The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. John H. Walton. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009. $16.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-3704-5.
The origins of our universe, where we come from, and why we exist are some of the most difficult questions to answer, and some of the most highly debated questions that mankind has ever posed. Christians have frequently turned to Genesis 1 for an answer to these questions, and, seemingly, with good reason, for the first chapter of Genesis seems, to the modern mind, to answer the questions concerning the creation of the universe, of all that exists, of humanity, and the questions concerning mans purpose in this world. In The Lost World of Genesis One John Walton argues that what seems evident to the modern mind was anything but evident to the minds of those who originally received the teaching of Genesis 1. In this book review we will begin by explaining the purpose of this book, followed by a brief outline of its contents. If space permits we will discuss some of the difficulties and points of interest of Walton's theory.
John Walton is no beginner in Old Testament studies. He is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and holds advanced degrees in Old Testament and Hebrew studies. He has been teaching for years and has authored numerous books on subjects related to Old Testament research. The purpose of this book is to explain Walton's theory concerning the purpose and proper understanding of Genesis 1, and how this interpretation of Genesis 1 should affect the debate concerning the origins of the universe. Walton argues, in this book, that Genesis is primarily a cosmic temple inauguration text.
In order to explain, defend and prove his interpretation of Genesis 1 Walton provides 18 propositions in 18 chapters. The first 11 chapters contain the argument and defense of his position. The last 7 chapters contain his understanding of how the interpretation of Genesis 1 as a temple inauguration text impacts the debate concerning the origins of our universe. In chapter 1 Walton explains that Genesis 1 is an example of Ancient Cosmology and warns us against reading our own modern cosmological views into the text. It is important to remember that for the ancient world God was intimately involved in every thing that happened in the universe, therefore, it would make no sense to talk about God intervening in the everyday workings of the world. If you are always active in bringing something to be, then your activity by which you bring that thing to be cannot be called "intervention". In chapter 2 Walton argues that Genesis 1 is not oriented towards a material beginning of the universe, but towards the functional arranging of the universe. This chapter get off to a rocky start with his discussion of existence, which seems to be more than a little confused. However, if one is able to get past the confused ontological musings, they will discover that what Walton is attempting to show is that in ancient cosmological stories, the important point of the stories is to show how God organized the universe so that it could serve as His temple. Walton provides a great deal of proof to back up his claim that Ancient stories of origins were not about how the universe came to Be, but, how the universe came to be the temple of the God of which ever culture was telling the story.
In chapter 3 Walton explains that the Hebrew word which is translated create refers primarily to the bringing of order in a place that was previously without order. One might think of the cleaning up of a messy room, or of making a house into a home (to borrow an illustration from Walton). In order to prove this point Walton, once again, provides an overwhelming list of references that demonstrate his point. This chapter finishes with an explanation of the role of Genesis 1:1. In chapter 4 Walton seeks to show that the creation story of Genesis 1 does not begin with nothing but God, but, rather, with God and something that was formless and void (shapeless and empty). After examining the meaning of these words he shows how this description is paralleled in other ancient cosmological origins stories, and how this description should be understood. He concludes that "cosmic creation in the ancient world was not viewed primarily as a process by which matter was brought into being, but as a process by which functions, roles, order, jurisdiction, organization and stability were established. (p. 52)" In chapter 5 Walton proceeds to explain what is being explained in days one, two and three. He explains that the purpose of these days is to explain that God created the basis for time, the basis for weather, and the basis for food. We should, of course, when we read "created the basis for" not understand the creation ex nihilo of those things which are the basis for these things, but, rather, the putting into place of that by which these things are possible. Thus, we might think of the clockmaker putting together the pieces of a clock (that exist already) so that the clock can be used to tell time; or a farmer who spreads manure and plants and water seeds, so that food can grow.
In chapter 6 Walton explains the purpose of days four, five and six, as the putting into place of those things that would serve him in his cosmic temple, and the assigning of their tasks. We can think of the installing of light fixtures in a house with an automatic movement sensor; getting a guard dog; and bringing in workers to help around the house. A major part of this chapter is his explanation of what humans are, what they are made of (according to Genesis), and their purpose in the cosmic temple. In chapter 7 Walton explains the purpose of chapter 7, which is the day on which God rested. He notes that this day always seems difficult to explain when we interpret Genesis as an account of the material origins of the universe. On the other hand, for an ancient reader, Walton explains, this day is the key day of the chapter. Day 7, for the ancient reader, is the highlight because it is the day when God entered his temple. So, "rest" for God, is not a question of ceasing to work, but of beginning to work in a recently prepared workspace. Days 1 -6 could be considered as the preparation of the workspace, putting things in their appropriate places; Day 7 is when true work starts. This brings us to chapter 8 in which Walton is now able to argue coherently for the claim that the cosmos is the temple of God. He begins by providing us with other examples from the ancient world, and then goes on to explain how the temple of Israel portrays the cosmic temple of God. At the end of the chapter he states, "Genesis 1 can now be seen as a creation account focusing on the cosmos as a temple. It is describing the creation of the cosmic temple with all of its functions and with God dwelling in its midst. This is what makes day seven so significant, because without God taking up his dwelling in its midst, the (cosmic) temple does not exist. (p. 83)" This last statement, for a philosopher such as myself, seems obviously false. However, when Walton says that the temple doesn't exist, what he means is that, though the building may be built, though all of the furniture, fixtures, artifacts, and priests may be on hand, unless God is in the temple, the building is not a true temple; it is, rather, just an empty building in which some false religion may be practiced. Walton is claiming that what makes a temple to Be a temple is the presence of God within it.
In chapter 9 Walton continues to defend his interpretation of Genesis 1 by noting other elements of this first chapter that may be linked to the inauguration of a temple. He concludes by noting that, if his interpretation of Genesis 1 is the right interpretation then the entire debate concerning whether God created ex nihilo in 7 literal days, or whether he created ex nihilo in 7 long periods of time is wrong-headed. It is an argument about something that is not even found in the text. In chapter 10 Walton argues that Genesis 1 does not discuss the material origins of the universe. His primary contention in this chapter is that "viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as a temple does not in any way suggest or imply that God was uninvolved in material origins--it only contends that Genesis 1 is not that story.(p. 95)" In this chapter Walton also takes the time to consider whether or not his interpretation is invalidated by other parts of scripture, and provides an interesting discussion of what is meant by the claim of Romans 5:12. In chapter 11 Walton claims that his interpretation of Genesis is, of all the possible interpretations, the interpretation that is the closest to how the text was meant to be understood. This chapter includes a discussion of how the "concordist" method of interpretation twists the meaning of the texts and reads modern science into the text.
In chapter 12 Walton takes on other interpretations of Genesis 1 and shows why they fail to do justice to the text. In chapter 13 Walton once again tries to take his discussion out of the text of the Old Testament and into philosophy. He seeks to "draw some distinctions at the metaphysical level that will seek to probe some of the philosophical questions and reality outside of the material realm. (p. 113)" He provides an interesting analogy for explaining how God acts in this world in every event, and how everything that happens is able to maintain its own causality. However, the rest of the discussion is notably shallow. This chapter was, in my view, unnecessary, and more of a hindrance than a help to this book, due to its lack of philosophical precision. In chapter 14 Walton discusses how God is both creator and sustainer of everything that exists. He warns us against two extremes of Deism and constant creation. I'm not sure what this chapter contributed to the rest of the book. In chapters 15 and 16 Walton discusses how his view of Genesis 1 impacts the current debate concerning origins. In chapter 17 Walton argues that our theological position is stronger if we accept his view than if we don't. Finally, in chapter 18 Walton argues that if his view of Genesis is true, then the war between the creationist ideology and extreme evolutionist ideology, to gain the classroom is misguided. The book finishes with a summary of the primary argument, and a section of frequently asked questions concerning his theory.
This book is primarily, except for a few (in my opinion) misguided chapters, a book about how to properly interpret Genesis 1. What this means is that in order to defeat his theory one must show that he has not properly interpreted Genesis 1 and why. Attempting to demonstrate that God did indeed create the world ex nihilo will not refute his interpretation of Genesis 1, as his point is that regardless of whether or not God created the world ex nihilo, Genesis 1 is not about creation ex nihilo, but about the organizing of the material elements of the world so that it would become Gods temple. There are other parts of scripture that claim that God created all things that exist, so, Walton is not saying that God didn't create everything that exists. Walton's claims is that Genesis is not an account of how God created the material world. This is an intriguing contribution to Old Testament scholarship, and, if this interpretation holds up against scholarly critique, then it will significantly change the face of the origins debate. Indeed, if Walton's interpretation of Genesis 1 is the best way to understand Genesis 1, then the entire creationist camp (both 7 day and day-age theorists) needs to disband. I look forward to see how this theory will be accepted by other Old Testament scholars. Walton provides an intriguing argument, and does a good job of defending his interpretation of Genesis 1. My main complaints with Walton's book are not so much about his interpretation of Genesis 1 as about his philosophical claims about the relationship between science and scripture, and about various metaphysical claims. He makes a number of questionable claims which are not necessarily true, philosophically or theologically. For example, he states that "If we were to say that God's revelation corresponds to 'true science' we adopt an idea contrary to the very nature of science. (p. 15)" His use of philosophical terms such as "ontology", "existence", "create", etc. (cf. p. 20-22) are ambiguous and confusing. A further difficulty is his distinction between the function and that to which the function is given. How exactly do we distinguish between the function and the thing to which the function is given? If we do distinguish between them, then what was the function of the thing prior to receiving its function? If it didn't have a function, then what was it doing? This is where Walton's notion of teleology runs into some difficulties. In philosophy, when we discuss teleology, we are talking about that for which a thing is - the final cause. There is an important sense in which the final cause is inseparable from the thing of which it is the cause. The final cause of the uninhabited building which is meant to be a temple, regardless of whether it is inhabited by a God or not, is "temple-ness". From the moment that the ground has been cleared the structures that are being put in place are meant to be a temple. The final cause is that towards which the thing in question tends, the perfection of its nature. There are a number of other questionable claims planted throughout the book (cf. p. 60, 87, 116, 127, 152, 153, 154, 156.), which, however questionable they may be, do not necessarily affect Walton's theory concerning the proper interpretation of Genesis 1.
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and learned quite a bit about ancient cosmology. Walton is a great scholar who presents a solid argument for his interpretation of Genesis 1. His argument would have been helped by better familiarity with the philosophical systems and claims that he introduced into the book. This book would be a great addition to a class on Genesis. Though it appears to be primarily written for lay-people, anyone who is interested in interpreting Genesis 1, in ancient cosmology, or in the debate concerning origins, will find this book both helpful and challenging.