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by John N. Clayton

The Nature of the Biblical Account

We have spent a great deal of time discussing what the Bible does not say. The remainder of this discussion is about what the Bible does say. Before we start a verse-by-verse examination of the Genesis account, there are a number of basic understandings about the nature of the biblical account that need to be understood. The first of these is that we are not reading a document written in the twenty-first century for one scientific scholar to communicate with another. We are reading a document that is designed to be read by the ancient shepherd in the hills of Judea as well as by the scholars of the twenty-first century. To write a document that both will understand is a formidable undertaking. Some people in our day complain because Genesis does not say something like “In the beginning God synthesized DNA in a kaolinite matrix, enzymatically catalyzed by … .” You can almost picture Moses trying to understand what was being said to him. This is not a scientific treatise written to challenge the technological minds of our day. It is an account for the common man as well as the scholar. The basic message is that God created everything, and that God created man as a special being in His image. When, where, how, and why are not spelled out for us. In spite of this, every checkable detail that is given in the account turns out to be correct — a point I hope to show you shortly.

Another point that needs to be understood is that this is not written in English for an American audience. It is written in Hebrew for all audiences and that means translation is necessary. Any time a translation is done, there are certain problems that arise. Let me demonstrate this to you in Spanish. I know nothing about Spanish, so when I hear “Juan tiene frio,” I have to look up what it means. What I find is that the words literally mean “John has cold.” To me, that could mean that John has a cold (that he is ill) or it could mean John is cold (he is shivering). Which does it mean? My wife, who took Spanish in high school, tells me that it means John is cold. “How do you know that,” I ask. “I took it in high school and they explained that the culture would understand it that way,” she replies. Another example that is more complicated: “Juan me cae bien gordo” literally translates “John me falls well fat.” This is not a comment on my weight; it simply means “I don't like John very much.” Literal translations can give mistaken concepts if the culture in which the translation is made is not considered.

This becomes very relevant to a literal understanding of Genesis 1. In the original Hebrew language, there are two concepts about how God brings things into existence. One way God does things is by a miraculous process that only God can do. The Hebrew word bara was used to indicate this process. This word is never used in reference to something that man can do. It is a term reserved exclusively to describe God's actions in the Creation. The Jewish Publication Society says, “The Hebrew bara is used in the Bible exclusively of divine creativity. It signifies that the product is absolutely novel and unexampled, depends solely upon God for its coming into existence and is beyond the human capacity to reproduce” (Sarna, Nahumn M., Genesis, the JPS Torah Commentary, Jewish Publication Society, 1989). The Jewish scholar Jacob Newman Leiden says in his Commentary of Nahmanides on Genesis 1– 6 (Brill Publishing, 1960), “We have in our holy language no other term for ‘the bringing forth of something from nothing’ but bara.” In Appendix A is a writing of the King James Version of Genesis with the Hebrew words written above the English wording of Genesis. You will notice that bara is used in Genesis 1:1 and again in Genesis 1:20 and 1:27.

There is another way that God brings things into existence. This is a process that does not involve a miracle but rather is a shaping or molding of something already created. The Hebrew words used to describe this process are asah and yatsar. These words are not just used in reference to things that God can do; they are also used in reference to things that men can do. We see it used in phrases like “make me to laugh,” “make a feast,” “make war,” etc. These are not miracles — these are things that man can do. God is described as having asah-ed things in the biblical record with everything from verse 2 through verse 19 being included in this process. Yatsar is used in Genesis 2:7, 8, and 19 meaning to mold or squeeze into shape as a potter would work with clay. Denominational creationists have refused to take the Bible this literally. They attempt to suggest that bara and asah mean the same thing.

One of the texts that is used to argue against what has been said here is the discussion of the formation of man. In Genesis 1:27, we are told that God created (bara) man in God's image; and yet in Genesis 2:7, the Bible says God formed (asah) man of the dust of the earth. Are these two verses referring to the same thing? The answer is emphatically NO! Genesis 1:27 is referring to that which is in God's image — man's spiritual make up. Genesis 2:7 is referring to man's body — that which is made of the dust of the earth and will return to the dust. The two words are describing completely different subjects. A further challenge might come from Genesis 1:26 where God says, “Let us make (asah) man in our image … .” But the statement is made to the Godhead, not to the physical world. The us in the passage is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so the process is not miraculous. From their perspective, this is a making — not a miraculous creating. From our perspective as three-dimensional beings who are not divine and cannot really create anything, what God does is miraculous. From the perspective of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, that is not the case. To make sure we do not misunderstand this vital point, the Bible ends the creation story by saying that God “rested from all his work which God created (bara) and made (asah).” According to God, both processes were used.



©1998, 2015 by John N. Clayton. All rights reserved.