Conclusions about John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One

In this fourth and final post in my series reviewing John John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One (the series begins here), I will address some remaining concerns and then draw some conclusions.

To pick up where I left off last time, considerations such as the ones I discussed in my last post suggest that when Genesis speaks of God “creating” (bara‘), it does indeed envision things being brought into existence materially. This conclusion is reinforced by the creation account’s use of another verb, ‘asa, typically translated as “make.”

Walton acknowledges that “this verb can be used for a material process,” but he observes that it actually “covers the whole range, not only of ‘making’ but also of ‘doing’” (64). This is quite true, as examples throughout the Bible attest; in this sense, ‘asa is like verbs in other languages that can mean either “make” or “do” (for example, faire in French). However, this flexibility of connotation simply requires that we determine the verb’s meaning from its context. As a general rule, such verbs mean “make” when their direct object is a thing, and “do” when their direct object is an activity. For example, “I did some baking and I made a batch of cookies.” As we read through the Genesis creation account, it’s certainly more sensible to translate ‘asa as “made” rather than “did”: “God made two great lights,” not “God did two great lights.”

However, Walton tries to support an interpretation of ‘asa as meaning “do” rather than “make” in this account by appealing to the Sabbath commandment in Exodus, which he translates as, “In six days shall you do all your work . . . for in six days the Lord did the heavens and the earth” (64). But it seems to make more sense to see a parallel being drawn there between the Israelites’ “six days,” in which they are to “do” their work, and God’s “six days,” in which he “made” the heavens and the earth, rather than between  the Israelites “doing work” and God “doing the heavens and the earth.”

Genesis itself uses ‘asa (“made”) as a poetic synonym for bara‘ (“created”) shortly after the creation account: “In the day that God created man, in the image of God he made him; male and female he created them. And he blessed them and he called their name ‘adam, in the day they were created.”

The two verbs are actually used this same way, as synonyms, in the opening creation account: God says, “Let us make mankind in our own image,” and the account then reports, “God created mankind in his own image.” So not only should we understand asa’ as meaning “make,” we should understand the creation of humanity, and the rest of the cosmos, as a material creation.

So I do have some significant concerns about Walton’s overall interpretation of the Genesis account and his use of specific features within it to support that interpretation. Nevertheless, as I said at the beginning of this series of posts, I find that we are ultimately on the same side of the debate about the respective roles of religion and science.

Walton specifies that he did not develop his interpretation as a way of resolving the conflict that can arise between religion and science when Genesis is taken as an authoritative literal description of God creating the world in a short time very recently. He explains that his interpretation comes instead from his research into ancient Near Eastern culture and his careful examination of the biblical text. Nevertheless, Walton finds that his interpretation does have implications for the “origins debate”: “If the seven days . . . concern origins of functions not material, then the seven days and Genesis 1 as a whole have nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth. . . . If there is no biblical information concerning the age of the material cosmos, then, as people who take the Bible seriously, we have nothing to defend on that count and can consider the options that science has to offer” (94–95).

I would say much the same thing, except on different grounds. In the understanding that my co-author and I explain in Paradigms on Pilgrimage, the opening creation account in Genesis does describe the material origins of the universe, however, it does so from an observational perspective. And this is true not just of the cosmology in the account, but also of the chronology in the account. As we say in our book, creation is a product that looks compellingly like “six days’ work” to an earthbound observer operating within an ancient cosmology: “Three divisions: day and night, sky and sea, then the land. Three populations: of day and night, of sky and sea, and then of the land.” But there is also a seventh day of rest and worship, showing that there is meaning and purpose in this ordered creation. Specifically, it is the handiwork of God.

So our commitment in Paradigms on Pilgrimage is much the same as Walton’s commitment in The Lost World of Genesis One: We seek to read and understand the text the way its ancient original audience would have. Because this necessarily involves viewing the creation from the perspective of an earthbound observer, it eliminates any rivalry between the Genesis account and objective scientific descriptions.

John H. Walton

There remain differences between the way we interpret the text from this vantage point in our book and the way Walton does in his book. Resolving these is a matter of appealing to the literary and linguistic data, as I hope I’ve done responsibly in this series of posts. But both his conclusions and ours grant those who hold a biblical faith in God as creator the freedom to explore the creation with all the scientific tools and analyses at our disposal.

2 thoughts on “Conclusions about John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One”

  1. I really enjoyed this series and thought that you made some really compelling points. Even without any Hebrew or ANE training, I thought that several of the claims made in Walton’s book felt fairly strained and it was gratifying to read some well-articulated reasons for why that was so.

    Like

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