To Function or Not to Function

My task at hand is to engage John Walton’s Propositions 4–6 in his volume The Lost World of Genesis One. Let me begin by acknowledging that Walton and I share similar graduate training from the same esteemed institution (though some decades separate our studies). In this manner, Walton is very much speaking my language throughout his volume. His insistence on getting into the cognitive environment of the ancient biblical writers, understanding as best we can their world, drives my own hermeneutic. Since the release of The Lost World of Genesis One, numerous discussions and reviews, both scholarly and otherwise, have come out. I don’t necessarily desire to repeat what has already been said, so I have focused my discussion here on what I hope to be a few interesting points, arranged by first briefly summarizing my understanding of his Props (propositions) 4–6 and then engaging with the specific proposals therein.

Proposition 4: The Beginning State in Genesis 1 Is Nonfunctional

In this chapter Walton proposes that the precosmic condition of Genesis 1 and (at least some) ancient Near Eastern creation texts describe a state void of function, not material. His conclusion here furthers his basic understanding of the Hebrew verb bara (“create”), which he discusses in Prop 3 and defines, in the context of Genesis 1, as functional activity; that is, a creation of function (a bit more on this below). The primary discussion in Prop 4 engages the Hebrew terms tohu and bohu (often rendered “formless” and “void”), which Walton argues convey the idea of nonexistence in the sense that to and bohu are nonfunctional (though they do exist materially); tohu and bohu await creative activity, at which point they exist (now functionally) in the mind of the ancients.

The key to understanding Prop 4 is in ascertaining what Walton means by his use of functional, nonfunctional/functionless, existence, nonexistence, and (functional) nonexistence/functionally nonexistent. This is no small task, and I know that his proposal here has been criticized by scholars simply because it seems too difficult to understand. (I suspect that this has lent to some misunderstandings as well.) The key to making sense of the discussion is to keep in mind Walton’s basic premise: function=existence and nonfunctional=nonexistence in the ancient Near Eastern mind. In Prop 4, tohu and bohu are functionally nonexistent though they exist in material form, so perhaps “materially existent” is another term to throw in the mix.

In his concluding remarks in Prop 4, Walton states that “cosmic creation in the ancient world was not viewed primarily as a process by which matter was brought into being, but as a process by which functions, roles, order, jurisdiction, organization and stability were established.” Certainly one point of criticism that Walton has received is on his seeming overuse/overemphasis of the functional activity of Genesis 1, but I believe these assessments to be unfair, which is why I highlight the quote here, to emphasize that while Walton’s proposals throughout the book rely on interpreting the creation of Genesis 1 in terms of function (this is, after all, the proposal of his book), he fully understands that it is not necessarily limited to function, especially regarding the meaning and uses of bara. Theoretically, at least, he observes that both are possible. (This statement comes later in his book. [p. 170])

Proposition 5: Days One to Three in Genesis 1 Establish Functions

This chapter addresses the first three days of the Genesis 1 account and concludes that descriptions of these days explain and concern function rather than material. So, periods of time are created in a functional sense. Likewise, weather (day two) and food (day three) are created for function. He labels time, weather, and food as three major functions, or main categories, in the operation of the world and argues that the three elements are also attested prominently in ancient Near Eastern texts.

One particular element that Walton brings up a number of times in this chapter is especially worth noting, since it highlights his hermeneutic that permeates his theory, essentially, that God revealed himself to our ancient biblical writers in ways that made sense to them. So, for Walton, “It would be no surprise then that God’s creative work should be proclaimed relative to those issues that serve as the universal foundation of how people encounter the cosmos.” That is, “God did not give Israel a revised cosmic geography—he revealed his Creator role through the cosmic geography that they had,” and besides, “that material cosmic geography is simply what was familiar to them.” “[It] reflect[s] accommodation to the way the ancient audience thought about the world.” In Prop 6 he also states, “Genesis is working within the normal conceptual framework of the ancient Near East rather than forging new scientific trails.” That God revealed himself to real people, in real space and time, is an aphorism I hear myself repeating over and over in the classroom. This is how the Hebrew Bible has come to us. To repeat what I noted earlier, Walton is speaking my language here, and it’s an interpretive mindset that bears repeating, one that is too often neglected and forgotten by biblical interpreters. (And by the way, that doesn’t just include academics and pastoral leaders; biblical interpreters include anyone who reads the Bible.)

Prop 6: Days Four to Six in Genesis 1 Install Functionaries

Prop 6 follows the pattern begun in the previous chapter. Following the normal literary structure of Genesis 1, Walton now explains days four through six as describing the installation of functionaries and their roles associated specifically with their inhabited space: celestial bodies in their sphere (day four), creatures and cosmic space (day five), and animals in terrestrial space (day six). The end of the chapter is devoted to the functions assigned humanity, rightly highlighting humankind as the climax of the creation account and whose functions, among procreating and subduing or ruling other creatures, includes functioning primarily in a godlike capacity in relationship to the rest of creation (i.e. in God’s image). Walton also addresses descriptions of humankind creation in Genesis 2, proposing that material origins attested there are not unlike descriptions in ancient Near Eastern literature and should be understood as archetypal. So, Genesis 2 is not a statement of material process, or chemical composition, but is a functional comment, indicative of human destiny and mortality. Walton proposes that the authors of the New Testament, likewise, treat Adam and Eve in archetypal terms. His footnote at the end of this paragraph provides the caveat that the function of an archetype does not exclude historical or biological reality. And there Walton confirms both Adam and Abraham as historical figures. What is striking to me about this foray into Genesis 2 and then Romans 5 is that while Walton is clear that Genesis 1 is a creation account describing function (not material), he attests a historical Adam and creation ex nihilo based on biblical chapters other than Genesis 1, two beliefs that many others interpret as coming specifically from Genesis 1. Walton holds these interpretations though he does not believe such views are proposed in Genesis 1. In this manner, Walton has provided a compelling venue, based on excellent scholarship of Genesis 1, which supports those who wish to deny a historical Adam or creation ex nihilo; because in his analysis, Genesis 1 does not address those issues. The topic is undoubtedly a hot one in the field of Old Testament studies and in more scenarios than not, a burning question by interviewers for candidacy and tenured faculty positions. That Walton provides an outlet here (not that his own hermeneutic falls along these lines) is refreshing.

In Prop 6, Walton brings up another Hebrew verb used throughout the creative acts in Genesis 1,  bara. Here Walton acknowledges that the verb covers a large semantic range, including English translations such as “making” and “doing.” To support his view he correctly argues that while bara is used to describe material process the root is not limited to it. And so, for Walton, bara may also relay functionary acts. His discussion on the verb brings back the comment raised earlier regarding the use of bara and its meaningful limitations. Certainly, the collation of  bara in Genesis 1 gives support for more than just a functional ancient worldview. With this said, I do not think that Walton is stretching the meanings of either Hebrew verbs. The ancient language is rich and emotive and leaves room for his slant towards functionality. However, I do wonder if the ancients didn’t have material ontology also in mind, alongside a functional worldview. Even if Genesis 1 was intended primarily as a functional cosmogony, is it too presumptuous to assume that a material ontology was nowhere in their minds? It is perhaps ironic that I am hesitant to suppose a solely functional rendering on the biblical texts when for so long historical interpretation has done just that with a material reading. I do confirm that the biblical creation accounts demonstrate an emphasis on function over material, but perhaps the writers assumed a material ontology as well, even though it may not have been the particular impetus for crafting Genesis 1.

Allow me to close this brief post by commending Walton’s work. Walton has managed to put flesh on a topic that for decades scholars have simply talked around. Scholarly consensus has identified Genesis 1 as a different kind of literature or genre for as long as I know, acknowledging its ancient Near Eastern context, but Walton has proposed so much more here. He has given some detailed reasoning as to why it is that Genesis 1 is different. His analysis ought be taken seriously and discussed, just as we are doing here.