I have been reading a fascinating book called The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. The main argument that Walton makes in this book is that most interpretations of the first chapter of Genesis are based on flawed exegesis. Exegesis is the first and most important task when studying the Bible. One must approach the text asking what the author originally intended to say and how the audience would have heard or read the words. This task comes before we try to apply the meaning of the text to our modern context.
Walton makes a compelling case that we have brought questions to the text of Genesis One that it was never intended to answer (modern scientific questions). And because starting point is wrong then everything that follows will be flawed as well. The major flaw exists in the way we view the act of creation as primarily material. One need only look at how the whole “Origins” debate is framed to see that this is true. Young Earth Creationists see Genesis One as an account of how the material world was created. The same is true for Old Earth Creationists. But Walton sees this as a failure to understand the type of thinking of the Ancient Near East.
After studying much of the creation myths of the cultures of the Ancient Near East it is clear that “creation” meant something much different to the people of that day. For cultures of the ANE something was created when it had a function. While they would have no doubt seen God or gods as the creators of the raw materials they never thought of things existing materially but rather functionally. Walton uses the example here of the creation of a new university. The buildings are built, the landscape put in, the professors are hired, the teaching materials secured etc. The University doesn’t truly begin until it is fully functional with students and teachers and schedules. To speak of the beginning of the university as the day when the foundation was poured would be true in one sense (materially) but would hardly be the way that most people would refer to the beginning of the university which would be when the classes started.
The beginning state of Genesis one isn’t nonexistence but rather nonfunctional (formless and void). God begins to bring functionality to a formless world or put another way – order out of chaos. Walton writes, “In the ancient world function was not the result of material properties, but the result of purpose (P.49).” The ancient world saw gods and goddesses behind every functioning thing such as the sun, the moon, the seasons, the oceans, the plants etc. From that vantage point everything was infused with purpose. Something without purpose would not have been thought to truly exist (even though it might be made of materials). With this understanding Genesis 1:1-3 are all about establishing functions such as light for days, darkness for nights, the sun and the moon to mark time. Furthermore days 4-6 are about establishing functionaries (animals, plants, and humans).
One other main point that is brought up in this book has to do with the idea of Genesis 1 being about God making a temple for himself. “Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for. We might say that this is what a temple is—a place for divine rest. Perhaps even more significant, in some texts the construction of a cosmic temple is associated with cosmic creation (P71).”
But “rest” in the ancient world didn’t mean taking an afternoon nap. “In the ancient world rest is what results when a crisis had been resolved or when stability has been achieved, when things have “settled down.” Consequently normal routines can be established and enjoyed. For deity this means that the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken. This is more a matter of engagement without obstacles rather than disengagement without responsibilities.” Walton sees the creation narrative of Genesis one being about God who brought function and order to an order-less world with the main purpose being to create a dwelling place for himself, a temple so to speak. Adam and Eve were to serve a priestly role stewarding creation and gathering up the praises of creation and presenting them to God.
This understanding doesn’t impose modern scientific reductionism on the text or try to make the verses fit into some kind of scientific framework but rather sees the whole point of Genesis One in an area that has nothing to do with science. As Walton sees it the biggest champions of a “literal” understanding of Genesis have come away with an understanding of the text that isn’t really literal but built on modern ideas. The above view is actually built on much more solid exegesis of both the culture and the scripture. This also leaves plenty of room for science to keep making discoveries without the pressure to try and conform them to the opening verses of Genesis.
Related Post: Wrestling With Genesis