This is the third post in the companion blog series to our spring book club based on The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton. Note: Walton's book is organized into 18 "propositions," which are the equivalent of chapters.
In the past several weeks, the BioLogos community has been exploring John Walton's book The Lost World of Genesis One. As discussed in previous posts, Walton's first "propositions" urge us to consider Genesis 1 within its original context, which means recognizing that this creation account is concerned centrally with “functional” rather than “material” origins. In the next chapters (Propositions 7-10), Walton argues that the main point of Genesis 1 is the creation of the world as God's "cosmic temple," and that this illuminates the meaning of God's seventh-day "rest" and the point of the previous six days as well.
The exact meaning of God's "rest" on the seventh day has proven difficult for biblical interpreters to understand. God does not grow tired as we humans do, so interpreters are right to point out that God's "rest" cannot mean the same thing as human rest. But then what exactly does it mean? It is here that Walton's close study of both the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern literature helps us out immensely. Walton points out that for an ancient audience, divine rest always happens in a temple, and a temple itself is seen as a place of divine rest. Furthermore, this rest is not simply a disengagement from the now-completed world, but rather a continual involvement with its normal operations. I like Walton's metaphor for this of a newly-elected president taking up his rest/residence in the White House after the completion of his electoral campaign. The “creation” of the presidency by the completion of the campaign hardly means that the president's residence in the White House will leave him with nothing to do! This understanding of divine rest should prevents us from slipping into thinking that God has somehow "gone away" or let go of this world following the completion of its creation.
This interpretation also helps us see the value and goodness of creation, for it is the world itself that serves as God's "cosmic temple" in Genesis. Furthermore, Walton notes that the temple theology that is crystallized in day seven signals an expansion in revealing the greater meaning of creation; the individual functions of creation are made to serve humanity's needs, but the creation as a whole serves as a cosmic temple for God. To give but one contemporary application, this should encourage us to think more biblically about environmental stewardship. While it is true that various operations and resources in creation were made in part to meet our needs, seeing the world as God's cosmic temple should encourage us to carefully steward earth's resources and ecosystems, just as an ancient Israelite would have treated with care the physical elements of the tabernacle and temple as the place of God's presence.
This also resonates strongly with the account of creation in Genesis 2, which describes Eden and the garden as a temple-like "sacred space," with Adam serving a quasi-priestly role in caring for it. Given the significant differences between the accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, this key similarity is striking. Thus, we have good reason to see this temple-focused theology of creation as a key element in both of these biblical chapters.
This "cosmic temple" reading also helps us see the intended meaning of the preceding six days of creation. If this creation account is not concerned with material origins and if the climax of the account is God taking up rest in this cosmic temple, then the seven days can be seen as days of inauguration of the world as a cosmic temple. We can interpret the days of creation as ordinary days (as the Hebrew text strongly suggests) while recognizing that the point here is a theological one, not a scientific one. From this perspective, we can see the scientific picture of origins as a long period of material preparation of the world for the functional creation and cosmic temple inauguration described in the seven days of Genesis 1. Scientific evidence for the great antiquity of the universe can be accepted without the need to stretch the days of creation to refer to vast periods of time.
Walton has clearly (and I believe convincingly) argued that Genesis 1 is concerned with functional creation, with the end point being the inauguration of the world as God's cosmic temple. But could Genesis 1 also be concerned with material origins? Could there be a functional ontology and a material ontology at play? In proposition 10, Walton argues that this is not the case. To explore this question, let's look at the creation of the“firmament” (the ancient Near East conception of the sky) on day two. Walton recognizes that this signals "a potentially material component" to the creation account, but he ultimately concludes that the text is really only concerned with the firmament's functional existence in the operation of weather (that is, it holds back, and occasionally lets through, the waters above the firmament).1
Still, there seems to me to be a heavily implied bit of material ontology in at least some parts of Genesis 1 (most clearly seen when it comes to the firmament), even though the functional ontology is certainly primary. In this and in other books, Walton recognizes a material element to the ancient cosmic geography. For example, in his book Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, Walton writes that the ancient Near Eastern cosmic geography (which the Old Testament shares) was "predominantly metaphysical and only secondarily physical/material" (emphasis added).2 As for the firmament, Walton writes that in the Hebrew it is "of unspecified material" but was seen as something solid.3 Given all of this, it would seem natural to expect that an ancient audience would likewise have seen the creation of the firmament in Genesis 1 as an act of functional and material creation. Walton's argument in The Lost World of Genesis One seems to be that since there exists no materially solid firmament, then Genesis 1 can't be speaking of material creation here.4 I'm afraid I have quite a hard time following this particular argument. If the ancient audience assumed some material solidity in the firmament's existence, then why should our disbelief in the same suddenly step in and compel us to reject any element of material ontology in the account of the firmament's creation?
Here and elsewhere in his book, Walton seems to see the functional-only reading of the firmament's creation as a way to sidestep the difficulty of the Bible's reference to a solid firmament.1,4 But this should only be a difficulty for biblical concordists, those who believe that the "science" of the Bible's cosmic geography should be the same as the science of today. Walton ably points out the problems with concordism, so "find[ing] some escape from the problem" of the Bible's firmament seems an unnecessary move.
In conversations I've had with Old Testament scholars,many of them do still see an element of material ontology at play (being at the very least implied) in Genesis 1. If so, then harmonizing the seven days of creation with our current understanding of cosmological and geological history might not be quite as straightforward as it is for Walton. Nonetheless (and regardless of which scholars we follow on this exact point), I am convinced that the main thrust of Walton's argument remains fully convincing and enormously helpful: that Genesis 1 is above all an account of God's establishment of functional order to inaugurate the world as a cosmic temple, the locus of God's "rest" and control over all things. This is a theology of creation that gives us flexibility to learn from the best of modern science, while placing that science in a richer and more profound theological light.