“Creations’ debate game changer” is my four words review of John H. Walton’s 192-paged InterVarsity Press published book The Lost World of Genesis One (2009). Noting that the Old Testament was not written to us but for us, Walton returns us to the lost and forgotten ancient Jews to whom the Testament was written. He thus invites us to decipher ancient Near East cosmology as they would have understood it. The result, if true, is a game changer in America’s escalating creations debate. It renders the whole debate not only unnecessary but misguided in the first place.
Walton summons us to interpret Genesis 1:1-2:3b cosmology as ancient Jews would have understood it. He wrote: “We gain nothing by bringing God’s revelation into accordance with today’s science. In contrast, it makes perfect sense that God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood”(Walton 2009: 15). He invites us to read the text on its “face value.” Before asking what it means to us today, we need to know what it meant to them then.
According to Walton, ancient Near Eastern cosmological origin accounts were not largely concerned with the material origins, as we have naturally but falsely presupposed they were, but with functional origins. Genesis 1 ought to be interpreted “[a]s an account of functional origins, it offers no clear information about material origins”(162). Day-age creationism, the framework view, gap theories and other proposed views presented by both young and old creationists are all mistaken because they presuppose Genesis 1 as presenting a material origin account. We thus find ourselves obliged to fit Genesis 1 account in accordance with contemporary science. Walton argued that Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins. Thus there is no need, in the first place, for us to attempt to align it with contemporary science.
Ancient Near Easterners viewed coming into existence not primarily in the materialistic sense, as we do today, but in a functionalistic sense. They had “little interest in material origins”(33). Walton informed us that an object existed if it was assigned a functional role in the ordered system. He argued,
Creation thus constituted bringing order to the cosmos from an originally nonfunctional condition. It is from this reading of the literature that we may deduce a functional ontology in the ancient world—that is, that they offer accounts of functional origins rather than accounts of material origins. Consequently, to create something (cause it to exist) in the ancient world means to give it a function, not material properties. (33)
If Genesis 1 is not offering an account of the material world but the functional world – the role a being in its sphere of existence – then the whole creation debate is not only pointless but also misguided. Walton aims to show that Genesis 1 is indeed not a material account of the origin of the cosmos but a typical ancient Near East functional account.
Walton contends that the Hebrew term bāra͗ (“to create”) refers to the assignment of functions. Though he accepted creation ex nihilo, a view assumed in a material activity, he believe that Genesis 1 does not teach such a story. God is wholly responsible for material origin but Genesis 1 is not teaching us that. Genesis 1 is about functional origins. Walton thus interpreted Genesis 1:1 as “In the initial period, God created by assigning functions throughout the heavens and the earth, and this is how he did it”(45).
Some reasons Walton offers to show that this is the case is that verse 2 begins already with the waters of the deep, primeval cosmic water, to which no account of its material existence was given (48 cf. 2 Pet. 3:5). Since the dysfunctional waters do not yet have a role in the orderly world, they did not “exist.” Day 3, a day God, if read in a materialistic way, appears not be making anything new, makes sense in functional reading. God created by assigning function, bring into existence, what is materialistically already there.
Similar to the framework view but with a functional origin twist, Walton shows how the first three days established the major life-sustaining functions of time, weather, and food, while on days four through six God assigned plants and animals functions. The phrase “it was good,” Walton commented, ought not be viewed in a moral way but in functional way, namely that which is being created is orderly, working according to God’s indented role in the cosmos. He also argued that in the ancient Near Eastern world, every deity rested in a temple (72) and begin supervising the function. The cosmos is thus God’s temple.
Walton’s revolutionary functional ontology approach to Genesis 1 is a game changer because it is unaffected by dynamic science. There is no conflict between Genesis 1 and contemporary science because Genesis 1 is about functional origin and not material origin. Christians are free to follow whatever material origin contemporary science, which ought to be metaphysically neutral, suggests.
The Lost World of Genesis One is one of those books that completely changed the way I think on this issue. Functional reading of Genesis 1 is a paradigm changer.
Further John H. Walton readings: Ancient Near Eastern Thought: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible(2006) and NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (2001)
The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton InterVarsity Press, 2009 192 pages (paperback)