Reflections on Reading Genesis 1-3: John Walton’s World Tour, Part 3
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.
Differentiating the material from the functional
The distinction that I draw between a material account of origins (how most people view Genesis 1) and a functional account (how I believe Genesis 1 is intended to be read in its ancient context) is one of the most difficult ideas for some readers to grasp. It is counter-intuitive for a modern audience. I have used the “house/home” distinction successfully (i.e., Genesis 1 is the story of the origins of the cosmos as a home for God’s presence with us—he has prepared a place for us as house-builder, but Genesis 1 tells the story of how he brought us into this home and has moved in with us—so that where he is, we may also be, cf. John 14:2-3). I have developed several other illustrations and analogies of this concept:
The Center Square Chapel origins story: I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia in an area with lots of housing developments. One of these housing developments was quite distinctive because there was an old barn sitting in the middle of it. It was not hard to figure out what had happened. The farmer had sold off his fields to a developer, but had not sold the two or three acres on which the barn stood.
A church that was located about half an hour away decided to plant a new church in our area. They decided to use the barn as the meeting place for the church, which they named Center Square Chapel. This is the church I grew up in. The “sanctuary” was “created” by putting some linoleum tile on the floor of the biggest room and naming it the sanctuary. The kids’ Sunday school classes met in what had been formerly animal stalls (half walls, straw on the floor).
Though the barn had existed for a long time, at some point it began to function as a church—at that point, the church came into existence. Very little material change, but the origin of the church would not coincide with the origin of the barn in which we met. You can give the account of the origins of Center Square Chapel with no discussion of the origins of the barn, yet the barn housed the church.
Bed and Breakfast: In many cases, the owners of a bed and breakfast have taken a house and turned it into a home in which they will live, but that is designed for the benefit of guests. They are interested in making the house function for their guests and relating to them in that context. In that sense, Genesis 1 is more like turning a house into a bed and breakfast than like building the house. It is God’s place, and he lives there, but he has made it function for us--his guests--and wants to relate to us in this place.
Founding an organization: I was addressing a leadership conference and they wanted to hear how my view of Genesis would find application in their world. I used an illustration differentiating between the identity of an organization and its company headquarters. That is, if someone asked them about the origins of their organization, would they tell the story of the building of the company headquarters? It is also instructive to think about ordering an organization and then taking control of it. In my interpretation of Genesis 1, that is what God is doing—ordering the organized cosmos and then taking control of it.
What is your neighborhood like? In a book entitled Confucius Lives Next Door, the author, T. R. Reid, a westerner who is trying to adjust to culture in China, makes an observation. When asked to describe his neighborhood, he would talk about the size of the buildings, the width of the streets, the state of repair of everything—in short, the physical appearance and properties. When he asked his Chinese neighbors to describe the neighborhood, they talked about the people that lived in the neighborhood and their situations and stories. This is another good example of how different cultures perceive things in different ways—in this case, physical versus personal. In the same way we might talk about the cosmos in which we live in differing ways with different emphases and focus.
Creating a room: In dinner table conversation one night, my wife and I were talking about the room in our house we call the “den,” and it led to an interesting observation: Naming a room and giving it a distinct function distinguishes (separates) it from other rooms and represents the “creation” of the room. In our house, a room had previously been used as a dining room by its former owners. We decided we didn't want it to be a dining room so we called it a “den,” gave it a function as a den, put in it the furniture of a den and began to use it that way. By its name and function it was distinguished from other rooms in the house and thus the den was created. And it was good (functioned as it was intended to function). This serves as a good illustration of the role that naming, separating and determining a function have in the creation of a room and its existence as that room.
Origins of a country: When I was visiting Slovakia, my hosts showed me the courtyard right on the campus where the meeting had taken place 150 years ago that led to the creation of the country now called Slovakia. This historical place led me to ponder the meaning of the idea represented in speaking about the “origins of Slovakia” or the “creation of Slovakia.” If I asked a Slovak to tell me about the origins of Slovakia, I would be surprised if they told me how the terrain was formed throughout the ages (tectonic plates, mountain ranges being formed, lake drying up to make a plain, etc.). The origins of Slovakia as their national home would be the more important origins story than one focused on the terrain. Geo-political realities would take precedence over geological realities. Likewise for the Israelites, the creation of their cosmic and national home, the creation of sacred space, would be more important than the origins of the physical cosmos.
History evident in the genome
As I have traveled and had conversation with science experts, I have learned a lot more about genetics. Since I am not trained in the sciences and have a limited aptitude in them, I have been getting help communicating the information of genetics in ways that I can understand, myself, and that I can then pass on to others who do not have science backgrounds. When I was in Vancouver, I traveled with BioLogos Fellow of Biology, Dennis Venema, a geneticist at Trinity Western University, for several days, and we did some joint presentations. In one conversation, he explained to me that a history is unmistakably evident when we compare the human genome to the genomes of other species. He used the example that if you were doing some remodeling of a house and tore out the walls discovering that there were five layers of wallpaper, it would simply not be an option to believe that the builder had put five layers of wallpaper on. You would deduce without doubt that the layers reflected a history. It is powerful information. He also likens reading the genome with textual criticism as experts track where errors were made in the transmission of a text. Another example that I have heard concerns when a professor suspects that a student is guilty of plagiarizing on a paper. Repetition of errors or particular chains of unlikely word combinations would serve as persuasive evidence for dependence and continuity between the student’s paper and the source from which he/she was accused of copying. In the same way, numerous genetic markers provide persuasive evidence for genetic dependence and continuity.
Words with underlying cultural assumptions
I recently thought of a good illustration of cultural ideas embedded in basic terminology. When we talk about the Amish, there is a whole array of cultural understandings (and perhaps misunderstandings) that we assume with the use of the word. This is an example of the interdependence of language and cultural understandings. One could not just translate “Amish” and expect a foreign audience to therefore understand—culture also needs to be “translated” (explained). Many examples of this same kind of thing in the Bible show us that we have to connect with the text as an ancient, culturally embedded document.
The war is over
In 1944, Lt. Hiroo Onoda was sent by the Japanese army to the remote Philippine island of Lubang. His mission was to conduct guerrilla warfare during World War II. Unfortunately, he was never officially told the war had ended; so Onoda continued to live in the jungle, ready for when his country would again need his services and information. People on the island tried to tell him, but he evaded searching parties, which he believed were enemy scouts. They tried to contact him by leaflets. Onoda first saw a leaflet that claimed the war was over in October 1945, but he didn’t believe it. Then the outside world tried to contact the survivors living on the island near the end of 1945 by dropping out of a plane leaflets printed with the surrender order from General Yamashita. Newspapers were left. Photographs and letters from relatives were dropped. Friends and relatives spoke out over loudspeakers. But as he sat in the jungle, none of it seemed to make sense to Onodo. He had heard that another cell had just been fired upon a few days ago. If the war were over, why would they still be under attack? No, he decided, all these claims that the war was over must be part of a clever ruse by the Allied propagandists—he never believed that the war had really ended. Onoda hid in the jungle until he finally emerged from the dark recesses of the island on March 19, 1972. This is a useful illustration, as we think about the purported war between the Bible and science. I have often been concluding my lecture with the line I got from my colleague Tim Larson, “The war is over if you want it.”
Perhaps one of the most important observations to make in the aftermath of this seven-month odyssey is that I encountered nothing that led me to have second thoughts about the interpretation that I have developed. In fact, the general response resulted in further evidence and affirmation rather than questions or uncertainty. My continuing research has likewise further strengthened and supported my view. For an example, a recently published paper by Assyriologist Gonzalo Rubio, “Time Before Time” treated two third millennium BC texts just recently identified as cosmological texts. Both texts refer to the time before creation—a time when nothing was functioning (major gods not living, daylight and moonlight not shining, no vegetation, no priests performing rituals, nothing was yet performing its duties). This type of description is commonplace in ancient Near Eastern cosmology texts and is referred to as “negative cosmology” or “denial of existence.” It features the absence of creation as it describes a scenario of a primordial era that is outside time. Both Genesis chapters one and two feature this same type of description (1:2; 2:5-6)—a description of non-order. This same feature has long been recognized in the opening lines of the most famous Babylonian cosmology, Enuma Elish, “When above heaven had not yet been named, and below, earth had not been called by name . . . When none of the gods had been created or had been called by name, and destinies had not been ordained.” Such texts express the pre-creation state as one lacking divine agency; a time in which the gods were not yet performing their duties. In Genesis, however, the spirit of God is hovering over the waters—divine agency ready to move into action.
As I have often said before, the similarities we observe do not make a case for Israelite borrowing; rather, we find that Genesis is operating fully within the cognitive environment of the ancient Near East. This is just how ancient people thought about cosmology. We continue to learn how the Bible, though written for us, is not written to us, and we must read it as an ancient text.
1. As an interesting side note—I found that there were some cultures for which this house/home distinction did not work. In East Africa, they do not think of “home” the way we in America do. In some places in Eastern Europe, the translators were puzzled and experienced difficulty because they did not have two separate words. Another example of culture embedded in language.
2. G. Rubio, “Time Before Time: Primeval Narratives in Early Mesopotamian Literature,” in Time and History in the Ancient Near East: Proceedings of the 56th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale at Barcelona 26-30 July 2010, ed. L. Feliu et al (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 3-17
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.