God, the Creator

In English the words ‘create’, ‘make’, ‘fashion’, and ‘shape’ are synonymous. In biblical Hebrew there are also a similar number of words that are synonymous with create, two of which are used in the creation story, בָּרָא (bara) and עָשָׂה  (aseh). But, even though bara and aseh are synonyms, bara differs in an unexpected (and still unexplained) way. The verb bara has as its only subject, God. In other words, this action is only ever executed by God1)Hence, I refer to bara as “divine creation”.. On the other hand, any appropriate actor, including God, can be the subject of aseh. Where bara is performed only by God, aseh can be performed by any creative entity – man, God, a mosquito. And as we see in the Genesis account, God exercises both divine (bara) and worldly (aseh) creativity.

Apart from who does the creating, are there qualitative differences between bara and aseh in terms of what gets made? Scholars are not sure. Bara is often understood as initiating something new. In Isa 41:20 its use is to denote changes caused when God creates or effects something which is new and different. Similarly, bara is also used of the creation of new things in Isa 48:6-7 and the creation of the new heavens and the new earth (Isa 65:17). In Exodus 34:10, marvels never seen before use bara not aseh, and Jeremiah uses bara as the term of a fundamental change that will take place in the natural order (Jer 31:22). The Psalmist prayed that God would bara in him a clean heart (Psalm 51:10). He coupled this with the petition that God would put a new spirit within him (see also Num 16:30; Isa 4:5; Isa 65:18). Similarly, bara has also been likened to “bringing into existence” in several passages (Isa 43:1; Ezek 21:30; Ezek 28:13, 15).

In the creation story, the verb appears in four verses, the first and last verses as summary statements (1:1 and 2:3), and two times as actual creative acts (1:21, and 1:27). In 1:21, the author uses bara to show God creating the “the great sea monsters”2)Commonly translated as reptiles. But recent scholarship suggests that the use of ‘reptiles’ is an invention meant to comport with the evolution of life on earth. More recent work suggests this is a reference to the great sea monster gods of the Enuma Elish (and other creation stories). By showing that they were created by God, the author is asserting authority over them – a “my god is more powerful than your god” claim., fish and other water life, and birds and bats. In 1:27, the author uses bara when God creates mankind. In all of God’s other creative acts, the author shows God creating either by thought (e.g., light in 1:3), by separation (water and dry land), or by delegation (vegetation and terrestrial animals). When God delegates the creation of these species, the author depicts God as using aseh, creation by worldly means.

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