One of the joys of studying the Bible is that "aha" moment that comes when a new piece of learning really opens up the meaning of a biblical passage and makes it come alive with a newfound clarity. The Lost World of Genesis One, written by Old Testament scholar John Walton, is full of “aha” moments, lending fresh insights to the meaning of divine rest, God’s action in the world, our role as divine image-bearing humans, and more. Into the noise of rancorous debates on the merits of various interpretations of Genesis and Christian views on origins, The Lost World of Genesis One hits the “reset” button, restarting the conversation on the Bible’s own terms. Even if one does not fully agree with all of Walton’s propositions, his reorientation of the basis for interpreting Genesis is refreshing, and essential.
Walton's first “proposition” is that when we read Genesis 1, we are encountering ancient cosmology, not modern cosmology. The ancient cognitive environment of Genesis is not something we should be wary of or ignore, nor is it a mere accident of history that Genesis was written from this standpoint; it was the free and wise choice of God to reveal his authoritative Word in the manner that he has. As the remainder of Walton's book makes clear, this recognition has significant consequences for how we understand the Bible's teaching on creation, ultimately enabling us to see both the Bible and modern science with greater clarity and understanding.
Walton's primary focus in the Introduction and first three “propositions” is to differentiate the manner of speaking encountered in Genesis 1 (and throughout the ancient Near East) with the way we typically think about the origins of the universe and life today. Specifically, when we think of existence, origins, and creation, we usually think in material terms, thereby framing the topic in a scientific manner. In contrast, Genesis 1 speaks the language of ancient cosmology, where existence is defined in terms of having an ordained function within an ordered cosmos. Genesis 1 is therefore concerned with functional origins, not material origins. Though this way of thinking of origins may seem radically foreign, Walton gives several helpful examples of modern things (such as a theatrical play, a computer, or a curriculum) whose creation we primarily think of in similar functional and non-material terms.
L.P. Hartley famously opened one of his novels by reminding us that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”1 If that is so, then we are doubly challenged when seeking to understand a biblical text from the ancient Near East, greatly distanced from ourselves both temporally and geographically. With careful attention both to our modern conundrums and the Bible’s ancient context, Walton’s succinct presentation of his scholarly work goes a long way toward building a bridge to the seemingly-foreign world of Genesis.
Learning to prioritize the original context of biblical texts has been quite helpful to me in my own journey exploring science-faith issues. I have often felt underwhelmed by the conventional interpretive options. Growing up as a Fundamentalist Baptist, I was quite surprised to learn that the founders of Protestant Fundamentalism over a century ago were not, in fact, young-earth creationists. As historian Ronald Numbers summarizes, "By the late nineteenth century even the most conservative Christian apologists readily conceded that the Bible allowed for an ancient earth and pre-Edenic life."2 The widespread acceptance of the Day-Age and Gap theories gave these Christians the biblical justification they needed to accept the evidence for an ancient earth. Writing in the series of publications that launched the Fundamentalist movement, theologian James Allen Orr wrote that "few are disquieted in reading their Bibles because it is made certain that the world is immensely older than the 6,000 years which the older chronology gave it. Geology is felt only to have expanded our ideas of the vastness and marvel of the Creator’s operations..." (emphasis added).3 Perhaps the only thing more surprising than seeing this assertion in a central Fundamentalist publication is the fact that Orr found no need to present the earth's great antiquity as anything other than a foregone conclusion for his audience.
It was a great encouragement as I started to explore science and faith in high school to see that even the founders of the especially conservative Christian tradition in which I had grown up were far friendlier to new scientific discoveries than I had imagined. And yet I couldn't help but feel hesitant about the merits of the Day-Age and Gap readings that these Christians favored. Stretching the days of creation may make room for billions of years of cosmic history, but how does it illuminate the theological truths of the Bible itself? How does it bring us any closer to how the original ancient audience would have understood Genesis 1, as opposed to how we would prefer Genesis 1 to speak?
What is perhaps more common today is to hear Christians simply assert that it is not essential to take Genesis 1 "literally," without necessarily advocating for a Day-Age reading either. Yet why needn't we take Genesis 1 "literally" (whatever is meant by that)? If the reason for this assertion is merely a desire to avoid conflict with modern science, then (just as with the Day-Age view), the exegesis of Genesis 1 is driven by something other than the Bible and its original context. Our prioritization of scientific, materially-focused explanations of origins often compels us to read the Bible on those same terms, either using Genesis to filter out much of modern science, or else stretching Genesis to mirror geological history. Such interpretations seem to say more about our own interpretive dexterity (within limits) and preoccupations than about the Bible's own message for us.
One of our strengths in the evangelical community is our commitment to submit our own doctrinal ideas under the authority of scriptural truths. Perhaps one of our weaknesses is our occasional inflexibility in seeing the various ways that truths can be communicated, and that through the mysteries of inspiration God has chosen to speak in ways potentially far different from how we might speak today. We place ourselves under the authority of the Bible's content, but often subject the Bible to our own preferences for the form that we expect that revelation to take. Walton’s work, both here and elsewhere, shows an admirable respect for both the form and content of God’s revelation.
Aside from the exegetical merits of Walton’s work, there is something to be said for the virtue of humility in this approach. Walton’s approach requires us to see that our modern questions and concerns are not the center of the universe, but instead revolve around different questions and concerns potentially far larger and older than our own. Humility furthermore allows us to be generous in recognizing all that we do not know or that remains elusive to us, and encourages us to remain open to fresh insights and differing approaches as further biblical scholarship comes to light.