The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate
by John H. Walton
InterVarsity Press, 2009
192 pages (paperback)
Thales of Miletus, a mid-6th century pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, said the world was created from water. Fast-forwarding several centuries, the writer of the New Testament’s Second Epistle of Peter reminded his readers that God formed the Earth “out of water” (2 Pet. 3:5). Undoubtedly, Second Peter is referencing cosmic waters of Genesis 1, rather than Thales, but many scholars have wondered about the ancient cosmology that starts with water. John H. Walton’s thin, but important book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate helps bring questions like these into focus.
Debating Genesis 1 is a career for some. Entire organizations and museums are dedicated to a literal-materialist reading of its first chapter, at times questioning the willingness of others to submit to Scripture’s authority if it is read in any other way. In doing so, Genesis is crunched to fit a modern cosmology—an approach Walton calls “concordism”—and modern science is retrofitted to support an ancient cosmology. What is produced is an ancient text that no longer communicates and a modern science that no longer accurately represents the natural world. Walton’s book is a corrective to this thinking, calling the reader to appreciate the culture of the ancient Israelites and to let science be science (see also my review of John Polkinghorne’s book, Theology in the Context of Science).
In this way, this book is a breath of fresh air.
Walton argues against a traditional view that looks for the material origins of the universe in Genesis. What he proposes in The Lost World of Genesis One, is 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.” This distinction is central to Walton’s book. He begins by first examining other ancient Near-Eastern accounts, concluding that these accounts are not concerned with the creation of materials, but rather how objects were given functions. For these ancient cosmologists, “to create something (cause it to exist)…means to give it a function, not material properties.”
While ancient texts help set up the discussion in this book, the biblical text takes the forefront. For example, it is a presupposition, he argues, that the Hebrew word for creating, bara, leads to the conclusion of creation ex nihilo. Scholars, he says, recognized that when bara is used no materials are mentioned, this leads to the idea that if creation is about bringing materials into existence, it must be a creation out of nothing. But his analysis of the term leads him to conclude that the most literal reading of the term seems to indicate “creation in functional terms,” leaving creation ex nihilo to be a reading marred by presuppositions that do not fit the original worldview of the ancient Israelites.
Here enters Genesis 1:1-2: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (NRSV). The two words “formless” and “void” have been handled in many ways, but what is often noted already to exist at the point of creation are the waters. As Walton writes, “These primeval cosmic waters are the classic form that nonexistence takes in the functionally oriented ancient world.”
When the ideas of formless and void are brought in, the terms describe an Earth that is “not yet functioning in an ordered system.” In Genesis, God gives assigns function to the cosmic waters, giving it order and a system, and so the great flood of Genesis is the act of God, says Walton, returning “the cosmos to an unordered, nonfunctional state.” And here again is the voice of 2 Peter 3:5-6.
They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished.
It may be too much to take a more absolutist position on the functional versus material perceptions of ancient Israel and no doubt that there is far more discussion that could go on for Old Testament specialists that this short, introductory book cannot provide. In his question and answer toward the back of the book, he acknowledges that there can be both functional and material aspects, but to assume that only a material perspective of creation is “meaningful,” he writes “is cultural imperialism.” I could not agree more.
Where all this functionality leads is very important for the next, and perhaps most-interesting, feature of The Lost World of Genesis One—the cosmos as God’s temple. According to Walton, whether we are discussing the biblical God or the ancient Gods of others peoples in the Near East, “Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple” and rest comes from “stability.” The biblical tabernacle or temple, as Walton writes, is connected to the cosmos, even horizontally “arranged in the same order as the vertical axis in the cosmos.” What occurs in Genesis 1 is the establishment of God’s temple, the cosmos—his place of rule. The two are inseparable.
This last part remains extremely interesting to me and will probably influence my TBR list in the future, at least as far as the journals go. The difference between functions and materials is also very interesting, though I assume specialists in the field will continue to engage in whether it needs more nuance. For Walton, this functional nature is extremely important because, as he writes, “Genesis 1 does not offer a descriptive model for material origins. In the absence of such a model, Christians would be free to believe whatever descriptive model for origins makes the most sense.”
The functional aspect definitely offers a dominant theme that helps us get into the worldview of ancient Near-Eastern persons and provides a stiff reminder that our concerns are not necessarily the same concerns of an ancient person. I can see why this would leave the door open to accepting whatever descriptive model makes sense. Nevertheless, even the inclusion of some account of the material creation (even one that does not match what science has shown) should not prevent the acceptance of any other theory that better makes sense of the world. In the end, if God did not see fit to change their functional cosmology, why would he need to for the material? The point is, Genesis 1 communicates because it means something to the mind of an ancient person.
Walton briefly tackles the major positions, like Young Earth Creationism and the Day Age Theory, all of which suffer from the problem of turning Genesis 1 into a modern science text. He also addresses the Framework Hypothesis in one page, which surprised me a little, especially considering its popularity. I had hoped he would do more with its literary structure. It may not be the only way the ancient Israelites understood this passage, but it is still part of it.
For those that are not yet ready to step into the shoes of an ancient thinker, this book will appear as a surrender of truth, or something dramatic like that. No doubt, the need to establish an exact place for Adam and Eve’s historicity will also play into the concerns of a very conservative reader. Walton handles Adam and Eve, but argues for their role in terms of function, not in terms of the timing of their existence and the means of their creation, leaving evolution as a viable option.
This is an enjoyable read. It covers a lot in a short space and each chapter is a proposition (18 in all). Chapters are short, to the point, and clearly written for the above average beginner. Each chapter offers a helpful summary of its point at the end and further reading. There is even a brief FAQ at the end. It would be a good addition to college and seminary courses on the subject. What is in this book will undoubtedly surprise beginning students, but it allows Genesis to be what it is. As Walton writes:
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 is not that story.
For more information, listen to John Walton’s lecture at Wheaton College’s Science Symposium. The lecture is a good summary of his book’s material.
Be sure to also read Peter Enns’ post at Biologos “The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That’s Not the Point.”