Book Review: The Lost World of Genesis One

Your first question is most likely, why did I ask for this book? Well, to be honest, while I was reading James McGrath’s book, The Only True God, he mentioned a connection between monotheism and the act of Creation. While I am always, at some level, a literal creationist, I find the idea of mixing science and theology a bit troubling. The Bible is the word of God and has the charge to reveal to us those things about God which we cannot discern from nature (Romans 1.20; 2nd Timothy 3.15-16).

Frankly, I think that merely accepting the Six Day principle of Genesis 1 causes us to miss some of the deeper theology which God intended as He instructed Moses to write Genesis 1. Already, we know that Genesis 1.26 holds key theological ideas in later Christological debates. Moreover, if we briefly examine the idea that things came from things, we can build upon that precept for many biblical things – such as marriage. Even in the first few verses, we approach doctrinal lines which we see completed, or rather expanded, in the New Testament, such as the Spirit and the Water (John 3).

I hope that this review can be turned into a dialogue. At the end of the review, you will find other reviews and discussions on this book.

The book is easily readable and set up according to short propositions, or arguments. In Proposition 1, we find a quote which stands out, and is the key to the entire book:

Through the entire Bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture. No passage offers a scientific perspective that was not common to the Old World science of antiquity.

It is here that the argument for the book is made – that Genesis 1 was given not in our context, nor in a 21st century scientific context, but in a context which the Israelites under the tutelage of Moses would have understood. The author moves to remind the audience of this, almost to a fault where in a reader may give up in attempting to understand the bible at all. I understand what Walton is attempting to say, but he should have spent some time in giving a rejoinder to say that by careful study we can understand the cultural contexts of the Bible.

Proposition 2 opens up discussing the meaning of ontology, or existence. He briefly summarizes ancient texts in relation to his argument that the ancient cultures saw creation stories as explaining function above all. He builds the case that existence is not measured by materialization but functionalization.

In his third proposition, the author examines the ‘literal’ understanding of the Hebrew word (bara) which is translated as ‘create.’ He is right in forcing any ready to forget the many nuances of the English word and attempt to gain an understanding of the Hebrew. He attempts to remain as literal to the text as possible without ‘an attempt to accommodate modern science or to neutralize the biblical text.’ For the author, ‘the truest meaning of a text is found in what the author and hearers would have thought.’

The author moves bara, perhaps unintentionally, into the realm of the principle of creation ex nihilo and monotheism, at least for those interested in later debates in Church History. By applying a materialization to bara in Genesis 1, creation ex nihilo is not only assumed, but demanded; however, if one applies a functionalization to bara, then the matter is politely laid to rest and the discussion is no longer needed. The author draws a distinction between the account in Genesis and the ultimate creation.

By the end of the third proposition, Walton begins to finally tackle the text itself. His use of Genesis 1.1 should be read in light of the JPS translation. In the end, however, he removes any hope of a ‘gap theory’ between Genesis 1.1 and 1.2, remaining as literal as possible.

Proposition 4 expands upon points made in the previous discussion by noting that Genesis 1.1 does not lend itself easily to a creation ex nihilo principle because it is obvious that certain material creations already existed. Walton does not fail to remind the reader that we have to interpret the text in the terms of the author, so he briefly explains a proposed understanding of the Hebrew words found in Genesis 1.2, bohu and tohu detailing the need to translate these words removed from the material translations. If we compare these words to other uses in  Hebrew, we find that tohu means unproductive, which fits into the scheme of the author – that the seven days account concerns functionalization over materialization.

Has the author lost his wind? That is my question while reading the first two-thirds of Proposition 5. His writing style changes in this section, becoming more looser. While he repeatedly reminds the reader that his view is that creation is functional over material, he dashes ahead to the end of the first day, working his way backwards to create his thesis. While his thesis is acceptable, his manner of delivery makes it almost unpalatable, until the end. His ability to connect the first three days and the events immediately following the Great Deluge through the functions of life secures his argument.

In contrast to the previous proposition, Proposition 6 moves into the realm of living creation and the measurement of time which is important to those living creatures. His writing style is only slightly less looser than in the previous section, depending upon an allegory to carry his point. His moves to direct the reader to see the creation on Days 4-6 as installing functionaries – assigning functions to pre-existing things; however, he looses the reader when he begins to see the great sea creatures and the birds as being cosmic. That is, unless he understands the seas and the air of Day 5 as those things around us, and not those things metaphorically around us.

In this section the author also continues to note the similarities with the Near Eastern creation accounts, but also drives up the essential differences. He skips the theology of verse 26, which is something that could have bogged him down and side tracked him. Further, he manages to ignore almost completely the creation of Adam. Calling the first man and woman archetypes will not sit well with even those who might agree somewhat with him by demand that death came by Adam.

Proposition 7 is rather short, and unsupported. This chapter, while making a large assumption which will impact (unpack?) and explain the rest of the thesis, contains only four short endnotes – and a condescension concerning what we should know. Of course, everyone in the ancient world knew everything – but where is the proof of the assumption concerning the Sabbath and the Temple? The author attempts, rather weakly, an explanation of the Sabbath day, using only a few other biblical passages. Calling this an interpretative key, he promises that this will help us move forward. If this was the key to the entire Creation account – interpreted to his thesis – then he should have given us more support.

Much to the delight of this reader, the author returns to well written material in Proposition 8. In my opinion, this section should either be melded with the previous section, or transposed. In this proposition, the author manages to build a sound case for the Temple motif in the Creation account as well as bringing in the Garden of Eden into the mix. Further, he connects this singular thought system through the tabernacle to the Temple, showing a well developed and understood system (by the ancient Israelites) which can be used to measure Genesis 1. He builds the case for an understanding of the Temple in cosmic fashion (Heaven is my throne…).

If you take Proposition 8 before 7, 7 makes much more sense. If you can see that the Temple, cosmic and other wise, is the dwelling place of God, then you can attempt to (re)define rest. Once you do this, then the seventh day in creation, and indeed, the eight, becomes a clear example of what God’s rest truly was. It is not merely a break, but an assumption of power, and really, of function inside the cosmic, or heavenly, Temple.

The author is picking up steam in Proposition 9. First, he is adamant about being literal to the context, which is apparent when at the end of the section, he easily deals with the attempt to take ‘the nature of days’ by some who try to re-imagine the days to mean ages or epochs. He is steadily behind the fact that yom in Hebrew means a literal day, but he insists that we must take the creation account as an inaugural ceremonial in which the High King was installed in the Temple. He gives for examples the seven years which it took Solomon to build his temple, and then returns to the previous description of ontological existence, in which something did not exist until it was used, or in the case of Solomon’s temple, filled with the Glory of God.

Walton’s view here makes sense – the material world pre-existed, but at some point in time, God established His Temple, and it was at this time that functions and functionaries were assigned their roles (priesthood). Further, it was when God rested that the whole earth was filled with His glory. Unlike the Near Eastern accounts, with functions directed towards God, and functionaries becoming smaller deities, there is but one God in Genesis, and everything was centered on humanity.

The author, surprisingly, is able to remain constantly literal in context, bringing to the reader’s attention a different view.

Note, we are entering the second part of the book which seems to be a prolonged defense of the first part.

Walton moves to restate his previous chapters in Proposition 10. His notable statement here reads:

Viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as temple does not in any way suggest or imply that God was uninvolved in material origins -it only contends that Genesis 1 is not that story.

The author does an admirable job in remaining literal and concerning with the theological implications, attempting to answer in measured terms the objections which he will surely receive. Specifically he answers Colossians 1.16-17; Hebrews 1.2; 11.3; and the all important Romans 5.12. He makes a good case in understanding the relationship of the Tree of Life to the immortality of the body which supports his thesis.

Proposition 11 is an argument that the author remains literal in context and accepts the plain reading of the text. He drives home the separation between his thesis and others, such as framework and concordist approaches, arguing that a thesis such as the one postulated in the book allows for the author and the audience to come shining forth. In comparison to several of the theories on interpretation, Walton’s theory is rather sound, preventing those interpretations which much change based on the scientific notion of the day. Proposition 12 spends a considerable amount of time detailing the various interpretations on Genesis 1 and showing how they stand in contrast to Walton’s thesis. Jumping ahead to Propisiton 15, the author shows the inability of Intelligent Design to remain scientific and theological, focusing on the fact what while science provides the mechanisms, theology provides the purpose. Again, we are reminded that for the author, function (purpose) is the correct interpretation of Genesis 1.

In this third part, Walton describes the implications for his thesis.

Proposition 13 explores the levels of thought, scientific and theological. In this section, the author attempts to distinguish the purpose of science and the purpose of God, and does so, again, with a mundane allegory. While it serves the purpose well, his mixing of these metaphors with deeper thoughts often lends itself more to humor than theological assessment of the situation. With that said, I believe the author’s point of the nature of science and the purpose of Genesis is correct, and that his thesis, if viewed in this light, provides not merely a soundness but a theological constant that is missing from differing views of Genesis 1.

As a follow-up, Walton describes the short line between God’s role as Creator and Sustainer – which he points out that a deistic view of science (latter) and an extreme Creationist would have (former). In Proposition 14 the author essentially creates a logical argument on the continued creation centered on the author’s thesis, using Moltmann as a starting point.

As we move into the final sections, the author begins to rehearse the common objections that will be leveled against him. In Proposition 16 the author begins to tackle the allowance for evolutionary science as an origins with purpose model. He handles well what he sees as three objections to the use of evolutionary science – at least he does for two of the three of them. The weakness of of his thesis comes through in discussing the very literal need for a very literal Adam and Eve.

In Proposition 17, Walton states that the theology is stronger, rather than weaker, if his position is upheld. While some of this proposition’s premise is correct – that indeed, the idea of the Eight Day Creator provides for us a continuing view that God is active in our daily lives, the author does not go far enough. He writes that his view of the Sabbath would be stronger, he fails to bring in the New Testament of Sabbath (cf. Hebrews) which would have sealed his point. Several of his subjections experience this weakness – not a detriment to his thesis, but definitely to this proposition.

The final proposition deals expressly with the idea that a purposed view of creation need not be taught in the classroom. Remember, for the author’s premise, Genesis 1 concerns function/purpose, not the mechanisms/how. For the author, as proposed in Proposition 18, only empirical science should be taught in the class rooms. I quite agree.

The book ends with a summary and a group of questions which I assume the author knows he will be asked frequently.

The premise of the author is an interesting one, but it is new. Inherently, humanity rejects things that are new. It has yet to be tested, and verified. The author knows this. While it holds great theological promise, the issue remains that at no time in theological history do we find such a view. The premise seeks to reinterpret Genesis 1 in light of Ancient Near Eastern culture and myths. While it is promising, it generally only borrows some of the myths. The author quickly points out that while in these myths, creation serves the needs of the gods, the Creation in Genesis 1 is centered to humanity.

While the entire thesis is interesting, to say the least, the author’s theory has problems. First, it is difficult to understand how this view will be widely accepted –  except by those who are having trouble creating cohesion between a literal biblical worldview and modern science – or at the very least, easily accepted. As the author notes, it is new. Further, while he attempts to answer questions of Genesis 2 and the use of Adam in the New Testament, he doesn’t do it fully. There are lingering questions as the need of a very real Adam and Eve. Something that I do not think the author answers adequately. Further, his explanation of the use of firmament as weather control is the weakest point in his argument.

On the other hand, his strengths center on Proposition 8, in which he details the use of the Temple in his motif. By far, it is this notion that provides a foundation for believability for his argument. His entire thesis, as a whole, allows for the complexities of Creation to shine forth, and allows sincere believers to find the beauty that emerged from the chaos, of which we still see the chards which remain.

I would like to invite discussion from all sides, as long as it remains on point.

Book Excerpts

PDF Prologue and Introduction »
PDF Proposition 1. Genesis 1 Is Ancient Cosmology »

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32 Replies to “Book Review: The Lost World of Genesis One”

  1. Excellent review! I may go back re-read this book sometime in the future, or, even better, get a copy of his more substantial treatment to be published sometime in the near future.

  2. Thank you for the review.  I also agree that Walton’s work on ‘rest’ was a bit lacking.  He made some bold statements (such as – divinity ONLY rests in temples) and there was a lack of corresponding literature.  I look forward to his more substantial treatment as most other people seem to be saying.

  3. Sorry I can’t add any discussion but I want to say how good this review is. If the publisher gave you a copy, they got their money’s worth. Very thorough review and a great list at the end.
    For now I need to read a commentary on the whole of Genesis but later on I’d like to come to this to get a different viewpoint and make me think.
    I like how he takes a plain reading of the text but not an overly traditional (in a negative sense) one.

  4. Two more posts wow that’s a lot of work. It’s very helpful though not only to learn about what the inspired author may have been saying to his original audience but also to understand where others are coming from and being more tolerant to a degree where appropriate. Not that I’m a big fan of “tolerance”.

  5. Good review. Sounds like an interesting book (if a bit hard to follow at times). I’ll have to weigh in on it later after I’ve given the review a more careful read than the once-over I just did.

  6. One question I’ve still got after reading through more carefully. I’m not sure I fully grasp the distinction being made between “materialization” and “functionalization.”

  7. OK, I thought that’s what it was driving at, but wasn’t sure.

    Well, I can’t pretend the books themes are not encouraging from a Mormon standpoint. I kind of wince when I say that – because I’ve seen traditional Christian scholars get unfairly condemned by certain factions within Christianity as soon as the word got out that their ideas might conceivably validate any aspect of Mormonism.

    But as I’ve stated elsewhere, the LDS Church has rejected creation ex nihilo almost from the beginning. Founder Joseph Smith taught that the universe is co-eternal with God and has no beginning. He also taught that the most basic components of human identity are also eternal and without beginning. He also made the radical statement: “there is no such thing as immaterial matter.”

    Basically, the meaning was that “spirit” is still material – but simply more refined, and therefore invisible to us at present. All this is, of course, a radical departure from centuries of traditional Christian tradition.

    So that’s my full disclosure of where I’m coming from.

    Now, about the book review…

    The idea of functionalization seems a good way to explain things.

    I have long felt that traditional Christian reads of creation ex nihilo into the Genesis account were unnecessary. Attempts to shore up such reads by appealing to the “Big Bang” in modern physics seemed quite sketchy as well (I agree with polycarp’s suggestion that science and religion be kept separate in at least some sense for now).

    Physicist Alan H. Guth has a good quote on the Big Bang:

    “To say that everything came from the Big Bang is like saying babies come from maternity wards – true in a narrow sense, but it hardly goes back far enough. Where did the stuff that went “bang” come from? What was it? Why did it bang?”

    As far as I can tell, you can get the physics back to “time zero” (t0), but no further. There is simply nothing observable to state what was going on at the beginning. Neither can much be implied from it since the normal laws that we know in the universe seem to break down prior to t0.

    That hasn’t stopped some Christian apologists, like William Lane Craig from trying to deduce creation ex nihilo from the Big Bang. The problem is, they use a “hot Big Bang – singularity” model that has been moved away from by most modern physicists.

    Even if you do accept the “hot Big Bang” it doesn’t establish Craig’s point because even a singularity doesn’t rule out there being “something” prior to t0. Things get even weirder and more problematic for Craig when you throw in String Theory and other concepts of quantum physics, like the “multiverse” – which I think Craig rejects (just makes the universe a little too strange for him, I guess).

    No matter how you argue it, the fact is modern physics and cosmology doesn’t go back far enough for us to talk about theological beginnings with any pretension of academic proof.

    We hit the same problem with the Genesis account. The book simply doesn’t give us enough to definitively say “creation ex nihilo” or “creation ex materia.” To get either concept, it has to be implied into the text.

    And the central problem is that, like Big Bang cosmology, I just don’t think the Genesis account goes far back enough. On its face, the Genesis account seems to only speak of creation of what was known to ancient Hebrews – the earth they stood on, the things that surrounded them, and the sky they gazed at. McGrath’s point of viewing the text as the original authors would have understood it, seems spot on to me. The writer(s?) of the Genesis account weren’t thinking about even our modern solar system, much less our spiral galaxy or the expanding universe when they wrote chapter 1. They wrote about that which was before them. And I see no reason why God should have dealt with them otherwise.

    Thus, Genesis seems to speak of a localized creation rather than a universal one. If one wishes to generalize genesis to the entire cosmos known in the 21st century, one does so only by implication.


    This equally applies to Mormon arguments – it bites both ways. When I said Genesis and modern cosmology don’t go far back enough to establish (or even strongly suggest) creation ex nihilo, that has to be balanced with an equal understanding that neither do these things establish the Mormon notion of creation ex materia.

    In the end, neither modern physics, nor the Bible go far back enough to tell us about the absolute beginning – or to tell us there was no beginning. I think it is misguided to use either in the hopes of establishing either position.

    Thus the question becomes mostly a purely theological one. A question for people either pushing or rejecting the “Kalam Infinity” argument for example. It’s something for theologians to argue over in an abstract fashion. But it’s not really a biblical question, and certainly not a question for the physicists.

    As for Mormons, they don’t really point to either modern physics or the Bible (except in a purely apologetic fashion) for their foundation. They point to modern revelation through Joseph Smith for the grounding of their theological concepts (which I don’t expect to many here to buy into, but I’d rather not wade into that argument now).

    Just my two cents.

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