Rediscovering the Lost World of Genesis One (Best Interpretation I’ve Seen!)

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.”[1]

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”[2]) 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”[3]).  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.[4]

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.”[5] Therefore, it is evident that “verse 1 serves as a literary introduction to the rest of the chapter.”[6] 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.”[7]

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.”[8] 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.”[9] 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.[10]

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.[11]




[1] Walton, 19.

[2] Walton, 24.

[3] Walton, 26.

[4] Walton, 26.

[5] Walton, 45.

[6] Walon, 45.

[7] Walton, 46.

[8] Walton, 162

[9] Walton, 75.

[10] Walton, 75.

[11] See: Walton, 97-98 for more of the “before and after” of Genesis 1.

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  • Even at first glance I see the irony of our modern view of Genesis. Though living in a scientific age we still think of the sun travelling through the sky, we still see ourselves fixed in space with everything else moving. How many of us truly consider billions of years of evolution. Could we not easily be convinced that dinosaurs lived a few thousand years ago because we unconsciously condense the ages into a time frame we can comprehend. If Genesis were scientific no one would believe its authenticity anyway. I am easily convinced by Walton's arguments because the alternative view is far to narrow.

    • Kurt

      I couldn't agree more Chris! The "alternative view is far too narrow!"

  • JM

    Loved the book as well. I'm not sure Walton's approach exhausts Gen.1's literary/theological nuances, so I'm glad that he acknowledges throughout that his view is complementary with views such as Kline's, Ross', Collins' and others. I would thoroughly encourage you to check out C. John Collins' "Genesis 1-4" –

    And, shameless plug, I discuss all of these approaches in my upcoming Bible & Science DVD seminar! 🙂

    • Kurt

      JM, yes… I liked this about the book as well. I have been one who leans toward the Framework Hypothesis and agree that adding this functional element enhances the limits of that view.

      Also, I just ordered the commentary you commend.

      PS – Let me know when the study is officially out and I will be happy to spread the word for ya!!!!

  • Jeremy John

    I read John waltons book and completely support it. One of the best ways to read genesis I have seen.

  • Hillary

    Very interesting… Something to add to my "ponderings" about reconciling becoming an archaeologist and being a Christian. I'll have to read the book before I form an opinion, but an interesting offering.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Kurt

      Hillary… continue to ponder and explore. What an exciting path you are on. Have you heard about the "biblical Archaeology" MA program at Wheaton college where Walton teaches? Thought about it myself a couple of times…

      • Hillary

        I've heard a lot of good things about Wheaton, I did not, however know that Walton teaches at the college. I do enjoy studies on "biblical" archaeology. Provides great references when others in the field of archaeology argues against the Bible.

        You should really consider the course at Wheaton. Would have loved to explore the option, but I'm based in South Africa.


  • Jesus Creed has a fascinating discussion that I thought you'd be interested in.

  • I've never really understood why interpreters push for a creation from existing matter rather than from nothing The text seems to be about creation ex-nihilo from the first, and to deny this simply pushes the question of matter's origin back a step. It's not as though ex-nihilo is less palatable to our sceptic audience.

  • B.J.W.

    How does the author address the concept of “rest” in Exodus 20:8-11?   “8 Remember to dedicate the Sabbath day: 9 You are to labor six days and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD
    your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male
    or female slave, your livestock, or the foreigner who is within your
    gates. 11 For the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.”

    • @8d5f0258875494516e32aebdaef47c05:disqus … refering to that text and others, Walton concludes:

      If rest for God is him at work running the cosmos, then “our Sabbath rest can be seen in a new light…  When we “rest” on the Sabbath, we recognize him as the author of order and the one who brings rest (stability) to our lives and world. 
      We take our hands off the controls of our lives and acknowledge him as the one who is in control.  Most importantly this calls on us to step back from our workaday world – those means by which we try to provide for ourselves and gain control of our circumstances.” page, 147

      • B.J.W.

        I’m afraid I must disagree with his interpretation, because of the words, “You must not do any work…”  That says absolutely nothing about all those things.  Sure, it’s good to recognize God as the author of order and the one who brings stability to our lives; we must take our hands off the controls, and realize that God is in control.  But I don’t believe you can take that from the verses in Genesis or Exodus.

    • @8d5f0258875494516e32aebdaef47c05:disqus … refering to that text and others, Walton concludes:

      If rest for God is him at work running the cosmos, then “our Sabbath rest can be seen in a new light…  When we “rest” on the Sabbath, we recognize him as the author of order and the one who brings rest (stability) to our lives and world. 
      We take our hands off the controls of our lives and acknowledge him as the one who is in control.  Most importantly this calls on us to step back from our workaday world – those means by which we try to provide for ourselves and gain control of our circumstances.” page, 147

  • E.A. Blair

    I just found this article, but I’d like to point out that it’s interesting to note that if you read the opening verse of Genesis in Icelandic (Í upphafi skapaði Guð himin og jörð.), the verb in that sentence literally translates to English as “shaped”, implying that there was something already there for a putative deity to work with.

    It would be interesting to see if there are correlations between the translations of the bible into various languages and the literalness accorded to it by native speakers.

  • Dan

    I’m not sure if almost three years after the post you’ll even see this comment, but I’ve been meaning to ask someone about this:

    Assuming the ‘functional ontology’ interpretation of Genesis 1 a la Walton, could it have implications for the whole “kingdom of God” (God’s reign, rule, etc.)? I’ve been thinking, largely in conjunction with my reading of N T Wright about the amazing implications of the resurrection, namely, God becoming king, or, as Wright puts it, ‘inaugurating the Kingdom of God.’

    So if we take Genesis 1 to mean God creating his temple, abode, home, does the following scenario become reasonable?:

    If Wright is correct in saying that Jesus’ resurrection means first and foremost the establishment of the kingdom of God (what else could it be?), and now that we are ‘in Christ’ we are to put on the new humanity, as it were, could this as well be read into the seven days of creation? In second temple Judaism, according to Wright, all Jews would have known that 1) seven days signified the inauguration of a temple, and 2) on the sixth day of the inauguration, an image of God was placed in the temple. This, obviously, corresponds to the seven days of creation, but if the kingdom was established during the resurrection, could this not be the sixth day now, conforming ourselves to God’s image (Jesus), and thus becoming the ‘true humans’ or true image of God? In other words, is it viable to suggest that pre-resurrection, humans weren’t really the image of God, but now that the Kingdom has been established, through Jesus, we do bear God’s image? I hope that makes sense. And as for the seventh day, when God rests, or, as you rightly quote Walton, “mounting to his throne,” could we see then see that as a future eschatological event, namely, the so-called “second coming” when God’s act of New Creation takes place and Jesus’ people are resurrected as well? (I’m perfectly happy to think that, following N T Wright again, the new creation will deal with this universe and this earth, provided that it is indeed a coming together of heaven [God’s space] and earth.)

    If you see this, I hope to get some feedback. I’d like to write to Wright to see if this view just could be, you know, right, but how that would be done I haven’t the foggiest.