Volume 40 - Issue 2

Response to Richard Averbeck

By John H. Walton

I respect Dick Averbeck as a scholar and value him as a friend, so I am grateful for his careful critique of my book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, and welcome the opportunity to respond. As is evident in his review, there is much on which we agree, but, as is fitting for this sort of venue, I will focus my attention on the main points on which the two of us disagree. I will not do that by interacting with his own view of Genesis 1–4 (though I would take issue with numerous points therein), but by discussing the points that he raises against my interpretation.

It would be easy for either of us to get down and dirty in the details of Hebrew lexical analysis, and, indeed, it is at times on such points that the differences between us hinge. I will mention just a couple of these since he raised objections.

1. Genesis 2:15. Averbeck contends that the verb עבד translated “to work it” should be understood as working the ground in agrarian activities because that is what it means in Gen 2:5. But as he well knows, the same verb is used frequently throughout the Pentateuch for the service of priests in sacred space. We determine which meaning the verb has by the direct object. In Gen 2:5 the direct object is the ground, while in 2:15 it is the garden. The question of whether the garden is being referenced as land to be tilled or sacred space to be cared for is resolved by the companion verb שׁמר, translated “to take care of it” which is much more suitable to sacred space (Num 3:8 uses both verbs for priestly work). We do agree that Adam is being given a sacred task.

2. Understanding of עשׂה. In the discussion about whether God’s acts are focused on material or functional origins, the nature of the verbs inevitably comes under examination. In discussion of day four, Averbeck contends that “This [נתן ,עשׂה] would be the most obvious way to describe making and placing physical objects that one can see.” He refers to my discussion of עשׂה being translated as “prepared” as a case of special pleading. He misses the point that I am trying to make there. I have no reason to choose “prepared” over any other translation. My point is that עשׂה can refer to any step in the causation process—including non-material ones. Consequently, one cannot deduce what level of causation God is engaged in. God makes Adam and he makes all of us.

3. Understanding of צֵלָע. Averbeck’s choice of 1 Kings 7:3 to equate “beams” to “rib” strikes me as a case of special pleading in that there are many other examples that use צֵלָע as “side” and Genesis 2 fits better into that category since Adam speaks of both bone and flesh (2:23).

We could also discuss at great length the way that people thought in the ancient world, and though we are generally in broad agreement, one of the key issues on which we differ concerns metaphor. He seems prepared to claim that the rising and setting sun and thinking with the heart are just metaphors because they are metaphors to us. Our metaphors, however, are the vestige of what was once a different way to think about the world. There is no basis for believing that the ancients did not think the sun was moving or that they did not believe that cognitive processes actually took place in the heart.

I offer one other brief point with regard to ancient Near Eastern thought concerning temple building in the ancient world. It is true that the material construction of temples was extremely important and the detail of that construction is shown to be of great interest in the temple building texts. Nevertheless, I would contend that the ancients give attention to the material construction to indicate that the details of the temple were communicated by the gods, were suitable for the gods, and could therefore function as they were intended. It is the function of the temple that interests them. Of course, there must be a temple before it can function.

Most important, however, in the disagreements that Averbeck and I have, are the larger conceptual issues that we see differently, and I would like to focus most attention on three of those.

1. Functional, Not Material. One of the most frequent questions I am asked is the one Averbeck poses—why can’t Genesis 1 be both material and functional? That is more an issue with my book on Genesis 11 than on this book (though that issue was briefly revisited in this book), so I am not going to address it here.2 Instead I will point readers to my more extensive response in two blogs that I recently posted, one concerning hurdles to thinking that Genesis 1 is functional, not material, and the other on reasons why Genesis 1 should be seen as functional not material.3

2. God’s Involvement in Making Humanity. Averbeck contends that God does not “step in” to some evolutionary process, but is engaged throughout. I am in full agreement that whatever took place, God is indeed active and engaged. On this point we share the same view. Our differences emerge when he states: “In my view, the point that the text is making with intentional and theological force is that God was directly involved in creating us as humans.” This suggests that there could be things that God is not directly involved in. In contrast, I would contend that even when we can give a complete scientific explanation of something by identifying natural causes and natural laws, that God is still every bit involved and active. The categories of “natural” and “supernatural” that we have today are not a reflection of how people thought in the ancient world. For a detailed treatment of this see my recent post at the BioLogos Forum.4 God is no less active just because scientific explanations can be given. The distinction Averbeck makes shows his acceptance of Enlightenment categories that did not characterize the ancient world.

3. Comparative Methodology. Averbeck is worried that I have the view that sometimes “God simply goes along with ANE cosmogony and cosmology.” What we are dealing with here is the hermeneutic of accommodation, which is really not itself in question. All scholars recognize that there are many occasions in which God simply adopts in his communication the way that people commonly think in the ancient world. Yes, God talks as if there is a solid sky and there isn’t one. But our doctrines of inerrancy always qualify that the text is inerrant in “all that it affirms.” God is revealing himself, not a cosmic geography for the ages. Anyone who has read my work in detail knows that I am not the least inclined to see the Israelites borrowing from ANE texts. Instead, I think that it is extremely important for us to realize that the Bible is written for us, but not to us. We therefore need to understand the cognitive environment of the ANE so that, at the very least, we can identify areas where our own modern thinking is intruding on the biblical author’s communication. The challenge is great, but the need in discussions like this one is urgent.

[1] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

[2] See John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 35–45.

[3] “Material or Function in Genesis 1? John Walton Responds (Part 1),” The BioLogos Forum: Science and Faith in Dialogue, 3 April 2015,; “Material or Function in Genesis 1? John Walton Responds (Part 2),” The BioLogos Forum: Science and Faith in Dialogue, 10 April 2015,

[4] “‘Natural’ and ‘Supernatural’ are Modern Categories, Not Biblical Ones,” The BioLogos Forum: Science and Faith in Dialogue, 28 April 2015,

John H. Walton

John Walton is professor of Old Testament and coordinator of the Masters of Biblical Exegesis at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.

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