Book Review: The Lost World of Genesis One – By John H. Walton

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Letter TPerhaps there is no topic more widely and hotly debated in the past century of Christianity – and especially in the past few decades – is that of creation and evolution as it relates to Genesis.

The Lost World of Genesis One is one of John H. Walton‘s multiple contributions to this discussion. This is a work which according to Walton serves to be faithful to the original context and to not only preserve but enhance the theological vitality of the text.

Central to Walton’s approach to Genesis 1 is an understanding that while the text does communicate to us and was written for all of humankind, it is not directly written to us, but to Israel; there is a barrier of sorts separating 21st century Western American and European cultures from that of the ancient Israelites). Because of this it is not only the language that needs to be translated but also the culture. While the key to translating certain ancient languages might have been the Rosetta Stone, for Walton the key to translating this ancient culture is the literature from the rest of the ancient world (noting that there are bound to be both similarities and differences).

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I am more inclined to see Walton’s functional motif fitting atop – or beneath – the material motif. Walton’s insights add to the richness of the narrative, giving it new depths, rather than purging it of pre-existing connotations. Walton himself notes this as a possibility – of the functional and material motifs both being found in Genesis – but asserts that there is no evidence of the material aspect; this, I would argue, is Walton overestimating the weight of the evidence pointing to function (as noted further down, Walton’s cursory grammatical analysis is far from definitive).

With this in mind Walton offers a number of propositions for understanding Genesis 1 in its ancient Near Eastern context. The first and arguably most important of these is that Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology:

“That is, it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions. The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their ‘scientific’ understanding of the cosmos. They did not know that stars were suns; they did not know that the earth was spherical and moving through space; they did not know that the sun was much farther away than the moon, or even further than the birds flying in the air. They believed that the sky was material (not vaporous), solid enough to support the residence of deity as well as to hold back waters. In these ways, and many others, they thought about the cosmos in much the same way that anyone in the ancient world thought, and not at all like anyone thinks today. And God did not think it important to revise their thinking.”(p14)

This first proposition embodies one core of Walton’s thesis. His basic goal is to push back against contemporary ‘concordism’, which seeks to align the narrative of the text with modern science in some way (whether to align it with science or to set it against science). Rather than offering science, Walton sees the God as adopting the language of the culture to communicate in terms they understand.

The second core proposition of Walton’s approach is the thesis that Genesis 1 is an account of functional origins rather than material origins. For those in the ancient world – Walton argues – something “existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system” (p24), that is, a relation to society and culture. To make this point Walton appeals to various Egyptian and Babylonian creation myths, noting how these almost all start with no operational system in place, such that “creation thus constituted bringing order to the cosmos from an originally nonfunctional condition” (p33).

Following this brief appeal to other ancient Near Eastern writings, Walton offers a cursory grammatical argument in favor of bara – ‘create’ – having functional connotations in Hebrew. This includes an argument that the reason materials aren’t brought up in the narrative is because an account of functional activity would naturally not speak of such (as opposed to the rationale being creation ex nihilo), coupled with a word study analyzing other uses of the term throughout the Old Testament. In this analysis Walton notes that where the word is used elsewhere it largely refers to function rather than creation of material.


As an aside, this grammar/word study seems to fail on two fronts. Firstly, it doesn’t establish that the lack of reference to materials is due to functional rather than material creation, it merely asserts it; Walton opens the way for this reading, but is far from making any substantial argument other than “it can be read this way.”

Second – and more to the point – if ex nihilo were the proper understanding one would still expect the same results of Walton offers. If Genesis 1 is the creation of material, then Genesis 1 would properly be the only place where the term would be used in that manner (as creation of material); it is only natural that latter uses of the term would not involve creation of material, that only happens in Genesis 1. Thus, Walton’s grammatical/word study offers no evidence one way or the other, its findings suit the material account just as easily as it does his own.

This means that when Walton proceeds to build his argument further off of this grammatical foundation, the foundation cannot even begin to bear the weight he puts upon it.


With this functional foundation – ancient Near Eastern context and grammatical analysis – laid, Walton proceeds to offer an exposition of the text based upon this approach, laying out the implications of functional creation for the text and fleshing out the way functions operate in the text.

Thus in analyzing the firmament Walton notes that “Instead of objectifying this water barrier, we should focus on the important twofold cosmic function it played. Its first role was to create the space in which people could live. The second and more significant function was to serve as a mechanism by which precipitation was controlled – the means by which the weather operated” (p56).

One particularly interesting implication drawn from this analysis of functions is placing the seventh day as the true climax of the narrative due to something the ancients were aware of but moderns have since lost, the fact that “Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for.” (p71) Walton then broadens this out to discuss the idea of the entire cosmos as a temple. The seven days, in this view, are not given as periods of time during which the material world was created but as “the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple…” (p91).

This approach to the days of creation is not outright designed by Walton in order to argue against Young Earth Creationism, rather: “The point is not that the biblical text therefore supports an old earth, but simply that there is no biblical position on the age of the earth… Viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as temple does not in any way suggest or imply that God was uninvolved in material origins – it only contends that Genesis 1 is not that story” (p94-5).

Finally, Walton offers an analysis of the relationship between science and theology. His approach is that of a layered cake, where the lower layer is the realm of natural causation and processes (of secondary natural causation) and the top layer is that of ultimate divine causation. Thus Walton posits that science and theology essentially address not different spheres of the world but the same world at different levels. This seems to line up with the earlier approaches of Galileo and Newton, seeing the ‘laws of nature’ as God’s way of operating in nature, etc. This means that “the fact that we believe that God did X does not mean that it is no longer subject to scientific investigation” (p125).

The end result of this approach is that “whatever explanation scientists may offer in their attempts to explain origins, we could theoretically adopt it as a description of God’s handiwork” (p131). Walton’s position is therefore one of stating that whatever second causes end up being responsible for the current state of affairs, God was ultimately behind them; this doesn’t tie the Christian down to any one theory, but rather frees them to accept any theory – if evolution turns out to be true, God did it, if it’s something else, God did that, whatever it is, God did it:

“If Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins, then it offers no mechanism for material origins, and we may safely look to science to consider what it suggests for such mechanisms. We may find the theories proposed by scientists to be convincing or not, but we cannot on the basis of Genesis 1 object to any mechanism they offer. The theological key is that whatever science proposes that is deemed substantial, our response is, ‘Fine, that helps me see the handiwork of God.'”(p163)

In sum, the approach taken by Walton in this book is admirable to a large degree. He attempts to take the ancient Near Eastern context and the grammar of the text seriously.  Walton also offers a stalwart posture towards the findings of science which is impervious to the misconception so common to the modern world that secondary causation rules out ultimate causation (though it is worth noting that this posture is not unique to his approach). His work towards opposing a culturally imperialistic concordism is appreciated.

That said, I am not fully convinced of Walton’s function vs material schema. His interaction with the ancient Near Eastern sources is superficial (as noted below) and his grammatical analysis particularly weak (as noted above).

Because of this I find that Walton’s insights should be used to help add additional color and nuance to the mosaic of the biblical narrative without removing existing structures from that mosaic. As Walton notes, his approach does not in itself rule out material creation, he just doesn’t see the evidence for it. For those who do see the evidence, Walton’s functional insights provide additional layers of nuance to be appreciated, especially in relation to the cosmic temple.

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Memorable Quotes:

“[T]here is no concept of a ‘natural’ world in ancient Near Eastern thinking. The dichotomy between natural and supernatural is a relatively recent one. Deity pervaded the ancient world. Nothing happened independently of deity. The gods did not ‘intervene’ because that would assume that there was a world of events outside of them that they could step into and out of.”-18

“God did not give Israel a revised cosmic geography – he revealed his Creator role through the cosmic geography that they had, because the shape of the material world did not matter.”-61

“Concordist interpretations attempt to read details of physics, biology, geology and so on into the biblical text. This is a repudiation of reading the text at face value. Such interpretation does not represent in any way what the biblical author would have intended or what the audience would have understood. Instead it gives modern meaning to ancient words.”-p104

“Taking the text seriously is not expressed by correlating it with modern science; it is expressed by understanding it in its ancient context.”-110

– “Scientific theories offer explanations concerning how the world, which we attribute to God’s design, works… What we identify as natural laws only take on their law-like quality because God acts so consistently in the operations of the cosmos.”-132-3

Specific Criticisms

There are multiple issues I have with Walton’s argumentation in this text:

1) One of Walton’s key points is that Christians have misread Genesis as an account of material origins because of our modern, Western, context. This is a point he returns to time and again.

An issue here is that Walton devotes little time to stating what exactly it is about our context that lends us to this misreading (apart from that it’s related to scientism), nor does he attempt to deal with any other contexts. If the issue is our modern, Western [post-Enlightenment] mindset, what about the approach of Calvin or Aquinas? Is the issue helped by going all the way back to Augustine and the other Latin and/or Greek Fathers? Does this distance us from our modern, Western context? What of the Cappadocians?

Perhaps he believes that all of Christendom from its founding has been approaching this text in the wrong manner. If so, what of Second Temple rabbinic literature?

What Walton seems to assume but never directly states is that the entirety of recorded engagement with this text is polluted by Hellenization. If so, this would mean that any relevant cultural context post-300 B.C. – that is, any cultural context that is historically downstream from the Hellenization of Palestine – suffers from these same materialistic assumptions.

If this is the position that Walton wants to take that is all good and well but it he would do well to state this position outright. This would mean that there are absolutely no secondary sources that can be referenced to support Walton’s claim, the entirety of Christian and Jewish scholarship throughout all history is tainted. Is Walton the first person in history to take this interpretation? That is a bold claim to make, and one he seems to be making.

A key issue that this leaves for scholarship is that it offers no check in the battle to balance ancient Near Eastern accommodation and polemic. That is, sometimes Biblical authors reflect their ancient Near Eastern context because they are part of that context and are speaking as part of it; other times the Biblical authors are attempting to subvert their ancient Near Eastern context to present something different. One thing that must be discerned is when the Biblical authors are acting within the stream of their context and when they are pushing back against it.

Dismissing all secondary sources makes this issue much more difficult to manage. This means that the only sources that can be referenced apart from Scripture is ancient Near Eastern pagan literature (Egyptian and Babylonian myths, as Walton references). Parallels can be drawn from these texts no doubt, but the question must always be asked whether the Biblical authors are pushing back against those texts or falling in line with them. Walton seems to default to the approach that they are falling in line, meaning that he doesn’t entertain the notion – even for argument’s sake – that the authors may be offering a polemic (or at least, where he does note the polemic nature it is as a side-point).

2) As noted, along with Walton’s grammatical analysis he offers a brief appeal to other ancient Near Eastern creation myths like the Enuma Elish. He asks the rhetorical question of whether these would have believed that their gods had also created the material and answers with a strong ‘yes’, “for nothing can be thought to stand apart from the gods” (p34). This is an unargued premise for Walton; he doesn’t appeal to anything for it, he simply asserts it.

The issue is that he appeals to these sources but then ignores pivotal details of those creation myths. The most noteworthy example of this is stating that these pagan myths have their gods creating out of nothing when in fact they often explicitly have their gods using pre-existing material or the body parts of slain gods to create with.

This leads well into the next point:

3) Walton asserts that there is no talk of material origins but still wants to arbitrarily assert that God made the material too. Again, he doesn’t appeal to anything for it, he simply asserts it. Walton wants to have his cake and eat it too, to assert functional origins and then arbitrarily tack material origins on at the end just because ‘of course they believed that, why wouldn’t they?!’

This sort of ‘of course they would have seen their gods as having created the material’ approach begs the question of why they would have assumed this, and if these ancient Near Easterners would have assumed this, why Walton finds it so anachronistic that moderns do the same.

In short, if Walton were to be consistent he would write off material origins completely, but this is something he clearly doesn’t want to do.

4) Related to the issue of creating the material, Walton argues that almost all these ancient Near Eastern myths start with no operational system in place, such that “creation thus constituted bringing order to the cosmos from an originally nonfunctional condition” (p33). But this could just as easily be explained by these gods using pre-existing material in most cases. This means that – as with Walton’s grammatical analysis earlier – his evidence can be just as easily explained by the material creation approach as his own. He offers nothing that can’t be easily accounted for by the alternate approach.

5) Finally, Walton displays an issue that is fairly common to those who not only take Walton’s posture toward science (which I largely agree with) but who use it to further assert that debates about evolution are largely beside the point. That is, for Walton, the question of whether evolution is true is entirely secondary; regardless, God did it, so the doctrine of creation is unmarred.

It is true that the doctrine of creation cannot be marred by the theory of evolution. What Walton ignores is whether it has an adverse effect on other areas of theology. Perhaps it doesn’t effect the doctrine of creation, but what of the doctrine of man? What of original and imputed sin? What of the federal headship of Adam? etc. These issues are just as important as the doctrine of creation and it is these that one allowing for evolution must account for. It is not enough to say that the doctrine of creation remains in tact.

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PCABoba

Eugene Lilley (MDiv, MA) is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society.

He may or may not be a Time Lord.

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