Genesis One 2

Walton.jpgWe are in a conversation and discussion about John Walton’s (professor at Wheaton) new book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

What does it mean when we say “create”? John Walton argues that the standard view today is a “material ontology.” For us, to “create” means to bring something material into material reality. We think of physical properties.

Walton argues that the ancient world, which had lots of creation stories, did not think of “create” in terms of a “material ontology.” Instead, it thought in terms of “functional ontology.” That is, to create meant to give something material a place and function in an ordered world.

Wow, this is a great idea.

If “God created” is seen in functional instead of material terms, what happens to our reading of Genesis 1?


To prove his point Walton sketches what is known about ancient cosmology texts and he looks at text from Egypt (Memphite theology, Papyrus Leiden I 350, Pyramid texts etc) and from Babylon, including Atrahasis and Enuma Elish. His conclusion is noteworthy: these texts do not discuss creation as bringing something into material existence but of assigning function. That is, creation was about gathering materials and giving them function.

“Creation thus constituted bringing order to the cosmos from an originally nonfunctional condition” (35).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com Steve Martin

    I’m wondering if Walton comments on creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). If in Gen 1, creation is only about functional ontology, than it provides no comment on the origin of the material that was assigned this function. It would be interesting to see if he provides a comment on the thesis that creatio ex nihilo is a late developing theology among the Hebrews (like for example the afterlife).

  • http://www.facethequestion.com Anette Ejsing

    I would want to see Walton deal with the value of pre-existing matter. If the Judeo-Christian God creates by bringing order to something that already has being, then it is a challenge to speak of matter as only good. If God’s role is to make matter good by bringing order to it, then matter itself is lacking in goodness.
    If this is the case, then we are only one tiny step removed from a dualistic worldview. Which is not a Christian worldview.

  • Scot McKnight

    Anette, maybe John Walton will comment today. He believes God created ex nihilo etc so he does have a traditionalist view of origins. But, his point in this book is that Genesis 1 is not about materiality or the ontology of materiality but instead about functionality.
    My hunch is that “it was good” would also apply to the original creation of matter by God — it’s just that this text is not describing that.
    John? You there?

  • http://derek4messiah.wordpress.com Derek Leman

    I’m 25% through the book and I did see a brief statement about creation ex nihilo. There was no statement about whether this was a late doctrine or an early one.
    As Scot says, the point is not that there was no ex nihilo creation, but that Genesis 1 is not about it.
    I have always felt is strange reading Gen 1 as describing ex nihilo. Someone please jump in, but it seems the ex nihilo reading would have the sequence like this: God makes a formless mass covered by water, God’s Spirit hovers above it, God shapes and orders this formless mass. My question was always: why start with a formless mass?
    It should be apparent, so I think Walton is very right, that create almost never means ex nihilo. We use the word create often in English and never mean ex nihilo unless we are talking about theology. Create ordinarily in English means crafting, shaping, organizing (creating a painting, a book, a meal, etc).

  • RJS

    Derek,
    I have understood ex nihilo as coming from a combination of many references throughout scripture – not from Genesis 1 (although Gen 1 can be interpreted as consistent with this of course).
    I think that Bouteneff discusses this a bit in his book – but I don’t have it with me at this time.

  • John H. Walton

    While it is great to have the focused attention on one chapter of the book at a time, the drawback is that it is easy to spend a lot of time wondering about things that are treated in later chapters. I hope it is not a spoiler for me to say that I do not believe in pre-existent matter, but that God did indeed create everything there is–including the material universe, and that his material creation was, at least at some points ex nihilo. But Derek is correct, that the question I am dealing with concerns the specific focus of Genesis One. What part of the story is Genesis One telling? You will see my statements about the material cosmos in later chapters. For now it is important to consider the significance of what I believe is the functional emphasis in Genesis 1.

  • Travis Greene

    Derek,
    I do think creation of first a formless mass is consistent with the way God creates in Genesis. He never makes a completely finished product. Everything is developing, unfolding.
    Whether or not Genesis 1 teaches creation ex nihilo, I don’t think it’s inconsistent with the passage.

  • John H. Walton

    To answer Annette’s question more directly, later on in the book I will make the case that when Genesis One designates something as “good” it is not a moral/ethical judgment, but a statement that it is now functional and ready to go (p. 51 proposition 4 for those who can’t wait). It thus has nothing to do with the status of matter.

  • Derek

    My question concerns the language of Genesis 1…sorry I haven’t read the book so I’m sure this is answered there but am asking out of ignorance.
    The language seems to go beyond “functional” with such phrases as: “separated the water under the expanse from the water above it,” “let dry ground appear,” etc. Also, it seems that, from my surface reading of the text, more than a functional understanding is given of the lights in the sky in verses 14-19. Would the original readers based on ANE creation stories have understood this as the lights, water etc. already being in existence but God announcing what its role would be within the universe? Thanks for helping me and others think through this, to see beyond our 21st century minds and perspectives.

  • John H. Walton

    One of the major aspects of giving functions is to create order–put everything in its place. Because of that “separating” is one of the most common creative acts in the ancient texts. The “firmament” separates the water above from the water below and sets up the weather system as they understood it. The separation of dry land from water gives the basis for growing food. The lights in day four are specifically stated to be for particular functions: signs, seasons (= festivals), days and years. Very important in all of this is that the “functions” the text is interested in are not the physical functions (e.g., sun as a burning ball of gas) but the functions served to humanity. The order being imposed is setting up a world functioning for humans and these functions do not exist until humans are there. That is, the sun may be shining, but it is not providing signs, seasons, days and years for the trees.

  • http://TheologyAndCulture.wordpress.com Aaron Rathburn

    Yes, I have read and used Walton’s “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament,” and seen some similar material there.
    This would also corroborate the “alternative” translation of the opening of Genesis (also held by Gordon Wenham) that rather than the earth “formless and void,” it could be translated “utter chaos” (or whatever the proper wording was again–I don’t have the commentary on hand).

  • Terry

    Dr. Walton, thank you for joining this conversation. I was fascinated by your book and believe that your input here, when possible, will be an exceptional benefit.

  • http://bobbyorr.wordpress.com MatthewS

    I enjoy reading Walton and agree that Genesis must be read with ANE culture and creation accounts in view. But I’m trying to put words to something bugs me a little in reading this chapter.
    “…nothing material is actually made in these accounts.” (p. 35). Well, the material came from the gods. In Enuma Elish, the heavens and earth are made out of Tiamat-fillets: she is blown up like a ballon and split like a fish. Man came from Quingu, a god. All of this ultimately came from the mingling of Apsu and Tiamat. Before matter there existed primeval waters. Gods came out of the waters and then in successive geneartions from each other; everything else came from the gods. It seems to me that an ANE question of where all things material came from would have been satisfactorily answered by pointing to Apsu and Tiamat: it all came from them. It isn’t creation ex nihilo but that does not mean it is not creation. Maybe the fault is mine but from the statements that separation was the key activity (p. 32) and that nothing material is actually made (p. 35) I almost get the impression that the ANE stories just assumed that raw material was always present or that there was never any concern with how material things came to be. But that would be unfair to the accounts. In their own way they do trace the origin of all things material in addition to the functional usage of the parts of the cosmos.
    This gets back to the difficulty named on page 12. To understand the language, understand the culture. To understand the culture, understand the literature. But to understand the literature, you need the language! So we broaden our intake of the literature as much as possible to try to be as fair as possible. We use other ANE creation myths to help understand the cultural framework of the audience of Genesis. But just as we read Genesis from the prison of our own culture, so we read Enuma Elish and the rest from the same prison. I guess I’m curious to know how we can tell if we are reinterpreting the ANE myths fairly to their culture or if we are unintentionally reinterpreting them so as to create a favorable backdrop against which to interpret Genesis – accidentally gaming the system, so to speak.
    Enjoying the book and the discussion.

  • t clair

    John,
    I’m wondering if your book gets into the theological significance of God’s shaping of a formless mass into something with order and form–the movement from chaos to order. I recently preached on the opening chapters of Genesis and I said that the movement from chaos to order gives insight into the mission of God before the fall–that God’s mission post-fall is an outworking of his movement from chaos to order–that (as I’m sure Scott will agree) God’s purposes in this universe involves a movement from disunity to unity. Do you think this is seen in seed form in Genesis 1? Do you believe it is an intentional literary foreshadowing? Does this help us understand the person and character of God re:His mission better?
    And you can always tell me just to buy your book!

  • http://mikesstudies.blogspot.com Chaplain Mike

    I’ve been attracted to John Sailhamer’s view that Gen 1.1 does describe the creation of the universe, “heavens and earth” being a hendiadys that expresses the totality of creation. (Walton takes v. 1 as a summary of the seven days–JS’s view puts it outside the seven days.)
    Then, grammatically, as Dr. Walton agrees, verse 2 picks up with the organization of this already-existing universe into a place where humankind can dwell under God’s blessing. Sailhamer narrows “earth” to “land” and believes that 1.2ff describes the preparation of the Promised Land, not the whole earth as Walton does, but nevertheless, he keeps the same overall principle in view–1.2ff is not about material creation but about forming and filling the land as a place for humankind.
    I like this because it does show God creating the very matter of the universe as well as forming it to function for human benefit. I find the absence of that material creation a weakness in Dr. Walton’s interpretation.

  • Scott W

    This functional view of creation squares with the alternative translation of Gen 1: “When God began to create…” rather than “In the beginning God…”

  • AlienAlien117

    Why is it so hard to accept that God created from nothing(ex nihilo)?There is no scriptual time line as to when this took place,Gen.1:2 deals with the subsequent ordering of that which was “formless and void”(tohu and bohu).The idea that matter was pre-existant denies the power of God and renders the whole Bible suspect.

  • Steve Martin

    AlienAlien117:
    I think all of us here (or at least most) would agree with creation ex nihilo; this is clearly part of the orthodox Christian tradition. There are two questions: 1) Is that what Gen 1 affirms? I *think* the answer to that is probably not or at least not unambiguously – but as RJS #5 stated, there is lots of other biblical support for this concept. 2) Did the ancient Hebrews believe or care about creation ex nihilo? That was my question in #1. It is my understanding that this is a late developing idea and that the writer(s) of Gen probably were not even thinking about it.
    John: Do you have a comment/opinion on this?

  • AlienAlien117

    To Steve and Scot and all reading this,for 35 years I have endured this same debate with many of the same questions raised.Whereas it may be of interest to scholars,it does little to bring the Gospel to the lost.Given the state of the world today surely there are more pressing matters demanding your attention,I surely enjoy sharing your thoughts,but given the fact we are in the “last book” redeeming the time remaining holds more value.Best wishes to you all,I’m going to go and pick up Johns book before I make any more comment.God Bless.

  • John H. Walton

    Granted that this discussion may do little to save the lost, it is a sad statistic that many abandon the faith because they have been told that they have to choose between science and the Bible (especially Genesis One). That is something that we can do something about. Furthermore, some of the lost may be under the impression that Christianity requires them to discard science. Note in this regard some of the conversations concerning whether Francis Collins is acceptable as director for NIH. The religion editor for Newsweek begins her piece in this week’s edition by saying that she doesn’t think that his beliefs should disqualify him. Why would someone think that his beliefs would disqualify him from this position? Because there are presuppositions that assume the Bible and science contradict one another.

  • John H. Walton

    To Steve’s question–no I don’t think that the Israelites were thinking about creation ex nihilo, because that is inherently a material discussion and I don’t see a lot of interest in the ancient world concerning the material aspects of creation. There is no question in my mind that the Israelites would have thought that the material cosmos was created by Yahweh, but it is just not that important to them. When we get far enough in the book, I use an analogy concerning how we think about the companies we work for. We have little concern or interest in who built the plant or manufactured the desks or equipment. We want to know how the company works and who we report to.

  • Norman Voss

    Is it possible that the functionary assignment of Genesis 1 motifs are what we actually find expounded upon concerning the Heavens and Earth throughout the scriptures. It seems that the Heavens and Earth that Christ says will pass away in that Generation standing there may indeed be the same one under consideration found originating In Genesis 1. Revelation appears to confirm this idea saying in 21:1 that the first H & E passed away after being renewed thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isa 65:17. Many have determined Isa 65:17 is the Messianic coming of Christ where He establishes the New Covenant of a spiritual enabled H & E. The Christian Covenant if you will.
    Christ appears to equate the passing of H & E with the old Covenant and its attendant Laws, Temple and sacrificial system. The New Covenant appears to be understood in Temple construction language as well since Hebrews 4 speaks of those faithful in the first century from Pentecost to Old Temple demise as looking forward to entering this newly established Promised Land.
    Eph 2:20-22 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, (21) in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows INTO A HOLY TEMPLE in the Lord. (22) In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
    Is it possible then that we have a prophetic outline of this Temple construction and consummation found in the seven days of Genesis 1? The laying out of these functionaries found within then may appear to correspond with the entirety of the Biblical story ending at Revelation. Is it possible that Day six corresponds to the coming of Christ and the completion of God’s full Image through Him and ends with God’s Sabbath Rest in which God is established in His Temple .
    It seems to me that this might make more sense than trying to concord Genesis 1 with a physical creation.

  • http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com Steve Martin

    Hi AlienAlien117:
    To some of us, this is VERY pertinent to the gospel. There are many people in our modern scientific age that are convinced that Gen 1 *IS* relevant to science. They interpret the passage as a very narrow material description of how the Creator created AND assume this interpretation must be accepted along with the good news of Christ’s salvation through his death and resurrection. Thus there are those who dismiss the gospel because they believe it is tied to untenable scientific claims, and others who doubt their faith (and sometimes leave their faith) for the same reason.
    What Walton’s interpretation states is that Gen 1 is NOT about material origin ie. what it is talking about can’t be studied by science. And for those struggling with faith issues because of the perceived choice between science and scripture (a completely unnecessary choice IMO), THIS is indeed great news!

  • Matt

    “Tiamat-fillets” made my day :-) Thanks, MatthewS!
    This discussion is extremely relevant to the gospel because many believe that unless Gen 1-11 is literal science and history there is no gospel.
    Thanks, RJS, Scott and John

  • AlienAlien117

    Ok the book is on order.Folks I remember 30 years ago talking with Dwayne Gish re. creation and evolution(still a hot topic)and the science versus Bible question also came up.For those who accept Jesus by faith the Bible becomes the truth. Subject to the Holy Spirit answers to these most difficult questions can be found in the Bible itself,if the perceived disparity between the Bible and science results in a loss of faith that faith was suspect.Many will fall away,science (that which we know)cannot ever be a substitute for real faith.Sadly in this generation “ever learning,never coming to a knowledge of the truth” is more prevalent than in any other generation.

  • http://bobbyorr.wordpress.com MatthewS

    Thanks Matt! I don’t know why, but the whole “split like a fish” thing with Tiamat gets me every time. Those stories are crazy, man!
    Part of the beauty of this book is that it is not the same old tired debate. The circles in which I move for the most part insist that to reject 7-day YEC is to reject Divine/Scriptural authority. Honestly, I think they do some points. But I have reservations. I find it noteworthy that so many people who consider it a life-and-death matter that Genesis be interpreted this one way have little or no familiarity with any other ANE myths and how those myths functioned in their cultures. I will be the millionth person to repeat this by now but it is significant that a Wheaton prof is working with Genesis vis-a-vis its cultural and literary background. I’m guessing this is more a beginning than an ending of such thinking among committed, influential evangelicals, including those who help set the tone of the discussion for the rank-and-file evangelicals.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    Several mentions have been made tohu wa bohu, formless and void. It is my recollection that the only other place the phrase appears is in Jer 4:23″
    “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void (tohu wa bohu); and to the heavens, and they had no light.” NRSV
    The imagery here is not of a formless mess of matter but rather of a barren, functionless wasteland. Thus, whether we are talking about creating everything in verse 1 or verse 1 is simply a preamble for what follows, verse 2 simply begins with barren functionless world to which God brings order and function.

  • dopderbeck

    The issue of creation ex nihlo can be an interesting one when we dig deep into contemporary scientific cosmological theories. Many popular apologists today like to claim that Big Bang cosmology, which replaced steady-state theories, dramatically verifies a basic claim of Christian orthodoxy. Perhaps. But Big Bang cosmology isn’t necessarily the last word, as all the work on string theory and so on suggests. What does creation ex nihlo mean if string theory or some other proposal shows that the Big Bang wasn’t really the “beginning” of everything? We don’t want to hang all of our doctrine and/or apologetics on a theory that might not hold up. That’s the sort of question people are getting at when they ask about the meaning of creation ex nihlo.

  • AlienAlien117

    Stephen Hawkins no less has suggested “from nothing”to some that could be God calling!

  • dopderbeck

    Alien’s (#25) perspective is something I still wrestle with, because it was part of my background: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” This is such a damaging view, IMHO, because it puts so much emotional weight on how we interpret what God is saying about creation in the scriptures. It accuses anyone who asks questions about what scripture means for us today in light evidence from the world around us of doubt or unbelief. That’s a serious and powerful accusation — I would suggest, a demonic accusation right from the Accuser himself. I think God expects, instructs, and desires us to do the hard work of trying to understand the fullness of His revelation to us, including interrogating our understanding of the scriptures.
    But John W. (and others), this raises a methodological / theological question I asked in the first thread about your book. You are in a confessional setting that heavily emphasizes Biblical inerrancy. Your approach to faith-science questions (at least until we get to the problem of Adam and humanity, which I guess we’ll discuss when we get to a later chapter) isn’t concordist, but you’re using a hermeneutical move about authorial intent to suggest that Moses or whoever wrote Genesis wasn’t in “error” because there is no intent to teach about material origins.
    Now, I suppose that if Moses, or Y or P or whomever, really did have some intent to teach about material origins, and Biblical inerrancy is essential, then we’re back to “God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me” — aren’t we? So, aren’t we still putting a huge spiritual and emotional weight on a view of authorial intent that may or may not hold up, and that mainstream Biblical scholarship doesn’t accept (my understanding is that most scholars outside of the evangelical camp think the Biblical authors really were “teaching” a mistaken cosmology). In other words, don’t we still have a methodoligical / theological problem when it comes to problems like this, which is our adherence to Old Princeton inerrancy?

  • Danimal

    Dopderbeck #30
    I’m certainly no Dr. Walton but I would guess that the answer to your question deals with the emphasis on material vs. functional creation. I think the idea is that the author of Genesis may well have intended to show that God is responsible for material as well as functional creation but my reading of Walton is that there is a heavy, heavy emphasis on the functional creation. So I’m ok with the idea that God created (both materially and functionally) and I *think* that some of my “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” friends would hear that argument (I guess I’ll have to try it out ;-).
    Also I’d like to thank Dr. Walton for the book and for adding to the discussion. I’m only on proposition 3 and my mind has been blown a couple times already.

  • Pete

    Reply to John H Walton 21
    May I ask, in your view, who wrote Genesis, or, when was Genesis written and to who was it written to originally? I ask this because if it was to the Israelites in the exodus period, that is before, during, or after the exodus from Egypt, then maybe we need to think of this passage of Genesis in terms they understod then. If so, does Genesis make more sense in a primarily Egyptian cosmology/cosmogony background instead of the broader Mesopotamian one (including Assyrian, Babylonian, and Akkadian etc.)?
    How would you respond to Sparks? He writes:
    “Two common definitions of the genre [i.e. myths] have emerged from this dispute (see M. S. Day). The more general of these definitions sees myth as a story about gods or supernatural beings. The primary analytical griterion in this definition is therefore the content of the tradition. The second and more restrictive approach applied a functional criterion. For these theorists, myths are sacred histories that either explain the human condition or validate social institutions (Eliade). Although it is certainly true that many so-called myths do precisely this, several factors dictate that the first definition probably serves our purposes best. First, scholars habitually label stories about gods as myths, even when these stories play no vital social or religious role. It seems futile to swim against this tide unless there are compelling reasons to do so. Second, as we shall see, there are a bewildering variety of functions served by ‘god stories,’ so that the second definition, which views these myths as sacred stories, is simply too restrictive. It is more profitable to regard the sacred myths as one type within the broader discussion of stories about gods and demigods. Third, a consensus is emerging that there is ‘no single type of myth . . . and unitary theories of mythical function are largely a waste of time’ (Kirk). In light of the practical realities and theoretical ambiguities, the broad definition adopted here is useful because it comprises all of the ancient texts that are commonly discussed as myths. In other words, so long as the jury is out on the nature and function of biblical and Near Eastern myths, the broadest possible definition of myth is warranted.” (Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible, p 306)
    How would you respond to Sparks’s later statement under the heading of Egyptian Myths (if Moses was writing Genesis to the exodus community originally) when he writes, “As is the case in so many ancient cultures, the Egyptian creation stories dealt with both the origins of the gods (theogony) and the origins of the cosmos (cosmogony).”
    Have you read Gordon Johnston’s article from 2008 in Bibliotheca Sacra (or his 2006 National ETS paper) where he would argue that the Genesis creation account basically trumps the competing Egyptian cosmogonies and therefore is persuasive to the Israelites to follow Yahwehism? If he is correct, would your view of a functional cosmos be compatible with his understanding of what the author is saying with what he has written? It strikes me as incompatible because different objects in the creation are viewed as gods in Eygptian myths. But I’d love to know if you thought Jonston’s view is compatible with yours. This seems to be a key point where your view of the ANE’s perception of the cosmos diverges with other scholars who understand the ANE’s perception of the cosmos.

  • AlienAlien117

    The fact that the Bible does not say a whole lot about creation should indicate the degree of value it carries.The answers to historical questions cannot be known,debate over authorship and the myriad of other perplexing subjects simply detract from the object of Gods word.Jesus will speed the pilgrims progress all else will impede,I’m certain that the apostles had more to discuss than origins,so much so that the new testament cautions those who spend their time in endless debate.Time is running out if the Bible is the inerrant,infallible Word of God, and if that is what is really being doubted here I’m out.

  • Tim Seiger

    For the author or any who have read Walton’s book and Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation. Is there a significant difference in the conclusions these two author’s draw? I have read the Enns book but have not yet read the Walton book. Enns, if I remember correctly, argued that Gen 1 followed a pattern set by other ANE creation myths and served the same purpose as those myths and that purpose was not to explain the science but to name the source and purpose of creation. This got Enns fired from Westminster Theological Seminary. I will be ordering Walton’s book as well. I think Walton and Enns have really uncovered a signifcant understanding that does impact the presentation and understanding of the Gospel. N.T. Wright argues that the gospel is the news that Jesus is Lord of all and to hear in Genesis 1 that this claim is supported by the fact that God created the world only lends more legitimacy to the claim. Wright goes on to argue that justification is not simply about legal standing but also about right ordering of the world. That is to say that for the individual follower of Jesus a significant component of justification is to be in right standing or relationshiop to God and his creation (if we are in Chirst we are a new creation). So, just thinking aloud here, it seems that Walton’s thesis is one that shows a consistent character in God who ordered the world and is reordering it in cooperation with those who choose follow him and the bottom line is that he will fully re-order it in his time (new creation).

  • John H. Walton

    Pete 32
    I hope a couple of brief comments will suffice. I still favor a heavy involvement on Moses’ part and that would indeed put the writing at the time of the Exodus. I think it is important to think of the Israelites at the time of Moses hearing Genesis 1 rather than, say, Adam and Eve hearing it. As many of my writings have indicated, I want to pay as much attention to Egyptian cosmologies as to those from Mesopotamia and look for help wherever it might appear. As the book continues you will see that I draw from both. Also, it should be noted, that there are some elements that occur throughout the ANE.
    In terms of Sparks’ view, I see no need to try to define myth or mythology (or redefine them). I think that we do an injustice to the ancient literature by imposing our categories and terms on it. Furthermore, if we choose to formulate our own definition, there will inevitably be those who disagree with it or don’t understand it, and the matter will just get more confusing. I think that happened with some who read Peter Enns’ book. I prefer to be more descriptive.
    It is certainly true that in Egypt, cosmogony and theogony are combined, but that is a point on which I would claim Israel differed. See my full treatment of the issue in Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.
    I respect Gordon Johnston’s work and will have to take a look at his bib sac article. I think that the Genesis 1 account intrinsically disputes the Egyptian cosmologies at many points, but I do not see polemic as the main purpose of the Genesis account. Its polemic is passive and tacit more than direct and explicit. Its view of theological truth cannot help but be at odds with the rest of the ancient world.
    To dopderbeck 30
    I come from an inerrantist tradition and continue to be part of one. It is not surprising then that I am interested in demonstrating along the way in my treatment of Genesis One that those from that tradition should be more comfortable with the accommodationist hermeneutic that I espouse than with a concordist hermeneutic.
    But it is not my first intention to defend inerrancy. I consider the author’s intention to be important because we have to strive for some criterion for reading outside ourselves if we consider this God’s revelation of himself as I do. By assessing the author’s cultural world and literary intentions to the best of my ability, I strive to engage in an ethical reading of sacred text. For those who believe the text has authority as I do, it is important that the authority be located in the inspired text rather than in my interpretation of it. This is an ideal never easily achieved, but if we are shooting for it we can’t go astray as easily.
    Given the wide variety of ways that “inerrancy” can be construed (even Sparks seeks to claim it for his view), I consider it somewhat tenuous to try to make a case on some formulation of that issue, though I have my own.
    Rather than asking what is or is not in error, I prefer to frame the question in terms of what has the authority of God. That authority is carried in the message of the text. There is no authority in the spelling of Nebuchadnezzar or in the question whether we think with our entrails. It is our job as interpreters who believe in the authority of Scripture to delineate where and how that authority is situated. The text as a whole is authoritative, but only a careful, consistent, and thoughtful hermeneutic can navigate the shoals.
    I find the clearest guide is a culturally engaged understanding of what the author was trying to communicate, not determined by reading his mind or psychoanalyzing him, but through the very logical assumption that we always tend to grant, that he was a competent communicator and that we can be informed and sensitive readers.
    Within that hermeneutical resolve, it is still my obligation as an interpreter to offer external verification for my interpretation and to subject it to peer review. What is sound will stand up to those tests, what is faulty will not. This is a methodological choice born of a theological conviction. It is not a methodological problem. It can be carried out consistently and with integrity. But like any hermeneutic, it has presuppositions.

  • http://mikesstudies.blogspot.com Chaplain Mike

    Dr. Walton, is John Sailhamer’s view that Gen. 1.1 is about the original creation of the universe “ex nihilo” and that the rest of the pericope deals with functional preparation of the earth (or land) for humankind a possibility from your perspective?
    I know you hold Gen. 1.1 to be a title or summary of the seven days to come, and know your reasons for saying that, but have you considered Dr. Sailhamer’s view? What are weaknesses of his position?

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    This conversation has wondered somewhat from the post (something I never do at Jesus Creed *grin*> and I want to bring it back to what I thought was one of Watlon’s best clarifying points. On page 35 he writes:
    “… we [folks today] tend to think of the cosmos as a machine and argue whether someone is running the machine or not. The ancient world viewed the cosmos more like a company or a kingdom.”
    Then Walton invites us to consider two scenarios:
    “As employees we pay little attention to the history of the company we work for. We are more interested in its structure and what responsibilities each department has. We want to know about who reports to whom and who is change of certain operations and tasks.
    When we go to the theater, we may have passing interest in the construction of the set and stage works, but we understand that the play exists in the roles of performers. When a person comes late and asks what has happened so far, the question is not answered by information about the costume designer, script writer and the hiring of the cast. Telling the person about all that would be offering the person the wrong sort of information.” (36)
    As I thought about this, I imagined a YouTube clip you could create with a job seeker interviewing for a position. The entire interview is spent discussing the companies formation … the writing and filing of the articles of incorporation and the by-laws. Intricate analysis is given to the type of paper and ink used; the precise day on which the articles were filed (was it sunny or raining); whether the documents were delivered by a signer or by a courier; who manufactured the stamp that placed “approved” stamp on the documents; etc.
    Scot asks “If “God created” is seen in functional instead of material terms, what happens to our reading of Genesis 1?”
    I’d say that our obsession with material origins means we have been behaving a mode similar to job interview scene I’ve described. We need to start reading it in the context it was written.

  • Pete

    John H Walton (35)
    Thanks for your kind response.
    One question: you said, “It is certainly true that in Egypt, cosmogony and theogony are combined, but that is a point on which I would claim Israel differed. See my full treatment of the issue in Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.”
    Will definitely read your other book. Here’s the question: I was wondering, did Israelites differ with the Egyptians before Moses’s instruction? If not, then this could appear to be the turning point to begin to differ with other ANE cultures. How would you respond? Do we have evidence of the Israelites perceptions of the cosmos while in Egypt for 400 years? It makes sense that they could have thought differently, but did they? Is that probable? It seems there is some interaction with other gods in the Jacob narrative through his wife and after Joseph we get quite a bit of silence on their perceptions until Moses. So I’m wondering what the probabilities are that the Israelites really differed with Egypt during the 400 year stay?
    By the way, I have appreciated your book on the covenants. Keep up the good work Dr. Walton.

  • John H. Walton

    36 Chaplain Mike
    I have considered John Sailhamer’s view and disagree with it one several counts, though I benefited from it on others. It would be hazardous to interact with it in a brief blog post, so I would rather point you to my discussion of some of the salient points in my Genesis commentary (pages 68-70). I am inclined to see the seven days as the “beginning” that v.1 refers to whereas he sees it as preliminary to the seven days. My larger objection is that he puts the whole account in a larger theological context that I am unpersuaded of, and he sees the creation account as referring to the land of Israel rather than the cosmic temple.

  • Pete

    Michael W Kruse (37)
    Remember there are differeing opinions about how the ancients thought even among scholars who actually try to think the thoughts of the ancients!

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    Pete #40
    Walton’s case is quite persuasive, even in the brief examples he uses from other ANE cultures. I’m no expert in this topic (I’ve read some) but when I read about this “functional ontology” the tumbler fell into place, the lens came into focus, the key unlocked the door … pick your metaphor … with regard to ANE stories. So many things just suddenly make sense. That doesn’t mean it is right but its “sense-making” ability is an indicator in its favor. I will be interested to see what other scholars say.
    But the most persuasive argument for me is that I agree with it. What other proof is needed? *grin*

  • Scot McKnight

    Michael, maybe the knock-down argument for me is creating light and darkness but no sun until Day 4 — on materialist ontology we’ve got a major problem, and students ask me this question every semester, world without end.
    But with a functional ontology, that problem is resolved.

  • RJS

    Scot,
    I agree – the functional approach makes much more sense of the text that we have, independent of any science or such. The wiggling on the light/dark issue in places is painful.
    John,
    You put a significant emphasis on the intent of the author. Does it matter if the author was wrong – if he had an intent that we would judge was not part of God’s intent based on a reading of the entire Bible,augmented by knowledge of history and knowledge of science?

  • http://mikesstudies.blogspot.com Chaplain Mike

    Thank you, Dr. Walton. At this point in my understanding, I have actually come to view your perspective and Dr. Sailhamer’s as possibly complementary, along with a framework/literary view. As you say in “Lost World” one can hold a framework/literary view and add your perspective to it.
    I too have struggled with Dr. Sailhamer’s view of “the Land” as the focus of Gen. 1, but as I have considered your view in light of his, I have wondered if they might actually fit together nicely. If God’s task in the seven days is to build his cosmic temple and take his rest in it, would it not be possible to understand that, from the very beginning, the Promised Land was designated as God’s Temple in the world? Sailhamer’s argument is that the land in ch. 1 correlates to the garden (or the land in which the garden was planted) in ch. 2, since man and woman are described as having been created there in both chapters. Ch. 2 certainly uses temple imagery to describe the garden, and as you have argued, so does ch. 1.
    Combining these two views, perhaps the point of Genesis 1 is: (1) God made everything. (2) Then God set up his temple in the world (in the Promised Land, which he prepared in six days and then took his rest). (3) God did it so that his creatures, especially humankind his priests, could live in his blessing and be fruitful and multiply throughout the entire world.
    Just some musings at this point. At any rate, I think your insights on the functional concept of creation is spot on.
    I will definitely go back to your commentary and check out the passage you pointed out. Thanks for your time.

  • Norman Voss

    Again I think it is important to recognize the consistent usage of Genesis emblems found throughout scripture. It’s called scripture interpreting scripture and basically provides its own commentary if one will follow it consistently. I believe Dr. Walton has provided a great and unique service to helping us understand Genesis 1 by helping remove it from YEC and OEC concordism considerations. I do believe that one can gather more from internal commentary and consistency of scripture than even an examination of the ANE worldview brings to the table.
    The Hebrew theological mind and purpose is revealed in scripture. We have historically ignored self commentaries such that Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation to name a few and what they reveal about early Genesis. Ezekiel plainly expands upon the Hebrew understanding of the Tree Metaphors found in the Garden as well as the animal metaphors representing Gentile people that live and dwell under these Nation Trees. In the New Testament Paul’s discussion of Adam contrasted to Christ reveals two different modes of Covenant life, this helps us understand the story of Adam in a much richer environment than trying to read Adam and Eve strictly as the physical beginnings of humanity.
    The Biblical discussion of Light and Darkness is better understood through the eyes of John’s gospel than through a scientific exploration.
    Joh 1:5 The LIGHT SHINES IN THE DARKNESS, and the darkness has not overcome it.
    2Co 4:6 For God, who said, “LET LIGHT SHINE OUT OF DARKNESS,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
    Rom 13:12 The NIGHT IS FAR GONE; THE DAY IS AT HAND. So then let us cast off the WORKS OF DARKNESS and put on the ARMOR OF LIGHT.
    There is your functionary purpose of creating Light out of chaos and Darkness in Genesis 1. This should not be so difficult to consider especially since it is a theme from beginning to end?

  • dopderbeck

    I’d like to follow up on RJS’s question in #43 with an addendum: is “the intent of the author” really still a meaningful category? Perhaps we reject the extremes of postmodern literary theory, but isn’t there more than a grain of truth in the notion that an “author” rarely has a unitary, simple, conscious “intent,” and that the “meaning” of a text is always to some extent supplied by the reader? And to complicate things, how do we speak of an “author” of texts that probably have their roots in oral traditions and that were edited and redacted by numerous people probably over millennia before achieving their canonical form? And to complicate things still further, how do we speak of the “authorship” of scripture, which is a living divine-human product?
    These aren’t challenges to Dr. Walton so much as an effort to suss out some of the underlying methodological issues, which to me are interesting as well as important. I hear Dr. Walton saying in response to my earlier post that “inerrancy” is linked with the authoritative teaching of the text, which suggests something of a dynamic view of revelation; but at the same time that authorial intent is very important, which suggests more of a static-propositional view of revelation. I agree that dynamic views of revelation can become a wax nose without some circumscribing principles, but I wonder about the degree to which authorial intent can accomplish that, given the concerns mentioned above.

  • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2007/11/take-debunking-christianity-challenge.html Edward T. Babinski

    SCOT MCKNIGHT WROTE: Walton sketches what is known about ancient cosmology texts and concludes these texts do not discuss creation as bringing something into material existence but of assigning function…gathering materials and giving them function. “Creation thus constituted bringing order to the cosmos from an originally nonfunctional condition.”
    ED’S REPLY: Everything could be said to have a function. You could emphasize the functional aspects of anything and everything, especially if you had no idea nor evidence concerning the actual structure and origin of things. It amounts to discussing things in terms of what they do. That’s an automobile, it is mobile, it moves about and takes you places. But the ancients did more than that. And I would differ with Walton and his view that functionality explains everything. The main concern of the ancients seems not to have been functionality per se, but to set up something stable and enduring, like establishing the cosmos, and establishing their own kingdoms by worshiping gods that had established the cosmos and/or maintained it, and everything in it.
    According to ANE myths the gods or God set up the cosmos, and they set it up in a dependable secure fashion. In Egyptian lore a copulating god and goddess were separated in order to form heaven above and earth below out of those two deities, and a third god stood between them to ensure worshipers that earth and sky would not embrace again and obliterate creation. Or the gods split a primeval mountain or divided primeval waters to create heaven and earth, the two halves of creation. The gods gathered waters together and/or caused earth to rise out of waters and laid out the expanse of the earth such that it “would not be moved” (except when the creator god(s) grew angry and shook heaven and earth). The ancients were concerned that the heavens remained separate from the earth and that the sky would not fall, because they envisioned many imaginative divine designs and structures in place that kept the sky from falling. In Enuma Elish Tiamat is raised like a tent by her crotch and has a skin put on her waters and guards posted so that they may not escape. There’s even a Tiamat saplit and Tiamat enliti equivalent to the waters above and beneath the firmament in Genesis 1. In ancient Egypt the great primeval ocean was represented by the god Nu who flowed all around creation. The gods were imagined to have “set boundaries for the sea” (perhaps the rising and falling tides and springs of waters rising from beneath the land under them made the ancients nervous). The gods set boundaries for light and darkness. They secured heaven and earth and links between them in various ways. They made sure that the waters in the earth and above the stars would not reduce creation to its primeval watery state (in the Noah tale Yahweh had to CLOSE the springs of the deep and the windows of the sky and promise not to release such a watery wrath ever AGAIN, and in psalm 148 the waters above the sun moon and stars, above the highest heavens are said to have been establishing in an everlasting fashion). That was the main concern of the ancients, being assured by their gods of a secure creation. They were ancient times and the gods were believed to secure both the cosmos and the kingdom, hence all the temple-building and sacrifices.
    But that doesn’t mean they thought entirely in terms of functionality to the exclusion of all other ways of thinking about creation. There’s more than just functional descriptions of creation, the ancient also employed terms used for handicraft. The Lord made the firmament with his hands. Yahweh spread or pounded flat the earth. Marduk make the sky and spread out the firm earth. Similar descriptions are found for other Mesopotamian deities.
    Ancient Near Eastern myth makers (the ancient Hebrews being among them), described the order in which creation appeared, and one can easily gather from their writings and images the relative shape and overall 3-tiered structure of the cosmos itself. But such ideas are fantasies compared with modern cosmology and geo-history.

  • http://drjimsthinkingshop.com Jim Linville

    I’m rather surprised that so little is said in these discussions of the Sabbath. Clearly, this is the pinnacle of the Genesis 1-2:4a sequence. It would seem to me–especially given the accent on the heavenly bodies that govern seasons etc., that the passage is trying to describe a fundamental parallel between things on earth and things in the primodial past and divine eternity. The earth (and so people) imitate God again and again. The sabbath becomes the fundamental rhythm of the cosmos. Humans are made in God’s image, and have dominion over the earth: they become God’s representatives.
    I think materiality and functionality is incidental to the P. creation narrative. Rather, it is the establishment of the pattern of human life in synch with the cosmos that is in focus. This clearly has connotations of the cosmic temple imagery (while the Garden story will build that up further).

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    Jim #48
    The Sabbath discussion comes toward the end of the book. Hang in there.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    Edward #47
    I don’t think Walton is saying that God didn’t create things and that there isn’t reference to that in the Bible but his book is tightly focused on Genesis 1. So the question is whether Genesis 1 is about creating things or assigning functions.
    Where I think Walton is probably right is that where we see God fashioning things, the point of the revelation isn’t the thing itself or its fabrication. Rather it points to an establishment of function and ultimately to the one who assigned things their functions. After a quick read of this book I reviewed some passages in the Bible. I can’t think of any that would contradict this conclusion.
    Stay tuned for the next post which I expect will deal with bara. There are 18 propositions he gives. We are on #2.

  • Edward T. Babinski

    Michael,
    Walton’s focus on such an abstract idea as “creating functions” reminds me of the South’s focus on “state’s rights.” I would ask in each instance, “WHAT functions, specifically to do WHAT and WHY?” Or in the case of the South, “Which rights exactly? Would the ‘right to own slaves’ be one of them?”
    All I did was flesh out the idea of functions by explaining that the functions that the ANE myth makers felt were most essential including holding the sky up and the kingdom together. FIRMNESS, SECURITY. Those were the central ideas behind building temples (attempting to gain the favor of the God or gods who ruled creation).
    This isn’t Aristotelian “functional” logic, it’s ancient Near Eastern logic at work and their main concerns and objectives.
    “Marduk (and the gods)… founded an everlasting kingdom, whose foundations are laid as solidly as those of heaven and earth.”
    That’s a direct quotation from the prologue to the Law Code of King Hammurabi, king of Babylon.
    BACKGROUND INFO: The stele containing the Code of Hammurabi was discovered in 1901. The earliest English translation was by R. F. Harper in 1904, soon followed by L. W. King’s in 1910. The Code of Hammurabi was one of several sets of laws in the Ancient Near East. Earlier collections of laws include the Code of Ur-Nammu, king of Ur (ca. 2050 BC), the Laws of Eshnunna (ca. 1930 BC) and the codex of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (ca. 1870 BC),Hittite laws, the Assyrian laws, and Mosaic Law. These codes come from similar cultures in a relatively small geographical area, and they have passages which resemble each other. The text of the Code of Hammurabi was redacted for 1,500 years, and is considered the predecessor of Jewish and Islamic legal systems
    W. W. Davies’, The Codes of Hammurbi & Moses, first published 1905 (reprinted by H. H. Waldo books, 1992?) showed how the law code of Hammurabi profoundly influenced the later law code of the Hebrews in both style and content. But a new work below looks more thorough:
    Inventing God’s Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Laws of Hammurabi by David P. Wright
    Most scholars believe that the numerous similarities between the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:23-23:19) and Mesopotamian law collections, especially the Laws of Hammurabi, which date to around 1750 BCE, are due to oral tradition that extended from the second to the first millennium. This book offers a fundamentally new understanding of the Covenant Code, arguing that it depends directly and primarily upon the Laws of Hammurabi and that the use of this source text occurred during the Neo-Assyrian period, sometime between 740-640 BCE, when Mesopotamia exerted strong and continuous political and cultural influence over the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and a time when the Laws of Hammurabi were actively copied in Mesopotamia as a literary-canonical text. The study offers significant new evidence demonstrating that a model of literary dependence is the only viable explanation for the work. It further examines the compositional logic used in transforming the source text to produce the Covenant Code, thus providing a commentary to the biblical composition from the new theoretical perspective. This analysis shows that the Covenant Code is primarily a creative academic work rather than a repository of laws practiced by Israelites or Judeans over the course of their history. The Covenant Code, too, is an ideological work, which transformed a paradigmatic and prestigious legal text of Israel’s and Judah’s imperial overlords into a statement symbolically countering foreign hegemony. The study goes further to study the relationship of the Covenant Code to the narrative of the book of Exodus and explores how this may relate to the development of the Pentateuch as a whole.
    Neither are the wise sayings in the biblical book of Proverbs unique, some have even been shown to have been derived from wise sayings by an earlier book in the Ancient Near East, right down to the formatting of them.
    The creation stories in Genesis and in other parts of the Bible are fascinating to study in their context. See Mark S. Smith’s new book, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1. Makes me despair that Evangelicals will ever catch up with where Catholic scholarship presently is on Genesis 1. Though Walton’s book is at least a step away from attempting to interpret Genesis 1 through a modern scientific lens, and more toward the views of Catholic scholars like Smith and also like Othmar Keel, who is also coming out with a new book on Creation in the Bible this year.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    #51 Edward
    In one of the comments above, Walton notes the drawback of discussing a book in a blog format like this. You only get snippets without the whole picture. We are only on proposition 2 of 18. For a sneak preview of where this is headed, here is an excerpt from my book review:
    “Walton turns to the phrase tohu wabohu in 1:2 (“fromless and empty” in NRSV). The central point here is not that the earth was barren. The issue is that it served no function. Days one through three describe the establishment of functions and days four through six describe the installment of functionaries. The functions relate to the three basic needs of humanity: Time, weather, and food.
    * Day 1: Time Measurement (light and darkness)
    * Day 2: Weather (expanse between waters above and below)
    * Day 3: Food (formation of land with vegetation)
    * Day 4: Celestial bodies function to mark off days, seasons, and years.
    * Day 5: Sky and water creatures are told to be fruitful and multiple … their function is to fill the environments for which they’ve been created.
    * Day 6: Various creatures are “produced by the land” that (like the plants on day 3) reproduce according their kind … new generations emerge as a function of the previous generations.
    Of course the climax of day six is the creation of humanity … God’s supreme functionary with the most important function. Humanity is to exercise dominion over all that God has created.”
    All I’m saying is don’t be too quick to assume Walton isn’t going to get these issues. You may still be unsatisfied with the answers but let’s hear him out.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    #51 Edward
    In one of the comments above, Walton notes the drawback of discussing a book in a blog format like this. You only get snippets without the whole picture. We are only on proposition 2 of 18. For a sneak preview of where this is headed, here is an excerpt from my book review:
    “Walton turns to the phrase tohu wabohu in 1:2 (“fromless and empty” in NRSV). The central point here is not that the earth was barren. The issue is that it served no function. Days one through three describe the establishment of functions and days four through six describe the installment of functionaries. The functions relate to the three basic needs of humanity: Time, weather, and food.
    * Day 1: Time Measurement (light and darkness)
    * Day 2: Weather (expanse between waters above and below)
    * Day 3: Food (formation of land with vegetation)
    * Day 4: Celestial bodies function to mark off days, seasons, and years.
    * Day 5: Sky and water creatures are told to be fruitful and multiple … their function is to fill the environments for which they’ve been created.
    * Day 6: Various creatures are “produced by the land” that (like the plants on day 3) reproduce according their kind … new generations emerge as a function of the previous generations.
    Of course the climax of day six is the creation of humanity … God’s supreme functionary with the most important function. Humanity is to exercise dominion over all that God has created.”
    All I’m saying is don’t be too quick to assume Walton isn’t going to get these issues. You may still be unsatisfied with the answers but let’s hear him out.


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