Book Review: The Lost Word of Genesis One

lost_word_john_waltonIt occurred to me this weekend that though I read and recommend many books, mostly on theology, discipleship and church practice, I’ve never written a review of any of them before for the benefit of other people who might find these books useful themselves. So henceforth, I’ll be writing reviews of books which I find significant as I read them. And I’m starting off with a highly controversial one on no other subject than Genesis One. Hope you stick around for this and other reviews in the future.

PS: This will be a long review because I have a vested interest in this subject, as I’m sure many do.

How I Came to Be Reading It

I first heard of a cosmic temple way of looking at creation from NT Wright when he referred to GK Beale. Though I’m yet to read Beale himself on the subject (his book is still on my Amazon wishlist), subsequent references to the cosmos as the temple of God by other writers, as well as of Scott McKnight’s recommendation of John H. Walton’s take on Genesis 1-3 led me to this book instead. Interestingly I read the second in this “Lost World” series – “The Lost Word of Adam and Eve” before this one, but now I wish I’d bought and read this one first. Sigh. As they say, the water has already passed under the bridge. Suffice it to say that I need to go back and read his take on Adam and Eve again.

Who the Author Is

John H. Walton is Old Testament Professor at Wheaton College, a conservative evangelical university which was recently in the news in the issue of Prof Hawkins and her statements about Christians worshiping the same God as Muslims. Previously he was Old Testament Professor at Moody Bible Institute. One cannot get more conservative than Moody, which makes Walton an even more interesting character for his conclusions and perspectives.

The Book Proper

John Walton’s “The Lost Word of Genesis One – Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate” presents his ideas in the form of propositions he makes, and then explains in detail why he makes each proposition. His later propositions are more or less implications of accepting his earlier propositions, as any logical writer will do.

The Key Premise

The key to his propositions is that for too long, many interpreters of Genesis 1 have been approaching the subject from a material perspective – being more interested in the how of creation rather than a functional perspective – which is more interested in the why of creation. This has then led to the development of many “camps” in the attempt to interpret Genesis 1 to fit a materialistic ontology – ontology is a fancy word for “what it means for X to exist” where X is anything we want.

This has led to the development of 3 main camps when it comes to Genesis stories

  1. The Young Earth camp, which believe the earth must be only about 6000 years old or so and that everything happened exactly as described by Genesis 1 and reject modern scientific conclusions about the universe as we have it and the origins of humanity. Most Ghanaian Christians I know fall in this category mostly by default.

  2. The Old Earth/Intelligent Design Camp who accept most of what the scientists say about the origins of the earth i.e. that its millions of years old etc and not 6000 years or so, but still insist that the bible reveals scientifically how God created this world and must be factored into the equation when looking at scientific questions of origins.

  3. The evolutionists (both natural and theistic) evolutionists who believe that the bible doesn’t necessarily reveal the scientific details of how the earth and humans came to be, and side with whatever is the best scientific theory to explain the world and humanity today, including the current dominating theory of evolution.

John’s premise is that all these camps are stuck in a material ontology – they assume that Genesis 1-3 must be talking about the how of creation, not the why of creation. He then challenges all 3 camps to take Genesis and the Old Testament seriously not on the grounds of how modern people read a text, but how the ancient people to whom Yahweh was revealing himself as the creator of the world, would have understood what he was saying. He makes the following caution, one that expresses a warning I’ve learnt and give out to others copiously when it comes to reading the bible.

The Old Testament does communicate to us and it was written for us, and for all mankind. 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”. pp 7

Ontology

He gives examples of ontology, and shows that we all do speak of ontology in different ways, but seem to limit ourselves once we come to the book of Genesis.

For example, when we say that a chair exists, we are expressing a conclusion on the basis of an assumption that certain properties of the chair define it as existing … in our contemporary ways of thinking, a chair exists because it is material … we can analyze what it is made from. These physical qualities are what make the chair real, and because of them, we consider it to exist”. pp 21

But he throws in another mode of “existence” – a functional mode.

Consider a restaurant that is required to display it’s current permit from the city department of health. Without that permit, the restaurant could be said not to exist, for it cannot do any business … here … it is the government permit that causes that restaurant to exist, and its existence is defined in functional terms”. pp 23

Even staying in the realm of English usage we can see that we don’t always use the verb create in material terms. When we create a committee, create a curriculum, create havoc or create a masterpiece, we are not involved in a material manufacturing process”. pp 24

In effect then, “our material view of ontology in turn determines how we think about creation”.

ANE Cultural Survey

He proceeds in a survey of Ancient Near Eastern creation stories from Israel’s neighbours – Egyptians, Babylonians, Sumerians, Akkadian, Canaanites etc, and shows how their creation stories are functional in nature – describing how the god/gods created the earth, making it suitable for habitation by humans by establishing these:

  1. Day and night

  2. The weather cycles i.e. creation of clouds, winds, rain, sun etc.

  3. Separation of the earth from the land for vegetation to grow and to enable agriculture

Interestingly we almost see the same pattern after the flood of Noah when God promises that

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen 8:22)

Here Yahweh’s focus is not on the material form in which these things will take during their restoration, but the functional form in which they will take – to serve the needs of mankind so they can flourish again.

This doesn’t mean that the god/gods couldn’t have bothered about the exact how of their material creation, but simply that the fact that creation is material is taken for granted, and the focus is on placing these created things in such a way that it makes human life possible.

Hebrew Context of Genesis 1

Walton the proceeds to do a textual and cultural analysis of the occurrences of key words used in the creation narrative, and deals with words and phrases like “In the beginning”, “formless and void” (tohu va bohu), “create” (bara).

In the case of “bara”, the Hebrew word for “create”, he shows all the 50 occurrences of it in the Old Testament, arguing that a large percentage of the usages of the word are for non-functional purposes. He questions those who believe that “bara” in the context of Genesis 1 MUST mean material creation by the ff statement.

How interesting it is that these scholars then draw the conclusion that “bara” implies creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). One can see with a moment of thought that such a conclusion assumes that “create” is a material activity … Since “create” is a material activity (assumed on their part), and since the context never mentions the materials used (as demonstrated by the evidence), then the material object must have been brought into existence without using other materials (i.e. out of nothing) … [however] the absence of reference to materials, rather than suggesting material creation out of nothing, is better explained as indication that “bara” is not a material activity but functional one.” pp 42.

On this last point about functional usage of “bara” he makes a deeply stunning claim

This is not a view that has been rejected by other scholars; it is simply one they have never considered because their material ontology was a blind presupposition for which no alternative was ever considered.” pp 42.

In his opinion then, day 1 to 3 describes the creation of functions – day and night on Day 1, using the standard Jewish mode of counting days by “evening and morning” (v 3-5); the separation of waters above and waters below for dry land on Day 2 using concepts that were normal to ancient people because in ancient times people believed the sky was solid, holding up the rain with windows being opened to cause rain to fall ( v 6-8); and God simply speaking (this time the word “create” or “made” is not even used) to cause the separation of land from sea and speaking again to cause the land to produce vegetation.

Day 4 to 6 then describe functionaries – those who will function within ordered space. Day 4 sees the creation of the greater light (sun) and the lesser light (moon) to govern the day and night, and to mark off “signs, seasons, days and years”. I commend the NIV’s translation that says “let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years”. Walton points out that “The Hebrew word [seasons] when it is used elsewhere designates the festival celebrations that are associated with the sowing season, the harvesting season and so on”. The word then should not be associated with our scientific “Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall” or the Ghanaian “Harmattan and Rainy Season”. Note again that in Day 4 to 6, Yahweh largely speaks, assigning function, which is common to ANE contexts when a functional mode of creation is in view. Where he “creates”, he’d already “spoken” of what these functionaries should do, which should point us to the functional nature of the usage of the word “bara”/ “create” in these passages. Of course in Day 6, he creates mankind in his image. Note here that it doesn’t say he created Adam and Eve, but mankind. This leaves room for questions about whether Adam and Eve are the first human beings or not, but that’s a question for the second book.

Walton’s conclusions on Day 7 was for me the most revealing portion, shedding light on the rest of the days before it, and also on the rest of the bible story. Walton points out that whereas most modern people would have seen Day 7 as God simply resting i.e. taking a nap after all the hard work six days prior, an ANE reader will have seen it for exactly what it is – when a god/gods enter a temple to take their “rest”, it means it’s now time for the god/gods to actually operate after the previous days of preparation/consecration of that temple for the god. “Rest” then is not the ceasing of work for its sake, but the operation of a temple according to the way it’s supposed to have been operated after all the functions have been put in place and the functionaries i.e. priests have been appointed and consecrated. This would then hark back to the 2 Chron 5 and 1 Kings 8 where immediately the ark of the covenant was brought into the temple built by Solomon, the glory of the Lord filled the temple, a sign that Yahweh had “rested” in his temple after the 7 long years of construction, and which “rest” was then followed by “seven days and seven days more” of feasting by the people of Israel (1 Ki 8:65). It is from this Day 7 that Walton obtains the term “cosmic temple inauguration” to describe this view of Genesis 1.

Summary

Based on these descriptions of the functional nature of God’s creative activity in the 6 days of creation, and his “rest” on the 7th day, Walton proceeds in his remaining propositions to explain the implications of reading Genesis 1 as a functional and not material creation description.

  1. Though certain camps claim that they are taking Genesis 1 “literally”, they might find that they are rather imposing modern categories of material ontology on an ancient document whose focus is on functional ontology (I’m looking at you, Young Earth creationists). Speaking on the subject of “literal” meanings, he retorts “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” pp 169.

  2. There’s no need for Christians to insist that science MUST align with Genesis, and the effort to align Genesis with science, especially to insist that the dominant scientific theory has holes in it that can only be filled by the existence of God (aka God of the gaps or Intelligent Design) is again barking up the wrong tree. Here I quote Walton himself – “If randomness cannot be sustained in certain cases, that still does not ‘prove’ design. Likewise, if design cannot be sustained in certain cases, that does not ‘prove’ randomness”. He goes on to say “We are fully aware that what we call ‘scientific truth’ one day may be different from the next day. Divine intention must not be held hostage to to the ebb and flow of scientific theory”.

  3. Modern Christianity must revises it’s attachment to the “natural/supernatural” dualism that modernization has now imbued us with. A large part of the resistance towards science is driven by the fear that if science provides a “natural” cause for an event, it means God could not have been involved in it. The idea of a “natural”/ “supernatural” explanation for the occurrences we find in creation is not natural to ancient readers, and is imported into the text by modern readers.

  4. Having revised our dualism as above, Christianity must then resist the attempt by some scientists to assert that because evolution may be the best scientific explanation for the world today, it presupposes that there is no meaning to our existence because “God couldn’t have been involved in it”. Science cannot prove purpose, it can only explain process. The idea that creation is purposeless is exactly what a cosmic temple view of Genesis undermines – it rather puts more responsibility on us as Christians to realize that existence is teleological i.e. purposeful. It has a goal, signified by understanding Genesis 1 as God creating for us a place where he could dwell with us and where we could share with him the task of taking good care of his temple – of his sacred space. No matter what scientific theory explains how we got here, that purpose will never change.

  5. Christians then should not feel the need to choose “science or faith”, because Genesis 1 is not meant to be a scientific description of material creation. Christians can and must engage in the sciences fully, knowing that their goal, just like every scientist is to make discoveries that are beneficial to human flourishing, whether other scientists are unwilling to admit God’s activity in those discoveries or process or not. Schools should teach whatever scientific explanations are currently accepted, without asserting meaninglessness or purposelessness.

Why I Find Him Convincing

Many people will find John H. Walton’s perspectives uncomfortable, and although there are still a few questions brewing in my head, I find his cosmic temple inauguration view a much better model of understanding Genesis 1 than the young Earth Creationist one I grew up with. My reasons are below.

  1. Having received previous theological shocks through reading New Testament theology with the history of 2nd temple Judaism in mind, I’ve come to see how immensely important historical context is to reading a text. Therefore I have no qualms at all with Walton’s prejudicing of Ancient Near Eastern history as a means of understanding Genesis 1. Cultures are never isolated and always imbibe and absorb from one another. To think that ancient Israel will be immune to this is to ignore the reality of human societies in favour of utopia.

  2. A cosmic temple view of creation makes sense of God’s desires to dwell with his people expressed in the Old Testament, and is also in line with the picture and activities of God revealed in Revelations 21 & 22 where heaven and earth come together and God dwells amongst us, with no temple because he himself is the temple.

  3. A cosmic temple view of creation, with humans being the images of the God of this temple, aligns very well also with both the Old and New Testament emphasis on God’s people (whether Israel in ancient times or the church today) being a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, tasked with carrying forth the task of “subduing the earth” i.e. of taking care of God’s temple in which we live.

  4. Walton’s views radically change the relationship between science and faith. Christians can stop being so scared of science not aligning with Genesis and get on with the business and purposes of their God – a purpose that science can never discover (because teleology is not possible to establish scientifically), but which Yahweh revealed to ancient Israel and which we have received today to carry forward.

  5. His view of rest also helps to explain Jesus’s almost “lackadaisical” attitude towards the Sabbath. Contrary to the idea of taking a nap, Jesus shocks the Pharisees with the statement that “My Father is always at work to this very day, and I’m working too” (Jn 5:17). Sabbath should remind us of whose in charge, and remind us of what we are called to be – stewards of the one in charge for the benefit of humanity and for creation itself. Hesitation in that responsibility of care is to lose sight of that calling, whether it’s a Sabbath or not.

Okay, this has been too long a post already. I hope to bring you a review of “The Lost World of Adam And Eve” soon, as I need to go back and digest it again. But certainly, Walton has an admirer in me.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Lost Word of Genesis One

  1. Thanks for writing this review. Great book, though I would have preferred for Walton to have spent more time trying to “dumb down” some of the language and ideas to help make the book more accessible for people. I actually just recently used the cosmic temple perspective as the basis for preaching on Genesis 1. It went over (surprisingly) very well.

    1. Yes, viewing Genesis 1 with the cosmic temple perspective makes tonnes of sense of not just Genesis, but the whole bible and God’s goal of renewal of creation. I thank God for the gift of people like John Walton, because having been trained to read Genesis 1 with a materialistic view, I’d never have thought of it differently and seen the wider picture.

      And yes, I’m also having to explain what he means further to others, which means it does need further dumbing down.

      Thanks for the comment.

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