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Genesis Through Ancient Eyes, Part 4

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October 18, 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 final part of his talk, Dr. John Walton briefly looks at the phrase “It was good” and the narrative in Genesis 2-3. He describes the second account in those chapters as a sequel rather than synoptic re-telling of the first narrative, and suggests that its descriptions are archetypal rather than scientific. He argues that if Genesis 2 has an archetypal focus, there is no biblical account of material human origins. Walton concludes his presentation with the poem “The Calf Path” by Sam Walter Foss.

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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HornSpiel - #73781

October 18th 2012

Just trying to wrap my head around this. So if I have understood him right, Walton is saying we should think of creating as consecrating and resting as working. Seems a lot like a Picasso painting, maybe even a Dali (I love the rhinoceros scene in Midnight in Paris.) I am not saying he’s not right, just that is seems a bit surreal to me.

To be fair I can sort of see his point:

  • A marriage has been created after the couple go through the ceremony.
  • Like a car is at rest after it has had a tuneup and is no longer pinging.

Still when God created in Genesis 1, it may not have been ex nihilo, but it was more than just fung shui. It wasn’t just moving the furniture around to create a livable space, it was making stuff: people,plants, and places.

So lets say the creation accounts are about God creating/consecrating the earth to be His temple. He did quite a bit of work making not only the the temple accouterments, but also the and the temple servants, and the temple mount…. To say the Genesis account is not primarily about material creation—well I still need to think about it.

And rest being about things are now in order so everything functions like a Swiss timepiece—I like the sound of it,but that is not the way the Sabbath was viewed. I mean sabbath rest was really rest, no work, full stop.

I guess one way to think about it is there really is nothing more stressful than being out of work with nothing to do.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73785

October 19th 2012


I think that the point is that we should work in order to live, rather than live in order to work.  If your work takes all your time and effort so you have no opportunity to enjoy life, something is very wrong.  An the other hand I understand that if you view your work as profession, as a calling, you are frustrated if you cannot carry out that calling.

Still some day God willing we will retire from our full time labors and we need to enjoy living apart from our work now and in the future.  Work is not the essence of life, love of God and others is the essence of life. 

Heaven is not about working or not working.  Heaven is about serving God, which was the point Jesus made when He healed on the Sabbath.  The purose of the Sabbath is to put our values in order which means living for God is first, not living for work or making a living.   

In this way the Sabbath contradicts Darwinism.  God did not create humanity and Creation to survive at all costs, but to live for each other in a cosmos of mutuality, rather than a chaos of conflict.  This where the Logos and Telos of Jesus Christ comes in.  If we ignore this then we ignore the Gospel and give into the World of Scientism and Ideology. 

Tim - #73786

October 19th 2012

Only half-way with Walton here on his interpretation of Genesis 2-3.  The case for Genesis 1 as a Temple Creation text is pretty solid.  And I think most scholars recognize Genesis 2-3 as some form of mythic storytelling.  However, some of the points Walton makes sound quite a bit more speculative.  Like rib having a metaphorical meaning of ones spiritual “side” / “complementary half.”  It’s possible.  But the evidence seems a lot weaker.  And this has an almost allegorical flavor to it now.  Again, the argument can be made, but I would rather have had Walton focus on the several mythic motifs which more solidly establish this as a storytelling genre than the various metaphorical/symbolic interpretations he proposes only.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73787

October 19th 2012


I agree that Gen 2-3 presents different issues from Gen 1. 

It seems to me that Dr. Walton recognizes this too by makes Adam and Eve archtypes.

I would agree with Dr. Walton that this is different from mythic thought.  Mythic thought is in the divine realm, while the garden of Eden is in the historical human realm.  It is a portrait of how humans and humanity relate to YHWH.

While there are too many symbolic aspects of the story to be taken literally, there are also too much psychological and theological truth here to be called mythic.  Archetypical is a good description. 

What we need to do better is look again at the event to determine what it says about sin and salvation.  It is my view that the event clearly indicates that both sin and salvation are relational, but this concept has not been widely explored to my knowledge. 

To assume that eating of the fruit mechanistically createde sin as scientific thinking might suggest is not right.  Certainly Augustine’s view that original sin is spread by sex, but I do not know of a solid alternative discussed in the Church today 

Tim - #73788

October 19th 2012



Mythic storrytelling is a very respectable and valuable form of conveying various truths.  There is nothing in mythic storytelling that is at odds with presenting any social, psychological, theological, etc. message at all.  In fact, many other ANE account utliziting this genre aim to acheive just this type of expression.


It is only our modern baggage we assign to the word “myth” that unfortunately and quite unfairly ladens it with negative connotations that results in reactions such as what you are describing.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73798

October 19th 2012


I disagree with your analysis.

The fact is that Greeks had two different words of “word.” Mythos meant “truth” that is based on tradition and authority and thus not up for discussion. Logos meant truth that is based experience verified by logic and thus is up for discussion.

What broke the hold of myth based religion in the minds of the ancient world was philosophy and Christianity. Christianity, if you are not aware of it, is based on the Logos.(John 1) Paul, who was defintely a citizen of the ancient world, used the word mythos in the supposedly “modern” sense. (1 Tim 1:4 et al.)

The new “respectability” of myth is an effort to label all religions as myths, when John clearly says that Christianity is based on the Logos. Aren’t Paul and John who spoke, wrote, and lived Greek in a better position to know the difference between mythos and logos that some modern myth-makers?

I know that myths still exist in science. Malthusian natural selection is a myth, because it has never been scientifically verified. (I challenge anyone to show me where it has been verified.) One resource said it was so obvious that it did not need to be verified and others echoed variations of this point of view.

Tim - #73801

October 19th 2012



You are bringing in Hellenistic concepts & categories of ‘mythos’ and ‘logos’ as if these should directly inform our interpretation or understanding of ancient near eastern culture and literature.  Frankly this seems anachronistic and inappropriate.

What I think you need to grasp is that a word unit does not imply the existence of some directly corresponding, one-to-one mapped entity in real life.  Words are convenient means of conversing about reality, but are not themselves reality beyond of course the symbolic level.  They are often fluid and imprecise semantic abstractions of a far more complex and varied universe of meaning, substance, and experience.

And so I disagree with the notion that, since we have this single term “myth” (or the Greek “mythos”), there must then exist a corresponding single reality of what “myth” in fact means and is.

The way we employ the term “myth” varies in meaning with its context, both within cultures, and specific to cultures.  Paul Bunyan is an American myth.  And the claim that vaccinnes cause autism is a scientific myth.  But besides the fact that neither is “true” in a literal, scientific, historical sense - the manner in which they are “mythic” has precious little in common.

Same thing with mythic storytelling in the ancient near east.  You cannot just grab some semantic meaning of the word “myth” from some other context and impose it on stories such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis  1 & 2-3.  It just doesn’t work.

First understand how mythic stories were used in mesopotamian and broader near-eastern culture.  Then you will be in a position to comment on what the literary form does or does not imply.  But imposing foreign Hellenistic or modern 21st century notions will do you no favors in understanding and appreciating these texts, and may very well ensure that you don’t.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73819

October 20th 2012


You are right that we must be careful in how we use words.  All of those “myths” are unverified stories or facts.

I am sure that you are aware that the Greeks had myths too, and honestly I question the difference between the Greek understanding of myths and the Canaanite understanding of myths. 

It also seems to me that the Jews made a clear distinction between the false gods of the myths and the True God of the Bible.  Yes, the Hebrews converted pagan stories into historical narrative, and that is what it is, history viewed through non-mythic eyes. 

Epics are not myths as I understand them.  Myths are usually stories “describing” the supernatural orgin of something as in the story of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods.        

Tim - #73822

October 20th 2012


Yes, Greeks had myths to.  But what you are referring to is a distinctly Hellenistic manner of reflecitng on those myths, informed by the philosophical spirit of the age of Hellenism.  Something you would not remotely find in Bronze Age Mesopotamia.

You are throwing around categories of myth vs. fact, history vs. stories, etc.  The literary forms of the Ancient Near East don’t fit so very well into these modern genre categories.  You need a new frame of reference that I just don’t think you’re going to get from a blog discussion, but certainly would if you read up a bit on the subject of literary genre in Ancient Near Eastern literature. 

Mythic stories were often used to convey cultural, ethical, and existential wisdom to these ancient societies.  And you were most likely to hear these stories told and retold in your homes, and communities.  These stories were part of a dynamic tapestry of society.  They would morph, and there would often be more than one version of the tale in the region at any given time.  Not static, distilled, cannonized texts to be pondered as if every word conveyed a scientifically &/or historically accurate account of the facts.

I would recommend your efforts might be more fruitful in stepping into the world of Ancient Near Eastern literature and understanding how various forms, including mythic storytelling, opporated in these societies.  Rather than just pontificating about how you think it must have been.  You know what they say about a cup that’s already full…There’s no room to put anything more in it.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73868

October 23rd 2012

My friend,

I am not pontificating concerning how I think it must have been, I am citing evidence from ancient documents indicating as to how it was.  You can disagree if you have other evidence, which you haven’t cited.

The problem with mythic stories is that they admittedly not true.  While it is true that we can learn from literature, which is why we can learn from epics like those of Homer.  However, the real myths which are origin stories, which do take the place of science are problematic.

Judaism is not based on myths, but on the covenants made by YHWH with the descendants of Abraham.  You are right Genesis is not seen as a scientific or even hiswtorical taxt as we moderns understand them, but in light of God’s covenants.     

Tim - #73873

October 23rd 2012


Per your reference request, you may want to take a look at Louis Orlin’s Life and Thought in the Ancient Near East to start with.  His chapter “Refections on Ancient Near Eastern Myth” is particularly useful regarding the issues raised here.  However, nothing will substitute for familiarizing yourself with the various ANE myths (e.g, Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian-Babylonian, etc.) and how they functioned in a social, cultural, and etiological context.

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