The Lost World of Genesis One - John H. Walton
As promised to John Doyle, who recommended the book to me without having read it himself, here is a review of ‘The Lost World of Genesis One’ by John. H. Walton. It does not have much to do with core OST concerns, but has a lot to do with John’s own interests, mine, and those of anyone who has wrestled with the Genesis 1 text and wondered at the intensity of the conflict between science and biblical integrity over how it is to be understood in today’s confusing world.
The heart of the author’s contention (John H. Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College) is that we have, unknowingly, adopted an interpretation of Genesis 1 which reads into the text modern concerns about the material origins of life, whilst failing to ask what the concerns of its authors were in their time, and what key words like bārā (create) and āśâ(make, do), actually meant as used in their historical context. Walton argues that rather than outlining a scheme for material origins of things, Genesis 1 describes how functions were ordered by a divine being for the good of earth’s inhabitants, and more especially, how the cosmos was designed as a temple in which God himself wished to dwell.
The concern about material origins of the world, argues Walton, is a modern preoccupation of the last 200 years or so, with Genesis 1 falsely being brought into judgment for something it was never written or designed to do. Walton does not deny that God created the material world ex nihilo, but says that this is not what Genesis 1 sets out to describe.
The proposition is so far-reaching in its implications, and so contrary to our assumptions about Genesis 1, that even to accept it as a way of exploring the text is a huge step. Walton argues that God used the cosmological understanding of the ancient world to describe how the functions of that world were called into being and operated, leaving open the precise details of how the material nature of the world originated, in which those primary functions of sun, moon, stars, sea and land, vegetation, living beings operate.
The Genesis account, argues Walton, disengages with science, and its concern with the investigation of matter, and instead focuses on metaphysical questions of how the universe was ordered by God. One of the outstanding arguments of the book is the distinction Walton is able to draw, time and again, between the valid areas of competence of science, in its concern with the material universe, and the competence of metaphysics, which concerns itself with why things exist, and to what end they exist. Science oversteps its competence when it tries to deny a metaphysical dimension to life. Metaphysics oversteps its competence when it tries to dictate or limit how a scientific exploration of the material universe should be conducted.
The interpretation of Genesis 1 as an account, using ancient cosmology, of the origins of the functions of things in an ordered universe, is maybe for us a very new way of reading the creation story. In this account, God is described as active within creation, and in the historic sequence of acts brought order out of chaos. Appealing to ancient creation accounts in different cultures, Walton shows how these too had a focus on functional rather than material origins. The Hebrew account is similar to them in this respect, whilst differing in other key respects – one of which would be the enhanced roles given in the Hebrew account for man and woman, and the contrasting roles of the gods, set against the role of the Hebrew deity.
Walton then explores the meaning of the Hebrew word bārā (create), in its context, and in the 50 usages in the Old Testament, finding that in none of its usages does the direct object unambiguously refer to matter, but in a large percentage of the contexts, a direct object referring to function is intended. Whilst this would not be taken as proof that bārā requires a direct object of function rather than matter, it clears the way for Walton to explore the possibility that this is indeed how the word is being used in Genesis 1. The logic of the passage then begins to appear in a very powerful new light, supporting the contention.
In this contention, the word beginning in Genesis 1:1 raises the question: beginning of what? Rather than being a statement of the beginning of the material universe, Walton argues that it means beginning of this seven day period, whenever that may have been in relation to a prior material origin of things. It is a literary rather than literal introduction to the account. Walton argues that this interpretation is supported by the commonly acknowledged division of Genesis into sections introduced eleven times by the transitionary formula ‘This is the account (tôlĕdôt) of’. Not only does this show that the author did use literary introductions to sections, but that beginning would be the logical term to introduce such a sequence.
In Walton’s scheme, Days 1-3 establish functions of the universe; Days 4-6 establish functionaries (the aspects of the created universe through which functions were to operate), and Day 7, the day of divine rest, the sabbath, is the day when God takes residence within His creation. The ‘rest’ is not so much a ceasing from all activity, as a ceasing of one kind of activity, the establishing of functions, so that another type of activity, the purposes for which the functions were established, can ensue. Further, Walton argues that this culmination of divine creative activity on Day 7 is designed to echo the creation of a temple, which in the Hebrew mind as in the temples of other cultures was seen as a cosmos in miniature. The outstanding difference here is that the cosmos itself is presented, in its original state, as the temple.
Walton works through his argument in the form of 18 propositions. In proposition 14, he argues that while the Genesis creation account itself is a unique historical occurrence, as seen through the eyes and thought-forms of ancient cosmology and not modern investigative science, the involvement of God within His creation has been continuous. God has not created the world and left it to its own devices, to ‘run down’, as suggested by both deist and theist accounts.
Walton then looks at three contrasting views of Genesis 1, and finds shortcomings with each of them, in contrast to his own proposed interpretation.
Walton argues that the ‘Young Earth Creation’ view, (interestingly only arising in its current form in the 18th century, at the beginning of our modern period), goes too far in its understanding of what we need to do to defend the biblical text, and too far in its belief that the Bible must be read scientifically. On the other hand, he argues that the ‘Old Earth Creation’ view, attempting to accommodate Genesis to the near unanimity of scientific opinion on the vast age of the universe, does violence to the text and does not go far enough in a radical interpretation which would achieve such an accommodation if the thesis of the creation of functions were accepted.
In Proposition 14 Walton argues that the Framework Hypothesis, in which the acknowledged literary qualities of Genesis 1 (eg the structure paralleling Days 1-3 with 4-6, etc) with its theological affirmations about God are seen as the key meaning of the text, also has shortcomings (would the ancient Hebrews have thought purely in literary or theological terms?), and would be enhanced if the functional creation view was adopted alongside it.
Finally, in Propositions 15 through to 18, Walton looks at the teleological (to do with purpose) emphasis of Genesis 1 in relation to modern science, and argues that while the proper concern of science is not with teleology, neither should science deny the possibility of such concerns outside its own proper sphere of interest. Likewise metaphysics should not impose its interests on the disinterested pursuit of science. Walton has practical proposals to bring which would affect the teaching of science and creation in state (public) school settings – at the moment, the latter (in the US) being rigorously prohibited, and the former, in Walton’s view, inappropriately denying the proper sphere of discussion concerning the latter.
Walton presents a very satisfying interpretation of Genesis 1, with the authority of a scholar well versed in the Hebrew language, texts and worldview. It deserves to be taken seriously by all contenders in the arguments for a present-day understanding of Genesis and the creation story. This could be one of the best books John never read.