Blogging Archives #7: Does Gen. 1 Speak About Material Origins? A Review of “The Lost World of Genesis One”

I wrote this review in February of 2011, during an ice storm that hit Dallas around the time of the Super Bowl.  This seems to fit what I’ve been writing on lately when it comes to creation, so I’ll re-post it now.  As always, I’ve edited it as necessary, primarily shortening this since it was originally about 3500 words long.

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School has now been canceled for three straight days.  It’s been great to sleep in, but I should do something constructive, like review a book.  However, since I do not wish to do actual school work, I will review one that is not for class :).

Recently, my father gave me a book titled The Lost World of Genesis One, written by Dr. John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College.  In a ntushell: It’s a well-presented book that gives an interesting case for reading Genesis 1 with a functional ontology in mind, meaning that Genesis 1 is about God establishing his cosmic temple rather than giving a literal account of creation.  That may sound like a load to take in, so I’ll attempt to unpack the book throughout the rest of the post.

Approaching the text from within ancient culture

Walton begins with a discussion on how to approach the Old Testament.  While he affirms that the OT was written for us, he warns that we must realize that the OT was not written to us but to ancient Israel, in their language that operates in their culture (9).  One way to understand their culture is to look at other literature in the ancient Near East.  This is not to say that these texts are on equal footing as the OT; it is simply a way to see how such people thought (14).  This leads Walton to his first proposition, which is that Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology: “If we accept Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology, then we need to interpret it as ancient cosmology rather than translate it into modern cosmology… it is a dangerous thing to change the meaning of the text into something it never intended to say” (17).  For example, in ancient cosmology, the hard distinction between the natural and supernatural was simply inconsequential (20).

Ancient cosmology is based on functional ontology

The next question would be: What was their ancient cosmology?  Here is the heart of Walton’s book.   Walton argues that for something to exist in the ancient world, it must have a function in an ordered system (26).  For the modern mind, on the other hand, something in the world exists by virtue of it simply being there.  We have a material ontology while the ancient Israelites had a functional ontology.  To help the reader understand this, Walton uses the example of a computer: Even if a computer materially exists, it has a meaningless existence if it has no software or no power source or is otherwise unused by humans (27).  To further strengthen his point, Walton surveys some ancient literature and concludes that their creation accounts are primarily functional in nature (35).

After laying this ground work, Walton moves on to the Genesis account itself and the Hebrew word bara, which translates into English as “create.”  After listing categories of the types of things that are the grammatical object of bara, Walton concludes that despite some ambiguity, they do not lend themselves readily to material interpretation but fit far more easily into a functional understanding(43).  I am no Hebrew scholar, but I can see where he is coming from.  Walton is clear, however, that he believes, as the ancient Israelites did, that God is responsible for material origins (44).  It would have been unthinkable to them that God did not create the material world, but Walton believes that is simply not the focus of Genesis 1.

Summary of a functional Genesis account

How does this affect the reading of Genesis 1?  Walton argues that the beginning state is one not bereft of material but one lacking functions, at least as it concerns human beings (50-51).  This creation account is therefore not one of material origins but how God set up functions for his cosmic temple and for the arrival of man.

For the six days of creation, I will summarize them quickly and highlight a few main points that Walton makes:

Day 1:  God establishes a period of light rather than creating light itself, as evidenced by naming night and day (55).  This focus on time avoids questions such as how there can be light or day when the sun has not been materially created, for functionally, time takes precedence over the functions of the sun as far as measuring seasons (56).

Day 2:  The firmament should be treated as solid, as the ancient Israelites believed, and it has two functions: It provides space for people to live and it controls precipitation (Ibid).

Day 3:  God separates water and land, and from the land comes vegetation (58).  In the ancient world, vegetation was primarily viewed, functionally, as a provision of food (59).

Therefore, from Days 1-3 God is establishing basic functions in preparation for man.  Walton concludes, “These three great functions—time, weather, and food—are the foundation of life” (59).  From Day 4-6, God will be installing functions.

Day 4:  The celestial bodies govern night and day and serve as markers for seasons (63-65).  Seasonal measurement is relevant information for only humans.  Thus, this lends itself readily to a functional view.

Day 5:  God gives the fish and birds a function, to be fruitful and multiply, and affirms that the “great creatures of the sea,” which were often viewed as cosmic threats by the ancient Near East, are fully under God’s control.  Their purpose is to occupy the waters and the sky.

Day 6:  When Scripture says, “Let the land produce living creatures” (Gen. 1:24), it is not making a scientific statement about how animals began but where they come from, similar to how we may explain to a child that babies come from hospitals without saying anything about sperm-egg fertilization (67-68).  The land is merely where the animals inhabit to carry out their own functions.  Of course, humanity seems to be materially created, as it mentions the dust as material.  However, Walton argues that it is similar to other Near Eastern creation accounts and concludes that the material of dust provides an archetype for the nature of humanity, not a material description of humanity (70).  Therefore, Day 6 establishes that man is functionally mortal, related to God in image, and has the role of procreation and subduing creation (71).

Walton’s explanations here are interesting, and for many of the days his explanations do make sense.  The functional views for Days 1-4 seem to make those accounts ready more smoothly, avoiding some vexing questions that concordist readers must deal with.  Days 5 and 6, however, may be a bit stretched.  Although there may be some functional orientation to these days, it is not implausible that they are also material creation accounts.  Walton would no doubt argue that if Days 1-4 are very clearly functional, it makes sense to lean towards a functional view of Days 5-6, which would be a fair point, but it’s worth pointing out that the last two days don’t seem to fit as cleanly.

The Cosmic Temple

Walton claims that in the traditional view, Day 7 seems like an odd afterthought which does little else but establish the Sabbath (72).  However, from the functional viewpoint, while Day 6 is the climax of the creation because of the arrival of man, Day 7 is the climax of the entire account because it is when God settles into his temple.  Walton concludes that when God “rests,” he is not chilling but settling into his place of governance (75).  It was common for the ancient world to believe that the divine rests in his temple, including ancient Israel.  Walton argues that the cosmos in general is viewed as a temple and that the temple is a microcosm of creation, as seen by the fact that biblical descriptions of the tabernacle and temple contain imagery of the cosmos (81).  Thus, the seven days of creation are an inauguration of the cosmic temple (90).  Without God taking up his residence in it, it does not so much as exist.  Therefore, Genesis 1 does not provide a material account but instead shows God giving functions to creation for the benefit of man and for building his cosmic temple to dwell in.

Walton’s view of Day 7 is intriguing and gives more force to Day 7 than other explanations.  Still, I admit that the whole cosmic temple business still may not address some questions, such as, “Even if God is setting up functions in Gen. 1, is Gen. 1 still a literal account of history?”  Walton may say that this is still asking the wrong question, but given that he believes that “day” in Genesis 1 refers to literal 24 hour days (91), it still may be worth asking if the text is merely communicating the basic truth that God has set up the functions or that at some point history, God really took six days to prepare a few things for mankind and to build his temple.

Modern issues

For most readers, what would be of particular interest is how Walton handles many of the modern issues surrounding science, evolution, and Genesis 1.  I’ll go through a couple of them.

Other Readings of Genesis 1

Walton criticizes young earth and old earth creationists, both of who anachronistically try to fit scientific data to the text or the other way around (108-111).  I find his criticisms here pretty sound, and he is correct when he states earlier that “we have neither the right nor the need to force the text to speak beyond its ken… the most respectful reading we can give to the text, the reading most faithful to the face value of the text… is the one that comes from their world and not ours” (106).  Fair enough.  Still, I would be curious to hear what view of inerrancy Walton holds, which surely would have been helpful.  Walton does make clear that he believes Adam and Eve are historical figures and not mere archetypes, primarily because the New Testament seems to treat them as such, but he says little other than that he believes there is “substantive discontinuity” between whatever evolutionary processes there were before mankind and the individuals of Adam and Eve (139).

Evolution and Intelligent Design

Regarding intelligent design and evolution, Walton argues that the difference between science and Scripture is metaphysical in nature and that science cannot explore purpose (114-115).  This leads him to argue that while Intelligent Design theorists may have legitimate criticisms of Neo-Darwinism, ID cannot be considered science itself because it includes a designer, whose purpose science cannot explore (127).  Certainly, Neo-Darwinists are also guilty of speaking of purpose when they should not (128), but that does not mean ID’ers should do the same.

Therefore, as long as scientists do not attempt to try to make statements of purpose, scientific theories of origins unobjectionable from a scriptural standpoint (132).  Because God’s role of sustainer and creator are not as different as modern readers have often thought (119), the fact that evolution can be explained, at least in part, by naturalistic processes does not rule out God.  Therefore, public education should stick with methodological naturalism while steering clear of metaphysical naturalism and design.  We are free to hold to those scientific theories that survive serious scrutiny, whether they support a young earth or old one or Neo-Darwinist theories or some others (137).

Personally, I find some agreement with what Walton says here, but I do see some oversimplifications.  He is correct that, ideally, the natural sciences should try to steer clear of metaphysical discussions on purpose, and his point that God’s roles as Sustainer and Creator are very similar rings true.  He is also correct that it would be improper to view a young-earth creationist account as the only acceptable view for a Christian.  Still, his criticisms of intelligent design are not always fair.  He claims that ID seems no different than a God-of-the-gaps approach because design can only be affirmed when all naturalistic explanations have been ruled out (129), but this is not convincing.  When an archaeologist finds an arrowhead on the ground, he does not think, “Well, I can’t imagine how this could have come about without design, so I think somebody made this,” as if he could not come up with a scenario in which, say, wind-carried debris struck a rock and a chunk of it came off in that shape.  That is possible, but it is far less rational given the available evidence than design.

This leads to Walton’s rather naïve treatment of the whole origins debate to begin with.  While he is correct science should avoid making purpose statements, he overlooks that this is where science, theology, and philosophy often collide.  He seems somewhat aware of this, as he admits that the teleological neutrality he wishes for may be a practical impossibility (189), but if it’s an impossibility, what is he talking about?  He criticizes ID because the unavoidable logical conclusion is that if there is a designer, there is a purpose, but can this not be turned on Neo-Darwinism?  To be clear, I do not believe methodological naturalism necessarily entails metaphysical naturalism, but I bring this up to show that just because one system may at least appear to lean one way metaphysically does not mean it should be discounted as science.  It may be proper to say that science cannot further comment on the specific purposes, identity, and attributes of a designer, but the mere fact of saying something is more rationally held to be designed or created does not strike me as unscientific.  Is it philosophically neutral?  No.  Neither is anything else.  I agree with him that whatever Christians believe on how life developed, we agree that God ultimately did it.  That said, we should not pretend that such scientific questions are philosophically neutral because while we should try to be objective, it is pretty unrealistic to expect such neutrality.

General Conclusions

Overall, I found the book to be informative.  Walton clearly did his research and communicated that research in an accessible way.  His methodology shows significant care to read the Bible in its proper cultural context without jeopardizing the fact that it is revelation as well.  While I would need further reading to buy all of what he said, I cannot deny he makes a fascinating case for a functional reading of Genesis 1, and I am sure it will be an important modern interpretation to discuss.

I am less impressed by his discussions outside the passage itself, and at some points he oversimplifies the issues.  I would have also liked more discussion on his own views of inerrancy, philosophy of science, and the historicity of Genesis.  From what I understand, he is working on or has already finished another book that goes more in-depth in his position, but even with space considerations in this work I felt like he could have added a little more on these topics.  Nonetheless, this is a good example of a well-researched and well-presented book.  At no point is he hostile to anyone but merely puts forward what he believes to be the most faithful reading of the text, and even if Christians disagree with him, that approach should only draw respect.

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