May 28, 2009
The Lost World of Genesis One (Part Two)
Over the years I’ve learned that John Walton has some very important things to say about Genesis 1. A few years back I suggested to my colleagues that we should ask John to write a straightforward and readable book that would put his work on the table for anyone involved in the “origins” debates. They agreed. I asked John. He agreed. Now we have that book.
It’s important to note that this is a general-level book, and as such it can only take the discussion so far. And while it does a terrific job of that, it is backed up by Walton’s scholarly study, Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology (forthcoming from Eisenbrauns). John Walton wants you to know that. I want you to know that. And I’m sure Eisenbrauns wants you to know that! It is also important to note that Walton has something actually new to say (not that he hasn’t said it many times over the past seven years in lectures or in his Genesis commentary and elsewhere).
John begins by taking the text at “face value,” the term he prefers over “literal.” As he puts it, “I believe that if we are going to interpret the text according to its face value, we need to read it as the ancient author would have intended and as the ancient audience would have heard it” (p. 92). While this might stir up a broader hermeneutical conversation, I do think it’s the right place to start when we consider the issues perennially hovering around this text.
In eighteen propositions Walton takes us from on-the-ground facts of ancient Near Eastern cosmology and perspectives on creation, through some principal features of the Genesis text and their significance and on to broader considerations of what this means for Christian engagement with the science of origins.
At the interpretive level, this amounts to a crosscultural experience of viewing the text through ancient Israelite eyes. As Walton puts it, attempts to have Genesis 1 “speak science”—answer our questions about physics, biology or geology—ultimately amount to “a repudiation of reading the text at face value.” It also, of course, ends up putting an incredible tension between the biblical text and what science tells us even at the most general level of the age of the earth and so forth. It seems to me that advocates of creation science want us to believe six improbable things before we even get to the first breakfast in Eden. This is often framed as the cost of obedient submission to the authority of God’s Word. Well, there are plenty of places where that cost is paid by believers, but it is ill placed here. In fact “creation science” places a burden on the text that it was not meant to bear. Not from the beginning.
You must read the book for yourself. But I’ll say that it does see Genesis 1 in terms of divine temple building. And it also understands the six days as speaking about functions and teleology. “If we follow the sense of the literature and its ideas of creation, we find that people in the ancient Near East did not think of creation in terms of making material things—instead, everything is function-oriented. The gods are beginning their own operations and are making all of the elements of the cosmos operational. Creation thus constituted bringing order to the cosmos from an originally nonfunctional condition.” (p. 31) And it is within this framework that Genesis 1 speaks.
In the end, Walton finds the text allowing science broad scope for “doing science” and investigating and discovering the mechanisms by which the world and life itself came into being. The book closes with a number of FAQs.
This is a book for students, laypeople, teachers (including, say, high school science teachers), pastors—just about anyone on any side of this issue who wants to sharpen their understanding of this fundamental biblical text and is open to new evidence. For those who fear that giving up cherished ideas will be a disappointment, I challenge you to come to this book with an open mind. I wager that you will come away with a new-found satisfaction in and a theologically richer appreciation for Genesis 1. And I trust you you will agree that the world of Genesis 1 has been lost and now rediscovered.
Here are a couple more comments on the book:
Francis Collins, Head of the Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God
Bruce Waltke, Professor of Old Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary.