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Genesis Through Ancient Eyes, Part 3

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October 17, 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 third part of his talk, Dr. John Walton looks at the original language of Genesis, especially the word bara', or “created”. He again notes the focus on function over material beginnings, looking at the examples of “time”, “weather”, and “food” (all functional) that are created in Genesis. He ends by describing the importance of the seventh day (rest) in the creation story, which seems useless from a material standpoint but is the key point of creation from a functional standpoint, as it describes God establishing the cosmos as his home.

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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Roger A. Sawtelle - #73737

October 17th 2012


Dr. Walton says that creating, bara, is not creating things or creatures, but creating processes like evolution.  He says that Creation is establishing control over an ordered system. 

Evolution has two aspects Variation and Natural Selection.  Variation is an ordered system, although not a orderly as maybe we would prefer.  It is designed to allow for change and thus there is an element of indeterminacy in it.  Offspring are different from their parents, which is the creative aspect of procreation. 

Natural Selection is the control aspect of evolution.  This how God uses the environment to guide the paths of evolution, not just for humans, but for all creatures.  If you want me to explain just how God manages to do this, neither I nor no one else can explain it, but just that God does.  

God creates creative processes and then controls and manages them.  That is what I hear Dr. Walton saying and I agree 100%.  I would add that this is reinforced and expanded by John 1, which expalins that the Logos, Jesus Christ is the Telos of these processes.

Jon Garvey - #73740

October 17th 2012


Walton tries to keep out of the science arena as much as possible, because he doesn’t pretend to expertise, but he does agree elsewhere that evolution might well contribute to God’s process of bringing increasing order - though he doesn’t think it capable of resolving non-order generally, and is radically against the idea that it might resolve the dis-order of sin. He is also firm that it could not account for man’s spiritual attributes.

He also states that for a Christian, whatever model of evolution is adopted, it must be subordinated to a teleological understanding of creation - in other words, God must plan the creation, not just be happy with what emerges.

And I’d go along with that, though like you I doubt that evolutionary theory as currently formulated has sufficient precision to be adequately teleological. Remember that the immediate “set-up” goal described in Gen 1 is mankind, and not many evolutionists are sanguine that such an outcome is predictable (Simon Conway Morris’s convergence, so far without a proposed mechanism, would probably produce “intelligence”, but not man, for whom the cosmos’ functions were actually prepared).

Indeterminacy is of course, the antithesis of purpose: when it affects my plans my plans become that much less certain of accomplishment. But that’s compatible with the creation account of slowly increasing order if one follows biblical classical theism in saying that chance is subject to God’s providence - which accords with the pattern Walton describes, because the outcome of the creation week is God dwelling in, and in sovereign control, of the cosmos.

That pretty much dispenses, though, with the “nature’s freedom/creativity” approach to the inanimate creation, but then indeterminacy does, too: nature can’t determine what is indeterminate, after all.

The ultimate goal of creation, though not revealed in Genesis, is indeed of course “all things united in Christ under God.” If our evolutionary scheme isn’t going that way there’s something wrong with it. The creed follows Scripture (eg Rev 4) in believing in “God the Father, maker of heaven and earth”, but of course the Holy Spirit was hovering on the face of the waters as his agent. And as you say, John 1 affirms that the Son was with the Father in the creation of everything, and Colossians that all was created through him and for him. I would say that with the whole Trinity so actively engaged in our creation, I doubt God needs co-creators.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73741

October 17th 2012


I don’t think that you are hearing what I am saying.  I am clearly separating the indeterminancy of Variation from the Teleology of Natural Selection through the Logos. 

The issue is not increasing order.  The Biblical tradition changed as Israel changed from a nuclear family to twleve tribes to an empire to two kingdoms to exile to return to the Messiah to the Apostles and Paul.  Jesus the Logos and Telos is always in the center of this changing or evolving understanding of our relationship to God based on faith.

God does not need co-creators.  God does not need anything especially humans and our universe.  But God decided to create our universe and us.  God did not create the universe in one day or seven, but over billions of years as Dr. Walton indicates. 

God chooses to work through natural and moral laws.  God chooses to work with and through people, God church the Body of Christ.  God chooses to work with and through natural divinely designed and empowered processes.     

Please do not tell us what God can and cannot do, what God needs and does not need.  Our knowledge is based on what God has done and what God is doing according to the Bible and our own experience.    

Jon Garvey - #73753

October 18th 2012


I am clearly separating the indeterminancy of Variation from the Teleology of Natural Selection through the Logos.

And I’m simply saying that we have no evidence that variation is indeterminate - merely that (assuming the adequacy of current theory) it is random. Indeterminacy is a metaphysical add-on, which I believe to be refuted by Scripture and Christian tradition both.

Change does not require indeterminacy - there are billions of books, art works, machines and other human invetions in the world, each produced by deliberate choices.

And indeterminacy is not creative, at least unless there is a mind behind it.

Skl - #73743

October 17th 2012

I don’t understand the idea of function apart from material things.

How can do you have function without material? If either of the two comes first, I’d think it would be material. How does man fulfill part of his “job” function - to be fruitful and multiply – if he doesn’t have a material body to begin with?

Consider even the ethereal function of time. Isn’t “a measure of change” a definition of time? What changes if not material things or sense-perceptible things?

Jon Garvey - #73755

October 18th 2012


I don’t understand the idea of function apart from material things.

The concept Walton has in mind certainly takes a while to get your head round in the modern age - easier if you’re mediaeval!  But it’s not “apart from material things” but rather “apart from material explanations”.

Take a different example from Scripture. Solomon is said to have studied animals and plants, but we only have about one example in the book of Proverbs: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard.” All he teaches us about ants is their industry, and in fact what they can teach us to so we can live better. Number of legs, diet, classification, evolutionary history - irrelevant, though they’re still real ants and he’s still studied them. Ants are about what they’re for.

It’s the opposite of scientific reductionism, I guess. The materialist says, “This world is really just a bunch of atoms.” The Bible says, “This collection of things is really a temple in which God can dwell and man can flourish.”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73764

October 18th 2012


Of course thinking can produce change, however God has produced a system where nature can produce rational change without personal choice.  You could say that thinking really has two aspects, like evolution. 

First is to consider all the possibilities and then determine which possible answer is correct.  Part of the problem with this proces is that often we are unaware of possible answers or we have been conditioned to limit our set of posible answers, as when we limit our world view to dualism or monism without seriously considering the triune world view.

God created variation, primarily through sex as nature’s way to shuffle the deck to producwe change and diversity so every person is different and unique.  Because of the way sperm and eggs divide and unite no two persons are identical, even if they have the same parents, except identical twins which are caused by the dividing of a single embryo. 

I think that you are hung up on the unknown aspect of indeterminate.  The balancing side of that is the Selection part of nature.  We discussed in the past that part of the selection process seems to take place in the womb, when some fetuses which are not viable do not survive.  Others might die for other reasons, although by definition those who do not make it to birth are selected out.  As difficult as this may be death is a part of life.

The point is that the process of Natural Selection is a rational teleological process created by God to carry out God’s Will.  The first part of that sentence is scientific, it is a rational scientifically observed process; the second is philosophical, it is teleological; and the last part is theological, created by God to carry out God’s Will is theological.  It combines all three aspects of reality in one true thought. 

We see in Genesis that God accepted Jacob and rejected Esau as a part the Chosen People, although God gave Esau a nation of his own.  The great apes and humans came from a common ancestor, but natural selection divided the ancestoral line into different channels creating different species. 

Again the weakness of Darwinism is that it cannot expain the rationality and order of God’s Creation.  That is where we can make a real contribution, rather than agree that evolution is random and without direction.                


Roger A. Sawtelle - #73775

October 18th 2012


In the West we are accustomed to dualism, roughly the physical and the rational.  The primary problem with dualism is that humans cannot accept two realities as equal, but tend to think that the physical is superior to the rational or the rational is superior to the physical.

Scientists and people who think in that way tend to think that the physical is superior to the rational or ideational.  Theologians and philosophers then to think the other way.  Dr. Walton and most on the blog are in the second camp.  Maybe you are in the former.

However you are correct, one cannot really separate the physical from the rational, ideational, but this is what dualism does.  As I have said many times before, dualism does not work, because one needs a third aspect to both separate the physical and the rational and communicate between them, which is the spiritual or Telos.

In human terms to make a cake one needs certain ingrediants like flour and tools like an oven, which are the physicalaspects of the process.  One also needs to know how to make a cake, which is the rational aspect, but finally one needs to went to make a cake.  Just because one has the ingredients and tools available to make a cake and the knowhow to do it, but has no desire to make one, it will not get done.

God clearly has the tools available to create the universe and the knowhow to do so, so the big question is, Why would God choose to create such a mess?       

Dr. Walton is saying that in the beginning God created the framework for the existence of the universe which is both physical and rational, but in reality is triune, because it is good.  It is cosmological view, but it is not a description of how and when things were created, but says that God brought order to the universe.  

wesseldawn - #73795

October 19th 2012

The repetitive method is the only way to properly translate the Bible and related writings.

The idea of “rest” in the Bible sense is eternal salvation. Jesus said to the thief on his right:

Today you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43)

Speaking of Paul the apostle: 

How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (2 Cor. 12:4)

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.  (Rev. 2:7 & 22:14)

Logically then, Paradise is the Sabbath rest:

In that place whereon the Lord rests, when he goes up into Paradise (Book of Enoch VIII and Gen. 3:8)

In the Bible you have two, and very different, convergences, natural and supernatural, the supernatural however, is the eternal rest, a land flowing with milk and honey:

For tomorrow I shall go up on to heaven, to the uppermost Jerusalem to my eternal inheritance” (The Book of the Secrets of Enoch: Chapter LV)



Damon Casale - #75166

December 11th 2012

First of all, Professor Walton is on the right track when he says we have to understand the bible, especially early sections like the biblical creation account in Genesis, through ancient eyes.  The problem is that he’s not actually doing that.

Other ancient creation literature wasn’t meant to be taken literally, but rather symbolically and metaphorically.  However, it would have literal elements in it.  For instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh described a real king named Gilgamesh, but one who never went in search of the “plant of life.”  That was symbolic.

The Babylonian and earlier Sumerian creation accounts described the creation of man as an afterthought, to serve the gods as slaves.  In contrast, the biblical account described the creation of man as the epitome of God’s creation.  In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the wild man Enkidu (who harks back to the “ideal” primitive state of man, a-la Adam) is introduced to the fruits of civilization, beer and prostitution.  In that early time, worship of the Harlot Queen Inanna, goddess of fertility, was common, and prostitution was seen as a sacred act.  In contrast, the biblical account holds up the institution of marriage as sacred.  In Egyptian creation literature, animals, stars, etc., are seen as gods in and of themselves.  In contrast, the biblical account describes all of these things as being created by God.

The biblical creation acccount wasn’t meant to be literal at all.  IT WAS A POLEMIC AGAINST OTHER RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AT THE TIME.  But there are parts of it that are meant to be understood as literal.  Adam and Eve themselves, for instance, were real people, because we have a genealogy coming down from them.

How do we interpret the symbolism of Genesis 1-3?  There are a few different keys to help us along the way.  The first one is to recognize that there is a textual structure in Genesis 1-3 which is not commonly recognized among scholars who aren’t Jewish or familiar with Judaism to some degree.  This textual structure is known as a “chiasmus”.  A simple example of a chiasm is found in Genesis 6:22:

A - Thus did Noah

B - According to all that God commanded him

A’ - So he did.

A chiasm simply means a repetitive textual structure.  You can have chiasm of the form A-B-A’, A-B-A’-B’, A-B-B’-A’, etc.  In this case, these are simply phrases of similar character or content (A and A’, that is) bracketing the main subject.  Genesis 1-3 is an enormously complicated inverted chiasm with resting with God on the Sabbath day as the central subject of importance.

See this link for more details:  http://www.aishdas.org/toratemet/en_bereshit.html

Damon Casale - #75167

December 11th 2012


The second key is to look for symbolic interpretations elsewhere in the bible, wherever Creation is mentioned or referred to—mainly in the prophets.

In the creation account, God brings “the animals” to Adam to see what he would name them, and also to show him that there is no suitable mate for him to be found among the animals.

Huh?  Why would Adam want to “marry” an animal?  Because the “animals” are symbolic, of course!  In the prophets, animals represent other nations or peoples.  Adam was being shown that he couldn’t find a suitable mate among the other peoples who then lived.  Do we have any similar themes elsewhere in the bible?  How about Genesis 24:1-4, where Abraham commands his eldest servant not to allow Isaac to take a foreign wife, but one of their own countrymen and kindred?

Now, the Creation account focuses on two main animals.  Two, you say?  Yes, *two*.  As Professor Wheaton explained, the Hebrew verb ‘bara’ is a special term meaning ‘to create’.  It’s only used in reference to three things in the creation account:  the heavens and the earth, man, and the “great sea creatures” (Hebrew ‘tannin’) of Genesis 1:21.  In the context, this term is best translated, not as “whales” but as “crocodiles”.  The term reappears in Ezekiel 29:3 in reference to pharaoh of Egypt, the very next chapter after a reference to “Eden”.  The crocodiles and the serpent are the two special animals of the creation account, representing two particular nations in existence at that time—Egypt and Sumer.

The Garden of Eden was simply a rest stop on a major trade route between Egypt and Sumer.  That’s why the “animals” were brought to Adam—because all sorts of peoples went along that major trade route.

That way, Adam could share his “myth” of “eating” from the tree of life, or symbolically doing that which leads to life, versus moral relativism.  Sound like another familiar biblical theme?  The very same thing is repeated in Deuteronomy 30:19.  “Choose life, that both you and your descendants might live.”

The biblical creation account isn’t that difficult to understand *if we really do look at it through ancient eyes*, in its original cultural context.  It was written to be relevant at a time when other countries were also writing their own creation literature, and at a time when other peoples were transitioning from a nomadic life to a settled life in cities, at the beginning of civilization.  Especially in Sumer, the precursor of Babylon, civilization was seen as a “grand experiment”.  All the biblical creation account was doing was holding up what was right and true.  Civilization was fine, as long as one chose what was right and good.

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