Genesis 1 in Ancient Perspective?

John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis 1 promises a lot. It offers what Walton calls a “face-value” and “literal” reading of Genesis 1, but one that sidesteps the problems of attempting to reconcile science and the Bible. For Walton, creationist readings and concordist readings that attempt to correlate Genesis 1 with contemporary scientific theory both miss the point and read “modern” questions into an ancient text that was not designed to answer those questions.

Walton’s treatment of the “days” of Genesis 1 illustrates the cleverness of his solution: With young earth creationists, he claims that Genesis 1:1-2:4 describes a seven-day sequence, and that the days must be interpreted as normal 24-hour days (90-91). Yet he doesn’t think that Genesis 1 implies anything at all about the age of the material universe. Christians can rely on science to tell us how old the earth is.

The two main planks of Walton’s argument are, first, his claim that Genesis 1, being ancient cosmology, should be read like an ancient cosmology, and, second, the claim that ancient cosmologies present not a “material” ontology but a “functional” one. According to the “modern” materialist ontology, a thing is when it comes into material existence; on this view, to “create” means to bring something into material existence. According to ancient ontology, though, a thing is when it has been assigned and equipped to play a role in an ordered system; to “create” doesn’t mean to bring something into existence but to give something (that might already exist) its place in an order. For ancients, a thing is “by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system” (24).

Genesis 1, he argues, is concerned with function rather than with material origination. Walton believes that God brought material things into being (96); he doesn’t think, however, that this is what Genesis 1 is about. Overall, it’s about God’s organization of the world as a cosmic temple. More specifically, things are not made de novo in Genesis 1 but are assigned their proper position in that cosmic temple. The sun had been shining for a long time before the week of Genesis 1 begins; what happens during that week is not the formation of the ball of burning gas but the placement of the sun with the moon and stars in the firmament as signs, for appointed times, etc. Pre-existing heavenly bodies are given new functions in relation to humanity. Presumably too human beings of some stripe had existed for a long, long time, but they are assigned a new role as priests of God’s cosmic temple during the seven days of “creation.” That is what it means in Genesis 1 for God to “create” heaven and earth.

Walton assembles evidence both from within the Bible and from comparison to other ANE cosmologies. The comparative evidence is of some interest, but here I concentrate on biblical, theological, and philosophical issues.

For starters, there’s an internal contradiction in Walton’s proposal. Walton takes the tohu-bohu of Genesis 1:2 not as “chaos” or ”unformed” but as “unproductive” (47). That is an odd proposal: God made an unproductive world and left it in its unfruitful state for age after age before He determined to form it into a cosmos. Why would God make a world at all without making it as His habitation, a place where He can take His rest? But it’s worse than odd: As tohu-bohu, the world is “not yet functioning as an ordered system” (48) but it somehow continues to exist for millions of years in that condition. Apparently, during this “unproductive” phase of the material cosmos produced all kinds of things – on Walton’s view, modern science tells us that generation after generation of dinosaurs existed, and lower forms of life evolves into higher forms of life, some sort of human beings came into existence and lasted long enough for God to assign them as images and rulers over the creation. How can that happen when the world is “unproductive”? How can that happen when nothing has been assigned a function, and nothing has been ordered into a system?

Though a useful description of some dimensions of ANE and biblical thought, his concept of “functional ontology” is vague, and slips around to suit Walton’s thesis. Walton points out that even in English “create” doesn’t necessarily imply “bringing some material reality into existence for the first time.” We create things that are more than material, things that wouldn’t be what they are if they were merely material. We cannot create a college, for instance, or a company simply by building a building and gathering the necessary equipment. A computer isn’t fully itself until we have not only the physical components but the software and a user. This is true enough, but it can be turned around: Without the students, books, teachers, etc. – all of which are material things – there wouldn’t be any college. Without the hardware, the software and the computer user wouldn’t be functional either. To “create” a computer necessarily includes the organization of material components, even if we say that there is more to it than that.

Walton points out that nothing is brought into being on Day 3 of the creation week. Instead, the waters are separated so dry land can emerge, and the earth brings forth plants with seeds and fruit. The point, he claims, is that God is organizing the world for food production (57). This is the function for which the division of land from sea is critical. But in fact vegetation does come into material existence on Day 3 (though it comes from pre-existing ground). Besides, even the separation of water and land is both material and functional; the land cannot fulfill the function of food production without the material division between sea and land. One might say that both land and sea pre-exist, but Day 3 brings into being a new arrangement of material reality. It’s not simply an assignment of function. It involves hydraulics.

Walton’s use of the temple-building texts exposes the slipperiness of his use of “functional.” He claims that the seven-day sequence of Genesis 1-2:4 calls attention to the temple features of the cosmos, since “the number seven appears to pervasively in temple accounts in the ancient world and the Bible” (86) and since the seventh-day Sabbath has to do, in ancient thought, with the rest of a God in His house. But he admits that “most” of the seven years of building Solomon’s temple “was spent on what may be called the ‘material phase’” (87) – quarrying and shaping stones, extracting metals, building furniture, etc. He adds, rightly, that even after all that the temple was not finished, not yet fully a temple. To become a temple, it had to be consecrated/dedicated and Yahweh had to move in. But that misses the point: Temple-building, stretching over seven years, was a material and functional process; if creation is a temple-building process, stretching over seven days, it would be reasonable to assume it too was material and functional too.

All this to say that Walton’s strict dichotomy of functional-material doesn’t work, either philosophically or as a way of reading the text.

Walton addresses this objection: Why not both material and functional? (92). He answers by appealing partly to his analysis of the language of Genesis 1, particularly the verbs bara (create) a
nd asah (make, do). Early on in the book (36-43), he observes that God is always the explicit or implied subject of bara, but that the verb takes a wide variety of objects. It’s true that the verb doesn’t necessarily refer to making things from nothing, and thus the verb, in Walton’s terms, doesn’t take objects that are “easily identified in material terms” and even when it does it isn’t “objectifying” them (41). He admits that the usage of the verb doesn’t by itself prove that Genesis operates on a “functional ontology,” but he argues that the majority of uses “require” a functional understanding. The ambiguities surrounding function-material come up once again. 

More important, though, are the uses of the verb in Genesis 1 itself. Apart from Genesis 1:1, the verb is used twice more in the chapter, to describe the “creation” of the sea creatures and that of human beings as male and female (1:21, 27). The sea creatures are not assigned any function (despite Walton’s rather weak arguments on 65-6), and so it seems reasonable to take bara in 1:21 as “bring into existence.” Human beings are assigned the function of being “images of God” (1:27), but there is reason to think, even on Walton’s terms, that the verb has both material and functional connotations. At the climax of temple construction, an image of the God would be made and placed in the temple. If Genesis 1 is a temple-building text, the creation of man stands in the place of the image-making and image-placement. Bara in Genesis 1:27 doesn’t “require” an exclusively functional interpretation, which is what Walton has to say to make his argument work.

Similar problems come up in Walton’s discussion of Genesis 1’s use of asah (64). He rightly observes that the verb is flexible, meaning “make” or “do” in various contexts. But the issue, as Walton knows, is not what the word may mean in different contexts, but what it means in a particular setting. When the object of the verb is an thing (like the firmament, sun, human beings) then it seems the most obvious sense is “make.” What does it mean to “do” the sun and moon? If the sense is supposed to be “God assigned the existing heavenly bodies new functions,” then there are clearer ways to say that in Hebrew: There are ways to say “appoint” or “assign.” Walton may be able to provide examples where asah is used to mean “assign a function,” but he doesn’t offer any here.

Walton’s common backup argument is to distinguish “ancient” and “modern” readings of Genesis 1. Modern readers are materialists so we are interested to know how things came into material being. We read Genesis 1 accordingly. Ancient readers were more interested in function, and so they would read Genesis 1 not as an account of material origins but as the story of God’s formation of creation as His cosmic house.

But Walton provides few actual examples of ancient readings of Genesis 1. There are biblical reflections on Genesis 1. Psalm 8, for instance, seems to put origin and function next to each other. On the one hand, the heavens are the work (ma’aseh, from asah) of a divine craftsman’s “fingers”; on the other, Yahweh “ordains” (kun) the sun and moon. The “heavens” that are the product of God’s fingers are the firmament in which the sun and moon are placed, and Psalm 8 is asserting that Yahweh made the firmament. This is distinguished from the “ordination” of sun and moon, which refers to function. It’s worth noting that Psalm 8 does not use asah or bara to describe the assignment of function.

Other biblical reflections on Genesis 1 are difficult to squeeze into a “functional” reading: “Without [the Word] nothing came into being that came into being” (John 1:3). This isn’t just a proof text for the fact that God made all things. Given its obvious allusions to Genesis 1, John should be read as a reader of Genesis 1 (an inspired one) who says that things became (egeneto) by the Word of God. (Given the flexibility of ginomai, I imagine Walton would want to read John 1 functonally too.) Walton does mention Hebrews 11:3, but without acknowledging the explicit connection with Genesis 1 (“the ages were prepared by the word of God”). He points out that Hebrews 11:3 speaks of the formation of ages (aionas) rather than of the cosmos, but that doesn’t seal his case. Even if the text is talking about the origin “history” rather than of the structures of the “world,” it asserts that these ages “became” (ginomai) from the word of God. And it asserts that with an allusion to Genesis 1. For the writer of Hebrews, Genesis 1 teaches that the ages were prepared by the word of God, and Genesis 1 describes the becoming of the first age. Walton’s thesis implies that there were ages prior to the speaking of God’s word in Genesis 1, and hence seems to go against the sense of Hebrews 11. 

Beyond the Bible, it’s worth remembering that creatio ex nihilo isn’t a modern invention. Irenaeus wasn’t, after all, a modern reader. And, contrary to Walton’s implication, questions about the age of the earth or humanity are not an exclusively modern obsession. Augustine had his own peculiar reading of Genesis 1, but he tried to reconstruct the history of humanity using the chronologies of Scripture. So did Eusebius and others. Walton’s dismissal of alternative readings as “modern” is easy, but unsupported.

And one has to wonder: Did no one before Heidegger ever ask, Why is there something rather than nothing? Were ancients really so completely indifferent to material origins as Walton suggests?

Walton’s main conceptual contribution – the functional/material distinction – isn’t convincing, and some of the main planks of his biblical analysis are weak, partly because they rely on his questionable functional/material distinction. His understanding of the pre-Genesis 1 world is contradictory: He wants to say it is unproductive for biblical reasons, but he’s willing to insert into that world the teeming energy of evolutionary process. 

Clever as it is, Walton’s thesis doesn’t live up to its promise.

N.B. I made corrections of some typographical errors on June 21, 2014.

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