Comments sought on a new book on Genesis 1

by Doug Mason 8 Replies latest watchtower bible

  • Doug Mason
    Doug Mason

    I am seeking comments from readers of a recently-released book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton (IVP Academic, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8308-3704-5). Walton is Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and the author of several books on the OT, including a commentary on Genesis.

    While other Bible-believing writers address head-on the specific evidences provided by the Evolutionary sciences, author Walton brushes modern science to one side:

    “ Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. That is, it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or ad dress modern questions. ... Some Christians approach the text of Genesis as if it has mod ern science embedded in it or it dictates what modern science should look like. This approach to the text of Genesis 1 is called “concordism,” as it seeks to give a modern scientific explanation for the details in the text. This represents one attempt to “trans late” the culture and text for the modern reader.

    “The problem is, we cannot translate their cosmology to our cosmology, nor should we. If we accept Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology, then we need to interpret it as ancient cosmology rather than translate it into modern cosmology. If we try to turn it into modern cosmology, we are making the text say something that it never said. It is not just a case of adding meaning (as more information has become available) it is a case of changing meaning. Since we view the text as authoritative, it is a dangerous thing to change the meaning of the text into something it never intended to say.

    “Another problem with concordism is that it assumes that the text should be understood in reference to current scientific consensus ... By its very nature, science is in a constant state of flux. ... So if God aligned revelation with one particular science, it would have been unintelligible to people who lived prior to the time of that science, and it would be obsolete to those who live after that time. We gain nothing by bringing God’s revelation into accordance with today’s science. In contrast, it makes perfect sense that God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood.” (pages 16-17)

    Walton thus focuses on the account at Genesis 1 solely in the context of the culture that produced it.

    “As complicated as translating a foreign language can be, translating a foreign culture is infinitely more difficult.

    “The problem lies in the act of translating. Translation involves lifting the ideas from their native context and relocating them in our own context. ... It is far too easy to let our own ideas creep in and subtly (or at times not so subtly) bend or twist the material to fit our own context. ...

    “The very act of trying to translate the culture requires taking it out of its context and fitting it into ours. ... The minute anyone (professional or amateur) attempts to translate the culture, we run the risk of making the text communicate something it never intended. Rather than translating the culture, then, we need to try to enter the culture.” (pages 10-11)

    Walton sees Genesis One as describing the assignment of function, not in the creation of material, a concept that he puts forward in 18 “Propositions”.

    “The functional view understands the functions to be decreed by God to serve the purposes of humanity, who has been made in his image. The main elements lacking in the ‘before’ picture are therefore humanity in God’s image and God’s presence in his cosmic temple. Without those two ingredients the cosmos would be considered non-functional and therefore non-existent. (page 97)

    “So on day one God created the basis for time; day two the basis for weather; and day three the basis for food. These three great functions—time, weather and food—are the foundation of life. If we desire to see the greatest work of the Creator, it is not to be found in the materials that he brought together—it is that he brought them together in such a way that they work. ... Functions are far more important than materials.” (page 59)

    (There should be to need to say that each of Days 4 to 6 parallel each of the first 3 Days.)

    Walton demonstrates that similar structures exist in contemporary non-Hebrew material.

    “We should not be surprised to find that the three major functions introduced in the first three days of Genesis 1 are also prominent in ancient Near Eastern texts.” (page 59)

    He provides an analysis of Genesis 1 that does not require a young earth, with that outcome but a by-product of his reasoning. The book closes with a series of Questions that he answers (FAQs), such as:

    Q: When and how did God create the material world?

    Q: Where do the dinosaurs and fossil "homo" specimens fit in?

    Q: Isn’t this just really a dodge to accommodate evolution?

    This is a new book and I am certain that over time it will generate much discussion. I would like to know what those who have read this book think of it.

    Do not base your comments on my brief analysis , as it is not adequate for others to use as a critique of the author’s reasoning. Read the book before commenting on it. I provided the above overview simply to indicate the thrust of the book.

    If someone wants a discussion on “Creation” versus “Evolution”, please create a separate Thread. I initiated this Thread to specifically address this book by John H. Walton.


  • glenster
  • Leolaia
  • Black Sheep
    Black Sheep
    it makes perfect sense that God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood.

    How old was this puller of the pud when he was taught that the sun doesn't wizz around the earth and the stars aren't stuck on a dome?

    We teach this stuff to little kids! It's not that difficult. Who does he think he's fooling?

  • Leolaia

    glenster....Yeah it looks like it largely follows that form of interpretation which imo incorporates a lot of good exegetical insights (although I disagree about some of the particulars), particularly on the theological viewpoint of the author (which many creationists overlook because they are only interested in the narrative as a literal, historical account). Walton however appears to depart from this perspective on a number of keys points. He seems to regard the seven days as having no direct relationship (symbolic or otherwise) with the physical creation of the heavens and the earth. So he refers to dinosaurs and Homo erectus as possibly "part of the prefunctional cosmos — part of the long stage of development that I would include in the material phase. Since the material phase precedes the seven days of Genesis 1, these would all be relegated to the obscure and distant past" (p. 169)

    Doug....I cannot really adequately critique the reasoning because I do not have the book, but I have read lengthy excerpts on Google Books, and I find his argumentation to be quite confusing and problematic. While he rightly stresses the strong interest that ANE creation narratives had in the functions of the cosmos in human life, that wasn't their only interest. They mostly addressed both the origin of the cosmos itself (how things came to be) and its function (why things came to be); the two are naturally linked in an anthropocentric view of the cosmos where everything has to have a purpose. But in his reading of Genesis 1, Walton argues that this text is wholly disinterested in the actual physical creation of the earth, sun, moon, stars, etc. but is ONLY concerned with how God designated these as functionally suitable for human use. Why should a creation narrative be so indifferent to the ontological origin of the cosmos? The Enuma Elish, which relates how Marduk constructed the firmament, the heavenly bodies, the mountains, the springs, and the rivers from the carcass of Tiamat, is concerned with how such activity established Marduk as the king of the gods, but the story is also concerned with how the firmament, the heavenly bodies, the mountains, the springs, and the rivers came to be (duh!).

    As I understand him, Walton maintains that the narrative presumes that God created all these things prior to v. 3 (see my quote above from p. 169 of the book), with the seven days following a period of prehuman history which one may equate with the many geological eras known to science. He denies that his motivation is to harmonize Genesis with science, but I cannot help but wonder if that is what drives him to claim that Genesis 1 is concerned only with function. He has a confessional stance towards the text as "God's revelation", and his position that Genesis 1 addresses only human-oriented functions of the cosmos avoids certain problems with science.

    The arguments used to deny that the narrative has an interest in physical origins seem to be rather forced. He seems to say, for instance, that the description of the earth in v. 2 has nothing to do with its physical form but pertains to the earth having no human purpose. That is on the basis of other OT passages where tohu occurs with the sense of wasteland or unproductive wilderness, referring to places unfit for human use. But it is patently clear to me that these places are unfit because of their undesirable physical characteristics. In much the same way, the earth was nonfunctional prior to the seven days of creation in Genesis 1:2 because of its original physical form. The acts of creation in the first three days are all about bringing order and organization to this initial state: introducing light to give darkness its temporal home, dividing the waters vertically and horizontally to bring about new places and spaces (land, the ocean, heaven), etc. The same theme occurs in the Enuma Elish regarding Marduk's creation of the cosmos by dividing Tiamat's body into different parts. Walton's reading also obscures imo the connection between these organizing acts of creation and the Flood in ch. 7-8; the raising of the waters of the deep to heaven corresponds inversely to the falling of the deep to the earth, restoring the intial chaos of the deep covering the land and killing off all the living creatures populating the earth and seas.

    I certainly don't understand his argument about v. 6-8. He first gives a very nice rundown of the logic of ANE cosmology: "If water comes down, there must be some up there — so they all thought in terms of cosmic waters in the sky. If it doesn't come down all the time, something must hold the water back — so it was common to think of something somewhat solid (firmament). If there is something solid holding back the waters, something must hold up this firmament — so they thought of mountains or ropes or tent poles" (pp. 29-30). This is perhaps the best summary I have ever read about this and certainly here the firmament is depicted as a part of the natural world. But then in a later chapter Walton wants to argue that the seven days of creation were not both material and functional, so he proceeds to argue that the firmament created in v. 6-8 is not an actual physical firmament:

    "Day two has a potentially material component (the firmament, raqi`a), but no one believes there is actually something material there — no solid construction holds back the upper waters. If the account is material as well as functional we then find ourselves with the problem of trying to explain the material creation of something that does not exist. The word raqi`a had a meaning to Israelites as referring to a very specific object in their cosmic geography. If this were a legitimate material account, then we would be obliged to find something solid up there (not just change the word to mean something else as concordists tend to do). In the functional approach, this component of Old World science addresses the function of weather, described in terms that they would understand" (pp. 94-95).

    Is he here taking the actual ontological non-reality of the firmament (from a modern Western perspective) as revealing what the text actually means in its original context? This argument doesn't make any sense to me. Who is he referring to when he says that "no one believes there is actually something material there"? He just said on pp. 29-30 that the ancients believed this because it explained how the world worked to them. He seems to be saying that if the author of Genesis 1 intended v. 6-8 to refer to an actual firmament, it should actually exist. I'm afraid I have trouble following him here....maybe he means that premodern cosmology was used only metaphorically to relate how God designated various aspects of the natural world for human use. Or is he basing his argument on his confessional views? But either way, this is not the most natural way to read the text. There is nothing really in the text about a "material phase" preceding the seven days.

    Again I will have to read the whole book to better grasp what he is saying, as I find his reasoning quite perplexing....

  • Satanus

    'He denies that his motivation is to harmonize Genesis with science, but I cannot help but wonder if that is what drives him to claim that Genesis 1 is concerned only with function.'

    It sounds like it might still be still 'concordism', only much more indirectly so.


  • OnTheWayOut

    I've not read the book at all, and I am sure I won't be reading it.
    From what I read in this thread, I am certain that this is just another one of those writings that tries to say that Science has pretty much proven that Genesis is not a literal account, so why did God deliver it?

    I only offer my firm beliefs because this is a thread that invites them. Let go of the "God wrote it" belief. Stop trying to force the Bible to be God's Word. Learn about Egyptian/Babylonian/Asian/Persian/etc. mythology and how Genesis is really just another mythology.

    If you don't let go, then know this: Genesis being literal or figurative, mythology, or God's Word debates will go on and on and on and on.
    Good luck with them.

  • Doug Mason
    Doug Mason

    Thank for your thoughts so far (especially to Leo, of course).

    I am particularly focused on Walton's proposition that "we need to try to enter into the culture" of the people who provided the account at Genesis 1. I would like to know if Walton has achieved his objective of doing this when he provides his explanation of Genesis 1.

    Secondy, if there are inconsistencies in his analysis, do these reflect the inconsistencies and/or inadequacies of the original writers, or do his inconsistencies result from Walton forcing his own cultural position, despite asserting otherwise?

    Perhaps my questions cannot be answered, but knowing and respecting the knowledge that exists here, I am driven to ask.

    I am still reading his book, keeping your advice in the forefront of my mind.



  • Narkissos
    It sounds like it might still be still 'concordism', only much more indirectly so.

    One thing I noticed over years of conversations on this and related topics, with people ranging from scholars to uneducated, believers and unbelievers, is that it is extremely difficult for some minds to step out of concordism. You think they have got it and concordism resurges in the next sentence, at best in a more sophisticated or disguised form. To an extent it goes hand to hand with cultural ethnocentrism. Somehow our representation of reality (not only scientific cosmology, also analytic categories like "function") has to be the right one (or the best one so far) and thus, in effect, transcends the historical circumstances of its production. Iow, an ancient cosmogenesis has to "translate" into our reality and be judged "right" or "wrong" from this perspective.

    Ultimately, the simplest explanation I have come up with so far is: of course the writer of Genesis 1--2:4a was speaking about the origin of the world. Only his world was not ours.And this applies not only to his representation of the "physical" world, but also to the religious and intellectual ideas and concepts he used to make sense of it. Some people get that instantly (only by reading the text in some cases), others never do, and this has little to do with the amount of education they have received. It's a matter of literary or historical sense.

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