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Understanding Genesis

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February 3, 2010 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.

John Walton offers some important reminders in this video with regard to how we should approach a reading of the book of Genesis. Walton says that first and foremost, we have to approach Genesis for what it is, which is an ancient text. While it is a text that is written for us—in the sense that it was written for all people in all times and places—it was not written to us. That is, it was not written in our language or with our culture in mind.

It was written to an ancient audience, therefore if we want to get the best benefit of the text, we need to try to get into that context and think about what the author meant and what he might have been trying to communicate.

According to Walton, Genesis 1 is really the first place to begin such a reading. He asserts that in order get the idea of what the 6 or 7 days is all about, we have to try and understand what this would have meant to anyone (Israelite or non-Israelite) in ancient world. We need to understand that the part of the narrative when God rests on the seventh day is a very important element of it.

One thing that we probably don’t pick up on, Walton observes, is that when God is said to “rest”, the writer is making a reference to the temple—one that the original readers would have immediately understood. In ancient times, the temple and the cosmos were blended into one. Thus the temple isn’t simply a place of respite or worship, rather, it is the place from which the cosmos is run. As such, on the seventh day, after the cosmos is organized, God takes up his “rest” in this cosmic temple and starts running it. So the first chapter of the Bible is about the temple—the cosmos.

John Walton, in his book , The Lost World of Genesis One, has done the evangelical community a great service. He has shown that the first chapter of the Bible is not a story about how the material came into existence. Rather it is about how the material came to take on its function within God’s temple (the cosmos). If we look to it for scientific statement, Walton says, we are asking it to say something it was never intended to say. We had two earlier posts on this book. Consider referring back to them and then commenting below. Do you think that Walton’s approach will prove helpful to the evangelical church?

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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Edward T. Babinski - #4637

February 16th 2010

Walton’s equation of “resting” with “running things” is an interpretation. The actual Hebrew word for “rest” does not mean “running things,” but cessation of labor.  Walton points to Psalm 132 that describes God being asked to come down and “rest” in the temple built for him. God also “rules” from that same temple. But aside from the temple being the same place where both activities occur, the activities themselves are different.

arise, O LORD, and come to your resting place,
    you and the ark of your might.
May your priests be clothed with righteousness;
    may your saints sing for joy.

“Resting” obviously can mean in context, simply moving to one place and resting in that location, God now has a home near to those who praise and sacrifice to him, thereby allowing him to “rest” and let his worshippers do the labor of incessant devotion. So He can sit back like an ancient Near Eastern ruler and bask in their adoration. Compare the scene in Revelation where God sits surrounded by worshippers singing and praising him incessantly.

Edward T. Babinski - #4638

February 16th 2010

Therefore Walton has not demonstrated that “rest” equals “rule” except in the sense of sharing the same geographic location near His people, i.e., the temple, God’s home. And a home may serve multiple functions, both “rest” and “rule,” without them necessarily being confused. Just as we may move to a home and eat, sleep and work out of it.

Most perplexing of all is how Walton intends to deal with the actual meaning of the Hebrew term “rest” as employed throughout the Bible.  Rest and rule are two different words with two different meanings. “Rest” is even defined clearly in context as something that follows work in the case of both God and man.  For instance, in the creation story God “rests” after his divine ruling word has put everything in place. God rules via his creative word (an ancient Near Eastern concept) that much is plain, and he is ruling right from the beginning. The day on which he is “resting” in Genesis 1 IS THE DAY ON WHICH HIS RULING WORD IS SILENT. God is taking a break!

Edward T. Babinski - #4639

February 16th 2010

“Resting” is not the same as “running things.”  See the verses below from the NIV translation (other translations agree): 

Hebrews 4:10 “for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.”

Exodus 31:17, “It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested.’” [Literally, his soul-breath, nephesh, was refreshed]. 

Exodus 35:2 “For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it must be put to death.”

Edward T. Babinski - #4640

February 16th 2010

SUMMATION: Walton may need to come up with a better argument than the shared geographic location of the temple in which God “rests” to be near his people who labor to please Him, and from which he “rules.”  A shared geographical location alone does not prove that “resting” equals “running things.” A shared geographical location means God has chosen it as his place of “rest,” and it is also His place from which to rule, but that does not prove that both terms denote the same function.

See Mark S. Smith’s book, The Priestly Origin of Genesis 1 for the meaning of “rest” in Genesis 1.

Edward T. Babinski - #4643

February 16th 2010

I suspect that one reason Walton may wish to conflate “rest” with “running things” is because the God who has to literally cease from labor and rest (Hebrews 4:10; Exodus 31:17; Exodus 35:2 ) after six days of hard labor (putting heaven and earth together) appears relatively more anthropomorphic and limited than an absolutely powerful being who could have put everything together in an instant. So the excuse is made that Genesis 1 is merely modeled on temple-building practices, which sometimes took days and involved resting afterwards, or Walton tries to interpret “rest” as ruling activity!  So God Himself is never really “resting” no matter what the Bible says in the three verses I cited. (I guess those are merely metaphors for God being “active.”)

But Peter Enns and Denis Lamoureux both point out in their writings and book reviews that temple imagery is itself mythical, making Genesis a myth built on a myth, and neither does the description of creation in Genesis 1 fit temple imagery in all ways, but was clearly influenced by ancient Near Eastern flat earth creation cosmologies that existed long before historical Israel was ever born.

Dickmailly - #52691

February 26th 2011

The dichotomy of rest rule might not be the most accurate. How about order, or assign function and purpose?

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