When the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis are talking about the origins of the universe, should we read it like a scientific textbook…. or something else?
Many Christians today read the first part of Genesis assuming that God is supernaturally revealing to us the natural history of physical creation. This is a reasonable assumption. The Bible claims to be God’s Word, and we all want to know how it all got started.
So it would appear that God is simply stepping in Himself and giving us “just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday said on the classic 1960’s TV show, Dragnet. But what exactly does that mean? Before Adam gets created, there are no human eyewitnesses peering over God’s shoulder to see what He was doing. Even if you believe that Moses was the author of Genesis, you have to grapple with the reality that Moses was not hanging out in a tree in the Garden of Eden with a video camera or an iPhone camera app, recording the interaction between Adam, Eve and the Serpent. Joe Friday is wondering what to make of all this! So then, how does that historical information get from God to Moses, and then finally, to us?
Unlike the Gospels that are built on eyewitness testimony, in early Genesis many wrestle with God’s meaning of things like “days” and try to figure out how it all fits in with modern science. Are they 24-hour periods of time, or long epochs of time? How do you get “light” on day one when the sun does not appear until day four? What about the Big Bang?
But these are modern types of questions that today’s Bible readers bring to the text. Have we really taken the time to consider how the ancient Hebrew readers from several thousands of years ago understood the Genesis text? Centuries before NeoDarwinian genetics, the telescope, Google, and… we can not forget, Joe Friday… what did God’s people think when they originally read Genesis One?
Meet John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College (uh, not the guy in this photo… you will see a photo of Walton later). Walton argues in The Lost World of Genesis One that though Genesis was written for us, it was not written to us. It is a subtle distinction, but it emphasizes the reality that we must not pretend that Moses, or anyone else in the Old Testament era, originally wrote for a 21st century audience. Instead we must first understand the mindset of the ancient Hebrews before we try to apply the Truth of Genesis to modern-day concerns.
To put it the way that a William and Mary chemistry professor and friend of mine would say it: Is Genesis talking about “Adam” or “atoms”?
A Functional vs. Material Interpretation of Genesis
John Walton is one of the leading evangelical Ancient Near East scholars in America. Over the last 200 years, archaeological discoveries have given us a wealth of literary material showing us how neighboring cultures around Israel thought. We now know more about what the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians thought than anyone else has known in earlier eras of the Christian movement. Walton’s careful study suggests that insights from these Ancient Near East texts can help us to more responsibly understand what the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) are truly claiming and teaching.
For example, ancient peoples recorded stories that describe different temple rituals using different types of picture language. A temple is simply a place where a god lived. In the Ancient Near East, there were a lot of gods and therefore a lot of temples. Contrast this to the story of the Bible, where there is but one God and this God is not part of the created order. According to Walton, the entire cosmos is the God of Israel’s “temple”, and the center of that temple is the Garden of Eden.
Why does God rest on the seventh day? According to Walton, the concept of “rest” for ancient people has nothing to do with sleeping or laying around on the couch. Instead, it deals with the idea of establishing authority and rule. When the pagan gods “rested”, they were taking up residence and rule within their stone-built temples. But when the God of Israel rested, He was establishing His rule over all of Creation, with the intent of making humanity his co-regent; that is, God ruling all of Creation through the humans that he made in His image.
For John Walton, this means that Ancient Near East creation stories, including what is found in Genesis, are primarily concerned with how things function in Creation. For example, for the Hebrews, the sun and moon are not to be worshipped as the pagans did. Rather, the sun and moon are merely lanterns that function to mark the seasons and calendar of worship. The days of Creation function then as the way of defining a weekly cycle for worshipping the Creator, as the Jews do with their weekly Sabbath celebration.
Walton suggests that Genesis is therefore concerned about the functional aspects of Creation and not the material aspects of Creation. Function has do with how things in Creation relate to us and to God. Material has to with the physical stuff of how God created things. Walton concludes that Genesis tells us absolutely nothing about the material “how” of Creation. In modern terms, Genesis does not give us any new scientific revelation. Instead, God is trying to tell us about the function of the created order, including humanity, within His ordering of the cosmos.
The first chapter of Genesis, according to Walton, is not about God materially creating the universe out of nothing, what theologians from the Latin call creation ex nihilo. Instead, as the second verse of the Bible says, the earth was “without form and void“, a world of chaos. When God is “creating“, from the Hebrew word bara, God is establishing order out of this chaos. God’s creative activity is also progressive. We start out with just “light”, but then this light gets demarcated and managed by the cycles of the sun and the moon for the purpose of telling time and establishing the rhythm of life. This great functional ordering of the universe culminates in the creation of “Adam“, which in the Hebrew literally means “man” or “human“. Adam, representing humanity, is created to be God’s co-regent or co-ruler of creation, commissioned to domesticate and bring order to the world. Walton still believes that the Bible elsewhere teaches material creation out of nothing, ex nihilo, but not here in this text in Genesis.
In other words, Genesis is telling us about “Adam”, not about “atoms”.
Let John Walton speak for himself in this brief 3-minute video:
Are you scratching your head at this point? Some of you might be asking, “So what is this guy talking about? And why should I care?”
The supposed conflict between faith and science is one of the #1 stumbling blocks to accepting Christian faith among those who have questions about Christianity. As a result, many Christians dig into Genesis looking for scientific proof for God, while skeptics scoff that modern science has disproven the Bible.
John Walton believes that people today are seriously missing the point of Genesis, failing to read the text on its own terms. Too often we try to import modern ways of thinking into how we read the Bible, thus obscuring the life-giving message that God is communicating to us. Sure, John Walton knows that not everyone is going to “buy into” what he is saying, but interestingly a number of scholars view Walton’s work as a “game changer” in the debate over the interpretation of Genesis One. As Walton puts it, it took years before he himself came to this understanding, and interestingly he came to it, not from first starting with his research in Ancient Near East texts, but rather by first reading Genesis itself by probing deeper into God’s Word. Later, as he began to dig more in the Ancient Near East literature, he began to see the similarities and contrasts with Genesis that support and confirm his argument. Walton believes that if Christians are going to take the Biblical text seriously, that you must seriously engage the evidence within the text. Next time, we will take a deeper dive into Walton’s thesis and also examine some of the various criticisms of Walton’s proposal: Young Earth, Old Earth… Earth, Wind and Fire, you name it! Stay tuned!!
Here is a teaser for what is coming next: You may be asking yourself, why would I need to know anything about the Ancient Near East as a Christian? Is it not to enough just to know what the Bible says? Do you have to be some stuffy scholar to understand Genesis?
These are great questions!! John Walton does his best to answer them (from Seedbed’s 7-minute Seminary series, at Asbury Theological Seminary):
Are you interested in what John Walton has to say about reading the Book of Genesis as a whole? Then consider investing in his NIV Application Commentary Genesis, intended for the lay reader.
For those of you keeping score, John Walton fits fairly well into the dualistic approach to Bible and Science questions that I have outlined before here on Veracity, though you can clearly see some accommodationist reasonings with Walton, too. He is explicitly not a concordist.