In my last post, I summarized John Walton’s interpretation in The Lost World of Genesis One of the Bible’s opening creation account. In this post, I’d like to address some of the concerns that his interpretation raises for me.
Probably the most significant one is that the Genesis account does not say explicitly that the creation constitutes a cosmic temple for God. This is actually a marked difference between Genesis and the other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts that Walton cites. One of his foundational principles is that while we must seek to understand Genesis within the context of ancient Near Eastern culture, we should also be very alert to ways in which Genesis distinguishes itself from that culture, and this appears to be one of them.
One Akkadian text Walton cites, for example, says of the situation before creation, “No holy house, no house of the gods, no dwelling for them had been created, all the world was sea” (78). In Genesis, by contrast, the problem is not that there is no place for God to live; it’s that there’s no place for anyone or anything else to live. The earth is “formless,” that is, undifferentiated, not separated into spaces where creatures can live, and so it is also “empty,” devoid of population. It is uninhabitable and therefore uninhabited. According to the interpretation offered in Paradigms on Pilgrimage, Genesis then describes how God brought about “a place for everything,” and put “everything in its place.”
But Walton, responding to the notion that “formless” (tohu) instead means “without material form,” argues that the term actually “describes that which is nonfunctional, having no purpose and generally unproductive in human terms” (48). He reviews the twenty occurrences of tohu in the Hebrew Bible in order to find support for this meaning. I personally feel, however, that the idea of “uninhabitable” (because not ordered in such a way as to support inhabitants) fits many of these examples quite well. Job, for instance, speaks of desert caravans wandering off their routes into a “wasteland” (tohu) where they perish for lack of water. The clearest concrete expression of this idea is found in Isaiah’s statement that when God “fashioned and made the earth . . . he did not create it to be empty (tohu), but formed it to be inhabited.” Some more metaphorical uses of the term to mean “empty” and, by extension, “worthless,” seem to derive from this concept of being uninhabited. Even the sense of “unproductive” relates to the concept of an area being arid and barren, not able to produce food, and so unfit for human habitation.
So I would argue that the problem that is solved in the creation account is not providing a house for God, but providing hospitable spaces for the teeming variety of creatures who will embody, express, and enjoy God’s goodness and creativity, existing both to reflect these divine attributes and for their own sake, to experience their “day in the sun,” as we say in our book.
Indeed, it appears to me that Genesis pointedly does not speak of a temple, specifically in order to counter any notion that God might be confined within creation (i.e. that God is immanent but not also transcendent). In that way it’s expressing the same perspective that Solomon does in his dedicatory prayer for the Jerusalem temple: “Will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” Walton, however, says that this is one of the “passages in the Old Testament that suggest the cosmos be viewed as a temple” (83). I think he has a better case for a statement such as the one in Isaiah, “Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?” However, even the description there of God’s greatness in cosmic terms seems designed to make the same point, that God cannot be contained in any temple.
Other Scriptures support the idea that God made the cosmos as a dwelling place not for himself, but for creatures and especially humans. Psalm 115 says, “The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to mankind.” (The “highest heavens” or “heaven of heavens” are beyond the sky or firmament, and so they are not part of the creation described in the Genesis account.) Psalm 11 expresses the similar thought that God dwells in the heavens while people dwell on earth, and it adds the idea that God’s temple is to be found there above: “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne. He observes everyone on earth.” Throughout the Bible this same understanding is expressed of God’s temple being in heaven, i.e. beyond the sky. The book of Hebrews, for example, stresses that any earthly sanctuary is only a “copy and shadow” of the “true one” in heaven. It’s only at the end of the Bible that the heavenly Jerusalem descends to earth and we hear the proclamation, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people.” This holy city has no physical temple “because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.”
Genesis, however, does speak of God establishing and consecrating the Sabbath, and I agree with Walton that the Sabbath reflects God’s reign, and perhaps even enthronement, as “the entire created structure pauses to acknowledge its Creator” (as we put it in our book, when I describe the views of my seminary professor Meredith Kline). However, this only leads me to conclude that the Genesis account should be seen not as a temple inauguration text but as a Sabbath inauguration text, particularly in light of the way appeals are made later in the Hebrew Bible to the account to support Sabbath observance. The Genesis account is not about a place for God to rest, but a time for God to rest. That’s why it’s structured by “days.”
I personally find the idea very appealing that the cosmos would serve as a “resting place” (or a “stopping-over place,” as some of the ancient Near Eastern texts say) for God. This affirms the dignity and worth of creation, and encourages us to be good stewards. It also stresses that God is not only transcendent but also immanent. So the metaphor of the cosmos as a temple for God is powerful and challenging. I’m just not convinced that this metaphor is being developed in the Genesis creation account. I agree it’s what Genesis would be saying if it were saying the same thing as other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts, but that’s precisely the question we must investigate—whether Genesis is indeed saying the same thing.
Another concern I have about Walton’s interpretation is that in the Genesis text, the elements of creation don’t actually fulfill primarily anthropocentric functions. He says of the sun, moon, and stars, for example, “The fourfold description of functions (signs, seasons, days, years) are pertinent only to humans” (63). (He rightly observes that “seasons” here doesn’t refer to agricultural seasons but to “appointed times.”) Nevertheless, as he acknowledges, these lights in the sky also have other functions, including giving light on the earth, which would benefit all creatures, and separating the light from the darkness, that is, distinguishing the realms of day and night. The Hebrew Bible seems to consider these realms-of-time to be just as distinct habitations as realms-of-space. Psalm 104 says, for example, “You make darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep about. . . . When the sun rises, they steal away and lie down in their dens. Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.” So certain animals “inhabit” the night, while humans “inhabit” the day.
Beyond this, some of the created elements don’t actually fulfill the functions that Walton describes for them. For example, he says of the raqi‘a or “firmament” of the second day, “If the Hebrew term is to be taken in its normal contextual sense, it indicates that God made a solid dome to hold up waters above the earth” (56). He argues, however, that “instead of objectifying this water barrier, we should focus on the twofold cosmic function it played. Its first role was to create the space in which people could live.” (No argument there, although the dome actually creates a habitable space for all the other sea, sky, and land creatures as well.) “The second and more significant function was to serve as a mechanism by which precipitation was controlled.” Here two concerns arise. First, Genesis does not say anything about such a purpose or function for the firmament. More importantly, Genesis does say that it did not rain at this point in the history of the world; instead, “streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground.” It was these streams, not “precipitation” controlled by the firmament, that made human life possible (specifically, watering the garden that God planted).
So those are some of the concerns that Walton’s overall interpretation raises for me. But we will now turn, in our next post, to the question of meaning of the Hebrew verb bara‘.