John Walton's "The Lost World of Genesis One" - Review

John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.
Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009.

The Torah is fascinating to me. The more one digs and investigates, the greater the rewards. I love the Old Testament, these sacred texts work as building blocks; the poetic books, prophets and historical books are based and have their foundation on the Torah. If my understanding of the Torah is tainted, there is a good chance that somewhere down the line I will draw some wrong conclusions.

With my love of the Old Testament, Ancient Near Eastern cosmology (a more specific area of study) caught my attention and subsequently expended much of my scholastic activity. Needless to say, this is a major contributor to understanding the text in its ancient cultural context, i.e. the way the original audience would have heard (and later read) it.

A student who seriously endeavors to “take on” this investigative effort can hardly do so without coming across the volumes of scholarship by Dr. John Walton, a giant in this field of study. Dr. Walton is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. His specialty of study has largely included the book of Genesis and naturally Ancient Near East (ANE) literature. He relates the culture of the times to the interpretation of the OT to bring further insight to the authorities and audience behind the sacred texts, resulting in a better understanding and appreciation among believers.

I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Walton when attending a short seminar he did at a university in a neighboring city. I was impressed with the extent of his knowledge and the earnest desire he portrayed in being as true to the original intent of the textual authority as possible. I then picked up numerous of his works and have continued to examine them as time permits. Having recently finished reading his 2009 work in the “Lost World” series entitled “The Lost World of Genesis One”, I wanted to share some of his intriguing challenges to the traditional interpretations of Genesis.[1]

He begins with an interpretational fundamental, of which I heartily concur,

“The Old Testament does communicate to us and it was written for us, and for all humankind. But it was not written to us. It was written to Israel. It is God’s revelation of himself to Israel and secondarily through Israel to everyone else…when we read a text written in another language and addressed to another culture, we must translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to understand the text fully…It is far too easy to let our own ideas creep in and subtly (or at times not so subtly) bend or twist the material to fit our own context…[2] Much to our dismay then, we will find that the text is impervious to many of the questions that consume us in today’s dialogues. Though we long for the Bible to weigh in on these issues and give us biblical perspectives or answers, we dare not impose such an obligation on the text.”[3]

Inevitably, it is not just about translation, he offers,

“The minute anyone (professional or amateur) attempts to translate the culture, we run the risk of making the text communicate something it never intended. Rather than translating the culture, then, we need to try to enter the culture. When people want to study the Bible seriously, one of the steps they take is to learn the language. As I teach language students, I am still always faced with the challenge of persuading them that they will not succeed simply by learning enough of the language to engage in translation.”[4]

If we are to be serious students of the text, we have to deal justly with the ancient nature of the biblical documents. This does not have to scare us or threaten to undo all in which we believe, but rather is freeing from defending the biblical narrative of something it never intended to communicate.

“If we attempt to commandeer the text to address our issues, we distort it in the process…we must be aware of the danger that lurks when we impose our own cultural ideas on the text without thinking. The Bible’s message must not be subjected to cultural imperialism.”[5]

In this book, Dr. Walton succinctly presents eighteen easy-to-comprehend propositions detailing a

“careful reconsideration of the nature of Genesis 1”[6]
that does not involve 1) promotion of evolution,[7] 2) undermining scriptural authority,[8] or 3) exegetical elitism,[9] but rather affirms adamantly that

“God is the one responsible for creation in every respect. He has a purpose and a goal as he creates intentionally. The mechanisms that he used to bring the cosmos into material existence are of little consequence as long as they are seen as the tools in his hands.”[10]

“Face-value” and “literal reading”[11] of the text are stressed throughout the propositions. The problem with our modern view of Genesis (as presented in this work) is we overlay our ideas of ontology and force a material creation interpretation upon the text, when such questions would never have been asked or understood by the original hearers. For instance, Walton states,

“God has communicated through human authors and through their intentions. The human author’s communication is inspired and carries authority. It cannot be cast aside abruptly for modern thinking.”[12]

His point is that it was not the intention of Genesis to provide us with a sound scientific telling of material origins.

“There is not a single instance in the Old Testament of God giving scientific information that transcended the understanding of the Israelite audience. If he is consistently communicating to them in terms of their world and understanding, then why should we expect to find modern science woven between the lines? People who value the Bible do not need to make it ‘speak science’ to salvage its truth claims or credibility.”[13]

In Proposition 1, Walton details the problem of making Genesis 1 about science. The ancient world’s thought about origins and the universe (cosmology) is nothing like our perspectives today.

“What did it mean to someone in the ancient world to say that the world existed? What sort of activity brought the world into that state of existence and meaning? What constituted a creative act?...I propose that people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system.”[14]

He goes into great detail as to what he means by “ordered system” here. The opposite of this view being investigated is called “concordism.”[15]

“All of this indicates that cosmic creation in the ancient world was not viewed primarily as a process by which matter was brought into being, but as a process by which functions, roles, order, jurisdiction, organization and stability were established.”[16]

In the Genesis worldview, something was thought to “exist” when it had functionality. Material existence did not equate “existence” in the ANE. This concept is foreign to our worldview.

“In the ancient world, what was most crucial and significant to their understanding of existence was the way that the parts of the cosmos functioned, not their material status.”[17]

Walton gives multiple citations from ancient literary works for the purpose of illustrating the ANE worldview that

“to create something (cause it to exist) in the ancient world means to give it a function, not material is from this reading of the literature that we may deduce a functional ontology in the ancient world – that is that they offer accounts of functional origins rather than accounts of material origins.”[18]

He also states, 

"we [as moderns] tend to think of the cosmos as a machine and argue whether someone is running the machine or not. The ancient world viewed the cosmos more like a company or a kingdom.”[19]

“If God were intent on making his revelation correspond to science, we have to ask which science…it would neither correspond to last century’s scientific consensus nor to that which may develop in the next century…what is accepted as true today [in science], may not be accepted as true tomorrow, because what science provides is the best explanation of the data at the time…if God aligned revelation with one particular science, it would have been unintelligible to people who lived prior to the time of that science, and it would be obsolete to those who live after that time. We gain nothing by bringing God’s revelation into accordance with today’s science. In contrast, it makes perfect sense that God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood.”

The communication proposed is order and function against chaos and meaninglessness.

“Functions are far more important than materials.”[21]

To summarize the propositions designated as the “cosmic temple inauguration view”[22] he features:

· The Hebrew word bārā ברא (“create”) is a verb, and is functional. He supplies tables as evidence showing its lexicographical nature and orientation.[23] It does not describe a creation of material origins out of nothing (ex nihilo), but rather deals with assigning functions and order to God’s creation.

· In Gen. 1:2 a material state of chaotic cosmos is introduced that is ordered and given functionality throughout the creation week.

· Throughout the first three days, the functions of life are provided; time, weather and food.

· On days four to six, the assignments pertaining to the cosmos’ functionary roles and spheres are discussed. There are material components involved, but the text only deals with them on a functional level (celestial bodies for signs, seasons, days an years; human beings in God’s image, male and female, with the task of subduing and ruling).[24]

· “It is good” is continually reiterated as a result of God’s work being functional in relation to mankind.

He touches on the Hebraic component of re-creation during the Genesis flood where the world returns temporarily to a primordial state of chaos, disorder and nonfunctional state of turmoil.

“What follows is a re-creation text as the land emerges again from the waters and the blessing is reiterated.”

This proves functionality at work in this creation as well. As a result God makes a promise as Creator (Gen. 8:22). In that promise,

“we find the same three major functions in reverse order: food, weather and time, never to cease. The author is well aware that these are the main categories in the operation of this world that God has organized.”

Proposition 7 discusses the Sabbath. The presentation provided here gives an alternative way to view it. What constitutes as “rest”? He ties the “rest” to his presence in the newly ordered and functional cosmic temple in the way a king “rests” on a throne and runs his kingdom from it.

“Obviously, God is not asking us to imitate his sabbath rest by taking the functional controls. I would suggest that instead he is asking us to recognize that he is at the controls, not us. When we ‘rest’ on the sabbath, we recognize him as the author of order and the one who brings rest (stability) to our lives and world. We take our hands off the controls of our lives and acknowledge him as the one who is in control.”[25]

“He continues to sustain the functions moment by moment…Creation language is used more in the Bible for God’s sustaining work (i.e., his ongoing work as Creator) than it is for his originating work…He is not only the Creator of the original state of affairs but of all present and future realities.”[26]

He makes a great observation that in contrast to other ANE creation accounts, creation is for humanity’s benefit, not humanity for the benefit of the deity. This is not unlike Jesus’ words in Mk 2:27, 

“The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath…”

Day seven climaxes with the resting of God from his activity of assigning functionality. Resting is an action that happens (as discussed) in the temple of a deity (well known and exemplified in the culture).

“Deity rests in temples, and only in a temple.”[27]

God takes control of his newly ordered and now functional cosmological temple.

“The account can then be seen to be a seven-day inauguration of the cosmic temple, setting up its functions for the benefit of humanity, with God dwelling in relationship with his creatures.”[28]

He further concludes that the proposed interpretation of Genesis 1 communicates:[29]

· That the world operates expressly by Yahweh’s design, fiat and under his constant supervision for the accomplishment of his purposes (as deity was always the express causation of cosmology in the ancient world).

· The ordered and functional cosmos orchestrated by Yahweh is his temple from where he rules. This

“temple was seen as being at the center of the ordered world as God established and preserved order in the world from the temple.”[30] 

“The most central truth to the creation account is that the world is a place for God’s presence…”[31]

In Proposition 8, Walton gives this summary:

· In the Bible and in the ancient Near East the temple is viewed as a microcosm.

· The temple is designed with the imagery of the cosmos.

· The temple is related to the functions of the cosmos.

· The creation of the temple is parallel to the creation of the cosmos.

· In the Bible the cosmos can be viewed as a temple.

“When this information is combined with the discoveries of the last chapter – that deity rests in a temple, and that therefore Genesis 1 would be viewed as a temple text – we gain a different perspective on the nature of the Genesis creation account.”[32]

Everything in the cosmos functions on behalf of mankind who are his image bearers.

“A very clear statement must be made: Viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as temple does not in any way suggest or imply that God was uninvolved in material origins – it only contends that Genesis 1 is not that story. To the author and audience of Genesis, material origins were simply not a priority. To that audience, however, it would likewise have been unthinkable that God was somehow uninvolved in the material origins of creation.”[33]
I love his comment,
“This is not a view that has been rejected by other scholars; it is simply one they never considered because their material ontology was a blind presupposition for which no alternative was ever considered.”[34]

In Proposition 10 he succinctly states,
“The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Do Not Concern Material Origins.”[35]

Of the traditional view he states,

“the comfort of our traditional worldview is an insufficient basis for such a conclusion. We must be led by the text. A material interest cannot be assumed by default, it must be demonstrated, and we must ask ourselves why we are so interested in seeing the account in material terms…it is difficult to sustain a case that the account is interested in material origins if one does not already come with that presupposition.”[36]

Walton also stresses that Genesis contributes nothing to the discussion about the age of the earth, but also points out,

“The point is not that the biblical text therefore supports an old earth, but simply that there is no biblical position on the age of the earth.”[37]

I appreciated his mention of mankind being stewards of God’s ordered cosmos, 

“it is not ours to exploit. We do not have natural resources, we have sacred resources…the blessing he granted was that he gave us the permission and ability to subdue and rule. We are stewards.”[38]

Walton also writes,

“All of the rest of creation functions in relationship to humankind, and humankind serves the rest of creation as God’s vice-regent. Among the many things that the image of God may signify and imply, one of them, and probably the main one, is that people are delegated a godlike role (function) in the world where he places them.

This concept is replete throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.Our modern way of viewing the cosmos tends to compartmentalize spiritual and physical as being mutually exclusive. This is not the way the audience of Genesis would have thought or understood it.

“A biblical view of God’s role as Creator in the world does not require a mutually exclusive dichotomy between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural,’ though the reigning paradigms are built on that dichotomy.”[39]

“Mostly people use the word [literal] to express that they want to understand what the text ‘really says.’ The question is, what criteria make that determination?..Usually our search to find out what a text ‘really says’ must focus on the intended communication of the author and the ability of the audience to receive that same intended message.”[40]

He summarizes that a “face-value” reading:

· Recognizes Genesis 1 for the ancient document that it is;

· Finds no reason to impose a material ontology on the text;

· Finds no reason to require the finding of scientific information between the lines;

· Avoids reducing Genesis 1 to merely literary or theological expressions;

· Poses no conflict with scientific thinking to the extent that it recognizes that the text does not offer scientific explanations.[41]

In Proposition 10, he brings up the issue of death. He points out,

“Human resistance to death was not the result of immortal bodies…no, the reason we were not subject to death [before the fall] was because an antidote had been provided to our natural mortality though the mechanism of the tree of life in the garden…without access to the tree of life, humans were doomed to the natural mortality of their bodies and were therefore doomed to die. And so it was that death came through sin.”[42]

There are many other things that could be said about this book. This would be a good read for many of my generation, who because of interest in science have rejected the Bible for having been taught that it is either Genesis’ version of material origins or science.

“One of the sad statistics of the last 150 years is that increasing numbers of young people who were raised in the environment of a biblical faith began to peruse education and careers in the sciences and found themselves conflicted as they tried to sort out the claims of science and the claims of the faith they had been taught. It seems to many that they have to make a choice: either believe the Bible and hold to a young earth, or abandon the Bible because of the persuasiveness of the case for an old earth. The good news is that we do not have to make such a choice. The Bible does not call for a young earth. Biblical faith need not be abandoned if one concludes from the scientific evidence that the earth is old.”[43]

What if Genesis is not speaking to post enlightenment scientific readers? What if it is an ancient book speaking as an ancient book with ancient cosmology? What if we could speculate “how” the world began, but rest on the fact that no matter the “how”, we know the “who,” and it was not a matter of chance, but a purposeful, intelligent designer? Walton draws the conclusion on the matter stating,

“Science cannot offer an unbiblical view of material origins because there is no biblical view of material origins aside from the very general idea that whatever happened, whenever it happened, and however it happened, God did it.”

“The principle factor that differentiates a biblical view of origins from a modern scientific view of origins is that the biblical view is characterized by a pervasive teleology: God is the one responsible for creation in every respect.”[45]

I will close with this last quotation:

“God did not give Israel a revised cosmic geography – he revealed his Creator role though the cosmic geography that they had, because the shape of the material world did not matter. His creative work focused on functions, and therefore he communicated that he was the one who set up the functions and who keeps the operations going, regardless of how we envision the material shape. This creation account did not concern the material shape of the cosmos, but rather its functions.”[46]

“They [Israel] thought about the cosmos in much the same way that anyone in the ancient world thought, and not at all like anyone thinks today. And God did not think it important to revise their thinking…God did not deem it necessary to communicate a different way of imaging the world…but was content for them to retain the native ancient cosmic geography…we can conclude that it was not God’s purpose to reveal the details of cosmic geography…God could communicate what he desired regardless of one’s cosmic geography.”[47]

I highly recommend this book. It was insightful, carefully researched and elegantly communicated.

End Notes:
[1] I say intriguing due to the fact that those who are unfamiliar with the ANE or ancient literary works, may find it difficult to accept some of his conclusions. This only shows how far we have moved away from the original intention of the book of beginnings (Genesis).
[2] Introduction, pg. 7
[3] pg. 19
[4] Introduction, pg. 9
[5] pg. 19
[6] pg. 161
[7] pg. 164
[8] pg. 167
[9] pg. 171
[10] pg. 117
[11] “Someone who claims a ‘literal’ reading based on their thinking about the English word ‘create’ may not be reading the text literally at all, because the English word is of little significance in the discussion.” pg. 169
[12]pg. 105
[13] Ibid
[14] pg. 24, He discusses the “ordered system” in Proposition 2.
[15] He discusses this topic in Proposition 11 (pp. 103-106)
[16] pg. 52
[17] pg. 24
[18] pg. 33
[19] Ibid
[20] pg. 15
[21] pg. 58
[22] pg. 161
[23] These are located on pp. 40-41 in Proposition 3.
[24] pg. 94
[25] pg. 146
[26] pp. 120-121
[27] pg. 71
[28] pg. 162
[29] pg. 150
[30] pg. 147
[31] pg. 83f
[32] Ibid
[33] pg. 95
[34] pg. 42 The FAQ section in the back of the book contains some questions that may frequently be asked about this book. One of which Dr. Walton plays the advocate and asks, “If this is the ‘right’ reading, why didn’t we know about it until now?” This is a fair enough question, to which he responds, “The worldview of antiquity was lost to us…with the decipherment of the ancient languages and the recovery of their texts…windows were again opened to an understanding of an ancient worldview that was the backdrop of the biblical world. This literature and the resulting knowledge has made it possible to recover ways of thinking that were prominent in the ancient world…” pg. 170
[35] pg. 92
[36] pp. 93, 94
[37] pg. 94
[38] pg. 145
[39] pg. 139
[40] pg. 101
[41] pg. 106
[42] pp. 99-100
[43] pg. 95
[44] pg. 112
[45] pg. 117
[46] pp. 60f
[47] pp. 14, 16

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