t f p g+ YouTube icon

Defending the Authority of Scripture

Bookmark and Share

November 10, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins

Today's video features John Walton. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this video “Conversation” John Walton, professor of Old Testament History at Wheaton College, discusses the content of Genesis 1 and how it should be read. The account in Genesis is not intended to be an account of material origins, says Walton. Therefore, if that is so, the Bible has no narrative of material origins—and if that is so, we don’t need to defend the Bible’s narrative of material origins against science’s narrative of material origins. This point makes a difference in terms of what we as Christians need to defend.

What the Bible does offer us is a theology of material origins. It tells us that whatever there is, God made it. But that is a different thing from saying Genesis offers us a scientific narrative.

So what part of the story do we have in Genesis? An account of functional origins, says Walton. Genesis tells us how the world works—specifically, how it works for us. It tells us that God made it for us and he makes it functional. The Israelites also would have understood the text this way.

God is responsible for the manufacture of matter, but that is not the story of Genesis 1.

  • Get Embed Code

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

John Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois and an editor and writer of Old Testament comparative studies and commentaries. Throughout his research, Walton has focused his attention on comparing the culture and literature of the Bible and the ancient Near East. He has published dozens of books, articles and translations, both as writer and editor, including his latest book The Lost World of Genesis One.

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 2   1 2 »
Tim - #39294

November 10th 2010

This will be a multi-part response to John’s argument as more fully articulated in his book, the Lost World of Genesis One:

I guess to start with, I’d like to highlight where I’m in complete agreement with John Walton and feel his arguments are well supported (and much of this is supplemented from my own reading on Mesopotamian history, culture, and mythology):

1)    ANE culture and mythology did not separate the supernatural from the natural world – they were one and the same, intertwined.  Deities were not seen as “intervening” in the natural world, as this would make them separate from it.  Rather deity was seen behind every aspect and event in the world.

2)    ANE culture and mythology understood every aspect of creation in functional terms (with the function being set by the Gods).

3)    ANE mythology presented creation as not occurring ex nihilo, but rather primarily through processes of separation, differentiation, transformation, shaping, and naming.  I would add to these begetting as well, but I don’t recall if John Walton mentioned this.

4)    ANE culture and mythology understood the temple to function as part and parcel with the cosmos, the two were intertwined.


Tim - #39295

November 10th 2010

Response Part II:

Now here is where I part ways with John Walton:

1)    On pg. 35, he claims that “nothing material is actually made” in ANE creation accounts and that they “offer accounts of functional origins rather than accounts of material origins.”  He then goes on to claim that to “create something in the ancient world means to give it function, not material properties.”

2)    On pg. 36 he claims that ancient near eastern peoples “show little interest in material origins.”

3)    On pg. 47, he claims in relation to Genesis 1, that “if the text offered an account of material origins, we would expect it to begin with no material.  If the text offered an account of functional origins, we would expect it to begin with no functions.”  He then goes on to note on pg. 49 that, “what is clear in verse 2: here at the beginning of the creation process, there is already ‘material’ in existence – the waters of the deep.”


Tim - #39296

November 10th 2010

Response Part III:

Now, points 1 and 2 deeply surprised me, as this runs counter to everything I’ve read in the way of Mesopotamian creation myths.  I will discuss this below further.  Point 3 seemed to be drawing a false dichotomy between material creation ex nihilo and functional creation.  ANE culture and mythology never demonstrated any idea of creating something material out of nothing, but they did demonstrate an understanding of creating out of pre-existing material (whether that is the primordial sea, a god’s blood, spit, carcass, etc.).  But why should this not be considered ‘material’ creation just because it doesn’t arrive out of nothingness, just pre-existing material?  Again, it appears to be a false dichotomy being drawn here.

Tim - #39298

November 10th 2010

Response Part IV:

To back up my claims concerning there actually being a ‘material’ creation, in addition to ‘functional’ creation in ANE mythology, take the Babylonian myth, Enuma Elish.  The story begins with the only thing in existence being the primordial god Apsu (the fresh water ocean) and his wife the primordial goddess Tiamat (the salt water ocean), with the latter’s body being split in two later in the story to form the sky and the earth.  Out of these two primordial deities, everything was seen as springing forth.

Here you can see the beginning, pre-creation, state depicted in Enuma Elish as materially undifferentiated (all primordial sea, with fresh water mixing with salt water) as well as functionally purposeless/chaotic:

Tim - #39301

November 10th 2010

Response Part V:

Enuma Elish (from the beginning of Tablet 1):

“When there was no heaven,

no earth, no height, no depth, no name,

when Apsu was alone,

the sweet water, the first begetter; and Tiamat

the bitter water, and that

return to the womb, her Mummu,

when there were no gods-

When sweet and bitter

mingled together, no reed was plaited, no rushes

muddied the water,

the gods were nameless, natureless, futureless”

…and then with the first act of creation you start to sea material (in the form of silt) as well as functional differentiation taking place, by begetting….

“then from Apsu and Tiamat

in the waters gods were created, in the waters

silt precipitated”

…and later in the myth, Marduk slays Tiamat and with her body creates…

“The lord rested; he gazed at the huge body, pondering how to use it, what to create from the dead carcass. He split it apart like a cockle-shell; with the upper half he constructed the arc of sky, he pulled down the bar and set a watch on the waters, so they should never escape.


Tim - #39302

November 10th 2010

Response Part VI:

He crossed the sky to survey the infinite distance; he station himself above apsu, that apsu built by Nudimmud over the old abyss which now he surveyed, measuring out and marking in.

He stretched the immensity of the firmament, he made Esharra, the Great Palace, to be its earthly image, and Anu and Enlil and Ea had each their right stations.”

….and further on….

“Then Marduk considered Tiamat. He skimmed spume from the bitter sea, heaped up the clouds, spindrift of wet and wind and cooling rain, the spittle of Tiamat.

With his own hands from the steaming mist he spread the clouds. He pressed hard down the head of water, heaping mountains over it, opening springs to flow: Euphrates and Tigris rose from her eyes, but he closed the nostrils and held back their springhead.”

So at the “before” picture, you have only the primordial sea, and through the process of material transformation, separation, and begetting, you have a materially differentiated physical world.  Is every aspect of this creation functional?  Sure.  But it is also material.


Tim - #39303

November 10th 2010

Response Part VII:

In short, all the reading I had done on Mesopotamian mythology suggests that the they very much understood their creation accounts as simultaneously and inextricably creating both form and function – where function wasn’t really understood apart from form, and form wasn’t really understood apart from function.  So, the pre-creation cosmos was understood as both lacking form and function, and the post-creation cosmos was seen as being imbued with both form and function.  Why John Walton only focused on the function side of the coin is beyond me.

Circling back to Genesis 1 now, I think one area where John Walton’s argument really takes a hit with respect to denying material creation occurs in his analysis of the creation account of the firmament in Genesis 1:7.


“And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which [were] under the firmament from the waters which [were] above the firmament: and it was so.”

Tim - #39304

November 10th 2010

Response Part VIII:

Now, the word for “made” is asa’.  John Walton notes that asa’ often does mean made, but is not solely limited to this meaning.  However, “made” is its typical meaning.  For instance, just a couple chapters later in Genesis 3:21, this word asa’ was used to describe God’s creative act of making a “coat of skins” for Adam and Eve:

“Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.”

So I have a real question as to why, in a culture where it was simply assumed that there was a solid, material firmament, that the waters from the deep ran over it and under it, and that the gods (or in Israel’s case, God) put it there would John Walton make the assertion that this is not how Genesis 1:7 should be read?  Well, here’s his answer from pg. 94:

“Day two has a potentially material component (the firmament), but no one believes there is actually something material there – no solid construction holds back the upper waters.  If the account is material as well as functional we then find ourselves with the problem of trying to explain the material creation of something that does not exist.”


Tim - #39305

November 10th 2010

Response Part IX:

So what I read from this statement by John Walton is that he has decided ahead of time that the text would never explicitly claim the material creation of something that doesn’t exist, as he maintains a strong inerrantist perspective, so he cycled through the possible meanings of asa’ until he arrived at one that would suit his purpose, and wallah, he ties a nice bow around a Genesis 1 account completely stripped of any material creation claims leaving only the functional.  Unfortunately, as I laid out above, every one of his points concerning functional creation are well founded, but the discarding of the material side of the coin appears to have very weak support.


benoit Hébert - #39309

November 10th 2010

I totally agree with you Tim. That’s the reason why I favor Denis Lamoureux’ ( and others’)interpretation. In my view, the real reason why J Walton refuses to accept that Genesis indeed depicts De Novo creation of plants, animals and Adam is because it contradicts his view of inerrancy.

Jon Garvey - #39312

November 10th 2010

On the other hand…

John Walton has been studying and writing on the ANE texts for well over twenty years, which gives him a head start on most of us.

Tim - #39313

November 10th 2010


But you could say that about pretty much any accomplished scholar couldn’t you?  Even those that disagree with John Walton.  We all are responsible for making our own judgments on how we critically receive information.  I laid out my reasoning above, and I think Dr. Walton’s own statements, such as

“Day two has a potentially material component (the firmament), but no one believes there is actually something material there – no solid construction holds back the upper waters.  If the account is material as well as functional we then find ourselves with the problem of trying to explain the material creation of something that does not exist.”

rather transparently reveal his a priori commitment to an inerrantist Biblical hermeneutic in determining which outcomes his is willing to accept vs. not.

Steve - #39316

November 10th 2010

Caution: It’s not a big jump from Dr. Walton’s position of the functional / theological view of Creation to the classic liberal position of the Jesus of history vs. the Christ of faith. It is not an exegetical issue but one of presuppositions and cultural influence.

Rich - #39319

November 10th 2010


I agree with your critique of Walton’s argument.  I have no idea where Walton gets his idea of Ancient Near Eastern thought, but it doesn’t appear to be from the primary sources.  There are many accounts of the material origins of the world in ANE literature.

It’s true that “creation out of nothing” was rarely imagined in the ancient world, but that hardly proves that ancient people were not concerned with “material origins.”  Ancient creation accounts were largely accounts of the rearrangement of matter rather than of matter’s origin, but were still material explanations.  Indeed, many scholars have posited that in its original meaning, Genesis 1 was an account of shaping the world from pre-existent matter.

Walton says: “but no one believes there is actually something material there – no solid construction holds back the upper waters.”  No one *today* believes that; but it doesn’t follow that no one in the ancient world believed it, or that the author of Genesis 1 didn’t believe it.

I dislike interpretations of Genesis that try to “rescue” the plain sense of the text from error, whether they come from the YEC side or from the TE side, as here.  Why can’t people just be honest about what a text says?

normbv - #39323

November 10th 2010

What I find lacking in Waltons’ embracing of a functional explanation of Gen 1 is his lack of follow NT through.  He flatly states it is an ANE Temple creation account of which I agree and understand most scholars agree with.  The problem is that Walton goes back to the extra biblical ANE world and attempts to view it through a hybrid model instead of a robust Hebrew version that is expounded through scriptures and extra biblical writings of the pertinent times: namely the first century AD. 

The creation of the Heavens and Earth in Gen 1 is Temple creation language.  An exploration of the Hebrew usage ties both the H & E and Temple together intimately. We can grasp how the Hebrews viewed and applied this language practically in the New Testament eschatological framework. First however Isaiah 65 & 66 speaks of a New Heavens and Earth which correlates with the time of the coming messiah. Therefore we should be able to deduce whether there was a material or functional Temple recreation process occurring during the first century coming of Christ. It appears to be functional as well.


normbv - #39324

November 10th 2010

Isaish 65-66 look back to the establishment of the first Heaven and Earth which appears to correlate with a dispensational timeframe corresponding with the establishment of Law for those professing God. This begins with the first Adam but the New H & E correlate with Christ the second Adam thus establishing the New H & E. In looking back at the beginning of the Temple process in Gen 1 & 2 we see the consummation of the New H & E in Rev 21:1 which ties the dissolution of the First H & E with the establishment of the New one. In Rev 21 we have the old Sea and sun and moon established in Genesis 1 no longer functionally useful and thus they are not needed and are functionally decreated.
In the OT the Sea corresponds to the Gentiles as separate peoples (Isa 60:5) and the sun and moon were useful for times and seasons and corresponds to physical Temple worship. The New Heavens and Earth and its corresponding Temple require no physical Temple and there was no longer the division of the peoples via the outer wall of separation where the Sea mimics the Gentile world. 


normbv - #39325

November 10th 2010


Rev 21:1 ESV Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and THE SEA WAS NO MORE.
22 And I SAW NO TEMPLE in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
23 And the city HAS NO NEED OF SUN OR MOON to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

It should be self evident that the Hebrew idea of a new Heavens and Earth corresponding with Christ new Kingdom is indeed not material and also not of the typical ANE version either. It is the establishment of the means of God’s created peoples for interacting with him via a different mode than under the old method that was just disposed of namely the Law. It is the final establishment of Gods ultimate purpose His Temple dwelling in men’s hearts.


normbv - #39326

November 10th 2010


This is the implication of Gen 1:26-28 (see Beale and his book on the Temple) in which Gods people serve as His priestly representatives. Gen 2:1 states that the Temple (H & E) is finished and His Host (Army encamped around His Tabernacle and have secured victory over His enemies and enter His Sabbath Rest. That is what was accomplished through Christ and the desolation of the Kingdoms of this world along with the Old Temple and its constituent elements. The nations and physical Israel were judged and found wanting as a remedy for Gods people.

I find useful ideas from both Walton and Lamoureux but I find them lacking creatively with the NT exploration which exemplifies a proprietary Hebrew account and not an ANE view.
An examination of the earliest church fathers will find resonance with what I draw my conclusions from and it mystifies me why we would skip over the most logical viewpoints of the first century and try to place more precedence upon the foreign ANE mindset that has limited functionality with the Hebrew proprietary approach to the Hebrew Temple motif. We indeed need to know the ANE world but we must be careful to keep from over generalizing in lieu of better biblical explanations.

Jon Garvey - #39369

November 11th 2010

@Tim - #39313

I think your thesis on Walton’s motivation is weakened by the fact that in his 1989 “Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context” he actually contrasts the largely functional cosmology of the ANE texts (citing various specialists in the field) with what he takes as the more material cosmology of Genesis, concluding, “It is difficult to discuss comparisons…because the disparity is so marked. Differences include ... emphasis on organisation versus emphasis on creative act.” (p26-27).

Clearly his new book reflects a major shift in his thought placing his view of Genesis far closer to the ANE myths, and the interpretation of their emphasis that he evidently shares with, and derives from, ANE specialists like Thorkild Jacobsen and W G Lambert.

In the rest of that book, incidentally, he is quick to debunk popularly held but erroneous support ANE literature appears to give to the Bible. Not the behaviour of a partisan.

Tim - #39386

November 11th 2010


My point is not at all weakened by shifts in scholarly analysis by Dr. Walton.  Why would we expect any 1st rate scholar to remain static in his view of any text?  As new information comes to light, a good scholar should revise their analysis.  Sometimes this entails a major shift such as you noted.  Please understand I am not in any way accusing Dr. Walton of not engaging the evidence.  That would be a slanderous accusation indeed given his track record of incorporating ANE scholarship into his understanding of the Biblical text.  Other fundamentalist scholars would be well served to follow his lead.  However, what I am saying is that he maintains an inerrantist hermeneutic that serves to a priori limit what sort of conclusions he’s willing to accept.  One conclusion he is unable to accept, based on this hermeneutic, is that the Bible ever explicitly says something that isn’t true once the proper genre has been identified.  Dr. Walton has identified Genesis 1 as a temple creation text (and I agree), describing God’s functional creation of the cosmos and his taking up residence therein.  But he is unwilling to accept an explicit mention of an act of material creation of something that cannot exist.

Page 1 of 2   1 2 »