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God and World in the Old Testament
A Relational Theology of Creation
By Terence E. Fretheim
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2005 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
In this chapter I will explore several fundamental issues necessary in any theological interpretation of creation in the Old Testament. They include the language of creation, what is meant by the word creation, the importance of relationality in thinking through biblical understandings of creation, and issues of divine presence in creation.
Language of Creation
A remarkable number of Hebrew words are used with reference to creation, with God as subject: bara' ("create," Gen 1:27); 'asah ("make," Gen 1:26); pa'al ("make," Prov 16:4); yasar ("form," Isa 43:1); banah ("build," Amos 9:6); qanah ("create," Gen 14:19); kûn ("establish," Ps 93:1); yasad ("found," Zech 12:1); natah ("stretch out," Isa 51:13); yalad ("bring forth," Ps 90:2); hûl ("birth," Deut 32:18). The list could be extended; see also the "Modes of Creation" in the next chapter. The sheer number of words indicates that Israel's thought about creation was wide-ranging and complex.
In delineating the various metaphors associated with God as Creator, Ronald A. Simkins distinguishes between "internal" metaphors, associated with birth and plant growth, and "external" metaphors, associated with order and differentiation.
The internal metaphors include the divine shaping of an individual in the womb of the mother: "the LORD ... formed me in the womb" (Isa 49:5; cf. Jer 1:5). This language is extended in some texts to refer to the creation of Israel as a people, with more explicit maternal images for God (e.g., Isa 44:2; cf. Ps 22:9-11; Num 11:11-12; Deut 32:18). Given the correlation of the womb and the (depths of the) earth, the image of God as a potter working with clay is sometimes associated with the womb imagery for individuals (Job 10:8-11; Ps 139:13-15; cf. Gen 2:7) and more generally for the people (Isa 45:9-12; cf. 29:15-16; 64:8; Jer 18:2-6). Birthing metaphors are also used for the new creation of God's people (Isa 42:14; 49:14-15, 20-21). Remarkably, birthing language is also used for God's creation of the nonhuman creatures (e.g., Job 38:8-9, 28-30; Ps 90:2; Prov 8:2425).
Images of creation associated with agricultural life, especially planting, are parallel with the birthing metaphors: plants sprouting from the ground and persons birthed from the womb (cf. Ps 139:13-15, where "womb" is imaged as "the depths of the earth"; Isa 44:2-4, where womb and plant growth are correlated). God causes the grass and plants to grow (Ps 104:14-16). God also plants Israel as a vintner would plant a vineyard and care for its growth (Isa 5:1-2; 27:2-6; Jer 2:21; Hos 10:1; Ps 80:8-9, 14-15). Botanical imagery is also used for the new creation that God will bring forth (Isa 45:8); Israel will once again be "planted" in the land (Amos 9:15; Jer 1:10) and they
shall take root,
Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots,
and fill the whole world with fruit. (Isa 27:6; cf. Hos 14:5-7)
More external metaphors of creation include those that depict God as designer and builder of buildings, though the more basic metaphor may be that of God as artisan. God is the one who has laid the foundations of the earth and the cornerstone (Isa 48:13; 51:13; cf. Job 38:4-6; Ps 104:5) and builds the chambers of the heavens (Amos 9:6). Images of ordering, gathering, and the establishing of boundaries are also used (Job 38:8-11; Ps 33:7; 74:17; 104:6-8). In addition, metaphors of conflict against chaotic forces and the establishment of boundaries are used in some texts (Ps 74:12-17; cf. 77:16-20; 89:9-13; Isa 51:9-11).
Given the fact that metaphors drawn from human work and life processes can be used for God's creative activity, continuities with human creativity are genuine; God's creative work is not absolutely unparalleled among the creatures. This is to recognize the yes and the no in every metaphor used of God. That metaphors drawn from plant life can also be used indicates some continuities between God's work and the work of the nonhuman creatures (already in Gen 1:11-13, 20, 24).
Explicit creational interests occur in every corner of the Old Testament, including in every major tradition, from early to late, including the priestly, Exodus, Sinai, Royal-Zion, and prophetic traditions, and in numerous echoes and allusions. They also occur in most types of literature: poetry and prose, laments and hymns of praise, narratives and Wisdom poems, prophetic oracles and apocalyptic visions. But no doctrinal treatises or theological essays can be found, so concrete is the interest in creation (Prov 8:22-31 may be an exception). More particularly, one could speak of the presence of these interests in creation accounts, individual laws, and theophanic texts, whether theophanies of the warrior (primarily) or theophanies of the word. Some scholars have thought the creation materials to be associated especially with a chaos-creation tradition, within which God once vanquished chaos, but not finally, and so a potential conflict between chaotic elements and God's creational designs is present. This pervasiveness of such creational interests in the Old Testament is, in part, due to the fact that they were current in the literature of the larger region and Israel participated in this cultural reality (see "Excursus" in the next chapter).
The rhetorical strategies used by the authors in presenting creational material vary, and our closer look at the texts will reveal several. Questions to be raised in a consideration of this issue include: How does creation material function as proclamation to a given audience (e.g., the exiles)? Is it used to convict or warn, to comfort or reassure? Is it used to tell a story of the past or characterize the "way things are"? Is it used to support a theological argument or religious claim? Is it used to exalt the Creator, or to bring honor to the creatures? These issues will emerge from time to time in what follows.
To What Does Creation Refer?
Does the Old Testament present a unified understanding of creation? Most scholars would deny this to be the case, illustrated by, say, the differences between the creation accounts (Gen 1:1–2:4a; 2:4b–3:25). Yet, are these differences fundamental or are they more incidental, due to angles of vision in view of differing literary and historical contexts?
Creation is a theme that pervades the biblical narrative, but what the word creation entails is not immediately evident. By way of an initial summary: because creation in the Old Testament is a theological category, it is not to be equated with nature or world. To speak of "creation" is to state that the cosmos does not simply exist; it was created by God. More particularly, as outlined below, the creative activity of God includes the work of originating, continuing, and completing creation. The word creation can also be used for the result of such creative activity, but not in the sense of a finished product, given the reality of continuing creation. Creation also includes the activity of creatures (human and nonhuman) in and through which God works to create in ever new ways.
Many scholars, implicitly or explicitly, disagree with such comprehensive understandings of creation. Indeed, it is common to understand the word creation solely in terms of beginnings, the origination of the cosmos; God's work as Creator is restricted to what God does in the Genesis creation accounts and their scriptural echoes. Dennis J. McCarthy, for example, reflects such an opinion when he states that "creation" in a "technical meaning" has to do with the "absolute beginning of our world." In this connection, the language of "creation" is sometimes limited to that which is created "out of nothing" and hence everything since "the beginning" is only a working with what already exists, a "rearrangement" of what has already been created. While a few texts do understand creation as origination "out of nothing" (2 Macc 7:28; Rom 4:17; Heb 11:3), these passages do not thereby exclude a broader meaning for the word creation. Or, from another angle, Claus Westermann is among those who object to the notion of creatio continua, preferring blessing instead, that is, providence rather than ongoing creating. Several recent efforts from biblicaltheological and systematic perspectives push strongly in this direction.
I want to claim that God's work as Creator cannot be so confined; "creation" is not simply viewed as a matter of origination or a divine activity chronologically set only "in the beginning." Ben C. Ollenburger correctly states: "To demand of 'creation' that it refer only to absolute beginnings ... is virtually to deny the possibility of speaking of creation with respect to the Bible." Ollenburger goes on to insist that what is entailed in the word creation should be determined by scriptural usage and not prior assumptions about its meaning; the most basic argument for a more comprehensive understanding of creation is the Old Testament's own testimony. If readers have in mind only issues of origination, then the texts are relatively infrequent, at least in any explicit sense. On the other hand, if a broader understanding of creation is being used, the number of texts increases significantly.
The Old Testament does in fact use the language of creation for divine activity that is other than God's originating work (e.g., Ps 104:30, "when you send forth your spirit, they are created"). Indeed, the verb ba-ra-', "create," so central to speaking of creation in Genesis 1, is used more often elsewhere in the Old Testament (especially in the Prophets) for God's continuing creative activity in and through the historical process, especially in Isaiah 40–55 (e.g., Isa 45:8; 54:16). While creation does entail "making something that was not there before," such an understanding does not necessarily entail creating "out of nothing." God's creating in Genesis 1, for example, includes ordering that which already exists (e.g., the earth of 1:2 only "appears" in 1:9). Indeed, only a few activities of God specifically named in Genesis 1 can be considered "out of nothing." Such ordering activity would result in something genuinely new (a "first coming into being"), and hence properly termed "creation."
This biblical picture is in tune with recent science/theology discussions regarding epigenesis, that is, the continued emergence of new forms of reality at various stages in the history of nature. To call something "new" is to speak of "the coming-to-be of things," and the language of "creation" fits such realities. Because God is involved it is possible, indeed important, to speak of something genuinely "new" coming into being through time and space. God works creatively with already existing realities to bring about newness. This understanding also entails the idea that the present (and future) is not wholly determined by the past; God does bring the "new" into existence. Beyond God's work as sole Creator, certainly the central reality in thinking about creation, God also creates in and through creaturely activity. And so, for example, human beings have been given creative capacities to work with already existing "stuff" not unlike what God does in Genesis 1–2; the creativity of the human creature is such that genuinely new realities are regularly brought into being.
In view of these reflections, I speak of creation as having three interrelated points of reference: the beginning and the end of the world and the times in between.
1. Originating Creation. God is the ultimate source of the creation. Most fundamentally, creation is an act of God whereby "heaven and earth" are originally brought into being, understood both in terms of "out of nothing" and ordering. The creation accounts in Genesis 1–2 are the primary witness to this creative activity, though "out of nothing" is on the edges of the text. Several other texts witness to this originating creative action of God (Psalms 33; 104; Wis 9:1-2; Heb 11:3). Still others link Wisdom and the Logos to this creative act (Prov 8:22-31; John 1:1-5).
Several scholars believe that the creation accounts speak not of a past creative act but of an ongoing creative action of God that gives life to every creature. From this perspective, Genesis 1–2 have to do "with the subsistence of the world and of mankind, not with the intellectual question of the origin." But Bernhard W. Anderson rightly responds that, though Gen 1:1 is grammatically ambiguous, it has to do with "the origination of all things." At the same time, it seems more accurate to claim that Genesis 1 deals with matters regarding origination, but without making claims regarding "all things." As we have noted, genuine newness is more broadly conceived than describing that which takes place in the beginning. But Genesis 1–2 does refer to a temporal beginning; it tells a genuine story of the past, quite apart from issues of "history."
Expanding the discussion, creation is often associated only or primarily with the origins of the physical universe. But it is imperative to think about creation in the Old Testament more broadly. Various texts associate God's creative activity with other orders of life: social (e.g., the family), cultural (including religious), and national order. Certain of these realities are evident already in Genesis 1–2. For example, the luminaries are created with worship life in view ("times and seasons"; 1:14-18), and the day of rest is certainly linked in some way with later sabbatical practices (2:1-3). That the man leaves his parents to cling to his wife (2:24) roots later matters regarding social order within creation as well. Or, moving beyond the creation accounts, God's creative work has to do not only with God's ongoing work in the physical world but also with such realities as the ordering of families and nations, including cities (e.g., Genesis 10–11; note the emphasis on "families"), as well as the development of various arts and sciences (Gen 4:17-24). Also to be included is the development of new law in view of new times and places (Gen 9:1-7), already grounded in creation (1:28; 2:16-17). Moreover, texts such as Exod 15:1-21 use creational language to depict social origins, the "movement from a state of social disorganization, because of unrestrained forces, to structure and security in Yahweh's land. Ancient cosmogonies were primarily interested in the emergence of a particular society.... The something new which was not there before is not the mere physical universe but rather the 'world' of human beings."
This broader interest in creation invites a consideration of what traditionally has been called "continuing creation."
2. Continuing Creation. Creation is not simply past; it is not just associated with "the beginning." God does not cease to be the Creator when the work of Genesis 1–2 has been completed nor is God thereafter reduced to the role of creative manager. With reference to Ps 104:30, Anderson rightly claims that the verb used for originating creation in Genesis 1–2 (ba-ra-') here refers to continuing creation: "Creation is not just an event that occurred in the beginning, at the foundation of the earth, but is God's continuing activity of sustaining creatures and holding everything in being." While generally helpful, such a statement raises two issues:
(a) To say that God holds "everything in being" claims too much, as does Anderson's assertion that, were it not for the reality that "the Creator sustains the world, it would lapse back into primeval chaos." Rather, several texts witness to God's having established the basic and dynamic infrastructure of the world once and for all, guaranteed by a divine promise (Gen 8:22; 9:8-17; see Jer 31:35-37; 32:17-26). God does not, say, make a daily decision to sustain the creation. Because God keeps promises, the future of the creation is assured without particular divine action to that end. God created a reliable and trustworthy world and, while God will be pervasively present (see below), God lets the creation be what it was created to be, without micromanagement, tight control, or interference every time something goes wrong. At the same time, one must not translate a reliable creation into a fixed and static system. Elements of unpredictability and open-endedness, what Eccl 9:11 calls "chance," are an integral dimension of the ways things work in God's creation. Not everything has been predetermined; genuine novelty is possible in God's world, both for God and for God's creatures. And, as Genesis 3 soon informs us, God's creation does not preclude creaturely possibilities that are negative, even anticreational.
Excerpted from God and World in the Old Testament by Terence E. Fretheim. Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Theological Perspectives,
2. The Creation Accounts in Genesis,
3. Creation at Risk: Disrupted, Endangered, Restored (Genesis 3–11),
4. Creation and the Foundation Narratives of Israel,
5. Creation and Law,
6. Creation, Judgment, and Salvation in the Prophets,
7. Wisdom and Creation,
8. Nature's Praise of God,
Conclusion: Implications of a Relational Theology of Creation,