What to make of Genesis 1? I’ve never considered the chapter to be a straightforward historical account of creation. To the degree that the passage is about historical events, it had to be an accommodation to a pre-scientific culture … as evidenced by passages like verses 6-8. But maybe the passage … taking into the cultural accommodation … still concords with what we know about the scientific record. The general sequence of events is remarkably similar to the order in which scientist understand the world to have developed. This concordist view has been persistently championed by Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe. I’ve read several of his books and find much of his analysis intriguing, but several aspects of his theories are just too big of a stretch. Then, of course, it is entirely possible that the passage doesn’t have correspondence with historical events. It is a literary device to communicate some basic theological truths about origins but little more (i.e., Framework Hypothesis). This is probably the most commonly held view by many within my Mainline PCUSA world. This has always seemed a real possibility to me but I haven’t been able to shake the sense that there was something more going on with this passage than the crafting of great literature. In short, I’ve never been able to find a key that satisfactorily makes sense of the Genesis 1 … until now.
I’ve just finished reading John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and an expert in ancient Near Eastern (ANE) culture (a topic I’ve been trying to better acquaint myself with in recent years.) Walton points out that there was no distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” in the ANE. The cosmos was run by the gods and not natural laws. This is significant for ontology … the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of being. Walton proposes that post-Enlightenment folks like us are heavily disposed to think in terms of “material ontology” while the ancients thought in terms of “functional ontology.”
Walton asks to consider a chair. We examine its physical properties to ascertain whether or not it is indeed a chair. This is material ontology. But what do we mean when we say a corporation exists?
The corporation is understood to “exist” only when at exhibits its function. This is functional ontology.
Walton turns to the phrase tohu wabohu in 1:2 (“fromless and empty” in NRSV). The central point here is not that the earth was barren. The issue is that it served no function. Days one through three describe the establishment of functions and days four through six describe the installment of functionaries. The functions relate to the three basic needs of humanity: Time, weather, and food.
- Day 1: Time Measurement (light and darkness)
- Day2: Weather (expanse between waters above and below)
- Day3: Food (formation of land with vegetation)
- Day 4: Celestial bodies function to mark off days, seasons, and years.
- Day 5: Sky and water creatures are told to be fruitful and multiple … their function is to fill the environments for which they’ve been created.
- Day 6: Various creatures are “produced by the land” that (like the plants on day 3) reproduce according their kind … new generations emerge as a function of the previous generations.
Of course the climax of day six is the creation of humanity … God’s supreme functionary with the most important function. Humanity is to exercise dominion over all that God has created. Walton challenges the notion that the repeated phrase “it was good” had to with an assessment of aesthetic beauty. Rather the text is referring the fact that these things served their function, namely to serve humanity, who in turn serves God. But there is more.
Walton notes that in the ANE creation stories the climactic end was when the gods built their temples and “rested.” Rest was not in the sense of becoming idle and taking a siesta. Rather rest meant ceasing extraordinary labor and settling into the natural peaceful ongoing rhythms of life. So here is Walton’s revelation. Creation is God’s temple:
On the seventh day God “rests” from his work and resides within his temple … the earth … with his co-regent human functionaries exercising dominion over all that God has made. The Genesis 1 story is not an account of the how various material items came into existence but rather an account of the inauguration of God’s temple. Walton calls his understating the cosmic temple inauguration view.
The interpretive problem for us is that we are deeply immersed in the post-Enlightenment fixation on material origins. It is not that the ancients would be incapable of thinking about material origins but they would undoubtedly have been perplexed with the question. What useful purpose would such knowledge serve? The issue is what function things serve and who established their functions?
In light of this, both young earth creationism and concordists theories are way off the mark because both presume the text is talking about material ontology. The Framework Hypothesis may get a little closer to the mark but even here there is an assumption that the text is poetically dealing with material origins. The richness of understanding is severely restricted.
Peter Inns sums up our problem well in a recent post at his blog:
Battle lines were drawn rather than theological and hermeneutical principles reassessed. ...
Walton has given us a careful reassessment looking at the text through ancient Near Eastern eyes. I’ve given you a only cursory overview. The book is laid out in a series of eighteen propositions which build his cosmic temple inauguration view. The book is written for non-specialist and is fairly short. I read it in afternoon. It is without a doubt the most helpful book I’ve read on the topic.
Scot McKnight is starting a discussion of the book in a series of posts beginning this week (I believe) at his Jesus Creed blog. I highly recommend you get a copy and join the conversation.