The Lost World of Genesis One

John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009. 192 pages.

John Walton is a Prof. down at Wheaton College, and an author of numerous books on various parts of Old Testament scholarship. This particular book is an explanation of what he believes to be the most accurate and, when properly understood, 'literal' reading of Genesis one as it would have been understood by its original hearers.

In order to explain this view, Walton lays out 18 propositions, each one taking up a chapter of his book. These propositions begin from highly general points (i.e. Proposition 1: Genesis One is Ancient Cosmology) and slowly progress towards the more specific (Proposition 9: The Seven Days of Genesis One Relate to Temple Inauguration). Once here, he then moves from his specific reading of Genesis 1 back out to a broader view on current theological and cultural issues (i.e. Propositions 18: Public Science Education Should be Neutral Regarding Purpose). Walton calls his view the "Temple Inauguration View." In Genesis One we do not have a science text. In fact, Walton points out, nowhere in the Old Testament do we find God correcting or advancing the science of the Hebrew people. More importantly, Genesis One is not concerned with material origins at all. Rather, it is concerned with functional origins and teleology. So, Genesis one does not tell us how things were made, or how matter came into being, or what things are made out of, or any of that. Instead, the text focuses on purpose and function (i.e. "God made two great lights - the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night." Genesis 1:16).

Along the way, Walton explores both Genesis One and Ancient Near Eastern parallels, pointing out both the similarities and the differences between the different origin stories. What I found most interesting was that Genesis One is, in many subtle ways, modeled after the dedication of a temple. So, both took seven days. Both focus on the temple being built as the dwelling place for God (affirming both the biblical idea that God is present here, and also creating some interesting questions around Sabbath, as it becomes not just a day of rest, but a day of governance, a day in which God takes up His holy seat from which He will rule over all that He has created). And so on (read the book for more).

This is, without a doubt, an important book both for theology and biblical exegesis. It is a necessary corrective to our normal use of the idea of 'literal' reading of the bible. Walton makes the point that the most 'literal' reading is not necessarily the reading which takes all the words individually without nuance and as statements of fact (a clear example is that no one reads Psalms in this manner, and we understand that to do so would not be 'literal'). Rather, we need to come as close as possible to how the text was meant in its original setting. The shift from material origins to functional ones is difficult for modern people to conceive, since we live in a world in which materialistic assumptions are so ingrained that most of us don't even see their effect. However, this shift is necessary if we are to understand Genesis one.

Naturally, Walton does not, and cannot, answer all questions. So, as you come to the end of his book you will find that he skims over questions which are actually of deep concern (such as what a changing interpretation of Genesis does to our concepts of sin, death, fall, etc.). Still, even here his brief thoughts and suggestions are provocative.

Overall, an excellent book. If you are interested in the debates going on around Genesis, Evolution, Science and Faith, and so on, then this book is a must read. If you are not, the book is still worth reading, but you will probably want to skip Propositions 15-18, but it will still be worth your time just to rethink Genesis One and understand some of the deeper meaning that resides there.


passionatelife said...

You may also want to check out J. Gordon Glover's book, "Beyond the Firmament" for more on this topic. A strong case for examining our exegesis of Genesis.

Andrew said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I will check it out :)