Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Peter Leithart on John Walton's Lost World of Genesis 1

John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis 1 promises a lot. It offers what Walton calls a “face-value” and “literal” reading of Genesis 1, but one that sidesteps the problems of attempting to reconcile science and the Bible. For Walton, creationist readings and concordist readings that attempt to correlate Genesis 1 with contemporary scientific theory both miss the point and read “modern” questions into an ancient text that was not designed to answer those questions.

Walton’s treatment of the “days” of Genesis 1 illustrates the cleverness of his solution: With young earth creationists, he claims that Genesis 1:1-2:4 describes a seven-day sequence, and that the days must be interpreted as normal 24-hour days (90-91). Yet he doesn’t think that Genesis 1 implies anything at all about the age of the material universe. Christians can rely on science to tell us how old the earth is.

The two main planks of Walton’s argument are, first, his claim that Genesis 1, being ancient cosmology, should be read like an ancient cosmology, and, second, the claim that ancient cosmologies present not a “material” ontology but a “functional” one. According to the “modern” materialist ontology, a thing is when it comes into material existence; on this view, to “create” means to bring something into material existence. According to ancient ontology, though, a thing is when it has been assigned and equipped to play a role in an ordered system; to “create” doesn’t mean to bring something into existence but to give something (that might already exist) its place in an order. For ancients, a thing is “by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system” (24).

Genesis 1, he argues, is concerned with function rather than with material origination. Walton believes that God brought material things into being (96); he doesn’t think, however, that this is what Genesis 1 is about. Overall, it’s about God’s organization of the world as a cosmic temple. More specifically, things are not made de novo in Genesis 1 but are assigned their proper position in that cosmic temple. The sun had been shining for a long time before the week of Genesis 1 begins; what happens during that week is not the formation of the ball of burning gas but the placement of the sun with the moon and stars in the firmament as signs, for appointed times, etc. Pre-existing heavenly bodies are given new functions in relation to humanity. Presumably too human beings of some stripe had existed for a long, long time, but they are assigned a new role as priests of God’s cosmic temple during the seven days of “creation.” That is what it means in Genesis 1 for God to “create” heaven and earth.

Read it all here.


DMA said...

Time is not a constant drumbeat across the universe. It is reiterative.

It is completely reasonable when you understand this that what looks like 6 days from God's perspective appears to be 14 billion years from ours.

Unknown said...

"Genesis shows us the origins of the universe, order and complexity, the solar system, the atmosphere and hydrosphere, the origin of life, man, marriage, evil, language, government, culture, nature, religion". The question arises as to whether God created the primeval heavens and earth of Genesis 1:1 as perfect and complete or in a state of chaos as in Genesis 1:2. To believe God created primeval heavens and earth in a state of chaos is to invite a contradiction in our understanding of Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. There can be no contradiction, however, once we rightly divide/cut off the word of truth in Genesis 1:1 and separate it from the subsequent verse 1:2 in spite of any grammatical connection. Accordingly, we can convincingly believe the primeval heavens and earth of Genesis 1:1 were perfect adorned with life on earth. Proverbs 8:27-31 substantiates this interpretation of Genesis 1:1. For detailed interpretation of Proverbs 8:27-31, read BIBLICAL CREATION TRUTH []. Thus, Pre-Adamic life, including pre-Adamic 'sons of men', on earth is confirmed by Proverbs 8:22-31 and Lucifer's rule and subsequent sin on earth [and not in heaven, as assumed by some] is confirmed by Isaiah 14:12; Ezekiel 28:16.

Alice C. Linsley said...


You are reading a great deal into the Genesis 1 text. It is much more helpful to consider this material in the cultural context of Abraham's Nilo-Saharan ancestors who believed that the dry earth emerges from the un-ordered primordial sea. One of the oldest creation myths of the Nilotes envisioned the first place in the world as a mound emerging from the waters of a universal ocean. Here the first life form was seen as a lily, growing on the peak of the primeval mound. The mound itself was named Tatjenen ("the emerging land") and this is alluded to in Gen. 1 where we are told that God separated the sea and the dry land.

Arimathean said...

I recently read The Lost World of Genesis 1. I cannot recognize many of Leithart's descriptions of the book. He is clearly reading and interpreting the book in terms of his own questions and concerns instead of taking it on its own terms.

As I was reading the book, I was often annoyed that Walton kept returning to the concerns of "creationists", which seemed to me to be tangential interruptions of his arguments. But, since this book was aimed at a popular rather than academic audience, and Walton is an evangelical (he teaches at Wheaton), I suppose he was anticipating the reactions that come from that mindset. Perhaps Leithart exemplifies this way of thinking.

Leithart redefines "material" in an overly expansive way that leaves little remaining turf for the "functional". Using his own rather than Walton's ranges of meaning for these terms pulls the foundation out from under Walton's arguments. This is not a legitimate argument.

Leithart's speculation about the implications of Walton's exegesis for what might have happened before the creation account that begins in Gen. 1:3 is an obvious example of his focus on his own theological concerns, rather than Walton's. Walton would easily dismiss the whole line of argument: this is not a question that Gen. 1 set out to answer. It is a legitimate question for systematic theologians, but it has little to do with Scriptural exegesis.

Even worse, Leithart ignores the bit of Scripture relevant to his question - Gen. 1:2. No matter what the precise meaning of tohu-bohu might be, it constitutes the initial state for the creation story. Leithart's beef here is not with Walton, but with the author of Genesis 1.

Walton covers the same territory in a more academic way in Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Walton teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College (Illinois) and Young Earth Creationism still has support at that institution, so he is trying to address what he sees as a problem.

You make a good point that Leithart is picking a bone with the author of Genesis.

My problem with Walton's book is that I don't believe he has accurately identified the cultural context of Genesis 1 and tohu-bohu is one of the clues that suggests a Nilotic context under the later Mesopotamian layer. The Hebrew phrase that is translated "formless and void" (Gen. 1:2) is tohu wa-bohu and is of Nilotic origin. The word tohu in Isaiah 34:11 means "confused" so it appears that Genesis 1 refers to matter in a confused or chaotic state before God set things in order.

In Nilotic mythology, chaos or disorder preceded creation. The Egyptians believed that chaos (tehom) dwelt south of Yebu (Elephantine Island) as a great river serpent between the Nile's east (bahku) and west (manu) banks. In this Nilotic context, Te-hom was overthrown by Te-hut, divine Wisdom.

The oldest known moral code was the Law of Tehut and dates to about 5800 years ago. It was established by King Menés who made Memphis the capital after uniting the Upper and Lower Nile. From there, he administered justice and issued edicts which were designed to improve food production and distribution, guard the rights of ruling families, improve education, and enhance knowledge of the natural world through geometry and astronomy.

The Nile flows north between mountains that form the east and west banks of the river. The mythical mountain that flanked the Nile on the east was called bahku. The word bohu may be a reference to Bahku, the mountain from which the Sun rose and filled the valley with divine light. (And God said, "Let there be light and there was light.")