This work constitutes a continuation of Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, that I reviewed earlier. The basic thesis of The Lost World of Genesis One is repeated here and that line of thought is thereafter applied to Genesis 2 and 3. This work is more detailed and also, I would say, more difficult than the first book. Allow me to say up front that this is one of those works that I’m going to need to tackle a second time, so my comments here need to be seen as first-pass reflections.
Walton continues here is thesis that Genesis is talking more about function than material origins and that Genesis 1 is using temple inauguration language and not propounding empirical science. We find here the same heavy reliance on parallel ancient creation accounts as a hermeneutical key and the same application of Walton’s conclusions to the modern controversies surrounding biblical creationism and evolution. Concerning this last aspect, I would say that Walton offers a more passionate and, it seemed to me, more personal plea for Christians not to create conflicts where they don’t actually exist.
Walton argues that Adam and Eve serve a priestly function in Eden which, when compared to other ancient understandings of temple, should be seen as a sacred grove. Priests in the ancient world often tended to sacred groves and served the deity within temples. Among other interesting proposals, Walton suggests that Genesis does not necessarily suggest that Adam and Eve lived in Eden (priests in the ancient world did not live in the sacred groves – they simple entered them to tend and maintain them), that the serpent should be seen as a “creature of chaos” that came to threaten order with disorder, that Genesis does not necessarily say that Eve and the serpent had their conversation in the garden (it could have been in the disordered world outside of the garden), that since Genesis is not discussing science and material origins it is not necessary to read it as saying that Adam and Eve were actually the first people created, that nothing in the Bible suggests that death itself was part of the Fall, that there was a historical Adam but that Genesis’ description of Adam is primarily archetypal (which is not unusual, Walton argues, since there are other figures in the Bible, like Melchizedek and, indeed, like Jesus, who appear to be historical and archetypal), that Adam’s “rib” is more accurately translated as Adam’s “side” and that this may mean that Adam was cut in two, as it were, and Eve made from the other side, and that Adam and Eve should be seen not as the first two humans but as the first two humans that God chose to call to be His image bearers and to call humanity from disorder to order.
It should be said that Walton consistently argues that he believes what the Bible says and has a high view of scripture. He is not arguing that the Bible is wrong. He is arguing that our interpretations of Genesis have been wrong. He does point to a few historical cautions concerning hermeneutics that might help his cause, primarily from the Reformation era, but it again must be noted that if what Walton is proposing here is correct then two millennia of interpretation concerning Genesis 1-3 are false. The fact that there are wide divergences of opinion about Genesis 1-3 throughout these two millennia actually strengthens my point, for even with this lack of a monolithic hermeneutic and the presence of a wide range of interpretations on these issues over the last two-thousand years, nobody, to my knowledge, has ever proposed what Walton is proposing here in the way that he is proposing it. Walton appears to understand this and to admit as such, but he then appeals to Reformation hermeneutical principles contra simply allowing tradition to eclipse current study and findings in his defense.
I suppose my interest after this first journey through the book is more philosophical than anything. Again, one does not gather that Walton is trying to retreat from science (he actually seems to be as skeptical of modern naive scientism as he is of naive modern a-contextual hermeneutics) in his proposals but rather than he genuinely feels that the ancient context of these creation accounts leads naturally to these interpretations. I will say – and I speak as one who is instinctively extremely cautious about these kinds of paradigm shattering proposals (thank you Vincent of Lerins) – that Walton certainly does not deserve to be dismissed as a mere contrarian or as some kind of heresy peddler. His proposal – right or wrong – seems sincerely to want to honor the scriptures as God’s word to humanity and to take into account how ancient people thought and spoke of these matters.
I feel that a great deal hinges on Walton’s hermeneutical apriori concerning what role ancient cosmologies should have in our interpretations of Genesis. His arguments have weight to the extent that his premises are true, the primary premise being this: when ancient people did cosmology they did not have material origins in mind but rather function. One wonders if it really is quite that simple, though the evidence Walton marshall’s cannot responsibly be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders. One wonders further, if that premise is true, if that necessarily means that Genesis 1-3 is speaking of creation in that way or, if it is, if it is speaking of it in that way with such rigid categorization and hermeneutical myopia. It seems to me that Walton is trying to argue on the one hand that the entire enterprise of the first few chapters of Genesis are strongly beholden to the framework of ancient cosmologies but that this enterprise was simultaneously unique and paradigm shifting in certain crucial ways as well. Not, I should add, that this is inherently problematic, for we find this phenomenon throughout the Bible: the appropriation of ancient structures of thought and then their reappropriation in unique and surprising ways. But one cannot help but wonder if the material origins vs. function argument quite so easily closes the door to the concept of creation traditionally understood…or does it simply nuance and qualify it?
Walton has offered a fascinating set of proposals. He discussion of sin and Adam’s role in it (a discussion that he first says should be carried out by theologians but that he then dives into with real fervor) seemed less clear to me than his arguments concerning Genesis 1-3.
These, again, are some initial reactions to the book. I intend to work more on understanding what is being said here and the set of issues Walton raises. For that I do indeed thank him. It has certainly stretched and challenged me.
There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One and his The Lost World of Adam and Eve. I have finished the former and have begun the latter and would like to offer a few comments at this point.
Walton’s thesis is basically that Genesis 1, like other ancient creation accounts, is concerned with function as opposed to material origins and should be read accordingly. That is, it is describing how God created the world to work and His control over the world more than the question of how He made something out of nothing. To be sure, Walton agrees that God did created everything. He is simply arguing that Genesis 1 is not concerned with that particular issue. His argument is that when ancient people talked about creation they were talking about it in terms of function and were not concerned with the kinds of questions we are concerned with in empirical science. However, Walton argues, we have imposed our modern concerns on the text and read it as discussing material creation. In so doing, we are eisegeting modern categories into the text. The result is we are threatened by scientific theories that would appear to conflict with our modernistic reading when, in fact, they are no threat at all since Genesis 1 is really not discussing those questions anyway.
Allow me to reflect a bit more on what I think I hear him saying. I hear Walton saying (unless I am hearing him wrongly) that Genesis 1 cannot be concerned with creatio ex nihilo as it has been classically defined because it doesn’t actually posit nihilo. That is, “the deep” exists before the first day. I gather that “the deep” could almost be seen (in Walton’s proposal) as pre-functional creation, the shadowy realm of cosmic chaos and whatever processes were taking place at that time. Thus, according to Walton, something like evolution could actually be true (he doesn’t say it is or isn’t, though he seems to have sympathies with some aspects of biological evolution so far as it does not lapse into teleology).
Walton argues that Genesis 1 is about function: how God sovereignly designed and created the world to operate, to work. It isn’t discussing how it came to be as much as it is discussing what God made it to be. He then works through Genesis 1 showing what that looks like.
Furthermore, Genesis 1 is employing temple language, language that would have been readily apparent to many ancient cultures. Thus, when God “rests,” He takes His place as Lord of the creation that He designed to function with specificity and purpose and harmony. That is, the whole world is a temple.
Well. Heady stuff indeed.
Anyway, what Walton has in his favor is his strong emphasis on the hermeneutical principle of “authorial intent,” his critique of the modern penchant for eisegeting our categories onto an ancient worldview, his helpful point that science is always in flux and that every age has a scientific worldview in which any communication necessarily takes place and which, necessarily, informs this communication, his correct premise that the “literal” reading of the text is, by definition, the reading that most accurately harmonizes with what the author was trying to do.
What concerns me is the novelty of the proposal, for starters. Walton does not deny this. Tellingly, he cannot muster a single example from two millennia of exegesis that says what he is saying. His response is that we have now discovered ancient texts from ancient cultures that allow us to reconstruct to some extent the ancient context regarding creation accounts and can therefore now better understand the language and ideational content of words employed in Genesis 1. I have no doubt that that the gist of that argument is true. Understanding any historical context should sharpen our hermeneutics. But (and I realize this is a rather simplistic argument), would not the most ancient Jewish exegetes have picked up, preserved, and passed on at least some vestiges of these concepts were they as self-evident to the ancients as Walton suggests?
I am not trying to suggest that Walton’s proposal is wrong simply because it can point to no earlier reflection of its claims. I am simply saying that there is good reason to be extremely cautious about such proposals. The burden is on Walton at this point, though he has certainly offered an intriguing proposal.
Furthermore, I have questions about whether or not the witness of the rest of scripture as it pertains to creation really does verify this “function” as opposed to “material creation” hypothesis. If Walton is correct, certainly we should be able to read the other references to creation in this light and sense that our hermeneutic flows more naturally with the removal of our imposed and foreign constructs. But does scripture harmonize with this view? That is a larger question that will require some specific and detailed work.
This is my first exposure to this line of thinking, so my comments are going to be cursory. But this is very interesting stuff and I thank my friend Pastor Kevin Griggs for recommending Walton’s work. (Not, I should add, that Griggs necessarily agrees with Walton either. He, like me, is simply trying to process and think about this.)
In the Fall of 2013, I taught a Ouachita University extension class surveying the Bible. The textbook was Telling God’s Story, by Ouachita professors Preben Vang and Terry Carter. This will be a simple and short review. Simply put: this is a very well done basic introduction to the Bible. The students in the class really benefited from it, as did I.
Vang and Carter work through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, summarizing the contents and theology of the books. Along the way, they ably address the pertinent issues and questions that arise from the text. Again, it is a solid evangelical introduction that I highly recommend for anybody or any group wanting an accessible tool that will help them grasp the big picture of the Bible. It is general enough to be useful for the beginning student, but addresses enough specific issues that it will be helpful for those who already have at least a rudimentary grasp of the Bible as well.