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Genesis Through Ancient Eyes, Part 1

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October 15, 2012 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.

Note: A special thank you to Dr. Walton, his son Jonathan Walton for the illustrations, and Scott Karow of ReI-media for the PowerPoint design.

In the first segment of his talk, “Genesis Through Ancient Eyes”, Dr. John Walton discusses the authority of Scripture and how we should both honor and understand the text. According to Walton, we must remember that Scripture is “for us”, but that it was not written “to us”. He briefly highlights the ancient cosmology of both Egypt and Isreal and implores us to see the text of the Bible the way the Ancient Israelites would have seen it.

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.

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Jon Garvey - #73688

October 15th 2012

A brilliant introduction. Walton is such a key thinker in this area.

The central point to me is that, unlike some other recent authors, he’s clear that Genesis is not about ancient science any more than it’s portraying modern science, but ancient theology, and that theology is still relevant because it’s been revealed for us as well.

It’s so hard for moderns like us, especially if we’re scientifically trained, to see that a material, “scientific” mindset isn’t the only possible one - and that it might not even be the best one.

I hope (and expect) that John will go on to explain why Genesis says the cosmos is shaped, theologically, that way.

Tim - #73695

October 15th 2012

I agree with John Walton that Cosmology was understood in much more functional and theological terms than our modern materially-oriented scientific understanding of the cosmos and nature.

However, I think it is just as mistaken to claim that the ancient near eastern view of the cosmos was entirely lacking any attempted material understanding.

Certainly the Firmament was understood in both material and functional dimensions.  On one hand, it served the Function to regulate the Earth’s weather and separate the primordial waters and keep chaos at bay.  On the other hand, it was understood as a firm material structure with actual windows in it from which rain would come. 

Or take the underworld.  Certainly it functioned in a theological sense, as a place for souls having passed this mortal life to rest.  However, it was understood to exist as a real place with a material space deep underground in the earth. 

Heaven was likewise understood to exist in a material and dimensional space above the Earth, residing above the waters and the firmament.  Of course, it’s theological conceptualization was the focus, what was most critical and important for the ancient near-eastern people.  Nevertheless, they did have solid notions of where it resided in material space.

So while I agree with John Walton’s emphasis on the importance function and theology held in ancient near eastern cosmology, to claim that it was entirely devoid of material understanding or claims is to go too far.  And I feel that the only reason he has in taking it to this extent of complete dismissal of the material realm is to preserve a certain hermeneutic he treasures and considers non-negotiable, which ultimately is an inerrantist view of Scripture.

Scott Jorgenson - #73701

October 15th 2012

You’ve articulated well exactly what I was thinking while reading much of “The Lost World of Genesis One”.  Thanks.

David - #73709

October 16th 2012

Hi Tim,

I pulled out my copy of Lost World and tried to find where Walton says that the ANE ‘view of the cosmos was entirely lacking any attempted material understanding’ or ANE cosmology being ‘entirely devoid of material understanding’ or anything close to that. I did not find it. Could you give me some page numbers?

What he says is that they were concerned with function (and theology), not material status. Isn’t that different than being ‘entirely devoid of material understanding’? Being aware that there was a firmament or underworld does not mean that they considered it of primary importance. I guess I am just not seeing this effort to ‘preserve a certain hermeneutic.’ Could you provide an argument where the ANE understanding MUST include a material aspect in order to have a ‘proper’ hermeneutic? Thanks.


Jon Garvey - #73710

October 16th 2012


It’s probably not too relevant anyway, as Walton specifically refers to the ancient cosmology assumed in Genesis in the second excerpt posted today. So it seems his stress on the functional aspects comes from comparisons with the ANE milieu rather than any hermeneutic issues whatsoever, or he’d hardly draw attention to it.

Although he doesn’t refer to it, I’ve always been struck by the parallels with mediaeval cosmology, which again was very concerned with the spiritual heirarchy of the cosmos and not overmuch with the physical structure. It’s a good bridge to the ANE mindset.

The key is not that physical things are excluded, but that they’re viewed functionally. Animals are more interesting as livestock than as zoology, and plants as food rather than botany.

Mike Beidler - #73712

October 16th 2012


If you read Walton’s Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, he states in several places that the extremely heavy emphasis on function and purpose is not to the exclusion of the material.

p. 89 - “These ancient perceptions were not derived from scientific study (modern scientific techniques, of course, were not available to the ancients) but expressed their perception of the physical world.  However, in addition to the physical description sketched above, it is important to realize that the cosmic geography of ancient peoples was predominantly metaphysical and only secondarily physical and material: the roles and manifestations of the gods in the cosmis geography were primary.”

p. 106 - “... temples were designed to be models of the cosmos.”  This statement also lends credence to a physical/material aspect to the cosmos, for how can a physical object be modeled after something metaphysical?

p. 138 - “... again we find that the focus is on the functional aspect of reality, not the material.  While the emphasis does not exclude concerns with the material, it reveals that the primary concern in the mind of the ancients was functional.”

p. 161 - “Thus, Genesis 1 used cosmic geography to represent divine jurisdiction over the observable functions of the known material world ... controlled in their understanding by the [material] structure of the heavens.”

Jw Farquhar - #74139

November 4th 2012

I agree with Tim and John Walton that Genesis 1 is more of a spiritual function, rather than a material description of the Creation, and I too share Walton’s view of scripture as inerrant. However, there is no guarantee that the Israelites viewed the cosmos as the Egyptians did. Walton’s reliance on an assumption of an ANE viewpoint for interpretation departs from the Doctrine of Inspiration, and the time tested principle of using scripture to interpret scripture.

In the light of these two principles of interpretation, I suggest that humans will never, ever, understand the Creation without knowledge of three foundational authorities;

1. The Holy Trifecta—EVEning, Morning, and DAY

2. The Creation’s seven tenets of divine ordered reason

3. The meaning of God-breathed numbers in the Bible that emanate from the Creation

The House of Understanding for these authorities, as the prophet Daniel understood (Daniel’s Secret), has combination locks on the front and rear doors. The front is Rev 8:18, and the rear is Dan 8:14.

Jw Farquhar - #74140

November 4th 2012

Whoops! Combo locks are Rev 13:18 (666) and Dan 8:14 (2300) that is actually 77.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73705

October 16th 2012

This is an interesting and informative presentation.

However Prof. Walton soes begin with a basic mistake in that he called the Bible the Word and the source of authority.  We all know or should know that Jesus Christ is the Word and and Source of Authority.

This being the case our primary source of information about what happened “in the beginning” should come from the NT Christian Scripture, John 1, not Gen 1.  An important source of confusion is that we spend much time trying to figure out Genesis while little time trying to figure out John 1, when the reverse should be the case.  

Jesus Christ is the Word through Whom God the Father formed everything.  Jesus Christ is the Word or the Authority (Basis) for our understanding of God and God’s Creation.


Mike Beidler - #73713

October 16th 2012

Well said, Roger!  Agreed on all points.

Mazzeratti - #73707

October 16th 2012

The “Lost World of Genesis” should be required reading for any first year seminary student. Dr. Walton’s simple yet informative approach to Genesis is so refreshing. I wish I could get my hands on the Powerpoint slides for my apologetics class! I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. Well done Biologos!

Mike Beidler - #73714

October 16th 2012

I wouldn’t prescribe Lost World.  I’d prescribe the more scholarly Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, which blows away the more accessible Lost World.

Tim - #73717

October 16th 2012


I’ve read through Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One, and what I saw there, as well as in this video, was a robust down-playing of the material role. 

Whenever the material aspect is acknowledged, Walton attempts to insulate Scripture from any implication of making any “erroneous” claim as to material fact.  This is an a-priori theological commitment.  It is, for him, non-negotiable.

He argued as much in fact with respect to the firmament in the Lost World of Genesis One, interpreting the Hebrew word asa to mean something other than its typical usage of “make.”  His rationale would be that God would never lay claim in Scripture to make something that isn’t there. So instead he simply interpreted asa to mean something more “functional” instead, with little linguistic justification for departing from the typical usage.

Perhaps in Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology he makes more nuanced claims or admits more to a material role in ancient understandings of cosmology and nature.  However, you would never guess it from this video, and it is that which I was addressing.

Tim - #73720

October 16th 2012

David (#73709),

I think my above response to Mike should address your question as well. 

However, to more clearly address your question as Walton’s efforts to this effort to ‘preserve a certain hermeneutic’...

In Walton’s discussion of the firmament and the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘asa’, he explicitly stated that any interpretation of scripture that ends in a material claim of God creating a firmament (which Walton did consider solid in accord with ANE cosmology) would be erroneous and therefore completely off the table.  He specifically identified this as the reason why he went with the alternative interpretation of ‘asa’ to mean something more functional - which would only implicitly acknowledge the ancient Israelite’s cosmological understanding and say “I gave that function” rather than endorsing that understanding in any way.  Again, functional claims ONLY, not material ones.  And that is the point Walton always seems to want to drive home.

However, I would be interested in seeing the remainder of the videos and perusing Mike’s suggested reading of his new book, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology.  Perhaps his perspective has evolved…

Mike Beidler - #73721

October 16th 2012

You’re correct, Tim.  Walton’s views have evolved, and I’ve had (and would still have) the exact same criticisms regading the use of the Hebrew asa.  I, too, was disappointed in the Lost World in this regard.  However, Walton sold me with his more scholarly monograph and has made some concessions regarding the material aspect of Genesis 1 (as I quoted above), the Hebrew words for “create” and “made,” as well as admitting that raqia may *not* be solid after all (rather, it is the open expanse or space between earth and the solid firmament), with the solid firmament of ANE cosmology being the sehaqim.

I’d love to hear what you think if/when you get your hands on Genesis 1.  Word of warning:  Don’t read it in fits and starts.  It’s easy to forget upon what foundation he’s building if you don’t stick with it.  Just plow through it and underline.  (I’m normally not an underliner, but it really helped this time around.)

My only criticism that remains is his effort to “preserve a certain hermeneutic,” although I will admit that as he continues to study, the level of effort seems to be decreasing, with more being spoken of “authority” rather than “inerrancy.”

donaldmorey - #73739

October 17th 2012

Dear Andrew

You are one of my favorites on Church Channel.  You are one of those who persuade me that study of the Bible is essential to my life in God’s love thru Jesus Christ.  When you teach that God is not responsible for anything bad, I hear it as a nail hit on the head.  Or after all the unpleasantness (directed by God?) to the wayward chosen and their heathen contemporaries, do we qualify this to “anything bad in the post-resurrection world?“

If God created everything 6000 years ago, then why did he create so much “apparent” evidence to the contrary?  To divide and confuse people, as it does?   To promote atheism among the intellectually curious?  Did God bless us with curiosity or did  Satan curse us with it?  Does God want us to love the Word with open-minded curiosity, or with a flat-earth, robotic lack of it?   Most of us cherry pick “facts” to support unmoving opinions and, please forgive, your recent creation lectures are exhibit A.

 The following were included in comments added to my web page in response to a March 2012 pep rally of atheists who enjoy thinking they follow science on a one-way street to godlessness.


In a natural state, the universe would be nothing.  Nothing comes from nothing.*


What we usually call natural in the broadest sense—all that we experience with our senses and devices—I consider unnatural, or supernatural, because they are something from nothing, violating what would be the natural state.


The supernatural is sufficiently powerful to claim victories over the natural, such as creation of the universe and the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the powerful pull of the natural is not yet vanquished nor denied its own negative victories.


The pull of the natural—its rebellion against the unnatural (supernatural)—perhaps finds expression in sin and disasters, manmade and otherwise, events and conditions we may blame on Satan.


The supernatural vs. natural conflict may be the source of, or synonymous with, other bi-polarities: God vs. Satan, creation vs. nothingness, light vs. dark, good vs. evil.  Life vs death?


* For the cosmological science involved here, refer to pp 66-67 of The Language of God, by Francis S. Collins, Head of Human Genome Project, now Director, NIH, quoting astrophysicist Robert Jastrow, or to my web page quoting both: https://sites.google.com/site/nflresultsranked/discussion-1/untitledpost


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