The Lost World of Adam and Eve, John H. Walton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.
Summary: Building on his earlier The Lost World of Genesis One, Walton contends that Adam and Eve are both archetypes of humanity and also historical figures, though not necessarily our biological progenitors, that their disobedience brought disorder into the sacred space of the creation affecting all people, and that Christ’s work has to do with restoring that order.
Genesis 1-3 are both foundational texts for Christian belief, and heavily contended texts because of the apparent conflict between scientific understandings of origins and the biblical account read “literally.” It has always been my sense that a significant part of the problem is that many of our discussions violate a fundamental principle of good scripture study which is, to the best of our ability, to understand what it would have meant to its original recipients rather than try to relate it with contemporary science, or show that it is a “scientific” account of origins as do those advocating “creation science.” I don’t think Moses, or whoever we believe wrote these texts was thinking at all about the science. I do think these accounts were shaped very much by the ancient Near East context, and the distinctive claims that the God of Israel was making about Himself, his world, and human beings.
In this book, and his earlier The Lost World of Genesis One, John H. Walton, who is an Old Testament scholar, rigorously explores these texts in light of the growing body of material about the ancient Near East, and through careful reading of the texts himself. Usually I would not paste in a “table of contents” to summarize the book, but in this case it is the best way for you to see Walton’s argument, summed up in twenty-one propositions:
Proposition 1: Genesis Is an Ancient Document
Proposition 2: In the Ancient World and the Old Testament, Creating Focuses on Establishing Order by Assigning Roles and Functions
Proposition 3: Genesis 1 Is an Account of Functional Origins, Not Material Origins
Proposition 4: In Genesis 1 God Orders the Cosmos as Sacred Space
Proposition 5: When God Establishes Functional Order, It Is “Good”
Proposition 6: ’adam Is Used in Genesis 1-5 in a Variety of Ways
Proposition 7: The Second Creation Account (Gen 2:4-24) Can Be Viewed as a Sequel Rather Than as a Recapitulation of Day Six in the First Account (Gen 1:1-2:3)
Proposition 8: “Forming from Dust” and “Building from Rib” Are Archetypal Claims and Not Claims of Material Origins
Proposition 9: Forming of Humans in Ancient Near Eastern Accounts Is Archetypal, So It Would Not Be Unusual for Israelites to Think in Those Terms
Proposition 10: The New Testament Is More Interested in Adam and Eve as Archetypes Than as Biological Progenitors
Proposition 11: Though Some of the Biblical Interest in Adam and Eve Is Archetypal, Yet They Are Real People Who Existed in a Real Past
Proposition 12: Adam Is Assigned as Priest in Sacred Space, with Eve to Help
Proposition 13: The Garden Is an Ancient Near Eastern Motif for Sacred Space, and the Trees Indicate God as the Source of Life and Wisdom
Proposition 14: The Serpent Would Have Been Viewed as a Chaos Creature from the Non-ordered Realm, Promoting Disorder
Proposition 15: Adam and Eve Chose to Make Themselves the Center of Order and Source of Wisdom, Therefore Admitting Disorder into the Cosmos
Proposition 16: We Currently Live in a World with Non-order, Order and Disorder
Proposition 17: All People Are Subject to Sin and Death Because of the Disorder in the World, Not Because of Genetics
Proposition 18: Jesus Is the Keystone of God’s Plan to Resolve Disorder and Perfect Order
Proposition 19: Paul’s Use of Adam Is More Interested in the Effect of Sin on the Cosmos Than in the Effect of Sin on Humanity and Has Nothing to Say About Human Origins
Excursus on Paul’s Use of Adam, by N. T. Wright
Proposition 20: It Is Not Essential That All People Descended from Adam and Eve
Proposition 21: Humans Could Be Viewed as Distinct Creatures and a Special Creation of God Even If There Was Material Continuity
Conclusion and Summary
A few key things to note. One key contention is that Genesis 1 is a functional rather than material account of creation. The focus is on the functions and functionaries of creation rather than their material origins, which is key to Walton’s understanding that the creation, and the garden are an ordered sacred space. Another is that Walton sees Genesis 2 as a sequel–humans have already been created, but God then makes a garden, and two particular humans who are both real figures and serve as archetypes acting on behalf of the human race. This allows Walton to contend for a historical Adam and Eve, without needing to insist that they are the progenitors of all human beings. Their decision to make themselves the center of order and source of wisdom had the opposite effect of bringing disorder into the world, which affects all humanity down to the present. Walton also deals with the important Pauline texts concerning Adam, with the help of N.T. Wright, arguing that the concern is the disordering of the cosmos rather than sin’s effect on humanity.
It is true that Romans 5:12 says that through one man sin entered the world (cosmos), it also speaks of death coming through sin, a clear effect of Adam’s sin not only on the cosmos but on humanity. I wonder here if Walton presses his ideas of order and disorder in the cosmos too far. I also find myself questioning the “functional” versus “material” distinction since both the spaces God makes and the creatures he fills them with are material as well as functional. What this pointed up to me is that while I want to take Walton’s argument as it stands, I also want to go back and take a closer look at the texts.
I do think it is important that those who take the biblical accounts seriously investigate to see whether Walton’s propositions can be sustained. If Walton’s argument stands the test of good exegesis, then he makes a critical contribution in ending the contentious battle between science and scripture over origins. His account does not insist that scripture makes claims about the material origins of the universe, nor does he insist that Adam is the biological progenitor of all human beings. Yet he argues for creation as an ordered sacred space, disordered by the sin of a historical Adam.
A number of the online reviews I found of Walton’s writing seemed more interested in defending a particular view of origins rather than carefully engaging his exegesis. For those interested in such things, this review by Richard Averbeck seemed among the most helpful in confirming Walton’s arguments at some points while raising important questions at others.
What I most appreciate about Walton’s book is the careful effort to look at Genesis as an ancient Near East text, while also taking it seriously as scripture. While mindful of the scientific arguments, his concern is to discern most clearly what scripture does and does not assert. Whether you agree or not with Walton’s argument, I hope it will have the effect it had for me of driving you back to the scriptures themselves “to see if these things are so.”