At the recommendation of two of the former pastors from my church, Pastor Bo Matthews and Pastor Bill Parsons, I grabbed a copy of John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis One.” Walton, an expert on the book of Genesis, attempts to propose an approach for reading and understanding chapter one of Genesis, one of the more fiercely debated portions of the Bible. He outlines eighteen propositions towards a literary and theological understanding of the passage. A large part of his approach centers on the idea that our best way of approaching the passage is NOT with our 21st century cultural and scientific leanings, but instead to understand how people in general understood and approached the cosmos 3500 years ago (approximately when Moses wrote Genesis), and how that would have shaped their understanding of Genesis one. Here are two of the key quotes that really resonated with me as I started reading it:
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. (page 20)
If God were intent on making his revelation correspond to science, we have to ask which science. We are well aware that science is dynamic rather than static. By its very nature science is in a constant state of flux. If we were to say that God’s revelation corresponds to “true science” we adopt an idea contrary to the very nature of science. What is accepted as true today, may not be accepted as true tomorrow, because what science provides is the best explanation of the data at the time. This “best explanation” is accepted by consensus, and often with a few detractors. Science moves forward as ideas are tested and new ones replace old ones. So if God aligned revelation with one particular science, it would have been unintelligible to people who lived prior to the time of that science, and it would be obsolete to those who live after that time. We gain nothing by bringing God’s revelation into accordance with today’s science. In contrast, it makes perfect sense that God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood. (page 18)
I was a history major in college. My approach to scripture has generally been shaped by that influence, which makes sense. And in reality, there are three types of writing that primarily shape scripture: poetry, history, and prophecy. Because of that, as our knowledge of history outside of scripture grows over the centuries, it tends to confirm what we read in scripture – of course. Scripture is in part history, so man’s historical discoveries should confirm the authoritative history that God inspired. But the debate about Genesis one in particular, and science in scripture in general, is a separate issue. It is looking at scripture as something that it was not intended to be. Does that mean all science in scripture disagrees with our scientific knowledge today? Of course not, but that does not mean it was intended to communicate what we sometimes try to read into it.
Ultimately, Walton makes the case that Genesis one is more about assigning functions than it is anything else. For example, the purpose behind labeling the light day was defining its role as a portion of time. This lines up with much of ancient thought that was more focused on role and function than material origin. Function defined existence and value.
Towards the end of the book I began to feel that Walton was dragging out the argument longer than he needed to. He made his most powerful statements when he focused on culture, understanding, limits of language, writing style, ancient culture and cosmology, etc. Some of his propositions later in the book seemed to focus more on the issue of whether or not science could address the issue of God and it seemed unnecessary to me. The historian in me loved the bulk of his propositions that focused on putting ourselves in the sandals of the original readers and how they would have understood Genesis one. Regardless of that, however, this is a must read. Walton has effectively proposed a thought provoking approach to understanding Genesis one that reconciles scripture and science in a powerful way.
One thought on “The Lost World of Genesis One”
I’m glad you liked it Matthew. Walton humbly acknowledges his interpretation may not be the final word, but he has made a tremendous contribution to our understanding of the creation accounts. Now, you need to read his “Lost World of Scripture.” There he makes an equally strong contribution to the debates over ‘inerrancy’.