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John Walton
 on April 03, 2015

Material or Function in Genesis 1? John Walton Responds

A "functional" interpretation of Genesis 1 makes the best sense of what we read in the text itself, in the context in which it was written and received.


This article is part of a series of reflections on the book The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton. In this entry, John Walton responds to some of the feedback that the book has received.

As the book clubs have been working through The Lost World of Genesis One and as people have been reading the associated blogs on the BioLogos site, as well as possibly other blogs and reviews, one question emerges more often and more urgently than any other. It has been at the core of negative reviews and critiques of my position, and it has been held as a reservation for many who are otherwise positively inclined:

Before we address this question, it would be of interest to explore what drives this question. I can think of several possibilities, and there are probably more.

1. We feel a need for Genesis 1 to address the making of things or the material world because this is an important doctrine for Scripture to address.

2. We feel a need for Genesis 1 to address the making of things because we need to counter the atheistic worldview of how the cosmos came into being.

3. We view the world through a post–Enlightenment, western civilization lens which sees the material as most important, so we assume God would be addressing that in Genesis 1.

4. We are most comfortable with traditional ways of understanding Genesis 1 as a material account.

5. We feel that the Bible provides not only revelation about God but revelation about our world, so we look for scientific and historical information in its pages.

6. We have studied the text with this question in mind and come to different conclusions.

Any or all of these are possible; some could be held simultaneously, and some may be held subconsciously. Different people will have different reasons for wanting Genesis 1 to be about both material and functional origins, but it is worthwhile to identify those reasons.

In this section, I am going to offer four points that address hurdles that people have encountered. Then, in the next, I will identify four reasons why the origins account of Genesis 1-2 should be considered an origins account pertaining to function and order, rather than material origins, and why it should not be considered “both/and.” As an opening caveat, it must be admitted that, hypothetically, it could be both. But we cannot afford to focus on what the text could be. In a biblical narrative we are looking for the focus that the author intends to incorporate into the text. Any consideration of the material aspects of the account has to be supported by the evidence of the text.

Hurdles people encounter in understanding the concept of functional origins

1. Materialistic presuppositions inherent in our culture.

It is very difficult to resist encumbering the text with our modern issues, our pressing questions, and our worldview. We are intractably materialistic in how we think. We also have to acknowledge how extremely difficult it is for our modern minds to even begin to grasp the concept of an order/function-focused origins account. It makes no sense because it does not yield to western/modern logic. If we try to reason through it and defend it with western-style thinking, we are bound to remain confused. We cannot even resort to the logic of classical Greek thinking—that too is very different from what is found in the world of the ancient Israelites. In fact, people who come from or work in non-western cultures generally find it easier to grasp a function/order understanding.

2. Material Objects non-functioning.

 Some have contended that the account must be both material and functional because it makes no sense for material objects not to be functioning or because making something to function requires a material object on which to act. People question if the celestial bodies are simply sitting there inert or if animals are in a comatose state. This sort of misunderstanding about what God is doing as he makes things functional (see point 3) oftens leads to a misrepresentation of my views. The activity of giving order and function to creation that God performs in Genesis 1 is not possible to define materially, naturally, or scientifically. The work of the six days is to order the cosmos as sacred space and to prepare it to function as sacred space (“it was good”) for people in God’s image. It has nothing to do with the sun functioning as a burning ball of gas or the animals hunting for food or giving birth to their young. The cosmos can only function as sacred space once God has inhabited it and people in his image are there. God is declaring purpose for the cosmos as an ordered space for people and as sacred space where he will dwell. This is what defines the divine activity.

3. What happened in the seven days? What did God do?

Another hurdle that some people have to viewing the text functionally is that they can’t picture what actually happened in the seven days. The answer is: the cosmos began functioning as sacred space. Someone whose only interest was the material cosmos would not have seen anything different happening. But with the completion of the seven days, what is now happening has a newly defined reason and purpose—decreed by God. It all has a new identity. This new identification was associated with seven 24-hour days just as the inauguration of the temple was. A good example of this can be found in the way we use a vision statement or a mission statement for institutions. Recently Wheaton Graduate School inaugurated a vision statement and a mission statement. The graduate school has been in existence for many decades and has had its present shape and programs for a number of years. Adopting and promoting a vision and mission statement will not change how the institution operates. But it articulates a purpose and identity that may not have been realized or present before and proclaims that as its purpose. Genesis 1 is doing something similar. It is articulating a purpose through a mission statement (people living out their designated role as the image of God) and a vision statement (seeing the world around us as sacred space where God is living among his people and being in relationship with them). It provides the opportunity for people to have an expanded view of the program and to understand the program in ways that they have not previously been able to do. This is true for the ancient Israelites who are being drawn out of ancient Near Eastern cultural ways of thinking, but it can also be true for us as readers of Scripture as we are drawn out of our common cultural ideas. Finally, it is also an accurate description of what temple inaugurations do in the ancient world and the Bible.

4. The importance of ex nihilo.

Some believe that Genesis 1 must be interpreted in material terms lest we forfeit the important doctrine of creation ex nihilo. This is not true. The first observation to be made is that other passages in the Bible affirm God as Creator of the material world and either imply or affirm that creation happened ex nihilo. Secondly, the initial formulation of the theology of ex nihilo creation did not have to do with the material world. Rather, it served as the way to argue against Platonic assertions about the eternal existence of the soul. The opposite position, that eventually won consensus in the church, was that the soul is created “out of nothing” when each person comes into existence. It was only much later that the term was applied to the material cosmos. Consequently we can conclude that even though church doctrine in recent centuries has focused on the importance of material creation ex nihilo, it would not be appropriate to drive that doctrine back into the world of the Old Testament. That was not a big issue in the ancient world. Consequently, we need to recognize that there is no question that God is the one who created the material cosmos, and at some point at the beginning of that process he did it out of nothing. Other biblical passages confirm this, as do I—it is essential theology. So we don’t need to try to make this important theological point (God’s non-contingency) with Genesis 1, if this is not an issue it intended to address. After all, just because we have an origins text in Genesis 1 doesn’t mean that it has to offer a comprehensive account of everything that God did at every level. We need to inquire as to what aspects of origins Genesis 1 intends to address.

1. The text does not clearly support a “both/and” interpretation across all six days. 

We need not think of this origins account as a material account because the text consistently supports an ordering/functional view, and lacks the language and focus to support a material view. One way to approach the text with fresh eyes is to ask how many of the days can even be thought of in materialistic terms—that is, where God is forming material objects for the first time.

Day 1 speaks of time. Even if one thought it was about light, we cannot assume a physicist’s concept of light—we have to think like ancient Israelites. Day 1 includes nothing material.

If people believe that Day 2 concerns a solid sky, and they are trying to read the text materially, they are faced with the difficulty that a solid sky is not part of our understanding of a material cosmos. Thus their belief in an authoritative account that tells of material creation is undermined if it says that God created something they don’t believe exists. If, alternatively, day 2 focuses on the “expanse,” someone who wants to believe the focus is material must recognize that for the Israelites, the expanse in which we live is not material—it is empty space. For those who believe that the text is material in focus, Day 2 has nothing of the cosmos being formed for the first time that both we and the Israelites would consider material.

Day 3 uses secondary and passive terms for God’s involvement: let the water be gathered, let the dry land appear (therefore it already exists), and let the land produce vegetation. No new material objects are formed on day 3.

As we actually read the text’s account of each day, finding the focus on organization and ordering rather than the manufacture of material objects, we should be letting it shape our ideas about the narrator’s intentions. God is articulating his vision for a world that will function for the benefit of humankind and as sacred space where God will dwell in relationship with them.

When we reach Day 4 we immediately encounter the functional emphasis in which it is the calendar that is important as verified in the list of functions (signs, festivals, days, and years) in Genesis 1:14. If God were making the sun physically, its importance for light, heat, and energy that life on earth needs to survive should have been emphasized. God “makes” the sun, moon, and stars by giving them their functions—that is what the text says. It should furthermore be observed that we have no reason to believe that the ancient Israelites thought of the sun, moon, and stars as material objects. For example, they did not know that the moon is a rock in orbit reflecting the light of the sun. They didn’t know that the sun is a burning ball of gas. The narrator even calls the objects lights, not even providing them with physical form. We cannot begin by assuming that they knew that what we call the celestial bodies were objects. In the vast information from the ancient world, no hint is found to support their materiality, nor is the logic available that would suggest that anyone in the ancient world (by that I mean pre-Persian ancient Near East—Classical Greek culture is outside of the parameters because Plato, Aristotle, and their congeners revised everything) believed that the sun, moon, and stars were material objects. Consequently, on day 4 we could not claim that the Israelite narrator was intentionally discussing formation of material objects, and instead, the text focuses on their role in the ordered cosmos as they function for human beings.

On day 5, the text begins with God “creating” (first use of bara’ since verse 1), a verb which I have tried to demonstrate focuses more on order and function rather than material creation. It is very important that the narrator returns to this verb here because the great sea creatures were often considered chaos creatures—not part of the ordered world. Here the significance, then, is that it shows us that the narrator is concerned with order as these creatures are to be considered part of the ordered world and under God’s control. They would not be singled out if biological species were being discussed. They are singled out because this is a critical point for understanding what is part of the ordered world. Then God talks about the sea and sky swarming and teeming with birds and fish with no reference to forming these as material biological species. Instead they beautify our world and serve it in many complicated ways. By now we are through five of the seven days, and a functional interpretation consistently finds support in the narrator’s focus and language with no demonstrable attention given to the first formation of material objects. His focus has been on the ordering of the cosmos to sustain human existence by its functions on their behalf (more on this in the discussion of day 6).

Finally in day 6 we encounter a situation where the direct object of the verb (made) is something that both we and the Israelites would have understood to be material. Even here, however, the statement that God made the animals (1:25) is the result of the statement in the previous verse for the land to produce the animals. This is then a case of God’s indirect involvement only through an indicated instrument rather than as a direct material act of creation. It is perfectly normal for the verb used here (‘asa, “made”) to be used of indirect activity. Since the statement about God making animals follows the wording “let the land produce,” it is not as clear that the text means to describe the actual making of objects. And given that it has been focused on issues of order/function thus far, literary consistency should lead us to see day six in the same way. By indicating the “kinds” the narrator is drawing attention to the great diversity of life that inhabits our world. Finally, even when the narrator arrives at the culmination of the creation of people, the emphasis is on their functions: bearing the image of God, ruling, being male and female, reproducing, and subduing.

The conclusion of this point, then, is that the Genesis account should not be considered both material and functional because the analysis of the text fails to support the material aspects. So the question is, given the absence of the new formation of material objects, what warrants the modern thinking that in the Israelite narrator’s mind, this is an account of material origins? We need to ask that question along with careful textual analysis.

To one prominent reviewer whose comments questioned how the text could be understood as focused on order/function alone and not on material, I replied as follows:

Certainly the Genesis 1 account presumes a level of materiality, but, for example, when on day 3 God makes the plants sprout, he is not manufacturing anything material—he is talking about how this system will work for people—purpose rather than operations. Would plants have grown before? Yes! But now they are growing for people who are in God’s image—the ones God has made all of this to work for. I am suggesting we need the target in place (the teleological focus established) before it is really functioning. This sort of perspective is observable throughout the literature of the ancient world.

None of this suggests that God did not make the physical universe—other passages of Scripture affirm that—it just says that that is not the part of the story that Genesis 1 tells, the part that Israel would have been interested in, or the part that is most theologically significant. I believe that God created the matter of the cosmos out of nothing (and the Israelites would also have believed that), but that is not what the story in Genesis 1 is about or what was most significant to them. One can’t have functions or order without the material, but that does not mean that the account is about the material origins of the cosmos. The illustration that I have grown fond of using is that that building a house is one way to tell an origins story, but the origins story about making a home is just as legitimate. Think of the difference of having a tour of the house done by the home inspector before it is purchased (material focus) and the tour of the house you give once you have everything moved in (usually a more functional focus…you showcase how you have set up or organized the house to live in it).

2. We should not think of the text as material as well as order/function oriented because in the ancient world they were inclined to focus their understanding of origins on order and function rather than on material origins.

Having identified in the Bible the preponderance of order and function, we are then not surprised to find the same orientation in the ancient Near East as reflected in a multitude of their cuneiform and papyrus texts whether cosmology is the main topic or is referred to in passing references. A functional approach to origins is strange to us because culture since classical times has increasingly not thought that way. We have seen in the analysis of the text of Genesis 1 that we do not need to impose this idea on the biblical text from the ancient Near East—it is already there! Once we see it in the Bible, it is easy to recognize it also as characteristic of ancient Near Eastern cosmological thinking. This is not a matter of reading the Bible mythologically. The ideas about cosmology are ubiquitously attested throughout the literature of the ancient world—their mythology is only one of the sources of this information. If someone really wants to understand the nature of an order/function perspective on origins rather than a material one in the ancient world, it is necessary to read extensively in the ancient Near Eastern literature. It is not helpful to just read the two or three most familiar creation accounts from the ancient world. We are not just proof-texting; we are trying to immerse ourselves in the way people of a different time and culture were thinking. Without doing this, it is difficult to step into their shoes. At least one step short of reading a lot of primary literature is to check out the much more extensive array of ancient texts represented in my book Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Eisenbrauns, 2011). Footnotes in that work will lead one more deeply into the primary literature. One can easily find specialists in the ancient Near Eastern literature who agree with my assessment of Genesis 1 as focusing on the ordering and functioning of cosmic sacred space rather than materiality. Some of those who disagree think the Bible is just mythology anyway, so the material/function distinction is of no significance to them. With regard to others who might disagree about the focus on function over material in the ancient world, it is important for readers to check the evidence that is offered by both sides. We have to weigh the evidence, not just count the votes.

3. The origins account of Genesis 1 should be understood in terms of order/function because the Hebrew verbs easily give space for that interpretation—they are not inherently material in nature.

Part of this interpretation then depends on the analysis of Hebrew words—and it is true that not everyone analyzes the words in the same way that I do (though I am not alone in my assessment). Be that as it may, it is important for all of us to be willing to return to the table and look at the data again. Examine the evidence with an open mind. Translations often lead us to lean in particular directions, and for many of us, that is all we have to work with. When translations were being made, translators did not generally stop to ask whether the Hebrew terms were inherently material in nature or not. The questions I ask concern whether the verbs (“create,” “make,” and “form”) demand a material understanding? My research suggests that they don’t, and therefore the use of those verbs does not dictate a material understanding. It is our predisposition to read the origins account as material that leads us to read the verbs that way. If the verbs do not intrinsically suggest that, we cannot use the verbs as evidence that the text must be presenting material origins.

4. We should view this account as focused on order rather than material because of the way the narrator frames the account.

It is the narrator whose view carries authority. So it is important to ask whether this authoritative Israelite narrator believed that he was giving an account of material origins. The evidence presented about the absence of material focus in the days already suggests not. Beyond that we can look at the starting point (tohu wabohu Gen. 1:2) to see a focus on order (or, in that case, initial non-order). Again, this perspective can be verified with ample information from the ancient Near East.

As a concluding observation, we should also note that interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 in terms of material origins has traditionally had many problems of its own (e.g. what to do with 24 hour days, Day 4 after Day 1, solid sky). If Genesis 1 does not need to be about material origins, since affirmations about God making the material cosmos appear elsewhere in Scripture, (see last post), a functional focus removes those issues from overshadowing the most important meaning of the text.

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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.