The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

In this astute mix of cultural critique and biblical studies, John H. Walton presents and defends twenty propositions supporting a literary and theological understanding of Genesis 1 within the context of the ancient Near Eastern world and unpacks its implications for our modern scientific understanding of origins. Ideal for students, professors, pastors and lay readers with an interest in the intelligent design controversy and creation-evolution debates, Walton’s thoughtful analysis unpacks sel

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3 thoughts on “The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

  1. 208 of 219 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Rethinking Genesis 1: A New Proposal, November 26, 2009

    This review is from: The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Paperback)

    I enjoy books that push me out of my comfort zone and cause me to ask questions I had never considered before. John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP, 2009) is one of those kinds of books. Walton offers an interpretation of Genesis 1 that focuses on the worldview of ancient Israelites.

    In a nutshell, here is Walton’s proposal: Genesis 1 was not intended to give us a scientific understanding of the material origins of the universe. Instead, the seven days of creation are a cosmic temple inauguration ceremony that describe the functional beginning of our world.

    If your eyes have already glazed over after reading that summary, then consider his illustration about a college. At what point is a college created? Is it when the buildings go up? Or when the students and faculty arrive on campus and classes begin? Or when the commencement ceremony begins?

    Walton’s proposal is that Genesis 1 does not give us a narrative of when matter began to exist. The narrative concerns functional origins: when the world began to function the way God intended for human creation to flourish.

    Walton writes:

    “I believe that people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system.” (26)

    In case some might wonder if Walton is denying the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), he clarifies:

    “I firmly believe that God is fully responsible for material origins, and that, in fact, material origins do involve at some point a creation out of nothing. But that theological question is not the one we are asking. We are asking a textual question. What sort of origins account do we find in Genesis 1?” (44)

    Walton’s view could be classified as a highly sophisticated version of the older Gap theory (that there is a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2). It differs from the Gap theory in that Walton argues for a functional understanding of “create” all throughout the passage.

    But it resembles the Gap theory by leaving room for a large span of time and material development that does not hinder the seven day creation process that occurs as the cosmic temple inauguration.

    I appreciate Walton’s careful treatment of the text. He refuses to get bogged down in trying to reconcile the ancient text with modern scientific understanding:

    Taking the text seriously is not expressed by correlating it with modern science; it is expressed by understanding it in its ancient context.” (111)

    Walton’s proposal has much to commend it. I have never been fully persuaded by the Day-Age theory (that the days in Genesis 1 refer to long periods of time) or by the Young Earth view (that the seven days took place in sequence ten thousand years ago). Walton’s proposal offers the best of both worlds (inerrancy and science). The Day-Age and Young-Earth theories have never been completely convincing to me because it always seems like people are trying to read more out of the text than is there. (It reminds me of how so many interpreters tackle Revelation.) I am impressed by the way in which Walton seeks to deal seriously with the biblical text, regardless of the implications.

    Yet, I have unresolved questions regarding this view. In the end, I have two main concerns.

    1. This is a novel interpretation. That is, it has not been a primary interpretation throughout church history. I would be interested to know how ancient Jewish scholars commented on this text.

    From my admittedly limited research, I see that many in the ancient world did indeed consider this text to be about material origins. Ancient commentaries do not, of course, change the biblical text. But it does soften the brunt of Walton’s proposal, which argues that virtually all the ancients thought of creation stories in the way he proposes.

    2. The implications of Walton’s proposal may create separate spheres of knowledge. The desire to leave science and theology in separate spheres seems like a good way to keep controversy at bay.

    Of course, science and theology impinge upon one another, as Walton would surely agree. Still, I am not sure that saying the Bible does not speak at all to the “how” of material origins is a resolution of the issue, but merely a way of relegating the origins discussion to the peripheral.

    Asking “Where did we come from” is never a peripheral issue, as Walton would also admit. But I wonder if his proposal might lead some to the quick conclusion, “See? Who cares whether or not we evolved?” (And I do not find evolution to be persuasive as a model, even when it is of the theistic variety.)

    John Walton is a recognized evangelical OT scholar. He is the co-author of one of the most respected evangelical OT Introductions in print. I am…

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  2. 146 of 166 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A Definitive Step in the Right Direction, June 29, 2009
    S.D. Parker (Somewhere in Alabama) –

    Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    This review is from: The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Paperback)

    I have been quite pleased with the relatively recent spate of books that have been released by scientists who are quite and proudly adamant that a serious and intellectually minded Christian can be without cognitive dissonance between his faith and his view of science. Authors such as Kenneth Miller, Denis Lamoureux, Darrel Falk, and Francis Collins have demonstrated that one can be a good Christian while accepting good science.

    Entering onto this stage full of lab coats is now eminent Old Testament scholar John Walton who brings his expertise as a contextually informed exegete to the table. I had something of a hint that we would see a book of this nature after reading his thoughts on the first few chapters of Genesis in his commentary some time back. Happily there is no more need for waiting.

    In this work Walton’s thesis consists of a series of propositions that culminate with the contention that the creation account of Genesis is a description of the universe’s construction as a temple of God. Throughout the course of the book Walton makes a couple of salient points that relate to the “Origins Debate”. First of all, we should keep in mind that there is little if no basis in thinking that God would intend to communicate “scientifically correct” statements via the creation account. For (1) there is no statement in the Bible that conveys a scientific truth that the biblical writers would not have already known. (2) There are statements in the Bible that convey cosmological and physiological notions that simply do not comport with science. “Domed cosmology” and the additional notions it contained is clearly without scientific merit. Another example Walton cites is that some of the words translated as “mind” in English actually mean entrails in the Hebrew. Why? Because people in those days simply thought that emotions and feelings derived from these parts of the body. As Walton points out, God obviously didn’t correct them on the matter, and no one today would try to argue that we should seek to justify or explain that the source of our emotions is the digestive tract (granted I feel quite miserable when I’ve eaten something that does not agree with me)! And yet this is exactly how people approach the creation account.

    Secondly, Walton demonstrates that the ontology of the creation account is not material but functional. He explains the difference between these two senses by comparing a chair and a corporation. He notes that the former is typically considered to be brought into existence (or created) by the nature of its material status. But as the example of the corporation shows, something can also be created in the sense that it is given a certain function. In his words, “In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system rather than giving it material property” (26). Of course the entities created in the creation account are material entities, so it is often presumed that Genesis must be manifesting material ontology. Yet as Walton goes on to explain with the contextual evidence of ancient Near Eastern creation accounts, and through an assessment of Hebrew words like “bara”, such an assumption is, in the end, spurious.

    This book should be required reading for anyone, whatever their predispositions in the origins debate, who wishes to understand the true meaning of Genesis one. If there are any criticisms to be proffered, it is that on rare occasion it does not seems that Walton himself avoids slipping into residual, quasi-concordist tendencies by seeking to apply the story of Genesis one to “what really happened”. In the FAQ, for example, he proffers the possibility that dinosaurs and fossils existed in the prefunctional cosmos stage of Genesis one (169). This is a trivial criticism, however, and on the whole he is otherwise quite clear in saying that to ask “what really happened” in the historical and scientific sense is to ask something of the text it cannot provide.

    To be sure there is a bit of irony in all of this. If Walton’s scholarship is right, and I think it more or less is, we are forced to say that all sides have been wrong in taking the scalpel to the text and seeking to justify their view because of this or that word, or this or that phrase. It can no longer be about the definition of “yom” and how much time you can or cannot fit into it. And it can no longer be about finding a scientific cosmology that allows the day and night to exist before the sun in some convenient fashion. And although many of us who have worked hard to travel such roads will find it hard to turn around and go back, it is time for us to accept that they lead to false destinations. It is time to change our perspectives and see that Genesis speaks to its intended audience on an entirely different wavelength than what we are accustomed or want it to. It is time to…

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  3. 61 of 70 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Great New Approach, July 15, 2009
    Scandalous Sanity (Texas) –

    This review is from: The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Paperback)
    There are countless books arguing about evolution, creationism, and intelligent design. At first glance, The Lost World of Genesis One would seem to be one more addition to what is becoming a frivolous library. But upon more careful inspection, one would find that it is actually an original approach with a much different conclusion.

    John H. Walton approaches the first chapter of Genesis from a literary and historical context, rather than a scientific one. His idea is simple: read Genesis one through the eyes of the audience it was intended for: the ancient Israelites. This involves an intricate understanding of the culture of ancient Israel.

    Walton says that the account described in Genesis one is actually a description of God forming a cosmic temple in which he will dwell, a literary device that was common in ancient Near East creation accounts. Walton’s theory is that the creation account we know so well is not an account of material origins, but rather functional origins. Genesis one is describing God creating order out of chaos. It would have been assumed in the ancient world that God created everything material. It was important that the Israelites know that it was God(Yahweh) that gave order and function to all.

    Walton’s book is a bit tedious to get through, but his ideas and thoughts are brilliant. The thinking he prescribes in his book causes a radical shift in attitude about numerous ideas. If one subscribes to them, there is no longer a need to argue over young earth/old earth or evolution. The Bible and science collude like no other theory. This is definitely a good read.


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