Reflections on Reading Genesis 1-3 (RJS)

We have posted several times over the last few months on Genesis 1-3 and on Prof. John Walton’s approach to Genesis 1-3.  Scot called it a Game-Changer in the Genesis 1-2 debates in a post that attracted a great deal of attention. A few months ago I had the opportunity to listen to Walton present his work and put up a post No Scientific Revelation in the Bible!. This one also attracted a good deal of attention.

John Walton is  Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and has spent his career studying the ancient context of the Old Testament. His work on Genesis is described in a number of places, including his book The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate and his chapter in  Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation. His section on Genesis in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentaries is also helpful. He has (at least) two upcoming books as well: Four Views on the Historical Adam and The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority.

Over the last six or ten months John has been speaking around the world on the topic Genesis Through Ancient Eyes. The advantage of giving the same talk some 60 or 70 times is that it allowed him to refine his presentation, gaining new insights from interactions with many people in many different locations.  If you are interested you can find a version of his talk on the BioLogos site (linked through the title). Today I would like to call attention to three additional resources.

First: John’s brother Jim has posted a couple of segments of John’s presentation to YouTube.

Part one of John’s Presentation covers the authority of scripture and the we should both honor and understand the text.  We don’t honor the text as the word of God by making it say something it never intended, however “obvious” it may seem to us today. We need to read the text through ancient eyes.

Part two of John’s presentation gets to the science – and he begins this segment by making the claim that there is no scientific revelation in the Bible. The text is not focused on science, or on material origins. It is focused on functional origins.

Parts 3 and 4 can be viewed through the Biologos site: Genesis Through Ancient Eyes.

Second: New Insights and Illustrations. John put up three posts this week at BioLogos describing his approach and some of the new insights he has gained through presenting the material some 60-70 time in a variety of countries and cultures. The first installment Reflections on Reading Genesis 1-3: John Walton’s World Tour, Part 1 looks at several common questions and the insights he gained:

When I talked with and listened to members of various audiences on my lecture tour, the same questions and topics came up over and over.  As a result, I was able to continue to shape my thinking about origins. Here is a summary of some of the insights and ideas that came out of these conversations around the world.

What actually happens during the seven days described in Genesis 1?

One person framed it this way: “If nothing is actually happening, and if no material or spiritual changes are happening during the chapter, what it really is at core is a paean of praise, an encomium much like Ps. 136, with its recognitions and repetitions.” I replied that it is not that nothing is happening. What is happening is that people and God are moving into the home they will share. It all begins to function when people in God’s image come on the scene and when people “move in”—as an origins account, this is the story of the origins of the home, not the origins of the house. So it is more than just praise—it is inauguration of sacred space.

And the ever present issues of numbers, ages, and genealogies:

One faculty member I talked to provided another example of the rhetorical use of numbers from his experience while he was in ministry in Indonesia. The Indonesians in his area would identify ages based on how much experience or wisdom the person was accorded by the community. Once, at age 35, he was introduced as being fifty. He objected and was told that the number identified his status as a wise person who should be listened to and heeded. It had nothing to do with his actual age. …  The numbers had rhetorical value, not quantification value.

Perhaps this is why so many of the Judges and Kings ruled for forty years. The number has rhetorical value not quantification value. Read or listen to Judges through Chronicles straight through sometime. The number forty sticks out like a sore thumb. (Not to mention the three forties in the life of Moses.)

In Part 2 Walton continues to look at frequently asked questions. In Part 3 he concentrates on new illustrations he found helpful to get his points across.

Concluding Remarks

Perhaps one of the most important observations to make in the aftermath of this seven-month odyssey is that I encountered nothing that led me to have second thoughts about the interpretation that I have developed. In fact, the general response resulted in further evidence and affirmation rather than questions or uncertainty. My continuing research has likewise further strengthened and supported my view. For an example, a recently published paper by Assyriologist Gonzalo Rubio, “Time Before Time” treated two third millennium BC texts just recently identified as cosmological texts.[2] Both texts refer to the time before creation—a time when nothing was functioning (major gods not living, daylight and moonlight not shining, no vegetation, no priests performing rituals, nothing was yet performing its duties). This type of description is commonplace in ancient Near Eastern cosmology texts and is referred to as “negative cosmology” or “denial of existence.” It features the absence of creation as it describes a scenario of a primordial era that is outside time. Both Genesis chapters one and two feature this same type of description (1:2; 2:5-6)—a description of non-order. This same feature has long been recognized in the opening lines of the most famous Babylonian cosmology, Enuma Elish, “When above heaven had not yet been named, and below, earth had not been called by name . . . When none of the gods had been created or had been called by name, and destinies had not been ordained.” Such texts express the pre-creation state as one lacking divine agency; a time in which the gods were not yet performing their duties. In Genesis, however, the spirit of God is hovering over the waters—divine agency ready to move into action.

As I have often said before, the similarities we observe do not make a case for Israelite borrowing; rather, we find that Genesis is operating fully within the cognitive environment of the ancient Near East. This is just how ancient people thought about cosmology. We continue to learn how the Bible, though written for us, is not written to us, and we must read it as an ancient text.

I encourage you to read John’s posts and start a discussion. You can comment on the BioLogos site or on this post.

Third: John has put together a video Origins Today: Genesis through Ancient Eyes. This video includes lectures, personal reflections, and interviews. You can watch or download the entire video through this link to vimeo. Many of the clips here can provide a good reference to focus a discussion on Genesis and Origins. John’s brother Jim has also posted a number of the segments to YouTube.  In this clip Phil Vischer interviews John about science in the bible.

At 1:50 minutes:

Phil: Were the Israelites right and God’s doing everything or are we right and he only does certain special things on holidays?

John: They’re both helpful ways to think. We believe as Christians that God is involved in everything that happens.

God interacts explicitly in obvious ways on certain occasions – the incarnation and resurrection are two excellent examples. But God’s role is not limited to these instances alone. God is involved in everything, in what seems “natural” as much as in the obviously “supernatural.”

The remaining clips can be found through this link.

This is good material and an excellent way to start a conversation we desperately need in much of the church. It isn’t a matter of taking the Bible seriously or throwing it under the bus. It is a matter of reading Genesis for all its worth – through ancient eyes as well as modern eyes.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

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  • Hello agains RJS.

    I do like the dialectic quality of this work, the objectivity the author is striving for and the considerable respect he has for people holding other views than his own.
    While I am sure that all the books attributed To Moses contain historical errors, I don’t reject the possibility there was a first human couple having experienced God in a particular way and believe it is entirely compatible with all our knowdledge about Evolution.
    I just don’t know.
    However I am sure that the much later interpretation that God punished all their descendants because they ate the wrong fruit by cursing them with a sinful nature making wicked actions inevitable IS WRONG.
    It cannot be found in the text and is utterly uncompatible with God’s moral perfection and fairness.

    But I think that for anyone honestly investigating the Bible, the most likely conclusion is that it isn’t more inspired than other religious book.

    However I am open to the possibility of being wrong about this and I am actively searching for honest and friendly discussions with people having other opinions.

    Friendly greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • What is your definition of “inspired?”

  • Something is more inspired than something else in so far it is closer to God’s thought about the topic at hand.

    This allows for both natural and supernatural ways God could bring about inspiration.

    Lovely greetings in Christ.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Can that definition help in understanding Genesis 1-3?

  • Mike Bull

    Man, this is like using Da Vinci fakes to judge the originals. Academia has its very own special kind of dumb. The text simply won’t accommodate this sort of treatment. Genesis 1-2 is clearly not merely “functional,” although that is a component of it. Did God fashion Adam from dust? If not, why was he cursed to return to the dust? Did God not cut Adam’s side? If not, why was Jesus’ side cut? The Bible is far more complex and integrated than we give it credit for, and part of the problem here is the failure of moderns to understand these physical acts of God as foundations for later social and ethical ones. There is much more I could say here, but Walton isn’t reading the text through ancient eyes at all. He has a very modern agenda, and his work makes nonsense of the curse of physical death (initially atoned for by the very physical blood and skin of animals) and the necessity of the resurrection. In Walton’s world, death was nothing new. Walton’s world never existed. He ought to submit to the Scriptures instead of submitting them to judgment by pagan derivations. Credo ut intelligam.

  • Trin

    I have read and am so grateful for Dr. Walton’s work. He was one who helped me immensely as I transitioned from YE through ID to TE. Context, ancient thinking, ancient views, and the fact that the “literal” interpretation is that which the author intended and the original hearers would have understood.

    However, I do find the creation story as worldview interpretation more convincing, given the similarity with and differences to other ANE creation stories contemporaneous with Genesis 1-3, and the questions the Israelites would have been struggling with post-exodus (the possible post-exilic redaction of the texts notwithstanding).

    The material/functional view is instructive and would have been common to ANE thinking at that time. However, the WV differences between the creation accounts would have been the significant and instructive difference for Israel.

  • Eric Boersma

    “Did God fashion Adam from dust? If not, why was he cursed to return to the dust?”

    These questions are nonsense. If you presume that the answer to the first question is “no”, then the answer to the second question is “God didn’t curse Adam, so your question doesn’t make any sense”.

    “Did God not cut Adam’s side? If not, why was Jesus’ side cut?”

    These questions are also non-sequiturs. If Genesis 1-3 are poetic and not historical, there are still plenty of sources in the Bible that prophesy that Jesus’s side would be pierced. God physically piercing Adam (or there even being a physical Adam) isn’t a prerequisite for Jesus in any way, shape, or form.

    “He ought to submit to the Scriptures”

    This is both heresy and impossible. The Scriptures are inanimate objects. We submit to God, who is revealed, in part, via the Scriptures. All knowledge of God does not come from the Scriptures, and the Scriptures are not the only way to God, as evidenced by the generations of Christians who lived and died without a written scripture at all.

  • attytjj466

    I very much appreciate Walton ‘s perspective and contribution. I get the notions of “functional creation”and “temple imagery”. and agree there is much truth in those insights. But I still hold on to the notion that there is more revelation in Genesis 1 than the world was created and God/diety did it, somehow. There is for example the ideas of process, orderly progression, careful design and rollout of creation, that if not scientific insight or revelation in a strict sense, comes very close to being so, while admittedly still enbedded in ancient cosmology.

  • Mike Bull

    Eric, Genesis 1-3 are both poetic and historical. It is possible to submit to the words of God, and far better than submitting to the idol of scientism. Yes, there are other Scriptures, but no other author cuts Genesis away from Bible history as you do. Christians without written Scriptures submitted to the word they heard better than you guys do.
    God certainly cursed Adam. I don’t know what planet you are on. Blessing and cursing come at the end of every “Covenant cycle” like a combine harvester. Deut 28 is an expansion of Genesis 2-3.