Thinking Hebraically About God’s Creation

by Lois Tverberg & Bruce Okkema

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)

It’s impossible not to praise God for his wonderful handiwork in all the natural beauty around us. Much of the Bible also seems to rejoice in God’s beautiful world. Certainly Jesus peppered his preaching with meditations about such things as mustard seeds, ravens, and lilies of the field. God declared the creation “very good,” and he often used its beauty and remarkable design to point to himself.

When Job came to God with the ultimate questions of life, God’s response was to describe the grandeur of creation — the constellations, the rain and thunder, the ostriches and mountain goats. Who created these, God asked? And could Job do the same (Job 38-41)? An honest look at the gorgeous, intricate design of this world should leave us humbled, realizing that God has reasons for his actions that are often beyond our understanding.

As filled as the Scriptures are with meditations on God’s handiwork, many of us haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how we should relate to the natural world. If anything, some of us are put off by people who love nature too much. What attitude does God want us to have, that neither idolizes his creation, nor neglects his calling to care for his garden and rule as his representatives on earth? If we look again at the scriptures in their Hebraic context, we find that God actually does give us instruction in these things.

Having an Attitude of Thanksgiving

In Psalm 24:1 it says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” and the rabbis of Jesus’ day believed everything we enjoy in life should cause us to thank God. As a result, they instituted a wonderful system of brief prayers of “blessing” (berachah, pronounced BRA-khah, plural – berachot) that were prayed dozens of times throughout the day.

The idea was not to bless objects to make them holy, but to “bless the Lord” for each good thing, focusing on him as the source of all blessing. When Paul challenged his readers to “pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thes. 5:16 -18), he was probably thinking of this practice that both he and Jesus most likely took part in, and orthodox Jews do even to this day.1

In the most ordinary things they found ways of praising God, and many of these focused on reminding oneself of God’s sustenance of our lives and of creation. A person’s first thoughts upon waking were to thank God for giving them life to live another day: “I thank you, living and eternal King, for returning my soul within me in compassion, great is your faithfulness.”

They probably would have been awaken by a rooster’s crow. So in the first century they would have said, “Blessed is he who has given to the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night.” And, when they opened their eyes they said, “Blessed is he who opens the eyes of the blind!” No day could start without numerous reminders of God’s love, and these small prayers arose often through their day.2

Encountering the world around them gave them many reasons to bless the Lord. When they saw the first flowers on the trees in the spring, they said, “Blessed is he who did not omit anything from the world, and created within it good creations and good trees for people to enjoy!” When they heard thunder or an earthquake they said, “Blessed is he whose strength and power fill the world!” (Next time there is a windstorm, step outside and meditate on God’s awesome power.) Even when they smelled an orange or lemon, it was an occasion to bless the Lord by saying, ”Blessed is he who gives pleasant fragrance to fruit.”

I find it interesting that they believed that even man-made things were ultimately created by God. One of the main blessings that is said before eating is, “Blessed is he who brings forth bread from the earth.” If you think about it, however, bread does not come directly from the earth! It is an “artificial” product that has been processed and modified by human effort, but yet the ancients saw that God should be thanked for it.

They have other prayers to thank God for things like medicine and human intelligence too. What an idea! Could we thank God for even our technology, seeing it as God’s handiwork, made through the gift of our minds and hands?

What was the point of these prayers? The effect was to instill a continual feeling of gratitude and a sense of God’s presence around them. We do a similar thing in a smaller way when as children we learn to say “thank you” or to pray before meals. Along with the habit of saying “thank you,” we develop an inward attitude of gratefulness whenever we receive some kindness.

Similarly, when most of us sit down in front of a table of food, we immediately have the urge to fold our hands together — an ingrained reminder that we should thank God. Through an outward practice, we learn an inward attitude. When Paul and other Jews learned the habit of these prayers, they cultivated in themselves a much more extensive habit of gratitude to God.

Looking at God’s creation, it seems that our response should be to cultivate in ourselves an attitude like this — feeling humbled by God’s presence, and grateful for his gracious care.

Bal Tashchit – Do Not Destroy

How does our worship of God for his creation impact our actions? Does it mean that we can’t modify the earth or use it for our needs? Western Christians tend to disconnect God with his creation, and see the world as entirely ours for disposal as we see fit. This is because we tend to see God as far away in heaven, uninterested in material things.

This attitude comes from our Greek cultural ancestors, who considered the material world to be worthless and evil, and God as utterly unconcerned with it. The Scriptures, in contrast, say repeatedly that God created the world very good, and that creation itself groans for its redemption which will come in the end (Rom 8:21).

We might think God never commented on how we should treat the earth, but the rabbis pointed out that God shared his feelings in a specific case in Deuteronomy 20:19. It says, “When you lay siege and battle against a city for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy (lo tashchit) its trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them?”

In this verse, God forbade the destruction of the fruit trees outside of cities that were under siege by the Israelites during war. It was common practice during wartime to destroy the land — to chop down the trees and poison the fields by sowing them with salt. God expressly forbade this kind of wanton destruction and declared that the trees were “innocent bystanders” who should not be victims of the war.

The rabbis concluded that if God forbade the destruction of the environment in the dire situation of war, he must certainly oppose it during peacetime. They then reasoned that modifying the environment to build useful things to serve human needs is fine, but needless destruction is wrong.

They also concluded that the reason destroying fruit trees was forbidden was because God gave the trees to provide food, and when we destroy any useful thing, we insult God’s gracious care for us. To them, these words against needless destruction should teach us not to waste any useful thing. The ethical command was called bal tashchit (bahl-tahsh-KEET), meaning “do not destroy.”3

Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the commandment against bal tashchit. (Talmud, Kiddushin 32a, written about 500 AD)

Because of this interpretation of Deuteronomy 20:19, there has been an ethic of conservation and avoidance of waste in Judaism for thousands of years. They see it as an act of reverence for God. One 18th century rabbi, Sampson Hirsch, said that when we preserve the world around us, we show that we believe that God owns all and is above all.

If we needlessly destroy, we show our self-centeredness and lack of regard for the gifts and will of God. They said that one mark of a righteous person was that he appreciates God’s wonderful design of everything so much that seeing the needless destruction of anything brings him pain. A wicked person doesn’t see God’s handiwork and selfishly wants to destroy, just to show his own power. Waste and excess therefore come from self-idolatry, when we say we are sovereign over our world, not God himself.

What if we regarded all our possessions as gifts from God? Would we be wasteful and throw away usable things? Would we instead try to give them to someone who needs them? What we do with our gifts shows how we see the One who gave them to us; and when we conserve resources to share them with others, we are actually fulfilling both the command to love God and the command to love our neighbor. We are showing our gratitude to the God who provides for us, and we are caring for those around us as well.

Revering the God of Creation

Human knowledge has barely begun to understand the beautiful intricacy of every atom, cell, tree, planet and galaxy. If God in his infinite knowledge called his design of the world “very good,” it must show his brilliance and magnificence in ways beyond what we could ever imagine. It shouldn’t surprise us to hear that when God created the universe, “the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy” (Job 38:7)!

Instilling in ourselves a reverence for God’s work will make us feel like the world is saturated with God’s presence, and that we are under his constant care. The Lord told us to love him with all of our hearts, minds and souls, and being mindful of his glory in all that is around us will take us a long way toward that goal.

Majesty In Creation

A great designer fashioned this
with such detail that we will miss
the unity and regal power
that hides within the smallest flower.
It spreads itself across the sky
we cannot know how far or high.

Stop and listen, you will hear
a croaking frog, a running deer,
an eagle flying overhead,
a chipmunk dashing just ahead.
Each life designed for such a thing,
as best it suits Creator King.

It all together fits as one,
there’s not one place that’s left undone.
Yet nothing ever stays the same,
and when you look, all bears his name.
Take a walk, drink in the glory,
then go out and tell his story.


For those who wish to cut back on waste by giving away unwanted items, check out This is a network of email groups in which members offer unwanted items to other list readers who live in the same area. Groups are available all over the U.S and around the world.


1 In several places the gospels suggest that Jesus and his audience participated in the Jewish practice of “blessing the Lord.” See “The Richness of Jewish Prayer.” See also Jesus the Jewish Theologian, B. Young, Hendrickson © 1995, pp. 119 – 125.

2 In the first century, these prayers simply began with “Blessed is he,” but now each prayer begins with “Blessed art Thou, King of the Universe,” in order to remind the speaker of God’s sovereignty. A nice list of blessings is available from Hebrew for Christians.

3 More on Bal Tashchit in Jewish tradition at the following links:
Bal Taschit: The Torah Prohibits Wasteful Destruction
Judaism and Environmentalism: Bal Taschit

Photos: Luca Micheli on Unsplash, Yoksel 🌿 Zok on Unsplash, Michael Weidner on Unsplash

To Be the Image of God

by Lois Tverberg

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

In examining the creation account, we see that many of its profound ideas are only clear when read within its Eastern cultural way of communicating truth through images and relationships.1 A main point of the epic is to describe the creation of mankind, and to describe man’s unique relationship to God and to his world. Understanding this idea, as well as the revolutionary concept that we are made “in the image of God” is foundational to many later teachings in the Scriptures, including those of Jesus.

The Significance of Man

Reading Genesis in Hebrew reveals many wonderful wordplays that show the relationship of man to the rest of creation. The word for ground is adamah, and of course the first human is called Adam.

The name perfectly fits the scene because God formed Adam from the adamah, and Adam’s skin is red (adom, in Hebrew), like the ground. Adam is given the task of working the adamah, and when Adam dies, he will return to the adamah. God declared that because he sinned, “dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19).

What does the idea mean that we were made “in the image of God,” b’tzelem elohim? To an ancient person, a god’s “image” was its physical representation on earth. Idols were the images of the gods, as well as physical objects of worship like the sun and moon.

Kings were also often said to be the “images” of gods — they were the representative of a god on earth, with the belief that the gods reigned over their people through the king’s commands. This idea seems to be a part of the intent of Genesis, because right after humanity was said to be in the image of God, humanity was given the task of ruling over the earth (Gen. 1:28). We were given the job of being God’s caring presence, fulfilling his will toward the rest of creation.

From these two ideas, that Adam comes from the adamah, but is the representative of God on earth, one rabbi made a perceptive observation. He said, “A person should always carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one should be written, ‘I am but dust and ashes,’ and the other, ‘All of creation was made for my sake.'”2

We should see both our frailness and short life on this earth, and our “feet of clay” — our tendency to sin — but yet we should also remind ourselves that we have a unique relationship to God and authority over all the earth. Acknowledging both truths in balance will keep us from feeling either too arrogant or too insignificant.

All Humans Bear the Image of God

The implications of man as the “image of God” comes up repeatedly in the Bible. After the flood, God made new pronouncements about the penalty for violence and said, “And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen. 9:5-6). The idea here is that an assault on any human is an affront on God himself, and God will be sure to hold the perpetrator accountable.

All violence and even insults are ultimately against the God who made us. One amusing rabbinic parable points this out:

A famous rabbi was out riding and was feeling elated because he had studied much Torah. There he chanced to meet an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, rabbi.” He, however, did not return his greeting but instead said to him, “Racca! (empty one or good for nothing) How ugly you are! Is everyone in your town as ugly as you are?”

The man replied, “I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel that you made.'” When the rabbi realized that he had sinned, he dismounted from the donkey and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, “I submit myself to you, forgive me!”3

The point of the parable is that any time we insult someone, we are not just defaming that person, but the God who made him. After all, he is the one who fashioned him according to his specifications. Even more importantly, if our creator made each human to reflect his own image, when we call another “ugly,” we are insulting God as well. We actually are sinning twice, by calling God not only a poor artist, but ugly too!

James also uses the idea of the “image of God” to point out the incongruity of worshipping God while insulting others:

With [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. (Ja. 3:9-10)

Every human being should be treated as a special creation of God, because all are precious to him. This idea of the enormous value of human life also was part of the teaching of the rabbis:

Every individual is equally significant before God, since every man was created in his image. Therefore man was created on his own, to teach you that whoever destroys one soul is regarded by the Torah as if he had destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves one soul, is regarded as if he had saved a whole world.4

Male and Female He Created Them

Another wonderful idea about humanity can be found in a Hebraic reading of the story of the creation of Eve from Adam. The word we have traditionally translated as “rib,” tzela, is never used this way in the rest of the Bible. Rather, it always means “side” and when the phrase “one side” of something is used, it means one half, or one face of a building or object. (See Ex. 25:12, Ex. 26:26 or Ex. 37:3.)

When God takes out of Adam echat mitzelotav — literally “one of his sides” — the picture is really that somehow God split Adam in half and formed one half into Eve. Adam then calls her “flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone,” not just “one of my bones.” The image is that one human was separated into man and woman so that they could have companionship with each other. The complementarity between men and women is inherent in the way they were formed by being taken apart from each other, so that one supplies what the other one lacks.

This actually solves a mystery in the text. In Genesis 1:27, God created both male and female, but in Genesis 2:24, it appears that Eve is created after Adam. How could this be so? Because both were present in the first person, and the woman appears after being separated from the man.

Supporting this, throughout the entire story, the word “adam” is a generic term meaning “human,” not specifically male. In Genesis 5:2, it says so explicitly: “He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them adam.”

In the original Hebrew text, all references to the first human are neutral until God takes some of Adam’s flesh and makes a woman — ishah, in Hebrew. Only at that point is Adam called ish, a man. The Hebrew word ishah hints at her origins from within the ish, something that we can mimic in English, with the words “man” and “woman.” Interestingly, Adam is never called an ish until the ishah has been separated from him. The text seems to imply that male and female cannot define themselves fully as human without the other.5

God’s Intention for Marriage

The next verse about marriage deepens this metaphor even more. By saying, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and dabaq (be united, cleave) to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). It is describing how in marriage, a man and a woman together become what God intended from the very beginning, when the separation of one half from the other half is reversed.

Even the word we translate as “cleave” or “hold fast” in this verse, dabaq, has a lovely picture behind it. The word dabaq also can mean “to fall in love with” as when Shechem “was deeply attracted to,” dabaq, Dinah in Genesis 34:3.

1 Kings 11:2 also says that “Solomon dabaq his foreign wives in love,” which one version renders, “Solomon was irresistibly attracted to them” (New English Translation). Putting all of this together, Genesis 2:24 is saying that the reason women and men fall in love and marry is from their desire to return to this first oneness, both physically and spiritually, that was in God’s design from the very beginning.

This clarifies Jesus’ words about God’s intentions for marriage:

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mt. 19:3-6)

Jesus is describing God’s original desire for marriage, that it would be a permanent union, giving companionship and completion to both persons. When he says about divorce that “it was not this way from the beginning,” he is looking beyond the law of Moses and seeing God’s perfect plan in Genesis. He concludes that when God himself puts together what he separated at first, no one should try to tear it apart.6

Imitating the One Whose Image We Bear

If all of us have God’s image within us, how should it impact the way we live? One rabbinic commentary on Genesis answers this question with a delightful story:

When creation was all but ended, only humanity was left to be created. God began to say, ‘Let us make man in our likeness,’ but some protests arose in heaven! First Truth came and fell before God’s throne, and in humility exclaimed, “Please, O God, do not call into being a creature who is beset with the vice of lying, who will tread truth under his feet!” Peace also agreed, and said, “Why, O Lord, shall this creature appear on earth, a creature so full of strife and contention, to disturb the peace and harmony of thy creation? He will carry the flame of quarrel and ill-will in his trail; he will bring about war and destruction in his eagerness for gain and conquest.”

While they were pleading against the creation of man, another voice was heard, the soft voice of Mercy. “King of the universe,” the voice exclaimed in all its mildness, “if you create a being in thy likeness, it will be a noble creature striving to imitate thy attributes by its actions. I see man now with God’s breath in his nostrils, seeking to perform his great mission, to do his noble work. I see him approaching the humble hut, seeking out those who are distressed and wretched to comfort them, drying the tears of the afflicted and despondent, raising up them that are bowed down in spirit, reaching his helping hand to those who are in need of help, speaking peace to the heart of the widow, and giving shelter to the fatherless. Such a creature cannot fail to be a glory to his maker.’ The Creator approved of the pleadings of Mercy, and called man into being.7

This story is saying that when humans show the kindness and compassion of our creator, then we reach our true potential as his creation by reflecting his image on earth. It points out man’s potential for good, even while acknowledging man’s potential for evil.

Of course the only person who truly lived up to this was Jesus: he completely reflected the image of God without succumbing to evil. Interestingly, Paul says that he was the “very image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Because he is the Son of God, he reflected the character and nature of God in a way unparalleled by any mere man.

Through his work on earth, God’s sacrificial love and desire to forgive was revealed like never before, when it was portrayed in human form. He is our model for life as it was meant to be lived. By becoming transformed into his image, we achieve our true potential for reflecting the glory of God.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom. 8:29)

[We] are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22-24)


1 See the article “Thinking Hebraically About God’s Creation.”

2 Rabbi Simcha Bunam, who lived in the early 19th century, as quoted by J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (Bell Tower, New York, 2000), p.185.

3 Babylonian Talmud, Ta’an. 20a-b1, quoted by Brad Young in The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, (Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1998), p. 9.

4 Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5 The date of the saying would be between 200 BC – 200 AD, which could be either before or after Jesus’ time.

5 Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary on Genesis. (Jewish Publication Society, New York, 1989), p. 23.

6 David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1998) p. 71-76. One saying went so far as to say that “A man without a wife is half a man” stressing the importance of marriage. Jesus, however, says that not all are called to it, and some put it aside out of dedication to God’s work (Matt. 19:11). See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin (En-Gedi, Holland, MI, 2005) for more.

7 Adapted from Genesis Rabbah 8, which dates from the 5-6th centuries AD.

Photos: Laura Dewilde on Unsplash, Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], on Unsplash