Book Review – “The Lost World of Genesis One” – John H. Walton

Those of you that know me through private or public correspondence will know that I struggle, as many other Christians, with the creation account in Genesis 1. So any time a new explanation rolls around, I’m all ears. To be clear, my struggles have nothing to do with the existence, omnipotence or creation abilities of God. Those are clear throughout Scripture, although I have been called a heretic because I expressed doubt in the YEC approach.

The author starting principle sounds fair enough: “In this book I have proposed a reading of Genesis 1 that I believe to be faithful to the context of the original audience and author, and one that preserves and enhances the theological vitality of this text.” In broad terms I find this opening statement, as far exegesis is concerned, not too far from the result.

The book consists of 18 propositions. Propositions 1 through 11 deal with the text, and the other 7 deals with the alternative explanations, including YEC, OEC, progressive creation, theistic evolution, Intelligent Design as well as the general interaction of material creation theories with the proposed interpretation. It is my opinion that Professor Walton holds his own in the first 11 propositions, but that the last 7 are significantly weaker, and display a bias towards popular liberal post-modernism. It is ironic, as Professor Walton, in several places in the book, assures us that his propositions do not conflict with the sustaining actions of God in His creation. I therefore fail to understand how he can dismiss some theories, and promote others.

Professor Walton makes a solid argument that the creation account of Genesis 1 is not an account of material creation, but one of functional creation. One may have to overcome initial resistance to the idea, since most of us are predisposed to think of creation in material terms. Professor Walton demonstrates from contemporary (with the Genesis account) writings that ancient near East mythologies, and in fact the whole worldview at the time, revolved around function, and not necessarily around material origins. Just like our worldview tends to be dominated by scientific reasoning and material explanations, the inhabitants of that region at the time that Genesis was written had a worldview that was dominated by how the cosmos functioned in relation to the gods and the people.

Against that backdrop, Professor Walton proceeds to show that Genesis 1 is consistent with ancient cosmology, and that that ancient cosmologies were, without exception, function oriented. This includes the fact that ANE mythologies never really distinguishes a “natural” world from a deistic or theistic world. The gods are involved in it all, not through micromanagement or miracles, but through the fact that God is intrinsic to the cosmos, and that should He withdraw from that, all would cease to exist instantly. Therefore, there is no “natural” or “supernatural” apparent in the Bible.

Professor Walton spends an entire chapter discussing the verb “bara”…to create. “Bara” appears around 50 times in the OT, and God is always the one, either directly or by implication, doing the creating. However, when it gets to the objects of creation, i.e. that which is being created, Professor Walton argues that those objects are not always easily identifiable as material objects, and in cases where they are, the context dictates that they are not materialistic objects. The author also spends some time speaking about how the modern assumption of creation meaning material creation has corrupted the context to mean ex-nihilo creation, since the materials out of which is being created is never mentioned.

The next three chapters deal with the different creation days, with days 1-3 establishing functions, and days 4-6 installing functionaries. There is simply too much material there to share, but I would encourage the reader to read the creation account from that perspective to see for himself how that holds mostly true.

The next few chapters move us to the conclusion that the creation account is that of how God created the cosmos as a temple for Him to live in, and that the 7 days of creation is nothing more than an account of how God arranged His temple, and inaugurates it and moves in on day 7. The temple needs to have certain functions before God could move in, and Genesis 1 is the account of how God made the temple functional as a residence for Him.

Should one accept the starting premise of functional creation, as opposed to material creation, then this interpretation is not disturbing nor unChristian. For my own purposes, it does need some further development in a more scholarly work, and I can recommend Professor Walton’s Commentary on Genesis as a partial fulfillment of that requirement.

As I mentioned earlier, as a veteran of many origins debates, and as a student of all the different accounts, material and otherwise, I was pretty disappointed with the rest of the book. It does not display the same academic diligence and level of scholarship as the first 11 chapters. For example, Professor Walton chooses to espouse the popular, but false, position on intelligent design. He also promises to explain more about the challenges that the YEC and OEC/progressive creation positions hold, but spends very little time on that, and one almost gets the idea that it was added in as an afterthought to expand the possible reading audience.

Overall, I am thankful to the Professor for writing the book. If nothing else, the first 11 chapters has given me some food for thought and further study, and I would suggest that it will do the same for any serious student of Scripture. It delivers on it’s promise of taking material creation out of the equation when discussing Genesis 1. It does not attempt to solve the question of material origins, and leaves that open to any number of explanations of how God could have done it.

I recommend the book for anyone who has questions on how we should read Genesis 1. It offers an interesting alternative to other interpretations.

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2 responses to “Book Review – “The Lost World of Genesis One” – John H. Walton

  1. The “temple liturgy” approach to Genesis is growing in popularity, and more than one scholar has noted the similar structure better the creation account of Genesis 1 and the building of the earthly temple in Exodus 39-40.

    1) Gen. 1:31 “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good”.
    Exod. 39:43 “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks as the LORD had commanded, so they had done”.

    2) Gen. 2:1 “The heaven and the earth were completed and all their array”.
    Exod. 39:32 “Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting”.

    3) Gen. 2:2 “God finished the work which He had been doing…”
    Exod. 40:33 “When Moses had finished the work…”

    4) Gen. 2:3 “And God blessed…”
    Exod. 39:43 “And Moses blessed them…”

    5) Gen. 2:3 “…and sanctified it…”
    Exod. 40:9 “…and to sanctify it and all its furnishings…”

    Having said that, this view, as interesting as it is, has no bearing on the age debate, and could be used in compliance with YEC, Day-age, or any other view. Does Walton address Exodus 20:11. I wonder how the “functional” creation view functions here. While we certainly want to acknowledge that Genesis was meant to be understood by early near easterners, we certainly don’t want to suggest anything other than Divine origin just for the purpose of trying to get science off of our backs.

  2. This view renders the age of creation debate irrelevant to Genesis 1 completely, in Walton’s view. I’m not so sure, since the acts of establishing functionality to creation, for whatever purpose, had to have had some effects in the material world which cannot be hand-waved away or ignored.

    He does address Exodus 20:11 in some detail. He describes what activity is being rested from (the creation of the temple), explaining that the word for “rest” here is “to cease the preceding activity”.

    He then goes further and refers to Psalm 132:7-8 and 13-14, which describes the temple as the resting place. The terminology used in Ex 20:11, according to him, means transition into a condition of stability (“nuha”) in His resting place (“menuha”).

    Walton’s bottom line is that “sabat” is the transition from building a functional temple into the condition of living in the temple and ruling and managing His kingdom “cosmos” from there.

    In humans terms then, Walton proposes that the Sabbath is the day that we acknowledge and honor the Ruler, as Israel did.

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