Reflections on Reading Genesis 1-3: John Walton’s World Tour, Part 3

Bookmark and Share

September 18, 2013 Tags: Biblical Interpretation, Evolution & Christian Faith project

Today's entry was written by John Walton. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

New Illustrations

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).[1] 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.”

Concluding Remarks

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.[2] 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.

< Previous post in series

Share your thoughts

Have a comment or question for the author? We'd love to hear from you.

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 1   1
Eddie - #82643

September 18th 2013

Dear Dr. Walton:

I have no objections to your interpretation of Genesis—it is in general very much like the one I adopted 30 years ago as a graduate student in Hebrew Bible—but I do have a comment on some analogies you employed.

The parallel with wallpaper is far from convincing.  In the case of wallpaper we know exactly what wallpaper is for, and we know the intentions of those who put up wallpaper.  We can therefore be certain that if we find layers underneath the visible paper, those layers are merely “left over” and serve no function in the current decor of the house.  They are pure historical relics.

In the case of the genome we have nowhere near complete knowledge of all its functions.  We cannot easily say that this part of the genome now has no function and therefore it must be left over from a previous use, as in the case of the old wallpaper.  Many parts of the genome previously thought to be non-functional have been found to have some use, and the list of newly-discovered functions has been growing almost daily over the past few years.  While it is still possible to conceive of some of the genome as consisting of “left over” non-functional parts, and therefore as proof of some prehistory, it is no longer a safe argument in all cases.  

I am not arguing against common descent and I am not saying that there are no traces of common descent in the genome.  I’m saying only that detecting the “left over” parts is no longer as simple as it was once thought to be.  The wallpaper analogy makes it look like a straight logical inference which no reasonable person could honestly question; in practice things are often messier and there is often more than interpretation of why something is there.

As for the “textual transmission” analogy, again, it may sometimes be appropriate, but as you know as a Biblical scholar, Biblical studies has at times gone “hog wild” in finding “errors” in the text and deducing all kinds of historical conclusions from such alleged errors, only to be brought up short when later scholars have pointed out that some of the passages in question can be made perfect sense of without postulating any error at all.  

Regarding the plagiarism analogy, again, I grant that it is often quite possible to detect plagiarism by the means suggested, but there is an amusing irony here.  The plagiarism analogy is actually a design inference!  We can prove the plagiarism because we know how the designer of an essay operates when he is being honest, and when he is being dishonest.  We can detect the marks of design in the dishonest student’s paper.  Yet TEs normally reject design inferences when it comes to non-human nature!  That is their beef against ID.  So to use a design inference derived from the experience of student cheating as an analogy to inferring a history of the genome in biology comes rather strangely from TE lips.  ID people, on the other hand, could cheerily use the analogy, precisely because they think the genome is (mostly) the product of design, rather than the accumulation of hundreds of millions of years of genetic accidents.  But of course, ID people would use the analogy quite differently.  :-)

John H. Walton - #82646

September 18th 2013

My point in these illustrations is not that we can unravel the history, but that we could be assured that there was one. It was certainly not my intention to address junk DNA or ID. It does not take any interpretation to conclude from the human genome that there IS a history. Figuring out what that history is may, however, be quite controversial.

Another illustration would be that the human genome could be compared to a dental x-ray. Even a non-specialist can see the implants, crowns, root canals and fillings. A specialist could further see cracks in the enamel or infections beneath the gum. All of this indicates the unquestionable conclusion that there is a history—but that does not mean the process or history could be reconstructed.

Paul Lucas - #82654

September 19th 2013

Eddie:  ”In the case of the genome we have nowhere near complete knowledge of all its functions.  We cannot easily say that this part of the genome now has no function and therefore it must be left over from a previous use, as in the case of the old wallpaper. “

The analogy to wallpaper had nothing to do with function.  Yes, the previous layers have no function now, but they had function at sometime.  The point was that IF you were the builder and first owner, you would not not put 5 layers of wallpaper on a house.  Likewise, God creating/manufacturing species in their present form would not put signs of history in the genome.  

There are parts of DNA that we know have no function.  For example, there are pseudogenes and Endogenous Retroviruses (ERVs).   Pseudogenes were once genes, but have lost their “Start” sequence and are no longer transcribed to mRNA and made into proteins.  Over the millenia, they have thus accumulated mutations because there was no natural selection on the pseudogene.  That history can be traced from species to species.

ERVs were inserted into genomes in the past by retroviruses, and they were inserted into specific points of the DNA.  They have no function.  But looking at the ERVs in different species and where exactly in the DNA they occur, a history can be made:  This is especially true with the apes, and our ancestral relationship with other ape species is clearly seen.  God creating/manufacturing humans in their present form—as either lots of men and women together in Genesis 1 or 1 man, then 1 woman in Genesis 2—has no need to put in ERVs like we see them.  There is no need—and a great reason not to—give the inevitable conclusion of a history.

Eddie - #82655

September 19th 2013

Paul Lucas, you wrote:

“The point was that IF you were the builder and first owner, you would not not put 5 layers of wallpaper on a house.”

Yes, I understood that perfectly well.  I am an old, old hand at all these arguments.  I can argue any side (ID, OEC, YEC, TE, atheist) at will.  

You then went on to write:

“Likewise, God creating/manufacturing species in their present form would not put signs of history in the genome.”

You don’t seem to realize that in these words you are presuming the conclusion that the anti-evolutionists are contesting.

Your thinking goes like this:

Fact:  There are signs of history in the genome.

Question:  Why would a designer do that?

But of course, the anti-evolutionist contests the “fact” that what is seen in the genome are “signs of history.”  Your “fact” is from their point of view not “fact” but “interpretation.”  From the anti-evolutionist point of view, one could only be sure that what one sees in the genome is a “sign of history” if one had a full account of the genome such that one knew for sure what every functional part did, and what every non-functional part was.  Until one can rule out the possibility that every part of the genome has some function that a designer might well intend, what passes for “history” in evolutionary interpretation could be interpreted non-historically.

I am not speaking against evolution and I am not saying that there is nothing in the genome that suggests a history of common descent.  There is no need for you to trot out ERVs or fused chromosomes or any of the other stuff.  I am aware of it all, and I know exactly how it is used to argue for common descent.  If you post such details, I won’t read them; life is too short to read the same arguments 50 times.  I am not saying the argument for common descent is unreasonable.  I am not saying it is weak.  I am saying that the argument is not compelling in the absence of a full account of the genome—which we don’t have.  I am making this point as a philosopher/epistemologist, as it were, not as a scientist.  Philosophers have high standards for assent to propositions.  Every i must be dotted and every t must be crossed.

If the case were differently put:  if the assertion were that the inference of an evolutionary history is “a better explanation” of the genomic data than the inference of the special design of each species, that more humble inference would be philosophically acceptable.  But the claim of Darwinists is generally stronger than that; the claim is generally that the evidence “disproves” design and “proves” common descent.  

Now, to take off the philosopher’s hat and make a personal statement:  I have no problem with common descent.  I think it is quite compatible with design, though not with design in the sense of God stitching a wing on a fly or a trunk on an elephant.  Michael Denton and others have suggested ways in which common descent and design can be understood together.  I will not, however, discuss Denton’s views with anyone who has not read (read, not skimmed) Nature’s Destiny in its entirety.

Paul, if you have no objection, please indicate whether or not you favor a TE or an atheist position.  A lot of time is wasted on creation/evolution/design sites trying to figure out where people are “coming from.”  It is especially irritating when atheists here slyly word things (by making occasional references to theological concepts) to give the impression they might be TEs, in order to form a debating alliance with the TEs against the ID folks or the creationists.  I like to see people’s cards on the table.  This is a site (as the name Bio-Logos indicates) for the discussion of the relationship between biology and theology, or more broadly, science and theology; I’m not interested in conversing with anyone whose only purpose for being here is to demonstrate the truth of evolution and is not keenly interesting in relating evolution to religious teaching.

Jon Garvey - #82656

September 20th 2013

Eddie’s first point is good - to take a crude example re wallpaper, in the good old days you wouldn’t think of papering a wall without a preceding layer of size and a layer of lining paper - the history of a cross section would actually represent a single teleological episode of decoration, but could be misinterpreted as an evolutionary history.

But let’s not lose sight of the key implications of Dr Walton’s work on Genesis, which are essentially to say that the book makes no attempt to provide an explanation of material origins as we understand them. In doing so, it is a critique of most Young Earth Creationism, which is highly dependent on a historical and materialist understanding of the Creation accounts.

But the material processes lying behind God’s functional organisation of the cosmos are simply not addressed in Genesis, so anything between conventional Neodarwinian mechanisms and instantaneous creation of everything as per Augustine would fit the Genesis accounts per se. One would have to reach any conclusions regarding actual material events on other scientific, philosophical or theological grounds.

Even so, the form in which Genesis is couched doesn’t deny, but subsume, the material creation, within the functional. If the ancient world view had in mind a primaeval formless chaos, material change would be necessary to give it function - and the same wise, powerful and far-seeing God gave the material form and the function, even though Genesis emphasises the latter.

If, as better fits Christian doctrine, the overall biblical witness and perhaps the findings of science, God’s imposition of function lay in, as it were, relating what he had already made to human need and understanding, then we would expect the creation’s function as acred space to follow its form and vice versa.

So materially, God makes the astronomical cosmos which, in the Genesis functional creation, becomes calendric and seasonal for the ordering of mankind’s lives. The function is not adventitious, but part (at least) of the reason for the original form. God, by whatever process, forms herbivores, but in the Genesis process of creation they become livestock for food, as was always God’s intention. And so on.

One would expect, therefore, if the material and functional aspects of creation reflect the same good teleological creation event (rather than God’s secondarily co-opting a cosmos that happens to be lying around and wrenching it into shape for mankind’s sacred space) that the material history discovered by science would indicate God’s purposive activity. To posit errors and accidents in an undirected material process would be to make the same error as to say that storms provide evidence that the functional role of creation is illusory. The same God is responsible for both.

To return to the wallpaper analogy, several layers suggests a history, indeed. But to conclude that the sequence of previous decorators reflects the arbitrariness of events and is evidence against my belief that God always intended this house for me would be faulty logic. Rather, considering God to be the Lord of providence, one could view that history of occupation as the means by which God prepared the house for my occupancy.

Page 1 of 1   1