My last post in this series offered my opinions on Chapter Four: “What Genesis 1–2 Teaches (And What It Doesn’t), by Tremper Longman III,” by C. John Collins. Now, finally, are my thoughts on:
Chapter Five: Reading Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, by John H. Walton. Walton spent twenty years (1981–2001) teaching at Moody Bible Institute and has been OT prof. at Wheaton College since then. He’s quite prolific writing on Genesis and ancient Near Eastern backgrounds to Genesis and to the OT generally. He’s the only one of these guys I’ve heard speak in person, being lucky to catch him here in Australia within the last couple of years. The present essay is a nice nutshell version of his thinking on Genesis 1. I found myself agreeing with much that he said, but in the end he presents a solution to tensions over Genesis 1 that I suspect represents a bit of a fast move.
His first section is on ‘reading theory’, and nearly straight away he makes the good point that we can’t blankly label an ancient text ‘history’ and then assume it will work the way we think modern history should. “Even if an ancient piece of literature is agreed to be historiographical, it won’t obey modern conventions of historiography” (141). He will later add that to recognise early Genesis as narrative in form does not automatically lead to assumptions that they are regular, familiar history; “The latter depends on source documents and testimony by witnesses,” so clearly an account about pre-human creation is not history of the kind we’re used to (145). (I think Beall, another author in this compilation, fails to sufficiently appreciate this.) Full marks for that; it’s the kind of thing I try to help my students see.
Then he follows by saying that to read ethically we must “read with the text rather than against it,” willing to submit to it and be shaped by it (141-42). This is a knowingly non-postmodern tack, choosing not to be cynical and negatively critical. Right as well.
There is a fair bit of ‘speech act theory’ tied up in this chunk. I won’t try to explain it; if you’ve run into it you’ll know about it, and vice versa, but it does offer insights into the way people communicate, and it helped my thinking a lot at one stage. In terms of communication, then, Walton says of us as Bible readers,
…when we read Scripture, we are a low-context audience trying to penetrate a high-context communication among the members of an ancient culture.
So we can expect to miss a few things, especially if we’re careless. We need to tread as carefully as we can, and as often, if we would begin to pick up some of the subtleties about the text that we’re inclined to miss.
So what does Walton deem the genre of Genesis? “The early chapters of Genesis could be termed cosmology” (145). I would alter this; a ‘cosmology’ talks about the present makeup of the world. It is a ‘cosmogony’ that talks about the origin of the world, and that’s what we have in Genesis 1. Walton is very conscious that Israel draws on common ANE perceptions of the world. This doesn’t depend on conscious literary borrowing by Israelite authors. “We will find that the biblical cosmology starts at the same place as the common ancient cosmology, uses the same verbal ideas, refers to the same functional building blocks, and ends at the same place” (147). We can expect biblical writers to speak the language of their time, though they express God-given ideas.
There’s more good stuff, but I reckon it’s time to cut to the chase. Walton has come to the firm persuasion that in Israel’s ‘ANE Cognitive Environment’, creation is a matter of taking something that is nonfunctional and giving it a function, rather than making something out of what is ontologically nothing, i.e. does not exist. For Walton, this distinction is absolute. Material origins are simply not on the radar in Genesis 1 (146-48). So where did we get the silly idea that the material origin of the world was concerned? This domination of the material “can easily be explained as a result of Hellenism and the incursion of Greek thought into the ancient world after Alexander the Great” (157). Ahhh, it’s one of those Greek-Hebrew things. Hmmm. All seems a bit too easy. What’s going through Walton’s head? Here’s a revealing comment:
“Most people in the ancient world believed that there was a body of water in the sky held back by some sort of barrier. Scientifically, we believe nothing of the sort, so biblical authority is better maintained from a functional rather than material approach” (147).
Putting a sharper point on it, I think we can say even Genesis 1 involves something like this kind of world-picture, because the firmament holds out the ‘waters above’, but itself contains the sun and moon. Check out some of the Egyptian cosmos images from Othmar Keel’s Symbolism of the Ancient World (1997) and you’ll see what I mean (e.g. p. 36).
But we can’t squirm out of our interpretive troubles as easily as this. I think Walton cuts the Gordian knot. He is right to be sceptical about concordist efforts to reconcile Genesis 1 with some scientific formulation of origins (here today, gone next century) (162), but when he says on the same page,
So if the creation week concerns temple inauguration (sorry, never explained that part, but it’s a large part of his concept), with “days that concern origins of functions not material, then the seven days and Gen 1 as a whole have nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth,”
I detect a kind of ‘small target’ strategy vis-a-vis modern science. Science can’t lay a glove on Genesis if Genesis is not even in the ring! This is a pretty strong version of what they call ‘non-concordism’, which taken more broadly holds that science and religion are talking about such different things, or in such different ways, that it’s impossible to find either harmony or conflict! Not to pin that whole position on Walton, it isn’t inaccurate to see his take on Genesis 1 this way.
But some of his conversation partners pick him up on this point, and I think rightly:
- Averbeck (170-71): “There is something to this, but…he goes too far with it.” “He makes a valiant effort to eliminate any reference to material creation in Gen 1….This exclusivity is the weakness.”
- Collins (180-81): “I do not understand why Prof. Walton thinks that material and function provide a meaningful antithesis.” Why need the functional exclude the material? “What was going on in Exodus 35-39 except the shaping of materials that would be used for the tabernacle?”
That last quote gives me a prompt to mention that Walton’s idea, which I failed to explain above, that Genesis 1 is the story of the consecration of the cosmos as a kind of massive temple in God’s honour, is supported partly by the correspondences that may indeed be found with the later chapters of Exodus that talk about the tabernacle’s preparation and construction. For this kind of idea, see works such as: