IVP - Addenda & Errata - The Lost World of Genesis One (Part Two)

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:

This book presents a profoundly important new analysis of the meaning of Genesis. Digging deeply into the original Hebrew language and the culture of the people of Israel in Old Testament times, respected scholar John Walton argues convincingly that Genesis was intended to describe the creation of the functions of the cosmos, not its material nature. In the process, he elevates Scripture to a new level of respectful understanding, and eliminates any conflict between scientific and scriptural descriptions of origins.

Francis Collins, Head of the Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God

Walton’s cosmic temple inauguration view of Genesis 1 is a landmark study in the interpretation of that controversial chapter. On the basis of ancient Near Eastern literatures, a rigorous study of the Hebrew word bara’ (“create”) and a cogent and sustained argument, Walton has gifted the church with a fresh interpretation of Genesis 1. His view that the seven days refers to the inauguration of the cosmos as a functioning temple where God takes up his residence as his headquarters from which he runs the world merits reflection by all who love the God of Abraham.

Bruce Waltke, Professor of Old Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary.

Posted by Dan Reid at May 28, 2009 5:28 PM Bookmark and Share


Do you know when Walton's 'Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology' is due out? I couldn't find it on the Eisenbraun's website.

Comment by: Terry at May 30, 2009 8:12 AM

I'm very curious about the book, and hopefully will have time to read it someday. But I'm more curious about what someone like Walton (and Davis Young) would say about Genesis 2 and 3. It is one thing to say that Genesis 1 shouldn't be understood in a scientific or "concordist" manner. The doctrine of Creation doesn't concern any particular events once the the Creation has been made; simply Creation's source. It would be another thing entirely to relegate the Fall to some sort of symbolic narrative completely disconnected from any real events in space and time, however mythopoetically refracted. Remove the Fall from the world of real events and you change Christian theology dramatically. The book on how you deal with that issue in the light of modern science etc. is the book I really want to read.

Comment by: Jay at May 31, 2009 9:29 PM

In response to Terry:

I just received a response to my email to John Walton asking that very question. He said it was supposed to be out in November 2009, but that he hasn't received edited copy back from Eisenbrauns, so for the moment, the release date must be considered tentative.

Comment by: Ron Maness at July 13, 2009 3:25 PM

Comments are closed for this entry.

Get Email Updates

You'll get an email whenever a new entry is posted to Addenda & Errata

Subscribe to Feeds

Got a Book Idea?

Please follow our submissions guidelines. We cannot respond to book proposals or inquiries within the context of this blog.