John Walton
 on March 15, 2021

How Did the World Begin?

John Walton asks us to consider a theatre production and all its components and apply the same ideas when we interpret Genesis.

a theatre stage with a red curtain

Imagine that a play came into town that you wanted to see. You purchased tickets. But on the evening of the play, you encountered numerous difficulties. The weather was bad, the traffic snarled, streets were closed for construction, and no parking spot was available. Consequently, you walked into the theater half an hour late. Intermission soon came and you turned to the person seated next to you and asked, “How did the play begin?”

The friendly woman is glad to answer your question. “This play was written in the early 20th century and was a Pulitzer prize nominee…” You interrupt her to say that is not what you were asking. She replies that one could not have a play without a script, so that is a very logical answer. You agree, but prompt her again with your question, to which she patiently replies. “OK, the stage was constructed by the Marshall Construction company, which specializes in…” Again, you interrupt to tell her that that is not what you want to know. She is beginning to get a little irritable, and replies, “How could you have a play without a stage?” True enough, you agree, but you again indicate that is not what you are asking.

With a sigh, she tries again. “The set was designed for this stage by the Johnson and Phillips Company that specializes in black box theater design. They…” You cut her off mid-sentence, “NO, that is not what I am interested in!” She has now been frustrated into silence, but the gentleman sitting on the other side of you attempts to step in to help. “This particular production began when the cast was chosen by the Smith and Rogers casting agency. They particularly sought out beginning actors who…” “No, no, no—none of this is what I am asking! Please tell me what happened when the curtains opened!” “Oh,” they reply, “Why didn’t you say so?”

actors sitting with scripts in their lap

We can see the problem. Each of the answers (script, stage, set, cast, and action), is a correct answer to the question, “How did the play begin?” It is true that there could not be a play without any of those elements. Nevertheless, there was a certain type of information that you were looking for.

We encounter the same sort of problem when we think about how the world began. Not everyone will be interested in the same part of the story, and not every culture will be asking the same questions. In our scientific world, we are most interested in the “stage” part of the story. Science can give us almost endless detail about the construction of the stage—that is, our universe and our world—from nebulae to quarks, as well as humanity, and our bodies—from the fossil record to bacteria. But this is not the only way to answer the question.

“What is the cosmos?” A place God designed for him to dwell with his people.

John Walton

The Israelites in their ancient world context, realized there was a stage, but they had little means or interest in generating the stage part of the story. They were more interested in the set—the ordering of all of the backdrops, furniture and architecture on the stage with the purposes of the play in mind. They answered the question, “How did the world begin?” by talking about God’s setting the stage more than his building of the stage (though, of course, he did that too!). They were also interested in the script (“God said”), and in the cast (God and the people he created). But ordering the set was of primary interest.

We should not read Genesis 1-2 without asking the question, “What sort of creation account is this?” That is because we should not expect that every culture would be interested in the same sort of creation account. Their values and interests may lead them to choose a different story than our modern culture might choose. This does not mean that one story is right and another one wrong. They are just different, and one should not be read as if it were another. I would suggest that Genesis 1-2 do not offer a “scientific origins” story, but an identity story: “What is the cosmos?” A place God designed for him to dwell with his people. “Who are we as human beings?” We have to understand what questions they are asking before we can determine the nature of the answers they are giving. If we try to read it as a “stage” story, we will misunderstand.

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About the author

John Walton

John Walton

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 book, The Lost World of Genesis One.