BOOK REVIEW: The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate


Michael Bittle SID 8943314

From the Beginning: Reading the Book of Genesis OT 3XE3

Instructor: Dr. Paul Evans July 10, 2010


Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009. 192 pages. Dr. John H. Walton is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. For twenty years prior to assuming this position in 2001, he was professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at the Moody Bible Institute where he received the 1996 Faculty Citation Award. Walton is author, editor, or coauthor of dozens of academic articles and books, including Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context, the precursor to The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Walton received his Ph.D. in Hebrew and Cognate Studies in 1981 from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and his M.A. in Biblical Studies (Old Testament) in 1975 from Wheaton Graduate School. His research focus is comparative studies between the Old Testament and the ancient Near East. In biblical studies, his particular interest is Genesis. He is currently serving as the general editor for a five volume series, The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, and for a twenty volume Baker Commentary Series, Teach the Text. Walton is passionate about teaching the Bible. For twenty-five years he was active at South Park Church in Park Ridge, IL teaching bible studies at every level from adults through pre-school. Following his move to Wheaton, he became involved at Glen Ellyn Bible Church and continues to serve in the same areas of ministry. In summary, Walton is well known as a committed, serious scholar in the academic community who has earned the trust of the evangelical community. With the publication of The Lost World of Genesis One in 2009, Walton has fired off what well could be the final salvo in the “war” between science and the Bible. Walton offers his readers a theological and contextual interpretation of Genesis 1, explaining that Genesis 1 is not


about the “material” creation of the Universe, but about its “functional” creation. Through 18 propositions (one per chapter), Walton concludes that the Bible should not, therefore, be expected to answer questions concerning material aspects of our universe and, as a consequence, there is no actual conflict between Genesis 1 and modern science regarding the creation of the material Universe. Each chapter (proposition) is very briefly summarized below: Proposition 1: Genesis 1 Is Ancient Cosmology: The Old Testament was written specifically to Israel and needs to be considered within its cultural context; both the words and the worldview must be understood. We should not view the Bible concordantly; the Bible never teaches “new science” (19). Proposition 2: Ancient Cosmology Is Function Oriented: In the ancient world, to create something implied a functional ontology, not material origins. Although the gods were responsible for creating everything, ANE creation accounts focus more on separating and naming the things in creation and identifying their specific function (31-32). Proposition 3: "Create" (Hebrew bārā’) Concerns Functions: The Hebrew word for “create” (bārā’) should be read as assigning a role or function. It is invariably used when God creates something and, since it never refers to him using any materials, some argue this implies creation ex nihilo. If bārā’ describes a functional creation, though, there would be no need to refer to any materials (43). Proposition 4: The Beginning State in Genesis 1 is Non-Functional: In Genesis 1:2, the Earth is traditionally described as “formless and empty” (tōhû and bōhû). Instead, “tōhû” should be translated as “unproductive” or “useless” or “nonfunctional”. Creation began with the “waters of the deep” – not ‘nothing’ in terms of material, but nothing in terms of ‘function’ (48).


Proposition 5: Days One to Three in Genesis 1 Establish Functions: On Day 1, God created time; on Day 2, weather; and on Day 3, food. These three things describe the basic functions that allow for the existence of man and are paralleled in other ANE texts (60). Proposition 6: Days Four to Six in Genesis 1 Install Functionaries: On Days 4-6, God installed “functionaries” (birds, sea and land creatures, and humans) to operate within the three functions described in Days 1-3 (63-69). Proposition 7: Divine Rest Is in a Temple: The ancient Israelites understood that temples are built so that gods can “rest” in them. Rest does not involve relaxation, but rather going about, doing normal duties of a deity (75). Proposition 8: The Cosmos Is a Temple: In ANE literature, there is generally a close connection between cosmic creation and temple building. It was understood that the cosmos was a temple and that man-made temples served as a “mini-cosmos” (83). Proposition 9: The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Relate to the Cosmic Temple Inauguration: In the ancient world, a temple became functional through a seven day inauguration ceremony. The seven days of Genesis 1 are the seven days of the cosmic temple’s inauguration; these were regular 24-hour days during which the functions of the cosmic temple were initiated (91). Proposition 10: The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Do Not Concern Material Origins: Genesis 1 assumes God created everything but does not talk specifically about material creation. Assuming Proposition 9 is correct, Genesis 1 is therefore not a story of material origins and does not therefore speak to the issue of the age of the earth (96). Proposition 11: "Functional Cosmic Temple" Offers Face-Value Exegesis: Concordonist interpretations are simply not valid (104-105). Genesis 1, as proposed, requires a


hermeneutical commitment to read the text at face value, recognizing it as an ancient text written to an ancient people who would have understood it as a functional creation account, thereby avoiding the imposition of a material ontology on it, and not reducing it to a symbolic, figurative, or literary theology (107). Proposition 12: Other Theories of Genesis 1 Either Go Too Far or Not Far Enough: Young Earth Creationists impose modern scientific theories onto the Genesis creation account, while Old Age Creationists read modern scientific theories from the text. This reduces the YECs to defending an incorrect interpretation of world history, and the OECs to an equally invalid concordonist interpretation. The literary structuring proposed by the Framework Hypothesis is valid but its interpretation does not go far enough to embrace the functional perspective. Other theories (Gap, ruin-reconstruction, etc.) are simply inadequate (108-112). Proposition 13: The Difference Between Origin Accounts in Science and Scripture Is Metaphysical in Nature: Genesis 1 is all about teleology, an intentional and purposeful God responsible for all aspects of creation. Origin accounts in science are teleological neutral (116). Proposition 14: God's Roles as Creator and Sustainer Are Less Different Than We Have Thought: A spectrum of belief concerns God’s ongoing role in the universe: at one end is a practical deism that considers material creation to be an historical account with no continuing role for God as Creator; at the other end is a process theology that views no discontinuity between God’s creating and sustaining role in the cosmos (119-121). Walton suggests that God continues to be intimately active in our world today, but that a distinction exists between creating and assigning the functions, and the continued sustaining of them (123). One useful analogy might be a boat: a ship owner can design, assemble the components, and build a boat, and then subsequently launch, sail, and maintain it.


Proposition 15: Current Debate About Intelligent Design Ultimately Concerns Purpose: Intelligent Design is not teleologically neutral, as every aspect of creation is imbued with God’s purpose. Intelligent Design identifies gaps in the Neo-Darwinism explanation of material origins, but cannot offer alternate theories for material origins except by the application of design (127). Proposition 16: Scientific Explanations of Origins Can Be Viewed in Light of Purpose, and If So, Are Unobjectionable: In the ANE, some aspects of the cosmos were viewed as “static” and others as “dynamic” when the deity was still active; today we view them as “natural” or “supernatural” (134). Since scientific origin models are teleological neutral, and since Genesis 1 does not propose a material origin model, Christians are free to believe whatever origin model they wish, as long as God is viewed as ultimately responsible (138). Proposition 17: Resulting Theology in This View of Genesis 1 Is Stronger, Not Weaker: Evolutionary mechanisms are not the problem; metaphysical naturalism is. The theology underlying a functionally-oriented, teleological, cosmological ontology enables a more focused dialogue with the modern world (150). Proposition 18: Public Science Education Should Be Neutral Regarding Purpose: Genesis, metaphysical naturalism, and Intelligent Design have no legitimate place in public science education (154-155). Science education is based upon methodological naturalism and should represent the current state of empirical knowledge free of teleology or dysteleology (155156). A well-rounded education should also include learning about the variety of metaphysical systems and alternatives that exist (158). Walton’s 18 propositions fall into two main themes: Propositions 1 to 11 concern his revolutionary argument that Genesis 1 is not a record of "material origins" but rather an account


of "functional origins" and, tied to this, that the “seven days” represent the inauguration of the cosmos as a functioning temple for God. Propositions 12 to 18 draw this new theory into the middle of “the origins debate” in public science education, where he deconstructs the primary positions of the main activist groups in this arena and draws out the implications of his primary thesis for the church, theology and science. Proposition 12 is a particularly interesting chapter in itself, as Walton outlines the problems and strengths of Young Earth Creationism (YEC), Old Earth Creationism (OEC), the Framework Hypothesis, and others. The fatal flaw in each of these interpretations is that their primary concern lies with material origins and “are struggling to reconcile the scientific findings about material cosmos with the biblical record without compromising either” (113). Walton believes that these interpretations ask the text to provide answers to questions concerning material origins which “the original author” never meant to address (113). Walton suggests Genesis 1 offers a strong argument for divine teleology, and that whatever mechanism led to Earth’s present biological diversity, its functionality was driven by the express purpose of God and just because science is unable to detect this purpose does not render it irrational (116). Walton soundly criticizes the “concordonists” such as Intelligent Design for compromising their theology by engaging in the scientific debate, and he equally criticizes aspects of Neo-Darwinism that suggest dysteleological, or "purposeless" evolution (117). He makes a strong argument that teleology and dysteleology belong squarely within the study of metaphysics, not science, and later concludes that neither belongs in public education science (164). Walton strongly recommends that students in public education should receive training in metaphysics, but separately and not as a component of the science curriculum (159). By effectually avoiding the issue of the creation of humans and the literalness of Adam


and Eve, Walton nimbly steps around any attempt to harmonize Genesis 1 and 2. It may be that Walton consider those issues to lie outside the Genesis 1 focus of his book yet, in a sense, it could be argued that his clearly articulated interpretation of Genesis 1 is itself an attempt to harmonize Genesis 1 with evolution. If, indeed, the ancient Israelites believed the earth was not materially created within the Genesis 1 timeline, and if the Genesis 1 timeline represents functional origins which occurred sometime later than the material creation of the Earth, then the “male and female” identified in Genesis 1 are not necessarily the first humans on the planet, just the first ones created to be functionaries. The ancient Israelites would therefore have known that they were not simply “humans” but, when read in conjunction with Genesis 2, that they were in fact descended from the subset of humans who were chosen to be and live in God’s own image. Might such an interpretation harmonize Genesis 1 with evolution and possibly reflect a hidden agenda in this book? If so, will Walton eventually be subject to the same evangelical excommunication suffered by Waltke and Longman? Walton directly denies any possible charge that he might be “pro-evolution” (165), yet he does state that “believing in the Bible does not require us to reject the findings of biological evolution” (166). Indeed, it may well be that Walton is manipulating his “functional vs. material” argument a bit in order to strengthen his case, as he somewhat admits (albeit in the FAQs section at the end of the book), acknowledging that the functional view does not necessarily replace a material view and that both can be valid together (171). Notwithstanding this possible dichotomy, The Lost World of Genesis One presents its readers with thoughtful exegesis and responsible historical conclusions with well-considered prescriptions for both Christianity and Science. Walton offers the church a reasonable opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue with society over what has been the problematic


and divisive “creation vs. evolution” issue. He challenges the church to acknowledge it has compromised scriptural integrity by its dogmatic fixation on the material origins of Creation and is fully responsible for damaging its relevancy to society, and to accept that “we must always stand ready to reconsider our interpretation in light of new information” (168). The scientific community does not escape an equally scathing rebuke. Walton charges that science has strayed well beyond its empirical bounds and he particularly singles out those in the scientific community who equally “adulterate that which is empirical with that which is nonempirical” (156), mixing “theories of evolutionary mechanisms” with “metaphysical teleology or dysteleology” (157). The Lost World of Genesis One is a very readable book and a thought-provoking work, apparently intended to be read by a general lay religious audience. Walton is apparently working on a more scholarly publication for the academic community. While such erudite topics as teleology, ontology, and metaphysics might deter a casual reader, Walton has removed as many barriers for his readership as he could: there are no footnotes, which is common in popular literature; he offers endnotes and bibliographic references for those interested in further study; the chapters are short, logically presented and generally flow seamlessly from one to the next; each chapter uses its proposition title as its main thesis which makes his arguments easy to follow; his explanations and examples are well developed and easy to understand; and he provides a FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) section at the end of the book for those not familiar with his topic. While the book may be of interest to those engaged in religious pursuits, I strongly recommend it to Old Testament scholars (and their professors) looking for a fresh approach to the study of the Old Testament and comparative ancient Near Eastern literature.

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