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John Walton
 on September 18, 2009

Reading Genesis 1 Through Ancient (Not Modern) Eyes

In the ancient world people were inclined to be much more interested in issues like order, functions, roles and general operations than in the material stuff of the physical world.


For many of us who take the Bible seriously our approach to the relationship between the Bible and science is determined by our belief that the Bible is true. If empirical science is perceived as offering an understanding that would mitigate or deny the truth of Scripture, an impasse is created that leads people to believe they have to choose between the two.

Before such choices are made, those who take the Bible seriously should ask the question, “What are the truths of Scripture that I should be prepared to defend?” I would contend that we should not feel obliged to defend the “science” of the Bible because its truth is not vested in the science that it reflects. This should not be an uncomfortable thought. Over the centuries since the Bible was written, generations of readers have had all sorts of scientific viewpoints. If each generation felt that the Bible had to be reconciled with the science of its day that would come with a cost––that when science progressed, the science of the Bible would no longer be true. Rather than thinking that the science of the Bible has to be infinitely flexible so as to reconcile with any generation’s view of science, it is preferable to understand that the Bible does not offer a science. Instead, the truth that it has to offer is independent from the science of the ancient world into which God’s Word was communicated.

In the ancient world, people believed that the earth was flat, that the sun moved around the earth; that rain came from a body of water that was held back by something solid; that people thought with their entrails; and that the stars were in the same area as the sun, moon, birds and clouds. God did not seek to give them different information; he was not revealing “true” science. Consequently the science of the Bible is not what has to be defended when we are seeking to understand its truth claims.

I have proposed that the way forward can be found in a renewed analysis of what the biblical text of Genesis 1 is communicating. Those of us who take the Bible seriously believe that the Bible was given by God for all of us. Yet at the same time it is evident that it was not given to us. It is not in our language and it is not communicated with our culture in mind.

Our understanding of Genesis 1 may change radically when we understand two important details about the ancient world. The first is that in the ancient world people were inclined to be much more interested in issues like order, functions, roles and general operations than in the material stuff of the physical world. Because of this, even their thinking about creation is more focused on the functional rather than the material. Creation has more to do with preparation, identity and assignment than physical structures and components. In my writings I have tried to support this focus from the Bible and from the ancient world and have tried to demonstrate that for the author and audience of Genesis, Chapter One is an account of functional origins, not an account of material origins. “Creation” for them involved assigning functions and bringing order rather than manufacturing material.

The second detail concerns the seventh day. What we are unaware of is that in the Bible and the ancient world, God rests in a temple; in fact, temples are built for God to rest in. Consequently when day seven reports that God rested, it conveys unmistakably the idea that the cosmos is being presented as a temple. It is common in the ancient world for temple and cosmos to be closely associated since the earthly temple was considered to be a micro-cosmos. The number seven is often used in connection with temple inaugurations, so the seven day structure in Genesis 1 likewise supports the identification of the chapter as a (cosmic) temple text. This makes the seventh day the most important of the creation week because if God has not entered his rest, it is not a functioning temple.

If we are correct in identifying Genesis 1 as a creation account that intends to inaugurate the functioning cosmic temple, then that interpretation is going to express the truths being conveyed by the biblical author. When we seek to take the Bible seriously, we would therefore no longer have to try to defend the “biblical” view of the age of the earth. The age of the earth is a material issue not addressed in a functional account. Likewise, if Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins, the Bible offers no account of material origins. If that is the case, then empirical science could not possibly offer a view of material origins that we would have to reject in defense of the Bible. The Bible only insists that God is the one who is the Creator and that however it took place, he is responsible for creation. When we read science into the text or build science out of the text, we are following our own modern agendas, rather than explaining or defending the truth of the biblical text.

Though Genesis 1 may not be an account of material origins, God is still to be considered the one who is responsible for material origins whether he used processes that scientists can deduce that took place over long periods, or whether he used instantaneous acts that could never be explained using empirical methods. God is the only Creator and he is acting with purpose. These are the truths that we defend and that Genesis 1 affirms.

About the author

John Walton

John Walton

John Walton is an emeritus 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.