypt), the ten plagues, the Red-Sea miracle, the provision of manna, and so on.

But even the existence of the people themselves is treated as special. The beginning of Exodus is full of allusions to the extraordinary fertility of the Israelites, despite affliction, in fulfilment of part of God’s promise to Abraham. Umberto Cassuto’s commentary is particularly good at pointing this out this emphasis in Exodus 1. And remember that the main body of Genesis is about the preservation of the “promise” line despite post-menopausal infertility, famines, and family arguments.

Even so, miraculous provision only facilitated the formation of Israel as nation. What was it that constituted them as one, for that is what “creation” entails? It is the uniqueness and newness of Israel, through Yahweh, that warrants the word bara. Surely, the answer must lie in the creative word of God. For not only is it as God speaks through Moses to direct their movements that a “new thing” is done, but the constitutive foundation is the Covenant, with its Ten Words. And after that, it is also the word of God in Torah, the Teaching, that draws Israel together as a unique entity, as its people talk about it on the road, teach it to their children, write it on their doorposts, enact its rituals at the tabernacle, and so on.

I suggest, therefore, that it is the divine word of power, the speaking of new and effective things into existing reality, that defines creation. This is borne out in another Isaiah passage (ch. 48) on post-Genesis creation, in this case describing the things happening in and after the prophet’s time to Israel:

Therefore I told you these things long ago;
before they happened I announced them to you
so that you could not say,
‘My images brought them about;
my wooden image and metal god ordained them.’

You have heard these things; look at them all.
Will you not admit them?

“From now on I will tell you of new things,
of hidden things unknown to you.

They are created now, and not long ago;
you have not heard of them before today.
So you cannot say,
‘Yes, I knew of them.’

In other words, novelty in the world is the product of the divine mind, by his creative word newly applied – it is never said to be the outworking of principles already inherent in the original creation. And this is entirely consistent with the New Testament clarification that the Son who became Jesus Christ is that creative logos, apart from whom “nothing came into being that has come into being.”

The old philosophical theologians understood Christ as logos in terms of the means by which God is intimately involved with the world, and makes it his special possession:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Christ relates to his own world as he relates to his Church – personally, by the word of power, rather than by the law; he is the source of innovation, not of uniformity. That is not to deny his faithfulness in all things, for Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and forever. In understanding the world around us, then, the concept of the “natural” speaks both of Christ’s faithfulness, and his provision of creaturely natures to enjoy it. And so the theistic scientists of the nineteenth century and before were right to recognise a principle of uniformity in the physical world, and to explore it.

But were they right to make it an exclusive principle for exploring the world? Many didn’t, of course, when it came to the question of creative innovation. Asa Gray (as recently discussed with Ted Davis here), as a scientist, saw variations in living things as providentially governed by God and leading to evolution. Benjamin Warfield, as a theologian, was a little more nuanced in his definitions and called it “mediate creation” – bringing novelty to existing things, rather than ex nihilo. But in both cases, the novelty itself, the information as we might now conceive it (or intellectual property in the human realm), was seen as God’s supernatural handiwork, just as it was in the case of Israel.

Scientifically (remember that Warfield trained as a scientist first) they studied the laws of nature. But they remained aware that beyond the proper boundaries of science was always creation, and that this is the work of Christ, to whom the Law of Moses points and in whom it terminates. And perhaps that analogy to the biblical law (which after all was the original template for the scientific concept of laws of nature) is not a completely inept parallel to the relationship between the original creation of physis, the natural, where the firmament separates God and man; and the pneumatikos that begins not at Revelation 22, as we tend to surmise, but in Genesis 2, where we see him face to face.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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