Review of The Lost World of Genesis One, Part Two

The second proposition or chapter in Walton’s recent book The Lost World of Genesis One emphasizes the functional orientation of ancient cosmology. Walton begins by asking what it means for something to “exist”, and in the process he illustrates how existence in numerous cases is not about material or material existence. Curricula may exist in printed form or in a computer file, but really a curriculum exists first and foremost functionally, organizing a university course. In the same way a business’ existence is not the same as the existence of a particular building in which its headquarters happen to be located at some point in time. A computer provides another example, in which all its parts may physically exist long before they are arranged and organized into a functioning computer – but until the latter process occurs, we probably would not say that the computer in question “exists” yet. Through these illustrations, Walton wants to help modern readers to understand how “creation” and “existence” can be more – and potentially other – than the bringing into physical existence of certain kinds of matter.

The chapter continues with information about non-Israelite Ancient Near Eastern creation texts. We have evidence from the Babylonians, Sumerians and Egyptians. Although there are important differences between them, some features seem to be shared in common. The most important for Walton’s purpose is the focus on function. Many of these texts begin not with “nothing” in a strict sense but with waters, with a chaos that has not yet been ordered, and yet this very lack of order can be thought of as “non-existence”. Perhaps the most striking moment in the chapter is when Walton writes that “analysts of the ancient Near Eastern creation literature often observe that nothing material is actually made in these accounts” (p.35). They do not make land and water, nor the substances from which humans and other living things will be made, but they take what exists and use it to “create” habitats and beings, to make a functioning cosmos out of the disorganized chaos or from whatever monolithic substance or entity primordially exists.

The chapter concludes with Walton noting that most ancient people would have assumed that the gods manufactured the material of creation as well. Here there is, I think, far less agreement than Walton’s unqualified “Absolutely” (p.36) might indicate. It seems that, just as ancient peoples emphasized functional rather than material creation, often times the question of where the raw material or primordial chaos came from was not answered because it simply was not asked in any kind of direct or systematic way. The fact even within Judaism the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo was not mainstreamed until the Middle Ages suggests that even within the tradition of the Genesis creation stories, it was possible to be so oriented on function that questions about material origins were either not asked, or if they were asked, the answers were considered either too speculative or too unimportant to be the focus of much attention. Nevertheless, this point, if it raises some questions about Walton’s unqualified answer to the question he poses, nevertheless supports the contention of this chapter, namely that function was the focus in ancient Near Eastern creation texts. This is an important point, and will inform Walton’s treatment of Genesis in the chapters that follow.
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