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In the Beginning, God Fattened the Universe What "Create" Means in Genesis 1

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” Thus begins the Bible, according to most English translations.

Right off the bat, this brief narration separates itself from the Near-Eastern myths of the day. For instance, an ancient Mesopotamian tale describes the birth of the gods as the result of the intermingling of deified waters. Marduk, a young, ambitious god, eventually goes to battle against the primeval saltwater goddess, Tiamat. After Marduk vanquishes Tiamat, he rips her carcass in half, forming the heavens and the earth. All I can say to that is:

In radical contrast, the Bible spins no dramatic origin yarns for God. The Great “I AM” has no birth, no emergence, no beginnings. God is the One who creates beginnings. God simply is.

A Corpulent Creation

In the first chapter of Genesis, the Hebrew word for “create” is bara (pronounced bah-RAH).  Bara literally means “to fatten.” That’s odd, isn’t it? How did such a verb come to mean “to create?”

When God begins fashioning the universe, he faces a void – so he “fattens” it (I’ve done the same thing  during this quarantine with my gut, but I blame Tex-Mex, not God). In other words, the Creator fills the primordial abyss with light, stars, the moon, sun and Earth – everything seen and unseen. There is also no conflict, no violent struggle, when He creates. He simply speaks and things come to be. By His command, God pads a newborn planet with forests and flowers, caves and cliffs, seas and streams. On the final day of creation, He fashions man and woman, filling them with His image and blessing, and instructs them to fatten the earth with their descendants: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28).

Bara is  always used in reference to a newly-created thing, with God as the sole maker. It is a rarely-used word in the Bible, mentioned just over 50 times in a dense field of over 8600 unique words in the entire Old Testament. Another term for “create,” used approximately 2600 times, is used of both God and humanity.

Wait … There’s More

Here’s where it gets more interesting: bara is not only used for God’s external creative energy, but God’s internal activity in the human heart, as well. It is the word that King David wrote when he composed his famous psalm: “Create (bara) in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psa. 51:10). David had good reason to cry out this way, as he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then, to cover up her pregnancy, sent her husband to die in battle. 

David had many other failings, but he was still called “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22). How could this be? How could a man who made such serious errors in judgment be called godly? Because David did not harden his heart or make angry excuses when confronted with his sin. Instead, he presented his empty, broken heart before God and God fattened it with understanding and humility.

Heart Renovation – It Ain’t Easy

We are not talking about a warm, fuzzy feeling here. This is not a religious “high” that we get on a sweet little Bible retreat, only to have it fade on Monday when we return to the workaday world. Quite often, when God creates a new thing inside of us, it is bewildering. It can be very painful. 

It happened to me in late May, when newscasts released video footage of George Floyd begging for his life. In the past, I would have reflexively defended police officers to the last man and woman. I would have echoed that “All Lives Matter.” I probably would have pointed out Floyd’s checkered past and the fact that he was resisting arrest. I would have definitely rolled my eyes when others would say that I’d grown up with “white privilege.”

The cold fact remains: George Floyd died a cruel, unnecessary death. And his case was not an anomaly. Over the next few weeks, I was asked by black friends and colleagues, people I trust and respect, to say his name, as well as these names — each one representing a precious soul to God:

Ahmaud Arbery – an unarmed black man, gunned down by a father and son.

Breonna Taylor – a black woman killed in her own apartment as the result of a “no-knock” search warrant.

Atatiana Jefferson –  a black pre-med student, shot through the window of her own home by a police officer.

Botham Jean — a black accountant taken down in his apartment by a policewoman who claimed she thought she was entering her home.

Trayvon Martin – an unarmed black teen, shot and killed by a neighborhood watchman.

This is my confession: I’ve minimized the pervasive racism, oppression and suspicion that blacks (and other minorities) have suffered through the years. This includes slavery, forced relocation, native land theft, lynching, peonage, segregation, coolie trade, Jim Crow laws, job and housing discrimination, racial slurs and slander, denial of due process, furious defense of Confederate monuments and flags, white supremacist movements that keep popping up like noxious weeds. Many of these abhorrent institutions have died, but the racism that fueled them are alive and well today. For a long time, I wouldn’t acknowledge this from the white bubble in which I was comfortable living.

At the advice of a fellow minister, my wife and I recently picked up a copy of Be the Bridge by Latasha Morrison. So far, its been a jarring, gut-wrenching, unsettling read. Morrison is challenging the worldview I have held for most of my life. Like the scales falling from Paul’s eyes (Acts 9:18), my blindness to the plight of people of color is starting to fade. I want to learn more – and I want to be a bridge-builder, though I fully admit I’m not sure what that looks like right now.

Let’s Get Real

All of us have a natural tendency to stay in stasis. We don’t want our equilibrium to be upset, our normal way of thinking to be upended. But consider this: If God had not spoken into the void, the void would have been content to remain empty and formless. It would not have changed.

But God did speak.

God is speaking still.

May He speak into our hearts now to create something new, something divine — something that reflects the very heart of Jesus.

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