Reflections on Reading Genesis 1-3: John Walton’s World Tour, Part 1
Note: Old Testament scholar and BioLogos ECF grantee John H. Walton spent the first seven months of 2013 traveling around the United States and fifteen other countries lecturing on Genesis 1 - 3. John has written multiple times for BioLogos on topics of biblical interpretation, and a good summary of his views can be found in this video on understanding Genesis and this one on understanding the creation narrative in context. (You can also find purchasing information and a brief description of John’s popular book, The Lost World of Genesis One, by following this link, and you can also click here to view and download John’s ECF-supported video project, Origins Today: Genesis through Ancient Eyes.)
According to John, the response he received from the audiences on his lecture tour, which was funded by his ECF grant, was very good as people were open, inquisitive, and ready to consider new options. He says one of the benefits of presenting the same material 65 times and interacting with people about that material is that he was able to gain new insights and develop new illustrations to help him communicate some complex and difficult issues. This week, we are featuring John’s reflections on his world tour and the insights he gained from his conversations.
When I talked with and listened to members of various audiences on my lecture tour, the same questions and topics came up over and over. As a result, I was able to continue to shape my thinking about origins. Here is a summary of some of the insights and ideas that came out of these conversations around the world.
What actually happens during the seven days described in Genesis 1?
One person framed it this way: “If nothing is actually happening, and if no material or spiritual changes are happening during the chapter, what it really is at core is a paean of praise, an encomium much like Ps. 136, with its recognitions and repetitions.” I replied that it is not that nothing is happening. What is happening is that people and God are moving into the home they will share. It all begins to function when people in God's image come on the scene and when people “move in”—as an origins account, this is the story of the origins of the home, not the origins of the house. So it is more than just praise—it is inauguration of sacred space. It is much more than a psalm though it involves praise. For people, they are either the first ever in God’s image, or, by another model, their status is changing from furniture to guests. For God, though he is technically already there (his omnipresence), something has changed. Yes, God is everywhere, but it is a different thing to have his presence manifested such that sacred space is created. Later in history, something happened when God's Presence came into the tabernacle or Temple and this would be similar.
What about the role of genealogies?
I had several conversations about the question of numbers in the genealogies since people look to the genealogies to try to tally the full time of human existence on the earth. I expressed the idea that we do not know whether the numbers in the genealogies were mere quantifications or had rhetorical value that superseded quantifications. In the conversations, a few interesting examples came up.
For the first, I noted that the speed limit posted on the roads of the gated community where my hosts lived was 19 mph. We decided that the idea was that if they had just listed 15 or 20 as the speed limit, people would take it lightly. By listing the limit as 19, it made people take notice and suggested the community was serious about imposing a limit. The importance was not the numerical value, 19; it had a rhetorical value that had little to do with the quantification.
One faculty member I talked to provided another example of the rhetorical use of numbers from his experience while he was in ministry in Indonesia. The Indonesians in his area would identify ages based on how much experience or wisdom the person was accorded by the community. Once, at age 35, he was introduced as being fifty. He objected and was told that the number identified his status as a wise person who should be listened to and heeded. It had nothing to do with his actual age. He also told the story of a woman who, when he inquired about her age reported that she was forty. Two years later, he came back and she said she was fifty. He asked how that could be, since she was forty just two years ago, and she explained that this was a measure of her status and respect in the community. The numbers had rhetorical value, not quantification value.
I had another interesting lesson in the cultural use of numbers. I was eating lunch with my Ethiopian hosts before going to the airport to fly to Kenya. They said, “so we need to go at 8:00.” I objected “no, we have to leave at 2:00, my flight is at 5:00.” They replied, that is what we meant—8:00 local time.” Confused, I insisted, “my watch is on local time, and my schedule is on local time.” They smiled, “no it isn’t, there is no watch for local time.” “Ok,” I relented, “you will have to explain this to me.” In “local time,” they explained, “2:00” means somewhere around lunchtime; “8:00” means middle of the afternoon. I asked if there was a reference point thinking that maybe they started at sunrise, but they were amused at my attempt to make it a rigid system. Just another example about how numbers mean different things in different cultures and often are used more in culturally rhetorical ways than as rigid quantifications. This should warn us about being overconfident as we try to understand the numbers in the Bible. We have a lot of information available for the rhetorical use of numbers in the ancient world, but still not enough to get very specific about strategies for confident interpretation.
On the audience of Genesis 1-3
We should not think of Genesis 1-2 as communicated to Adam and Eve, but rather imagine a scenario something like Moses communicating to the Israelites in the wilderness (hypothetically, realizing that the book makes no such claims). This shift in our perspective is extremely important. Expanding on that idea, we can imagine not only a setting (Moses communicating to Israelites), we can imagine an event. As a thought experiment, let’s consider the scenario of Moses sitting down with the elders of the people on the eve of the Tabernacle dedication at the foot of Sinai.
He is trying to help the Israelites understand the gravity of what is about to happen. They are ready to establish sacred space defined by the indwelling presence of God for the first time since Eden. So he explains to them that God had planned for the cosmos to be sacred space with him dwelling in the midst of his people—he had set up the cosmos and ordered it for that very purpose. He was preparing a place for them (cf. John 14:6). Sadly, people chose their own way and sacred space was lost. Now, after all this time, they were going to re-establish God’s presence in their midst. In the same way, God had built the cosmos to be sacred space and then put people in that sacred space as a place where he could be in relationship with them. So the inauguration of the Tabernacle over the next seven days was going to accomplish the same thing. It is the story of sacred space established, sacred space lost, and sacred space about to be regained. In this way of thinking, the account of Genesis 1-2 is an account of the origins of sacred space rather than an account of the origins of the material cosmos.
On shaping the analysis of the text
During one of my visits, a few faculty members drew my attention to the terminology categories that I was using. One of the difficulties, or even flaws, about what I am doing is that even while I try to convince my audience to think in ancient Near Eastern terms and categories, the categories that I use (functional/material) are inevitably modern constructs. The difficulty is that we cannot do otherwise. If we are going to communicate to a modern audience, we must eventually use modern categories. Another way to say that is that we are trying to analyze an ancient insider communication and build it (even translate it) into a modern insider communication. In attempting to do that (and it must be done), we risk corrupting or misrepresenting it even as we try to preserve and communicate it. We concluded that the best way to avoid the negative results of that is to depend less on the abstractions (functional/material) to carry the weight of the argument and more on illustrations. I have increasingly been incorporating illustrations like house/home to accomplish that. The material focus that is common today would yield a story about the origins of the (cosmic) house. The functional focus that I believe describes the biblical text would yield a story about the origins of the home (sacred space).
On the genre of Genesis 1
During my lecture tour, I was frequently asked to comment on the genre of Genesis 1. As my thinking has developed, I have increasingly pointed out that genre is meaningful as identifying a common set of characteristics shared by numerous pieces of literature, and cannot exist if the piece being analyzed is one of a kind, sui generis. Genesis 1 is just such a passage. Genre gives us a way to try to get an idea of what the literature is doing or how it is working. If a genre category cannot be established, we still have to try to find out what the author is trying to do—we just don’t have a category term to help us. It also does not do much good to use genre categories that are modern since they will not necessarily describe the ways that ancient literature works.
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.