Thursday, January 27, 2011

Restoring "The Lost World of Genesis I"

Book Review: The Lost World of Genesis 1: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton (InterVarsity Press, 2009)

John Walton, who teaches at Wheaton College, is an Old Testament scholar who thinks that the "creation--evolution debate" has obscured the meaning of Genesis 1. As this debate has become yet another element in a larger culture war, Genesis 1 has been interpreted by two very different groups of Christians with very different agendas. One group has advocated for a "literal" reading of Genesis 1 and, thus, has appropriated it as a refutation of evolutionary theory. On this reading, Genesis 1 provides a straightforward account of creation and leaves no room for either micro or macro evolution. A second group has attempted to interpret Genesis 1 in such a way that it can be understood to be consonant with evolutionary theory. On this reading, the seven days of creation become periods of time in an attempt to reconcile creation and evolution. Walton argues, persuasively in my judgment, that both groups make serious interpretive mistakes, the most significant one being that each wrenches Genesis 1 out of its original context and makes a modern debate the key to understanding the meaning of the text.
Walton, who knows a great deal about ancient cosmology, argues that the context for reading Genesis 1 is not modern concerns about evolution but ancient cosmology--when we take it out of this context we are not interpreting the text but reading things into it. The principal difference between ancient and modern cosmology, Walton argues, is that their central concerns are different. Modern cosmology (and modern science) is interested in the material origins of things and so understands all of reality as a function of material properties (properties which the natural sciences then describe). By contrast, ancient cosmology is interested in the function of things as part of an ordered whole; it is not interested in what things are made of but in how things are related to one another. Walton surveys creation accounts from various Ancient Near Eastern cultures and concludes that Genesis 1 shares their fundamental concerns even if it has a very different theological content. Creation is understood in ancient cosmology to be the establishment of functional relationships between things not the establishment of material properties. It is crucial to recognize that Genesis 1 comes from a very different intellectual outlook that ours (an outlook which must not be dismissed as "primitive"). As Walton concludes, "All of this indicates 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. 53).
What, then, of the seven days? Walton argues that the first six days are devoted to the establishment of creation's chief functional relationships and functionaries, plants, animals and human beings. Human beings are created on day 6 as the "jewel in the crown" of a hierarchically ordered world (this does not mean that Genesis 1 understands human beings to be disconnected from the rest of creation but, rather, sees them as profoundly related to it). The most important action occurs on the seventh day, the day on which God "rests". As Walton notes, the Hebrew verb in Genesis 2:2 does not indicate that God was now "done" with the work of creation but, rather, has the sense of a king "resting" on his throne. When the king rests on his throne, he does not enter into a period of idleness but enters into a period of secure rule. On the seventh day God does not cease from his work as creator but, rather, having established all things in their proper order he takes up his throne to rule what he has made; creation is not simply a seven day process.
This prompts Walton to ask a further question: Where is it that the Old Testament in particular and ancient cosmology in general understand a god to rest? On this point there is no debate: The resting place of God is the Temple (see especially Psalm 132). From this, Walton concludes that Genesis 1 understands the cosmos to be a temple and notes that the Temple in Jerusalem was clearly intended to be a replica of the cosmos (cf. 1 Kings 7). What does it mean to have the lost world of Genesis 1 restored? It means something like this: "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. The most central truth to the creation account is that this world is a place for God's presence. Though all of the functions are anthropocentric, meeting the needs of humanity, the cosmic temple is theocentric, with God's presence serving as the defining element of existence" (pp. 84-85).
All of this suggests that our nervous modern efforts to argue for either seven actual days or for seven ages of time are simply wrongheaded and simply read into the text things that are not really there. As Walton says, "the seven days are not given as the period of time over which the material cosmos came into existence, but the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple...It is not the material phase of temple construction that represents the creation of the temple; it is the inauguration of the functions and the entrance of the presence of God to take up his rest that creates the temple" (p. 92).
This gives us much to think about. It is a misuse of Genesis 1 to enlist it in a battle against evolutionary theory. This much is clear. But this does not mean that Genesis 1 is metaphysically neutral. Quite the contrary is true: Genesis 1 understands all of reality in relation to God as it understands God to reign over creation and as it understands creation to be the "place" where God is worshiped. In this way, while Genesis 1 is neutral with respect to theories of evolution, it certainly rules out both naturalistic and deistic understandings of the cosmos. Walton has done the Church a great service by not allowing the "creation--evolution debate" to obscure the glory of the God who is revealed in Genesis 1, the God who both creates and dwells with his creation.


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