The Lost World of Genesis One, John H. Walton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
Summary: Walton argues from our knowledge of the ancient cultures in Israel’s context that Genesis 1 is a functional account of how the cosmos is being set up as God’s temple rather than an account of material origins.
Some time back, I reviewed The Lost World of Adam and Eve, which is the sequel to this book. I thought it did one of the best jobs I’ve seen of showing how we must try to understand the book of Genesis as its recipients would have in their own cultural context, rather than trying to make it answer questions about origins in the light of the theories of Darwin and the evolutionary science that has developed over the last 150 years. I’ve always had the sense that we’ve been asking of the text of Genesis questions that neither the writer nor the inspiring Holy Spirit never intended to address. The question that remains is what does the early chapters of Genesis affirm? John H. Walton offers a strong argument that these were written out of a very different world view that was considering the cosmos not in terms of the causative factors in their material origins (although Walton is clear to attribute ultimate causation of and sustenance of the creation to God), but rather as an account of how God establishes the functions and places the functionaries in his cosmic temple over which he rules.
Several insights were particularly helpful. One was his demonstration that the cultures of Israel’s day looked at the world in terms of functional rather than material origins. With the rise of modern science we see the world very differently and this results in some of our difficulties in reading the Genesis texts. Also, he explains the seventh day rest of God, which always has seemed anti-climactic to me as in fact the climax of this account as God enters and sits down, as it were, on the throne of his cosmic temple and begins his rule over what he has set in place. Finally, there is the important implication that because this is not an account of material origins their need be no conflict between Genesis 1 (and indeed the chapters that follow as he argues in his sequel) and scientific accounts of origins as long as science does not try to address teleological questions and conclude there is no God.
As in the sequel, Walton develops his treatment of Genesis 1 as a series of propositions. The chapter titles will give you a sense of the flow of his argument:
Proposition 1: Genesis One Is Ancient Cosmology
Proposition 2: Ancient Cosmology Is Function Oriented
Proposition 3: “Create” (Hebrew bara’) Concerns Functions
Proposition 4: The Beginning State in Genesis One is Non-Functional
Proposition 5: Days One Through Three in Genesis 1 Establish Functions
Proposition 6: Days Four Through Six in Genesis 1 Install Functionaries
Proposition 7: Divine Rest Is In a Temple
Proposition 8: The Cosmos Is a Temple
Proposition 9: The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Relate to the Cosmic Temple Inauguration
Proposition 10: The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Do Not Concern Material Origins
Proposition 11: “Functional Cosmic Temple” Offers Face-Value Exegesis
Proposition 12: Other Theories of Genesis 1 Either Go Too Far or Not Far Enough
Proposition 13: The Difference Between Origin Accounts in Science and Scripture is Metaphysical in Nature
Proposition 14: God’s Roles as Creator and Sustainer are Less Different Than We Have Thought
Proposition 15: Current Debate About Intelligent Design Ultimately Concerns Purpose
Proposition 16: Scientific Explanations of Origins Can Be Viewed in Light of Purpose, and If So, Are Unobjectionable
Proposition 17: Resulting Theology in This View of Genesis 1 Is Stronger, Not Weaker
Proposition 18: Public Science Education Should Be Neutral Regarding Purpose
Summary and Conclusions
Walton, a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton, contends that this reading of scripture that takes the cultural-historical context of Genesis seriously is in fact the most faithful to an evangelical doctrine of scripture. It does not start from the questions we want to ask, but asks what truths the text was affirming, first for its original readers, and only then for us. He argues that his approach can take the text at face value rather than needing to apply the hermeneutical gymnastics of those who try to reconcile Genesis and scientific accounts. The result is one that explains away neither scripture nor science.
I also think he makes wise recommendations about public science teaching needing to be neutral about metaphysical questions, excluding both atheist and creationist agendas from the classroom. Whether scholars agree with Walton in all the particulars (and some consider his denial of ancient near east culture interest in material origins in the Genesis text over-emphasized) Walton offers a proposal that defuses, at least from the Christian side, the perceived warfare between science and faith. It seems that there are many concerns from the care of creation to the alleviation of suffering in which both Christians and all thoughtful scientists may make common cause rather than be adversaries. Would that it were so.