I’d like to take some time during the near future to blog through John Walton’s important book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate.
Those familiar with Walton’s earlier work know that he writes on this subject by setting forth propositions, then explaining and defending them. This book contains 21 propositions that focus mostly on the text of Genesis 2-3 and the questions it raises in the origins debates.
The focus is not on concordism, that is, trying to show compatibility between the biblical accounts and scientific findings, but rather on understanding the text of Scripture itself. Walton gives primary attention to the meaning and significance of these OT texts and what they communicate in their Ancient Near Eastern context.
In this book, I will contend that the perceived threat posed by the current consensus about human origins is overblown. That consensus accepts the principles of common ancestry and evolutionary theory as the explanation for the existence of all life. Though we should not blindly accept the scientific consensus if its results are questionable on scientific principles, we can reach an understanding that regardless of whether the the scientific principles stand the test of time or not, they pose no threat to biblical belief. Admittedly, however, a perception of conflict is not uncommon.
With that in mind, I will not give very much attention to the question of the legitimacy of the scientific claims. Instead I will be conducting a close reading of the Bible as an ancient document to explore the claims it makes. (p. 13)
In this new book, John Walton’s first five propositions summarize the groundwork he laid in The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, his work which has changed the discussion dramatically when it comes to the interpretation of Genesis 1 and its portrayal of “creation.”
The first five propositions are:
- Genesis is an ancient document.
- In the ancient world and the Old Testament, creating focuses on establishing order by assigning roles and functions.
- Genesis 1 is an account of functional origins, not material origins.
- In Genesis 1, God orders the cosmos as sacred space.
- When God establishes functional order, it is “good.”
With the first proposition, Walton makes the point that God gave his biblical revelation in locutions that were tied to the communicator’s world. The biblical author and the ancient audience were engaged in “high-context” communication because they shared history, culture, language and experiences in common. We who read the Bible today are “low-context” outsiders who must interact with the text by respecting it for the ancient text it is and trying to understand the text in light of the world and worldview in which God gave it. When it comes, therefore, to the relationship between the Bible and modern scientific findings, “the authority of the text is not respected when statements in the Bible that are part of ancient science are used as if they are God’s descriptions of modern scientific understanding” (p. 18). We have access to much more information from the ancient world than interpreters of the past, and it is not hubris to use these findings to help us interpret the text more accurately.
Proposition 2: The Bible does not begin with an account that explains the transition from non-existence to existence. Instead, Genesis 1 serves as a literary introduction to what follows, and in 1:2, the material of creation is already present. The seven days of “creation” are actually portrayed as seven days in which God brought order to an already existing creation by assigning roles and functions to its various elements. This is similar to other Ancient Near East creation myths, which describe how chaos was overcome in order to bring order to the world. But Genesis differs also. Here we find no explicit story of a “cosmic battle” by which chaos is tamed. Instead, God brings order by “separating” and “naming.”
Proposition 3: Walton goes through each of the seven days to show how they emphasize the ordering of creation’s elements rather than explaining how the material of the world and universe came into existence. For example, the culmination of day one is not the existence of light and darkness, but the naming of day and night. This day thus describes the origins of time by which humans order our existence. Through separating the “waters above” from the “waters below” on day two, God orders his creation in order to create space in which living creatures can live and flourish. And so on.
Proposition 4: The seventh day, with its depiction of God’s rest, provides a key to understanding the metaphor being presented in Genesis 1. “Rest” is set forth as the objective of the creation account. The ultimate point of the chapter is that God ordered creation so that it would be his temple in which humans and all living creatures might live, relate to him and serve him. When God “rests,” Genesis is describing the installation of a king — God enters his dwelling place and takes his throne. The world is God’s sacred space, he designed it as the realm in which he would dwell with us and we would be his people. This is the message of Genesis 1.
Proposition 5: Finally, John Walton takes up the question of the word “good” in Genesis 1. Based on his examination of the word and its lexical possibilities, he concludes that “the word never carries [the] sense of unadulterated, pristine perfection” (p. 53), as many interpretations of the creation story assert. Instead, he says it “refers to a condition in which something is functioning optimally as it was designed to do in an ordered system — it is working the way God intended” (p. 55).
I’ll let Walton explain the implications of this:
…it does not suggest that everything pre-fall is perfect. God has established a modicum of order adequate for our survival and for his plan to unfold. There is still a long way to go before the ultimate order of new creation is achieved. People are supposed to be part of that ordering process as vice-regents. Some non-order remains and will eventually be resolved, but the order that has been established is functional (“good”), and there is not yet disorder…. This conclusion can be confirmed by some of the other occurrences of the designation tob me’od (“very good”). For example, the same description is given to the Promised Land (Num 14:7), though it is filled with enemies and wicked inhabitants, not to mention the wild animals who are predators. (p. 56f)
This word does not prove that pain, suffering, predation or death were absent from the world described in Genesis 1. Nor can we conclude from this word that Adam and Eve were perfect in every way.
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That should bring everyone up to speed and prepare us for moving into Genesis 2-3 and discussing Adam and Eve. We’ll begin next week.