Book Review: The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, John Walton, IVP, 2009.
Walton, a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, sets himself the task of hearing the story of Genesis 1 as it would have been heard in its ancient historical context. This is a welcome antidote to our usual custom of reading as if it had been – or should have been – written in English with a post-Enlightenment mindset.
He gives careful attention to comparing and contrasting Genesis with Egyptian and Mesopotamian creation myths. In doing so he makes two assumptions. The first is that the Hebrews would have been acquainted with these ancient stories and their underlying mindset at least well enough to do their own comparing and contrasting.
The second and perhaps more important assumption is that Scripture itself has not been written in a cultural vacuum. This is fundamental to all good Bible study yet is commonly neglected in our day. Every text comes from a specific time and place
The most challenging of Walton’s ideas is that Genesis 1 is concerned most directly not with God’s creation of material objects but with the functions of those objects. This is quite unlike our modern naturalism (the idea that tangible objects and the forces that govern them are the only reality). Though most of us would say we believe in more than the merely material, we do tend to treat Genesis One as if it were simply the story of God making the things of the universe.
If we observe Genesis carefully, however, we see that the chapter tells no such story. There is the blunt statement that God made the heavens and the earth, followed by the story of God bringing order to the initial chaos. The real interest of Genesis 1, says Walton, is with that process of ordering, differentiating not so much one kind of thing from another but one task from another.
Walton is careful to affirm his conviction that the Creator is in fact the Creator of all that exists. He merely believes that the ancient concern – including that seen in Genesis – was more with function than object.
He devotes a chapter to the Hebrew word bara’, which is usually defined as “creation from nothing.” Our definitions of words come from an examination of the context in which they appear (since there were no dictionaries in the ancient world). He calls for a re-evaluation of the word and its contexts, which he says will reveal that in many of its 47 occurrences in the Hebrew Bible (nearly all in Genesis, Psalms, and Isaiah) no object is created at all. The appropriate conclusion is that the word bara’ can indicate creation from nothing but need not always do so.
By shifting our attention from material to function, Walton has eased many of the problems which plague a materialist reading of Genesis. One of those problems is the relation between chapters 1 and 2. If we insist that Genesis 1 is essentially about objects, then we have to explain how the objects (such as plants) are created in a different order in Genesis 2. If we resolve that problem by saying Genesis 2 is not to be taken literally (by which we moderns usually meaning materially), then we must ask, How do we know which chapter is the more literal?
If the purpose of Genesis 1 and 2 is to discuss different aspects of the creation of functions, then the order of material creation is immaterial.