Review of The Lost World Of Genesis One, Part One

Review of The Lost World Of Genesis One, Part One August 26, 2009

John H. Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009) has deservedly been getting significant amounts of attention. It combines a committment to the authority of Scripture with a direct and pointed challenge to a very popular way of viewing the Bible and its relation to science precisely on the basis of that committment and sound principles of Biblical interpretation.

There is so much that is important in the first chapter that I have decided to post on it separately. I will decide later whether or not to do the same with other chapters, as I continue reading through the book. But already in the prologue the author makes an important point, by affirming on the one hand the importance of viewing God as creator, while on the other hand asking explicitly the question of what it means to affirm that God is creator. Does affirming divine creation mean affirming a particular view of the process whereby God created? The author eloquently expresses his regret that so much attention has been paid to matters other than those actually found in, much less those central to, the Genesis creation account. “It is regrettable that an account of such beauty has become such a bloodied battleground” (p.7).

In the introduction, Walton highlight the tendency to think of the Bible possessively as a key factor, when taken to an extreme, in causing confusion about matters such as creation. When we overemphasize the Bible being ours, for us, addressed to us, we are forgetting key processes that have led to the Bible being in our hands in our own languages. Moreover, precisely because of the translation of the words of the Bible into our various modern languages, it becomes even easier to forget that the words in Hebrew were written in the context of a very different culture from ours. Walton is in an important sense right when he recommends that we do what it is in fact impossible for us to do, namely set aside our own cultural assumptions when reading the Bible (p.11). The only way to understand ancient literature is to understand its culture, and ironically and potentially circularly, the only way for us today to draw near to ancient cultures is through their literature (p.12). There are important differences between various ancient cultures, but ancient Babylonia, Assyria and Egypt all have more in common with each other than our culture does with any of them, and it is important for this reason to set ancient Israel’s literature in that broader cultural and literary context. This is not, Walton helpfully points out, a case of positing the “borrowing” of one culture from another. No American today “borrows” from the culture of consumerism (p.14). We inhabit it, and are rarely fully aware of it for that very reason. In the same way, ancient Israel’s literature does not borrow from the culture of that time so much as it is part of that world and that broad spectrum of cultures.

Rather than being called “Chapter One”, what we are offered first is “Proposition 1”, the first of a number of affirmations Walton makes and justifies in his sequential “chapters”. The first proposition is that “Genesis 1 Is Ancient Cosmology”. Walton immediately describes the cosmological viewpoint of ancient Israelites, including the author of Genesis 1. “The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their “scientific” understanding of the cosmos” (p.16). They believed that the sky was solid, they did not know that stars were suns, and much more, and Walton adds that “God did not think it important to revise their thinking” (p.16). To attempt to turn this ancient cosmology into modern scientific cosmology means changing the meaning, and anyone who genuinely accepts the authority of the text ought to regard the attempt to do so as dangerous (p.17). To demonstrate this point, Walton makes a very helpful comparison with ancient Israelite views of human beings and their intellectual and emotional lives. Ancient Israelites thought that emotions and thinking were literally located in the heart, the spleen, the bowels and so on. “In the ancient world this was not metaphor, but physiology. Yet we must notice that when God wanted to talk to the Israelites about their intellect, emotions and will, he did not revise their ideas of physiology and feel compelled to reveal the function of the brain” (p.18).

There is, it is important to note, no movement among conservative Christians to argue against the modern viewpoint that our thinking and emotions are not centered in either the heart or the bowels but the brain. Indeed, I think it is worth pointing out that many Christians find themselves able to believe that they are “Biblical literalists”, and that the Bible is in all things scientifically accurate, precisely because they read the Bible in translations that have translated ancient Israel’s literal understanding into modern metaphors, replacing bowels with compassion and heart with mind where necessary. And thus we have the Catch-22 that the better the job that translators do, the more likely it is that Christians reading the Bible may be unaware that they are thinking in ways that may be similar to ancient Israelites in crucial ways, but are also vastly different from them in terms of understanding of anatomy and other matters of science.

At any rate, Walton’s analogy will hopefully help modern readers of the Bible to realize that, if they have the impression that an ancient Israelite author shared aspects of today’s scientific knowledge, it is an illusion resulting from effective translation. “Through the entire Bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture” (p.19). When we try to demand that the text address us in our terms rather than having addressed the original readers in theirs, we are selfishly and recklessly commandeering the text and seeking to use it imperialistically for our own ends (p.21).

The chapter ends with suggestions for further reading, in this case places where Walton himself has addressed various points in greater detail.

Already this first chapter should get readers excited. Walton shows persuasively that it is not modern scientific discoveries that threaten the authority of the Bible, but on the contrary it is precisely those who seek to force the Bible to seem to agree with or at least speak the language of modern science, or who seek to make the Bible into a textbook of geology and biology, who are threatening the authority of Scripture by failing to respect it for what it is and read it on its own terms. It is, above all else, the selfish demand that the Bible address me in my language and answer all of my concerns and issues directly that leads to this twisting and commandeering of the Bible, to the detriment of people’s understanding of both Scripture and science.

I’ll be continuing to blog about the book here in coming days. If you can’t wait, the book has already made significant ripples elsewhere in the blogosphere. Jesus Creed has a multi-part series. Others who’ve blogged about the book include Celucien Joseph, Joseph Kelly, John Hobbins, Darrell Pursiful and Art Boulet.

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