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The Lost World of Genesis One

Last week I finally got the chance to read The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton. Dr. Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. His PhD is from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, which is, curiously enough (per Wikipedia), the primary seminary for training rabbis in Reform Judaism. All that to say the guy has a better-than-average understanding of the Old Testament, Jewish culture, and the Hebrew language.

Walton’s premise is one that, while previously unfamiliar to me, makes the most sense of how Genesis 1 – 2 should be understood as anything else I’ve read on the topic. The Lost World of Genesis One is structured around 20 premise statements, and in summary where he lands is this: we need to read and understand Genesis 1 in the same way the original audience read it. This turns out to be significantly different than we often hear it understood. As a very high-level summary, here’s what he says:

Ancient Cosmology is Functional

What does it mean for the universe to exist?, Walton asks. He proposes 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.” In such a view, he says, something could be manufactured physically but still not “exist” if it has not become functional.

Walton compares the creation stories of several different ancient cultures and notes that in each case, the creation story suggests not the creation of physical elements, but in the god ordering and purposing those elements into a functioning world. Certainly it’s not a stretch to think that the Israelites would’ve understood their creation story similarly.

Divine Rest is in a Temple

What’s up with God resting? Day seven, says Walton, is the climax of the story. Key, he says is

the piece of information that everyone knew in the ancient world and to which most modern readers are totally oblivious: Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for. We might even say that this is what a temple is— a place for divine rest. Perhaps even more significant, in some texts the construction of a temple is associated with cosmic creation…

…in the ancient world rest is what results when a crisis has been resolved or when stability has been achieved , when things have “settled down.” Consequently normal routines can be established and enjoyed. For deity this means that the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken. This is more a matter of engagement without obstacles rather than disengagement without responsibilities.

The Seven days of Genesis 1 Do Not Concern Material Origins

Says Walton:

If the seven days refer to the seven days of cosmic temple inauguration, days that concern origins of functions not material, then the seven days and Genesis 1 as a whole have nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth. This is not a conclusion designed to accommodate science —it was drawn from an analysis and interpretation of the biblical text of Genesis in its ancient environment. The point is not that the biblical text therefore supports an old earth, but simply that there is no biblical position on the age of the earth. If it were to turn out that the earth is young, so be it. But most people who seek to defend a young -earth view do so because they believe that the Bible obligates them to such a defense. I admire the fact that believers are willing to take unpopular positions and investigate all sorts of alternatives in an attempt to defend the reputation of the biblical text. But if the biblical text does not demand a young earth there would be little impetus or evidence to offer such a suggestion.

Empirical Science Cannot Speak to Purpose

“If public education is committed to the idea that science courses should reflect
only empirical science, neither design nor metaphysical naturalism is acceptable
because they both import conclusions about purpose into the discussion,” says
Walton.

For those concerned with the purity of science, the focus on descriptive mechanisms in an empirical discipline will be welcomed, and considering legitimate weaknesses in the reigning paradigm should pose no problem since science always accepts critiques— that is how it develops and improves. For those concerned about the Bible and the integrity of their theology, the descriptive mechanisms that compose the evolutionary model need not be any more problematic for theology than the descriptive disciplines of meteorology or embryology. [This hearkens back to a point he made earlier in the book.] … If all parties were willing to agree to similar teleological neutrality in the classrooms dedicated to instruction in empirical science, the present conflict could move more easily toward resolution.

This is a conclusion that I find very liberating. It suggests that we can simultaneously affirm that God is the creator and origin of everything, and at the same time not be afraid of following science wherever it’s currently leading. Science can’t prove or disprove purpose or fundamental origins, and theology (in this view) need not lead us to dispute the current scientific understanding of origins.

The Lost World of Genesis One is a straightforward read, and I highly recommend it for any casual student of theology who wants a different perspective on understanding the creation account. The Kindle edition is currently less than six bucks, which is a pretty good deal.

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