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The Lost World of Genesis One

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debateby John H. Walton IVP Academic (2009) 192 pages.

I find it exhilarating when someone picks up an idea and rotates it so that, by looking at it from a quite different direction, I see it with a new freshness. John Walton, professor of Old Testament theology at Wheaton College, does this in this book with Genesis 1.

He argues that we misunderstand ‘create’ (bara) and ‘made’ (asa), interpreting them as being about the material cosmos coming into existence. Instead he sees Genesis 1 as the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple. He illustrates the difference with a number of examples. At what point is a college created? Is it when the buildings go up? Or when the students and faculty arrive on campus and classes begin? Or when the commencement ceremony begins? His argument is that Genesis 1 is not concerned about the material construction at all.

There are various ways of “reconciling science and religion (and the Bible)”. A friend of mine exclaimed that he would be the first to rejoice if it was shown that Genesis does describe the origin of the universe and life scientifically, but his realisation that science conflicts with the literal reading of the Genesis texts leads him to reinterpret them. My approach is different. I cannot but read the early Genesis texts as ancient myths, collected together by an editor who clearly had no concerns, for example, to alter what was received in order to make some sort of consistent “what actually happened”.

John Walton helpfully delineates an approach that carves out science-religion conflict as a pie (with supernatural and natural slices). As the science bit gets bigger, the god-of-the-gaps bit gets smaller. He distinguishes this from a layer-cake approach (with a supernatural and a natural layer). Science, by definition, stays completely within its own layer. Some of the discussions around this I found (as someone with some competence in science and theology and philosophy) very useful for anyone wanting to intelligently explore the science-religion debate.

Those (“concordists”) who hold to Genesis as if it has contemporary science embedded within it will find this book the most challenging. There is also a good reminder of an error we all see from time to time, of picking an original word, examining its synonyms, and inserting a meaning that fits with one’s preconceived idea rather than allowing the understanding of the word to come from the context in which we find it.

There are issues with this book’s approach, not least for those who follow a sola scriptura approach. John Walton is saying that, open the Bible, and none of us have understood what the first page is about – at least not for a couple of thousand years!

My normal approach John Walton would describe as the “Framework Hypothesis” (page 110). I understand Genesis 1 as akin to a poem of seven stanzas with a particular pattern (“the first three days defining realms of habitation and the second set of three filling these realms with inhabitants”). John Walton sees his approach not as replacing this but as adding further value.

I highly encourage you to read this book.

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10 thoughts on “The Lost World of Genesis One”

  1. That will be in the Theology House Library before you can say ‘Babylonian and/or Egyptian creation myths trumped by Jewish scribes on the banks of the River Euphrates’!

  2. A darned good book I have owned for a couple of years – it makes sense and shows the huge shift in the cultural and spiritual understanding of the day. Genesis 1 is even scientific to some degree, the stated order of creation is correct, but as Walton says you need to apply context and cultural understanding to an account written to a specific people way back then to make sense of it.

    The literalists are very dangerous as they make it impossible to reconcile what we know with the biblical accounts. God never asks you to leave your brain at home.

    1. Thanks, Brown. You and I will have to agree to disagree about the “scientific to some degree, the stated order of creation is correct”. When I read it I see people who didn’t realise that all light comes from the sun, and that the moon reflects sunlight, etc. So I don’t see a “correct” order of creation. I see light being created before the sun. Etc. With the rest of what you write I am strongly in agreement.


  3. I do not have the benefit of your training in science, philosophy nor theology, Bosco, so please bear with my attempt to get my own thoughts in order.

    1. My amateur understanding of modern cosmology is that the very first particles in the beginning of the universe subsequently developed into photons, electrons, and quarks, before the first photons formed, which once they had mass collected together into the objects we call stars. So I am of the opinion that Light pre-existed all other matter, including the Sun. But this is a detour.
    2. Would not a follower of Sola Scripture take the time to distinguish the different genres of literature within the Bible? And is it possible that poetry doessn’t necessarily have to be all metaphor – that a poet might still be describing actual events in a descritive way, abeit with some “poetic licence”
    3. I really like your layer cake analogy.
    4. Bottom line for me is, regardless of one’s intepretation of Genesis 1, Science, philosoophy and religion are addressing completely different questions. Science concerns itself with “How?” , Philosophy asks “Why?”, Theology attempts to answer “Who?” but at the end of the day the most important questioon of all is “So what are you going to do about it?”.

    1. It seems to me, Claudia, that there is no need at all for your first sentence 🙂 because I think the rest of your points are spot on. Yes, there are ways to make Genesis 1 fit the latest scientific theories (the current Noah film does a good job of that) but I’ve seen that done with Maori myths too. I think your point 4 is so important. Blessings.

  4. In respect of the order of creation you need to hold Walton’s view (as stated on page 59) that the bible account is talking about function not material – the stuff already existed and God put it in order (after creating the components). This is how the ancient cultures saw creation – order out of chaos, not the atomic structure that was remain invisible until the 1800’s. This how you can avoid the light before the sun and other difficulties.

    Genesis days 1,2 & 3 see the basis of time, weather and food and days 4,5 & 6 the functionaries that inhabit creation. You wouldn’t call it science as we know it but the order is correct. The very basics of life depend on these things and that’s why they are so important to the writer in the book.

    I had to shift churches a few years ago because literalism and a 6 day creation crowd viewed holding another view a heresy. It was an interesting experience.


  5. If you found Lost World an encouraging read Bosco, may I recommend his general text book, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (2006). Amplifies and places the former in a wider context still.

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