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Old Testament Word Studies

 

Yatsar

"Form, Fashion, Shape"

 

        There have been numerous attempts to conform the account of creation to the non-purposive, time-plus-chance notion prevalent in scientific circles. Yatsar is significant because its presence in Genesis argues against interpreting the biblical account as a non-telic development. Yatsar is Genesis 2:7 indicates that the activity of God’s fashioning the man was in accordance with sovereign design; the idea of forming or shaping something according to plan is at the heart of the meaning of the word.

 

Etymology

Definitions

        The lexicographers define the word yatsar as "to form, fashion" (BDB), or "to shape" (KBL). Each lexicon divides the discussion between human activity and divine activity, and within each section traces a development from the very literal meaning to the figurative uses, such as planning or framing ideas. The definitions reflect the idea of making something by design; thus, it seems to reflect the activity of an artist.

 

Hebrew Cognates

        Other words related to this verb are not very common, but what exists is very helpful. There is a noun yetser which means "a form, framing, purpose." It is the word for the "pottery" formed by the "potter" (which is the active participle yotser) in Isaiah 29:16; the "form" of the graven image in Habakkuk 2:18; and the "form" of man made from the dust of the ground in Psalm 103:14. It is also used in Genesis 6:5 for the "imagination" of the mind that is only evil continually. This usage of the word stresses the plans, purposes, or inclinations framed in the mind. It is this term that in Jewish theology conveys what is called the evil inclination of man.

        There is another noun, yetsurim, that occurs one time and refers to the "forms," i.e., the members of the body.

        Jastrow lists three other words from Rabbinic literature. There is yetsir, which means "creation" or "creature"; there is also yetsirah, which is either (1) "formation, creation," and "nature," or (2) the "potter’s workshop." A third word, yetsirin, refers to "molds" used for pressed olives or raisins.

        One may observe from this that the related words all have something to do with what is made according to a pattern, a design or a plan.

 

Cognate Languages

        The word yatsar had cognates in the Semitic languages with the basic idea of "fashion" or "create." There is an Akkadian word etseru1 that meant "design" or "shape," just as the Hebrew word yetser later did.

        Ugaritic also used the word with the same meaning. The word y-ts-r2 also appears in Phoenician as the term for a "potter." Later Hebrew (post-biblical or Mishnaic Hebrew) also uses yotser for the "potter" as well as for the "creator." Thus, one can see that the historical study of the word from its earliest appearance through the biblical period shows a continuity of meaning, and that this continuity is maintained in later Hebrew.

 

 

Usage

        A survey of how this word was used in the Old Testament will reveal that the basic, concrete uses occur when it describes the activities of people, and that the metaphorical uses abound when it portrays the activity of God. This, of course, is because God’s activities are communicated to people in human terms and meanings. Consequently, it is the category describing human activity which establishes controls on how the word is to be understood in the theological contexts.

 

Human Activity of Planning and Producing

        Products. The most common use of this general category refers to the process of producing a finished product out of raw materials by the application of a skill.

        The example most frequently used (because it was applied to God metaphorically) is that of the potter: "Shall the potter (yotser) be considered as equal with the clay, that what is made (ma‘aseh) should say to its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or that what is formed (yetser) say to him who formed (yatsar), ‘He has no understanding’?" (Isa. 29:16; see also Isa. 45:9; 64:7). In making the theological point, the passage refers to the physical activity of a human potter. A potter begins with malleable raw material and rearranges it into a spatially ordered system, a product due solely to the activity and plan of the potter. Unquestionably, the potter is greater than the product of his activity. In fact, there is an undeniable mark of the potter on his creation, whether that product is designed for some functional purpose or for ornament (or a combination of the two). Yatsar then seems to describe this whole process from the formulation of the plan to the skillful shaping of the vessel to fit that purpose.

        The same can be said for its use for a sculptor fashioning an image: "Those who fashion (yotsere) a graven image are all futile" (Isa. 44:9; see also Hab. 2:18/20). Although the futility of shaping idols is pointed out in this verse, the basic meaning of yatsar is unchanged. This basic meaning also applies to the engraver, fashioning his iron into a cutting tool over the coals (Isa. 44:12), or to the weaponeer who fashions weapons for war (Isa. 54:17a). In all the examples it is clear that some skilled artist is taking raw material and fashioning it into some purposeful product.

        Plans. Related to this physical activity is the use of the word group to describe mental activity. Once in the Bible yatsar refers to the formulation of a man’s plans: "Can a throne of destruction be allied with you, one which devises (yatsar) mischief by decree" (Ps. 95:20). No raw material is made explicit by the context, but plans are the product of mental activity applied to concrete situations. The quality of the product depends on the mental skill of the thinker, just as the quality of the pottery depends on the skill of the potter. More important, though, is the effect of the attitude of the person on what he devises, for if it is wicked and rebellious his thoughts will be evil (Gen. 6:8).

 

Divine Activity of Planning and Producing

(Metaphorical Usages)

        The use of the term in describing divine activity parallels the above categories in that there is the actual producing of a product and the formulation of plans.

        Production of animate objects. When the word describes the divine production of animate things there is a variety of materials used in the process. Sometimes God used inanimate raw material to produce life. Genesis records that "out of the ground Yahweh God formed (yatsar) every beast of the field" (2:19; see also 2:7, 8). The skill of the one forming is evidenced by the complexity of the finished product--life.

        Sometimes God used animate raw material such as in Amos 7:1 where it says that "he was forming a locust swarm when the spring crop began to sprout" (also: Isa. 27:11; 43:1, 21; 44:21; 45:9, 11). It seems that God was bringing the locusts to a point where they could be utilized as his instrument of judgment. He was causing them to multiply and gather in order that they might be the destructive force that they were, but he was doing it by controlling the laws of nature.

        In a similar way he made Israel into a great nation: "Thus says Yahweh, your creator, O Jacob, even he who formed you, O Israel" (Isa. 43:1). Here one would conclude that the term yatsar includes the historical processes and the natural laws of reproduction; in it all the nation was being carefully formed into the kind of nation that God wanted in the land. The natural processes of reproduction appear also in passages where God is said to have formed individuals in the womb (Jer. 1:5) or various parts of the individual body, such as the eye (Ps. 94:9), the heart (Ps. 33:15), or the spirit (Zech. 12:1). The emphasis in these verses must be on the skillful and purposeful shaping of the divine creator by means of natural processes.

        Production of inanimate objects. Here there seems to be little or no emphasis on the material used. For example, the prophet declares the word of Yahweh, saying, "I am Yahweh and there is none other, I form the light and create darkness, causing peace and creating calamity . . ." (Isa. 45:7, 18; see also Amos 4:13; Jer. 33:21; Pss. 74:17 and 95:5). Light, which is inanimate, is a good example of something formed by God to carry out a purpose. The skill of the one forming light is evident from our knowledge of the mystery of light.

        Formulation of plans. Yatsar within the sphere of divine activity also applies to the formulation of plans. God said, "Long ago I did it; from ancient times I planned it. Now I have brought it to pass, that you should turn fortified cities into ruinous heaps" (2 Kings 19:25; see also Isa. 22:11; 37:26; 46:11; Jer. 18:11; and Ps. 139:16). The word "planned" may not be the best choice here, for there is the tendency to think of fickle human planning. God’s plans are brought into reality because they do not depend on situations over which he may not have control. The psalmist expressed his amazement over God’s sovereignty when he realized that God not only formed him in the womb but programmed the events of his life: "When I was woven together in the depths of the earth [=womb], your eyes saw my unformed substance. All the days which you ordained (yatsar) for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" (NIV).

        It may be concluded that whenever the word yatsar is used, whether of man or of God, the emphasis is on the purposeful design in the mind of the one forming a plan, producing a useful product, or creating a work of art--like a piece of pottery.

 

Synonyms

        There are a number of other words in the language that could have been used in passages like these, but none with the exact same idea or range of meanings. The word bara’, "to create," parallels our word. It emphasizes the divine activity only (our word yatsar can be used of God and people); it also emphasizes that the finished product is perfect, new and fresh. But it does not include the idea of planning.

        Another word is khashab, which does include the ideas of thinking and devising like yatsar does. It appropriately is used in parallelism with yatsar, as in Jeremiah 18:11, which says, "behold, I am fashioning (yatsar) calamity against you and devising (khashab) a plan against you." But khashab says nothing of actually forming, only of thinking or accounting (by either man or God).

        Then there is the general word ‘asah, "to make," but it is too broad to provide any helpful similarities.

 

Translations

        Some of the better "commentaries" on the Hebrew word are the glosses used by the translations, for they summarize the equivalence in the translation’s ideas. For example, the Old Greek uses plasso most frequently to translate yatsar. This Greek word also translated bara’, khul, tsur, kun, natsar, ‘atsab, and ‘asah; but 37 times out of 50 it represented yatsar. It is a fitting word to use for the translation. Its noun plasma is a "fitted thing" or a "molded image, figure." The Greek verb means "to form," or "to mold," and is properly used of an artist who works in soft substances such as clay, wax, or earth. It too can have the metaphorical meaning of "imagine," i.e., to form something in the mind. The plassein Of Yahweh does not denote simply the natural side of creating, but it may also include the historical processes which are interpreted as decisive saving acts.

        Other words were also used in the Greek, but they are not as helpful. They include poieo, "to make," ktizo, "to create," keramus, "a potter," and kataskeuazo, to create, erect, furnish." Sometimes Hebrew yatsar was incorrectly translated, such as by peripoieo, "to preserve," in Isaiah 43:21, and by katadeiknumi, "to show," in Isaiah 45:18.

        But it is the word plasso that shows up most often in the New Testament. Paul underscores the discussion of the sovereignty of God by using the Old Testament example of the "potter:" :On the contrary, who are you? O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, why did you make me like this, will it?" This is a quotation from the LXX of Isaiah 29:16.

        The English word "to form" means "to shape, mold." It can also mean "to conceive" ( "to develop in the mind, to form abn opinion"). The more specific word, "shape," means to give something a particular form or shape." For example, it can mean "to cause to conform to a particular patter, to plan, to supervise.

        The Indo-European root, for example of "landscape," is gesceap, "form, creation." The Germanic variant skopo- signified "thing cut out." So the meanings of "form" or "shape" adequately translate this verb, emphasizing more of the pattern.

 

Significance

        It is proper to say on the basis of this evidence that yatsar combines the purposeful design of the artist with the skill involved in producing something very useful. When it describes the activity of God, all the emphases of the term become more complex and unusual. The materials used, the activities described, and the products produced by the divine artist show not only his sovereignty over the thing made, but also his superiority over human artists.

        By using this term to portray the work of God among humans, the biblical writers were stressing his masterful plan and his sovereign performance. Its use in Genesis 2:7 vividly pictures his specific, telic work in forming humans, in spite of the fact that the Bible says little about how he did this. Nevertheless, this initial comparison between God and the potter serves the later biblical writers as they taught that God carefully planned their frames, their lives, and their nation. To them, people did not just happen. Rather, the human being was the marvelous and wonderful creation of the divine craftsman who superintended whatever processes were necessary to prepare him as a useful servant.