Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Lost World of Genesis One - A Review

In The Lost World of Genesis One John Walton offers a view of the first chapter of Genesis which is sure to spark debate. Those who have read Walton’s commentary on Genesis will recognize much of what is covered in this book. But few layman read commentaries and, unfortunately, too many pastors don’t either. So this popular level work will now bring the fruits of his scholarship to a whole new audience.

Walton says we have lost our way in understanding Genesis 1 because we have lost its cultural context. The only interpretation of Genesis 1 that we have understood has to do with the material creation of the universe. But what if the chapter is not describing a material creation at all? What if it is describing creation as it would have been understood in its ancient Near Eastern context? In that context Genesis 1 is describing not the material creation of the universe but its functional creation. That is to say for those in the ancient Near East the universe did not “exist” in any meaningful way until its parts had been assigned a purpose or role. Walton explains, “[T]he actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence. Of course something must have physical properties before it can be given its function, but the critical question is, what stage is defined as ‘creation.’” (27) For those in the ancient world to create something “means to give it a function, not material properties.” (35) It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this distinction in order to properly understand Genesis 1.

Walton illustrates this distinction with that of “creating” a computer. First there is the assembly of its physical components, that is, its physical creation. Then someone has to write the programs but until they are installed its “’existence’ is meaningless—it cannot function.” (27) Someone still has to install the software and then we need to find a power source. Finally he concludes, “But what if no one sits at the keyboard or knows how to use or even desires to use it? It remains nonfunctional, and, for all intents and purposes, as if it did not exist. We can see that different observers might be inclined to attribute ‘existence’ to the computer at different stages in the process.” (27) To the modern mindset “existence” is entirely related to the physical composition of something—it is an ontological focus rather than a functional one. But as Walton demonstrates, “[i]n 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.” The problem seems to revolve around the word “create.” To the modern mind the word refers almost exclusively to the material composition of something. The functional sense of the word is better seen when we say something like we “created a committee.” The people already existed but the committee did not exist until roles were assigned to certain individuals and a purpose was given for them to meet. This is what God is doing in Genesis 1. He is assigning roles and purpose to a chaotic system. He is creating order with a purpose. That purpose brings us to Walton’s next point which hinges on day seven.

What’s the point of God resting on the seventh day? Simple. God rests in a temple and only a temple. Walton explains this is not just a siesta on a Sunday afternoon. “For deity this means that the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken. This is more a matter of engagement without obstacles rather than disengagement without responsibilities.” (73) The temple is not primarily a place of worship but a home or more importantly his “headquarters—the control room.” (75) From here, the temple, God assumes his rightful place. Genesis 1 is “describing the creation of the cosmic temple with all of its functions and with God dwelling in its midst. This is what makes day seven so significant, because without God taking up his dwelling in its midst, the (cosmic) temple does not exist. The most central truth to the creation account is that this world is a place for God’s presence.” (84-85) Walton supports this thesis with important connections between the cosmos and the tabernacle and the temple. (pp. 81-84) This leads to my final point.

Walton suggests “the seven days may be understood in relation to some aspect of temple inauguration.” (87) The parallels of Genesis 1 to other ancient Near Eastern inauguration ceremonies are striking. The Bible itself records temple inauguration ceremonies (see p. 89 for discussion). Also, these inauguration ceremonies could be reenacted on a yearly basis. No evidence has been found that Israel engaged in this kind of yearly festival but it should not be surprising if we found they did and Walton says it “would be theologically and culturally appropriate.” (91) This also relieves the problem of whether the Hebrew word for day (yom) is a twenty-four hour day or a long period of time. Since Genesis 1 is not describing the physical creation of the universe the problem dissolves. An inauguration ceremony which is seven twenty-four hour days poses no problem. Walton says understanding yom as a twenty-four hour day “has always been the best reading of the Hebrew text.”

Readers may be concerned that Walton is buying into the theory that the Israelites simply borrowed from other pagan cultures. He is not. He clearly says, “I am not suggesting that the Israelites are borrowing from these ancient literatures. Instead the literatures show how people thought in the ancient world, and as we examine Genesis, we can see that Israelites thought in similar ways.” (79 see also his discussion on pp.13-15) This is an important distinction. Walton also notes that it was not his reading of the ancient Near Eastern texts that changed his mind on Genesis 1 but rather questions he had in the text of Genesis itself. (54)

Other readers may wonder if Walton believes that God did create the material universe. Rest assured he does. He says, “If we conclude that Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins, we are not thereby suggesting that God is not responsible for material origins. I firmly believe that God is fully responsible for material origins, and that, in fact, material origins do involve at some point creation out of nothing. But that theological question is not one we are asking. We are asking a textual question: What sort of origins account do we find in Genesis 1?” (44)

The last part of the book Walton engages with how his view affects issues like evolution, intelligent design and public science education. I had more qualms with this part of the book than I did with the first part. But they are minor points of disagreement which do not affect his major premise.

Walton’s book is a five-star example of exegesis which is culturally informed without compromising Biblical authority. Highly recommended. I think it would make a great choice for a small group study.

You can hear a lecture that Walton gave during a science symposium to a group of physicists on Genesis 1 here. It is extremely helpful and includes power point slides he used in the presentation. In several places he expands and clarifies what he covers in the book. The presentation is 52 minutes long with about 10 minutes of Q & A following.

For further reading:

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible by John Walton from Baker Academic.

Israel: Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention? edited by Daniel I. Block. Walton has an essay in this volume called “Interpreting the Bible as an Ancient Near Eastern Document.”

"Do We Need Background Studies?" an article for the Koinonia blog

See especially the forthcoming 5-volume work from Zondervan called the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Walton is the general editor. It should be released this fall.

Walton mentions a forthcoming full scale scholarly work on Genesis 1 from Eisenbrauns. The title is Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns). I have been unable to get any details on its release date.

See also the publisher's (IVP) blog, Addenda & Errata, on the book as well.

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