Andrew Sibley – Exploring Intelligent Design language in Genesis 2 and Acts 17: yatsar and poieō

Posted On May 21, 2016

This paper will look at two examples of design language in the Old and New Testaments that speak of God’s creative activity in terms of human craftsmanship. Given the approach of the Intelligent Design movement, which seeks to find evidence of divine intention as opposed to divine action or consideration of biblical timescales, it is necessary to consider how Scripture handles design language. So this study may offer some insight for understanding the validity of Intelligent Design arguments. It will be shown that some support may be gathered from Scripture, but care needs to taken not to separate too strongly design from the act of creation because of a holistic approach to creation found in Scripture. First for consideration is the Hebrew word yatsar (Hebrew יצַָר), used for the formation of Adam. This will be traced from the Genesis account of creation in the Hebrew Masoretic text, and then look at how it is translated into the Greek of the Septuagint (LXX). On occasions this is translated poieō (Greek ποιέω), but it is noted that poieō is also a valid translation of bara. The second consideration will be given to how Paul uses poieō in the Greek New Testament in Acts 17 and Romans 1, and this may offer useful insights for approaches to Christian apologetics.

Yatsar in Genesis and the Old Testament

In the second chapter of Genesis God is described as forming (Hebrew yatsar יצַָר) man from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7).

“The Lord God formed (yatsar יצַָר) the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

The same word, yatsar, is incidentally used for the creation of the animals and birds in Genesis 2:19-20, with Adam given the task of naming his fellow creatures. The metaphor used in Genesis 2 for the creation of Adam, then, might appear to be one of God acting as a potter, where the imagery is that of God taking raw matter from the earth and shaping man directly from the ground and giving him the breath of life. Unger and White point out that yatsar is a technical Hebrew term used in the pottery trade (figure 1), although it does have other related uses. It does however present an intriguing possibility for understanding God’s creation of Adam. But even if the potter metaphor is difficult to establish conclusively in this passage, the word yatsar still speaks of God in terms of the master craftsman, forming Adam from the dust of the ground. This section will now consider the strength of the potter metaphor in Genesis 2.

In the wider Old Testament passages the verb yatsar is sometimes specifically used to refer to the work of a potter in relation to God’s activity in shaping and forming the people of Israel. It appears as a noun to refer to the pottery of Israel that had been formed by God in Isaiah 29:16 (also Jeremiah 18:4-6) and God is often described as the one forming Israel throughout Isaiah (27:11, 44:2, 44:25, 45: 9-11, 49:5, 64:8). The feared sea monster was formed to play in the ocean (Ps. 104:26).

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