The most convincing interpretation of the passage at hand is found in John Walton’s, The Lost World of Genesis One. After reading this book, my view of the chapter has evolved. I am going to attempt to summarize Walton’s perspective, but would strongly urge you to read his prolific book in its entirety. His basic thesis is: “Throughout the entire Bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture.”
Walton persuasively argues that we have a problem when we approach Genesis one as moderns. We hold to material ontology (“the belief that something exists by virtue of its physical properties and its ability to be experienced by the senses”) but the ancients held to what is called functional ontology (“the ancient world believed that something existed… by virtue of its having function in an ordered system”). Material ontology could be understood as something that you can touch like your computer, whereas functional could refer to the creation of a business. Is a business something you can touch or is it more of an organized system that exists as it finds itself functioning systematically to offer its unique services? In other words, if we imagine a grocery store being built with the tangible materials needed to build the actual building, this is completely different from that material building actually becoming a store. It becomes a functional store when the employees are in place to make the building function so that it is stocked with food and ready for customers. Walton further explains:
I do not refer to an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture. In this sort of functional ontology, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society… In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties. Consequently, something could be manufactured physically but still not “exist” if it has not become functional.
Based on the functional ontology of the ancient world, we can rethink our approach to this text. Genesis one seems not to be concerned with material origins (“out of nothing”), but rather with functional origins. This passage is about taking unorganized materials that already exist (which, we must still believe God is the source of) and organizing them into the various functions that benefit humanity and the whole of the cosmos. This becomes clear when we consider that the Hebrew word translated “create” always refers to God as the subject and to objects being arranged for functionality, not to new forms of matter. And the word for “beginning” is regularly used to introduce “a period in time, rather than a point in time.” Therefore, it is evident that “verse 1 serves as a literary introduction to the rest of the chapter.” Throughout the rest of Genesis is a phrase: “this is the account of…” which introduces the eleven sections of the book that follow starting in verse 2.4. So, if we put all of this together, verse 1.1 uses “beginning” to introduce the initial period outlined in the whole of the book of Genesis and the following eleven sections are introduced by the above phrase for a total of twelve divisions (which would be significant to a Hebrew minded person). Walton proposes the following translation for the first verse in the Bible: “In the initial period, God created by assigning functions throughout the heavens and the earth, and this is how he did it.”
Having placed Genesis one within a functional ontology, we are now free to rethink its relation to science, as it no longer is about the beginning of materiality. But if this is truly the case, then what is this passage about? Walton suggests a perspective that he has coined the “cosmic temple inauguration view.” In the ancient world, deity was expected to dwell restfully in a temple. Day seven reflects that when God is finished organizing the functional elements of the world to operate for the benefit of human image bearers, that God rests. The difference in this instance than say, Solomon’s Temple, is that this passage envisions God as setting up the universe to function as his cosmic temple. After the “chaos” (pre-historic evolutionary material reality) has been arranged to function with “order,” God’s world is now a place where God rests and humanity functions as his care providers for the earth. It is important to point out that rest never meant that the deity (God) was inactive, but rather in a functional ontology exactly the opposite was true. “When the deity rests in the temple it means that he is taking command, that he is mounting to his throne to assume his rightful place and his proper role.” Resting in a temple, especially the cosmic temple, is all about God settling into his cosmic home to set up “headquarters” or the “control room” for the newly organized world that is set up for the new era of human functionality.
So, what does this view of Genesis one leave us with (may I remind the reader of the importance of reading Walton’s book in its entirety in order to fill in the important gaps that I did not have time to explore)? It allows us to understand this significant chapter as a time in the history of God’s ongoing creation of materials in the world, when he intervened to set up the cosmos as his functional temple for the benefit of humankind who, for the first time were branded with his divine image to become higher than all of the animals. Prior to this time, it is possible that the evolutionary processes (which God initiated) progressed for several billion years, but at the right time the tohu va vohu (the chaos of verse 2) of the prehistoric age was organized in a way with God at rest and humanity as ready to function as his image-bearers. After the six days of God organizing functions, “it was very good” because the world now was set up to work for the benefit of all people.
HERE IS A VIDEO I MADE ABOUT THE BOOK…