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Genesis Through Ancient Eyes, Part 2

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October 16, 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.

Dr. Walton begins the second part of his talk by noting that there is no scientific revelation in the Bible. The lack of science in the Bible does not compromise its message, however, because the ancient Israelites were focused on function, not material origins. Genesis is concerned with God bringing order from non-order, not with describing how matter emerged. He ends with the illustration of a house vs. a home, contending that Genesis is written to explain the origins of our home (our personal, spiritual place), not our house (the physical place where we reside).

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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Merv - #73711

October 16th 2012

This was very enlightening to me—or maybe I should say my ‘entrails’ are smarter now!

At first I was somewhat put-off by the description stating flatly that there is no scientific revelation in the Bible which I interpreted as a claim that the Bible contains nothing that could  be considered a scientific claim.  But what Walton actually says in the video is that nothing about our material universe is revealed in the Bible that the ancient peoples *did not already know!*  And that is quite a different claim.  I.e.  the Bible assumes all the same cosmology, etc. that the ancients already had in place.  But to claim that *nothing* new is revealed (of a material sort) is a strong claim indeed!  It will be interesting to see if any commenters can challenge this with any counterexamples from Scripture (the claim of the 10,000 year old universe made to look billions of years old notwithstanding—which would be a surprising material claim were it true).  

I had never known that what we call the mind was so literally situated by ancients in other parts of the body.  But it makes a lot of sense.  Thanks for this posting—hope there are more to come.


Mike Beidler - #73715

October 16th 2012

Merv, did you know that the kidneys were also considered a seat of emotion?  Can you imagine calling your lover “my sweetkidney”? 

Merv - #73716

October 16th 2012

Would analytical people be left-kidneyed and the artistic ones right-kidneyed?

Mike Beidler - #73722

October 16th 2012

Well played!

GJDS - #73732

October 17th 2012

At the risk of overpalying this - we now know it is the heart (and not kidneys) that is the seat of our emotions (with all of that blood racing .... hmm).

GJDS - #73719

October 16th 2012

Perhaps this is slightly of-topic, but it is interesting to remember that it was often the case that a cosmological setting was used when dealing with celestial matters – the example that many would be familiar with, is the Divine comedy by Dante. He combined: the current view of a flat earth, sections of revelation (the Devil plunging to the earth), hell, purgatory, the including planets, and heaven itself. Milton combined historical accounts of deities in his Paradise lost. There are many other examples, such as Hellenic poems that often used such language, and pre-Socratic writings (what survived), such as the Parmenides fragment(s), where we will see philosophical thoughts interwoven with poetic/religious language (Parmenides was helped by his goddess).

It was common for many thinkers to see ‘everything’, i.e. the creation, the make up of human beings, just to name a few, in this ‘pre-scientific’ way.

PNG - #73727

October 17th 2012

This of off-off topic but Dante knew the world was a sphere. In the last Canto of the Inferno he describes how at Satan’s thigh they passed the center of the earth and turned their bodies upside down to climb Satan’s leg to the cavern that they then ascended to reach the island/mountain of Purgatory on the opposite side of the earth from the cave entrance to Hell.

Jon Garvey - #73729

October 17th 2012


Yes, every educated person knew the world was round from before Roman times (mediaeval flat earth is a modern self-serving myth). The size of the universe (ie distance to sun) was even pretty accurately known quite early. Stellar distances were underestimated because lack of parallax suggested a uniform sphere of stars: the lack of parsimony of the alternative, a near-infinite universe, was a major reason for retaining geocentrism. The late mediaevals were no fools.

But even that came from an emerging materialism replacing the more spiritual conception of earlier mediaevalism, which was somewhat parallel to the old ANE way of seeing things.

Jon Garvey - #73728

October 17th 2012


I think “non materialistic” may be a better mindset than “prescientific”, in that I suspect the ancients, enlightened by a time-travelling scientist about the science, would say, “So what?”

This post sets me to thinking how we who discuss origins should take positive, not negative, lessons from Genesis 1. Its theological lessons are perfectly comprehensible and relevant to our times. Walton shows that “erroneous because ancient cosmology” is itself a materialistically blinkered viewpoint, but that’s often combined with the idea that “the main lesson is that God, not the gods, made everything.”

But in a way that’s wrong too - the lesson is that God, not the gods, made everything function. And that function is orientated (a) to God’s ongoing reign in his sabbath rest and (b) towards the introduction of man as his appointed priest/viceregent over earth. God creates in a purposeful, ordered way to specific human ends: the heavens for the agricultural and ritual seasons, livestock for human need and so on. Creation, in other words, is fundamentally and anthropocentrically teleological.

That would seem to raise big doubts about views of theistic evolution that minimise teleology and see creation as a kind of divine experiment, with God delighted and surprised how things turn out, especially when an intelligent species turns up that he can “adopt”.

Unless, of course, we conclude that Genesis is theologically in error as well as scientifically, and that only the Divine Action Project and its devotees know the real score.

GJDS - #73730

October 17th 2012


I need to look through this more carefully, but your description is correct. I ‘assumed a flat’ suggestion more because (I hope I have this right) Satan fell to the earth, and he cuased hell to be ‘carved’ out of the earth, with that portion of the earth that was displace forming a mountain that served as purgatory. The waters however, were able to flee the fall (or words like that). However (if my memory is correct), the entire setting is ‘cosmological’. emphasizing the main point of using of language that may appear as ‘pre-scientific’. I am not suggesting they were less clever than us - I think the reverse with people like Dante - the point I am making is on how language may be used to discuss profound matters. (I should also re-read the Comedy as it has been so long since I did that).

Jon Garvey - #73733

October 17th 2012

To my shame I’ve not read Dante, and I suspect some of his details (like Satan’s fall causing a mountain) are his own poetic licence, a bit like Milton’s in a later age. But as you say, there is in mediaeval times at least a strong overlap between the phuysical and spiritual descriptions.

I’m sure you’ve read (someone mentioned it here not too long ago) that the “geocentric” view is actually a view of earth being at the bottom of the celestial heirachy (barring hell) rather than the centre.

It’s we moderns who have ideas above our station!

PNG - #73745

October 18th 2012

You have a treat in store if you haven’t read the Divine Comedy. I enjoyed the other great long poems, Iliad, Odyssey, Aeniad, and Paradise Lost, but for my money Dante (even in translation) is the best. I read the Mandelbaum translation, on the recommendation of a prof who teaches it both in translation and in Italian. I had forgotten until I looked again at Canto 34 of the Inferno that Dante seems to have imagined that Satan’s impact on the earth on his fall from Heaven actually changed the shape of the earth, perhaps from flat to spherical, although it’s hard to tell. Of course what Dante describes in the poem is the fruit of his poetic imagination, but it’s probably not too far from what Medieval intellectuals actually thought. That other genius who imagined a whole world, Tolkien, also imagined that the his world started with one shape and was catastrophically changed to a sphere later.

And he to me: "You still believe you are north of the center, where I grasped the hair of the damned worm who pierces through the world.
  And you were there as long as I descended; but when I turned, that's when you passed the point to which, from every part, all weights are drawn.
  And now you stand beneath the hemisphere opposing that which cloaks the great dry lands and underneath whose zenith died the Man
  whose birth and life were sinless in this world. Your feet are placed upon a little sphere that forms the other face of the Judecca.
  Here it is morning when it's evening there; and he whose hair has served us as a ladder is still fixed, even as he was before.
  This was the side on which he fell from Heaven; for fear of him, the land that once loomed here made of the sea a veil and rose into
  our hemisphere; and that land which appears upon this side-perhaps to flee from him- left here this hollow space and hurried upward
Jon Garvey - #73768

October 18th 2012

Well, Divine Comedy and Inferno together are goingt to be cheaper than anything else on my current reading list, at least.

Tolkien, at least, couldn’t have failed to be influenced by Dante.

GJDS - #73731

October 17th 2012

Hi Jon,

You raise some interesting points. I guess I am used to thinking of the enlightenment as somehow causing a divide – pre-scientific and as opposed to the (now) scientific era. At times I am given to a (momentary) belief that we human beings retain our self-defined truths as myths, and these sometimes have a greater impact on us then we may think, and thus I value doubt. I use this outlook to justify a purposeful scepticism regarding scientific ‘truths’.

I see Genesis as teaching us a number of important matters, including the following:

(1)   In the beginning God created the heavens and earth. This is such a majestic line that I always see it as a lesson in itself.

(2)   Poetically, the earth without God’s care and attention is inevitable chaotic, confused and self-destructive. Thus God’s care and attention creates the beautiful and functional world we inhabit.

(3)   The parts of the planet are placed in it for a great purpose; using our scientific language, it is an integrated ecological system of great complexity, functionality and beauty.

(4)   All of these aspects of the creation teach us that work/activity is (and should be) worthwhile and meaningful for human beings and the planet.

(5)   The ultimate purpose is for humanity to enter into God’s Sabbath rest.

I like your emphasis on Temple, priesthood, and a meaningful creation. The heavens indeed declare the Glory of its creator. On teleology, I see this term as synonymous with meaning and purpose of the creation and humanity. I am tempted to repeat what I have said before – I do not agree with people conscripting the Sciences to serve their disagreements on these matters. Understanding the creation through science is a good thing, but this is a decision a scientist would make, just as anyone may view their daily activity within a theological context, if they so choose.

Biblical scholars and theologians obviously would have additional statements, and I welcome the results of there ‘purposeful’ work.

Merv - #73738

October 17th 2012

Your last point (5), GJDS, takes on new meaning for me after hearing Walton’s third (next) video installment.  Sabbath rest has a greater meaning than ‘to rest from labors’, though that is the phrase used at the beginning of Genesis 2.  So I’m not sure it’s entirely proper for Walton to divorce ‘sabbath rest’ from our modern “Sunday afternoon nap” concept of the term.  But the greater ‘temple’ sense of that word makes a lot of sense when Walton explains it in light of other Scriptures as well.


Jon Garvey - #73748

October 18th 2012

Merv, the interesting theology starts when you begin to wonder how God’s sabbath, in Walton’s sense, applied to a nation freed from slavery and made into a kingdom of priests. It’s easy to forget that one is sharing in God’s reign. It even makes sense of the punishments for sabbath breaking under the law, since what could be more of an offence to God than acting (or treating others) as slaves when God has made you a king?

Then comes how it explains Jesus’ attitude to the sabbath, and the servitude it had become, and himself as Lord of the Sabbath (or even the meaning of sabbath itself) and only after all that what it means for our Sunday nap…

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