Volume 40 - Issue 2

The Lost World of Adam and Eve: A Review Essay

By Richard E. Averbeck


In his new book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, John Walton tries to show that there is no necessary contradiction or tension between the discoveries of modern science when they are rightly understood and what the Bible actually teaches about cosmic and human origins. The reviewer agrees on this point and many others through the book. The major area of disagreement is that, in order to make his argument, Walton proposes there is no material creation in Gen 1–2; that is, creation has to do with establishing functions alone. This is not sustainable from the text. Both material creation and the functions of those things created are essential components of these creation accounts.

No matter what you say (or write) about the early chapters of Genesis, you are in a lot of trouble with a lot of people. This is a hot topic for many and, unfortunately, discussions about it often generate more heat than light. Like the author of the book, this reviewer believes in the reliability and authority of the Bible as God’s inspired Word to us. John Walton and I have previously interacted on this subject in public and in private. Our disagreements are substantial but, to my knowledge, our friendship and collegial relationship is not impaired by this engagement. One of our many mutual concerns is that Christians learn to discuss such issues in an honest, irenic, and mutually respectful manner. We need to continue to pursue truth together as fellow believers even when we do not see eye to eye on certain points in our understanding of what our inerrant Bible actually teaches.

With that as the point of departure, the goal in this review article is to carefully summarize and interact with the twenty-one propositions that make up the substance of Dr. Walton’s new book The Lost World of Adam and Eve.1 Over the years, he has written extensively on reading the early chapters of Genesis in their ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context. The book under review serves as a companion to his earlier The Lost World of Genesis 1.2 In The Lost World of Adam and Eve he first reviews some of the arguments from that earlier book and then moves into a step by step presentation of how he reads Genesis 2:4–3:24.

His main concern is to show that there is no necessary contradiction or tension between the discoveries of modern science when they are rightly understood and what the Bible actually teaches about cosmic and human origins, especially the latter. The perception of such tension often arises out of traditional and parochial readings of the Bible that are mistaken, or over-reaching theoretical scientific conclusions. According to Walton, there is a credible way of reading these chapters that relieves these perceived tensions and allows both biblical scholars and scientists to proceed with their work unhindered by such needless controversy (pp. 11–14 and 198–210).

Propositions 1–3: Genesis is an ancient document; in the ancient world and the Old Testament, creating focuses on establishing order by assigning roles and functions; Genesis 1 is an account of functional origins, not material origins.

Here the focus is on reading Genesis 1 in the context of ANE creation accounts, a concern with which I am in full agreement and a practice that we both engage in regularly. Walton has published some very helpful materials in this arena, and I have benefited from his work. There is a major problem, however. He argues that the ANE people were not really that interested in material origins but in the proper arrangement of materials into a well-ordered cosmos. It is not that scholars have not noticed the emphasis on role and function in Genesis 1 previously, but Walton puts special emphasis on it, and rightly so. After all, why make something that does not work? Where he goes beyond the limits of the text and speaks in contradiction to explicit statements in it, however, is when he argues that neither the ANE creation texts nor Genesis 1 are concerned about material origins. I will return to this discussion below, after the review of his propositions.

Propositions 4–6: In Genesis 1, God orders the cosmos as sacred space; when God establishes functional order, it is “good”; ādām is used in Genesis 1–5 in a variety of ways.

Walton’s discussion about the occurrences of “Adam” is especially good. He also makes a helpful point when he identifies rest as “the objective of creation” (p. 46), although I think part of the point is also that the work was all done and everything was very good, so he just “stopped” (Gen 1:31–2:3; Hebrew שָׁבַת basically means “to stop, cease”; cf. Exod 20:8–11). In any case, the well-ordered cosmos is like the temples of gods in the ANE. They are sacred space and so is the cosmos. Deities were thought to take up residence in well-built temples and rest there as the place from which they took charge of their whole territory. God did the same. We agree on this point.

My main concern is that he continues to argue that the ancients would have seen this as a matter of roles and functions, but not material creation. As is well-known, rulers were quite occupied with the material construction of temples in the ANE and in the Bible. They expended a great deal of time as well as material and labor resources on building such structures, and we have a large number of texts that attest to this. Yes, the proper ordering of things was essential, but their proper construction was a necessary part of that ordering and very much a part of the textual descriptions of them.

Propositions 7–10: The second creation account (Gen 2:4–24) can be viewed as a sequel rather than as a recapitulation of day six in the first account (Gen 1:1–2:3);

“Forming from dust” and “building from rib” are archetypal claims and not claims of material origins; forming of humans in ancient Near Eastern accounts is archetypal, so it would not be unusual for Israelites to think in those terms; the New Testament is more interested in Adam and Eve as archetypes than as biological progenitors.

In these chapters Walton argues the same basic point for the Genesis 2 account that he has for Genesis 1: there is no material creation of man and woman here. Instead, the focus is on the archetypal nature of humanity’s role and function in the world. He reads ANE stories of human origins the same way and suggests that, in light of this background, the ancient Israelites would have not expected a story of material human origins anyway. Again, in my reading, this understanding of both the Bible and the ANE texts does not deal adequately with what the texts actually say and how the ancients would have heard and understood them.

Walton also takes the Genesis 2 account as a sequel to Genesis 1, rather than an expansion of the sixth day of Genesis 1. The first account is about creating order in the larger cosmos, whereas the second is about creating order on the earth. I myself take the days in Genesis to be literary not literal (see more on this below), and am quite open to his reading Genesis 2:4–24 as sequential rather than as a recapitulation of day 6. In any case, the forming of the birds in 2:19 suggests that this account reaches back beyond day 6 in chapter one, since the birds were created on day 5. The NIV and ESV pluperfect rendering of the verb in 2:19 as “the Lord God had formed” is not cogent. In my view, it is a way to go around what the text is saying and how it says it, rather than reading it as it stands.3

He then moves to the New Testament, where he sees the same focus on archetypal relationships between Adam (and Eve) and Jesus, especially in regard to sin, death, and redemption. According to Walton, the New Testament pays very little attention to our material origins except on a general level in Jesus’s genealogy (Luke 3:38) and in 1 Corinthians 15:45–49 where Paul makes the point that we are of the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7; 3:19; cf. Ps 103:14; etc.) and bear the image of the first man Adam (Gen 5:3).

Propositions 11–13: Though some of the biblical interest in Adam and Eve is archetypal, they are real people who existed in a real past; Adam is assigned as priest in sacred space, with Eve to help; the garden is an ancient Near Eastern motif for sacred space, and the trees are related to God as the source of life and wisdom.

In these chapters Walton comes back around to Adam and Eve again in a different way, now with the intention of showing they were actual historical individuals. He bases this on the genealogical lists and the story of the fall into sin. He does not believe, however, that this settles the matter of “Adam being the first human being, the only human being or the ancestor of all humans today” (p. 101). Eventually he comes around to the conclusion that they were created along with all the rest of humanity in Genesis 1:26–28, but they were not the first human beings created. Instead, they were “the first significant humans . . . by their election” (pp. 114–15; emphasis his). They were elected to be God’s priests in the sacred space known as the Garden of Eden (see the earlier remarks on sacred space above). That was the archetypal role for which they were created.

The general idea here is a good one. Yes, as noted above, the whole cosmos is sacred space, and the whole earth too, but especially the Garden. Other scholars have made this point as well. And I would agree that the ANE material supports it. However, there is a problem with the treatment of Genesis 2:15 in this context: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (NIV). Walton and others have argued that the verb “to work it” here means rather to do “priestly service” in it as a sacred place of God’s residence, like the Israelite priests did in the tabernacle and then later the temple (see, e.g., Num 3:7–8). The problem is that earlier in Genesis 2:5b we read, “the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground” (lit. “there was no אָדָם to work the ground”). The point in v. 15, therefore, would seem to be that, since there was now a man, God assigned him to his appropriate task in the Garden as referred to in v. 5. In fact, I would argue that doing this very thing is a sacred task in and of itself. From the beginning, working the ground and caring for it so that it stays in proper productive working order has been a sacred matter.

Propositions 14–17: The serpent would have been viewed as a chaos creature from the non-ordered realm, promoting disorder; Adam and Eve chose to make themselves the center of order and source of wisdom, thereby admitting disorder into the cosmos; we currently live in a world with non-order, order and disorder; all people are subject to sin and death because of the disorder in the world, not because of genetics.

In the interpretation of the serpent and fall in Genesis 3, Walton has come to believe that the serpent is more than just a snake. It is a chaos creature that shows up elsewhere in the Bible and in the ANE as Leviathan, that twisted serpent with multiple heads, etc. (pp. 133–34; cf., e.g., Ps 74:12–14; Isa 27:1).4 The ancient Israelites themselves would have recognized this immediately. Here in Genesis 3 we have the engagement of the cosmic battle of the ages. Walton distinguishes between non-order, order, and disorder, so that the serpent’s actions are not really inherently evil (p. 136). Instead of that, the serpent is part of the non-ordered world, his interference in the ordering of the world in Genesis 3 brought disorder through the sin of the man and woman in the Garden. Moreover, their sin was essentially a matter of deciding that “they themselves desired to be the source and the center of wisdom and order” rather than leaving that to God (p. 150). It is the disorder of the world that causes all creation to groan, including us (Romans 8:18–25).

One of the main reasons he places so much weight on these distinctions (non-order, order, and disorder) is to lay a foundation for arguing that there was death before the fall (pp. 159–60). Death and suffering are part of the non-ordered world, not contradictory to the notion that creation was “very good” in Genesis 1:31. The ordering of the world was supposed to continue on through Genesis 2 and beyond. But the interruption in Genesis 3 brought rampant disorder, so the order never developed fully as it will in the new heaven and earth (Rev 21–22). In the meantime, “the order that was being formed in the midst of non-order” was the “good” referred to in Genesis 1. The non-order “was not good, though it was not evil either.” Disorder is what is sinful and evil (p. 160). So death before the fall was just part of the non-order, not evil.

Walton has made a valiant attempt here to bring “order” to the discussion about order, disorder, and sin in Genesis 3. In fact, I would agree that the text does not teach that there was no death before the fall. The end of Genesis 1 highlights the fact that the plants of the latter part of day 3 were to be food for the animals and humanity, but it never says there were no carnivorous animals. In fact, the wonders of God’s creation in Psalm 104 include a portrayal of the prey of predatory animals as “their food from God”—part of God’s generous provision for them in his created order (vv. 20–21).

However, I am not convinced that the actions of the serpent in Genesis 3 can be put into the category of non-order rather than disorder, even if it belongs to the non-ordered world as Walton has it. When it speaks contrary to God and leads the man and woman into sin it is part of the disorder and an enemy of God. God’s curse upon the serpent in Genesis 3:14–15 reflects that it is under condemnation and will come to a bad end as a punishment for this act. It is held responsible for it, along with the man and the woman. It is part of the “evil,” and in a sense the progenitor of it, a point that is made in extensions from this passage through the rest of the Bible (see, e.g., Rev 12, which is essentially a midrash on Gen 3 and all that flows from it in biblical theology from Israel to Mary and Jesus and beyond).5

Propositions 18–19: Jesus is the keystone of God’s plan to resolve disorder and perfect order; Paul’s use of Adam is more interested in the effect of sin on the cosmos than in the effect of sin on humanity and has nothing to say about human origins.

As noted above, Walton sees both Adam and Jesus as historical and archetypal, and both also have priestly roles. The first Adam initiated the disorder by his failure in his priestly role in Genesis 3, but Jesus as the second Adam resolves the disorder through his priestly work on the cross. In his “Excursus on Paul’s Use of Adam” (pp. 170–80), N. T. Wright rightly points out that the effects of Jesus’s work are the key to resolving disorder for the whole divine project of ordering creation. It is not just about our personal sin and our salvation therefrom, but the sin of Adam and the resolution of the groaning of all creation. According to Wright, “The great climax of Romans 1–8 is the renewal of all creation, in Romans 8:17–26, where Jesus as Messiah, with a reference to Psalm 2, is given as his inheritance the uttermost parts of the world.” The problem Romans answers is “not simply that we are sinful and need saving but that our sinfulness has meant that God’s project for the whole creation (that it should be run by obedient humans) was aborted, put on hold” (p. 173).

On the one hand, I see his point about the whole creation plan, the importance of the Abrahamic covenant in getting back to it, and Jesus as the key to it all. I agree with all this wholeheartedly. On the other hand, I have been accustomed to seeing the climax of Romans 1–8 in what I have referred to as the “hymn to adoption” (cf. 8:15) at the very end of chapter in Romans 8:31–39. It has seemed to me that the well-known passage in vv. 28–30 serves as the bridge from the groaning in vv. 18–27 to the hymn that overwhelms us with the love of God in his adoption of us by the grace of Christ in spite of our sinful corruption (cf. Rom 7:24–8:17). This, in turn, brings us back to the work of God through Israel in Romans 9–11. I cannot deal with the latter passage here, but Wright himself later takes pains to emphasize Israel’s failure in the whole work of God’s plan to re-order creation (pp. 176–78). He points out that it looks like the whole work is aborted in the Babylonian exile and the post-exilic period, much like in the fall in Genesis 3. But as Wright also notes, both the fall in Genesis 3 and the exile of Israel are resolved in Jesus the Messiah. He writes: “now the whole world is God’s holy land, with Jesus and his people as the light of the world” (p. 177).

Returning now to Romans 8, it seems to me there is a great deal of emphasis here on what Wright seems to want to de-emphasize—the basic gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. I write this with a sense of fear and trembling, since I view N. T. Wright as one of the preeminent NT scholars of our day and have learned a great deal from him about the NT and the Bible as a whole (as I have from John Walton regarding the OT and the ANE). Moreover, I am an OT scholar myself, so I am fully aware that I am out of my league here with such a knowledgeable NT scholar. Furthermore, I cannot imagine that, at the end of the day, Wright would dispute the importance of this gospel even though he seems to want to downplay it in this short piece, perhaps because of the larger topic at hand in this particular book.

Still, I need to explain further why the real climax of Romans 1–8 is 8:31–39, and why this matter is so important for the larger discussion at hand. I cannot deal with all the details here, but, as I see it, Paul’s emphasis on our struggle with sin in Romans 1–8 reaches its peak in the tangled up knot described in Romans 7:14–24. Right after that he makes a sudden turn to God’s work in Jesus Christ as the answer to the whole problem, since “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). I have often likened this to the Greek legend of the cutting of the Gordian knot. Briefly, as the legend goes, in the days of Alexander the Great there was a town in the hinterlands called Gordius after the name of its king. In that place there was an oracle associated with a cart that was bound to a yoke with a knot that no one could untie (there were no rope ends to work with, etc.). It was called the Gordian knot. The oracle was that whoever could untie it would become the ruler of all Asia. When Alexander came to Gordius he took out his sword and just cut right through the knot with one fell swoop. Thus, he became the conqueror and ruler of all Asia, and we have the expression “cutting the Gordian knot,” referring to one drastic action that accomplishes everything.

The point in Romans 7:25–8:4 is that this is exactly what Jesus did for us in one fell swoop through his death, burial, and resurrection. He cut right through the sin that knots us up. He does not try to untie it, and neither should we. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, so even though we still struggle with sin we can just get on with walking by the power of the Spirit who is the “Spirit of adoption” (or alternatively, who works the ‘spirit of adoption’) within us (8:15). The following verse says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (v. 16). The general purpose of testifying is to convince someone of something, and the goal of the Spirit of God within us is to convince us ever more deeply in our human spirit that we are the adopted children of God (cf. 1 Cor 2:10–13).

The hymn of adoption at the end of the chapter is what the Spirit is convincing us of in our spirit.6 This is what the Spirit/spirit of adoption sings within us: there is absolutely nothing from anywhere or on any level that can separate us from the love of God. The more deeply we are convinced of this in our human spirit by the Holy Spirit who is within us, the more there is nothing left to do but go love God and people. Nothing else makes sense anymore. From here we can go into the world as the salt and light we are called to be. We can now participate in and contribute to God’s mission of reordering of the world through Christ, which is what Wright is calling for. But this can never happen without the core reordering of our lives through the Spirit of adoption. That is why this point is so important in the larger discussion we are engaging in as we review Walton’s book.

In regard to the question of the historical Adam and Eve, Wright agrees that they must be a historical pair. He proposes that perhaps

God chose one pair from the rest of early hominids for a special, strange, demanding vocation. This pair (call them Adam and Eve if you like) were to be representatives of the whole human race, the ones in whom God’s purposes to make the whole world a place of delight and joy and order, eventually colonizing the whole creation, were to be taken forward. (pp. 177–78)

This brings us to Walton’s final two propositions.

Propositions 20–21: It is not essential that all people descended from Adam and Eve; humans could be viewed as distinct creatures and a special creation of God even if there was a material continuity.

In these two chapters Walton turns his attention to the scientific issues. He emphasizes once again that Genesis 2 refers to “the nature of all people, not the unique material origins of Adam and Eve” (p. 181). But he also makes it clear that, in his view, just because Genesis 1 and 2 do not deal with material creation does not make modern scientific theories correct either. They stand or fall on their own merits. Neither Walton nor I are scientists. But I hasten to add that we are both very interested in hearing what the scientists have to say about issues of origins, and I believe John Walton has done a good job here of summarizing the major issues that have been raised. He begins with the human genome project, which has led to the scientific conclusion that our genetic diversity requires a source population of some 5 to 10 thousand people. There have been attempts to find a way around this conclusion with a combination of selective scientific findings and reinterpretations of the Bible, but in his view these seem overly complicated and rather feeble.

As we would expect, his method at this point is to argue that passages which may seem to indicate that Adam was the first human being to exist and that we all descend from him do not really need to be read that way at all (e.g., Acts 17:26; Gen 3:20). Perhaps the least convincing is his treatment of the genealogies that run from Adam through history (e.g., Gen 5:1; 1 Chron 1:1) and even to Jesus (Luke 3:38; pp. 188–89). He uses the concept of God accommodating to their way of thinking and their level of knowledge, not that Adam was really the first man from which we all descend. The point would be that Adam was just “the first significant person in their realm of knowledge,” and “[h]is federal headship would easily serve as an appropriate basis for the genealogy to go back to him” (p. 188).

I see three problems with this approach. First, we even use the language of accommodation today, but that does not mean we believe such language in a literal way. For example, we say things about “the sun rise/rising.” Similarly, when they refer to thinking with the “heart,” this simply means that thinking happens within us. Second, one of Walton’s criteria for revealed truth rather than accommodation is when the text builds theology on the concept. It seems to me that Genesis 5:1–3, for example, is in fact doing theology with the notion that Adam is the male progenitor of the race. It ties the image of God discussion directly to him and develops it to the point that “he (Adam) had a son in his own likeness” named Seth (v. 3; note the same language here as in 5:1 and back to 1:26).

Third, and most importantly, although I can see how the archetypal nature of the narrative in Genesis 2–3 could lead us to material continuity from hominids to the first two Homo Sapiens, Adam and Eve, I cannot accept the ongoing argument in this book that Genesis 1–2 nowhere deal with the material creation. In my view, the text simply does not support it. In fact, it is quite clear that God is telling us that he was directly involved in the creation of humanity. The text does so twice from two different perspectives (Genesis 1:26–28 and 2:7, 22). Admittedly, I am not a scientist and, in fact, I feel amateurish in even engaging with such topics. But let me try.

Scientists talk about our material genetic continuity from earlier hominids. Some “evolutionary creationists” would allow for divine intervention along the way in the process while others would not. The latter sometimes argue that if God has to step in, that implies that he did not set up the evolutionary process well from the beginning. This, of course, is not a sound argument, since God has always intended to stay engaged with both his creative and redemptive work, and he still is so engaged (see, e.g., the many Days of the Lord in the OT and the great one still to come). He did not just wind it up and let it go on its own. One of my colleagues calls this kind of approach “deistic evolution” rather than “theistic evolution.” It is the kind of supposed “theistic evolution” that has a lot of evolution in it but virtually no theism.

If we accept the scientific conclusion that there is genetic material continuity from earlier hominids, which I think we can, we would not expect the Bible to speak of it because it would not have been understandable to the ancient Israelites anyway. It would have been “non-sequitur,” so to speak. It seems to me there are two options from here. One is that Genesis 1:26–28 refers to the creation of humanity as a whole so that “they” (plural) can rule over all the animals (vv. 26 and 28). We could read this as a reference to all hominids, Adam and Eve being one selected pair of them to serve as the image of God (something like what Walton suggests). Another option may be to read it as a shift from earlier hominids to Homo Sapiens, beginning with Adam and Eve as recounted in Genesis 2. Could this fit with the science? I simply do not know. Remember, I am admittedly an amateur in this regard! But the latter is what I would prefer because the text suggests that God was directly involved in making something new here. This does not mean, however, that there was no material foundation from which he was working. In fact, the text has God calling forth both the plants and the animals from the ground (Genesis 1:11–12, 24–25), as well as the Lord God making the man from the ground (Genesis 2:7). The consistent material foundation suggests continuity on all levels.

Image and Likeness

As I see it, even our creation in the image and likeness of God is material and physical in nature. There has been no end of discussion of this matter over the centuries, and we must come back to it here. This is essentially where Walton ends his discussion (proposition 21). Genesis 1:26–28 reads:

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image (צֶלֶם) as our likeness (דְּמוּת), that they may rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the (wild animals of the) earth, and all the crawling animals that crawl on the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living creatures that creep on the ground.” (own translation)

The term “image” (צֶלֶם) is regularly used in the Bible for some kind of physical statue, and “likeness” (דְּמוּת) for the notion of similarity, in this case the similarity between the statue and that which it represents. Unfortunately, the tendency in much of the debate has been to reject the physical nature of the terminology in favor of some kind of metaphysical interpretation of the image and likeness, especially since God is spirit, not a material being.

Back in 1979 archaeologists discovered a statue of a king at a place called Tell Fekherye in northern Syria dating to the 9th century BC. On the skirt of the statue is a bilingual (Aramaic and Akkadian) inscription.7 We can compare especially the inscription in Aramaic, where “image” and “likeness” (the same words as in Gen 1:26–27) are used interchangeably for the statue of the king on which it is written.

(1) The image (dmwt’) of Hadad-yith‘i which he has set up before Hadad of Sikan . . . (12) The statue (ṣlm) of Hadad-yith‘i, king of Guzan and of Sikan and of Azran, for exalting and continuing his throne . . . (15–16) this image (dmwt’) he made better than before. In the presence of Hadad who dwells in Sikan, the lord of Habur, he has set up his statue (ṣlmh).

The statue functioned to represent the king before his god in the place where the statue was set up. The implications are obvious when we apply this to Genesis 1:26–28 (see also 5:1–3). True, we are not just an inanimate statue. We are not just a dead rock! The Bible is using figurative language here. Like the statue of a king, we are the “statue” of a king too—the divine king. And we have been set up in the midst of God’s creation to represent him and his interests.

It is not that we look like God physically, but that we are physical beings who stand within the material creation as God’s stewards. We stand before God to serve as his authoritative representatives on this earth “in his image as his likeness.” We have been put in charge and made responsible for how things go here. This is stated clearly in the passage (v. 26): “Let us make humankind in our image as our likeness, that they may rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky” (see also v. 28). Our understanding of our image and likeness needs to be seen in direct connection with our role and function, which is to rule over all the earth on God’s behalf (i.e., as God’s “image”) in a way that is somehow similar to the way God rules over everything (i.e., we do it as God’s “likeness”). God is relational, so we were created to be that way too. God is loving, so we are created to be that way too. God is responsible, so we are created with that as well. And so on.

Material Creation in Genesis 1

As I have noted repeatedly above, Walton’s main concern in this book is to argue that Genesis 2 has nothing to do with material creation. At one point he puts it this way: “The core proposal of this book is that the forming accounts of Adam and Eve should be understood archetypally rather than as accounts of how those two individuals were uniquely formed” (p. 74). He begins arguing this with regard to Genesis 1 (propositions 1–5), so we should start there too, and then come back to chapter 2.

It is certainly true that Genesis 1 is as much about how the world works and how we fit into it as it is about the material creation of it. Nevertheless, material creation is an explicit part of the story. For example, day 4 begins with God’s proclamation (vv. 14–15) that the lights in the sky are there to serve as indicators of “signs, seasons, days, and years” and “to shed light on the earth.” But the passage then continues, “So God made (וַיַּעַשׂ, from the verb עשׂה) the two great lights . . . and God placed (וַיִּתֵּן, from the verb נתן) them in the expanse of the heavens . . . and God saw (וַיַּרְא, from ראה) that it was good” (vv. 16–18). These verb forms are the main way to write past tense narrative in Hebrew. This would be the most obvious way to describe making and placing physical objects that one can see.

One would be hard pressed to find a better way to say it in biblical Hebrew, and examples of this kind of language are multiplied throughout the chapter. Walton casts about for various renderings of עשׂה in the NIV and lands on “prepared,” suggesting that this means something other than “made.” Unfortunately, this is an instance of what one of my professors once referred to as “suitcase theology”—if it doesn’t fit, kick it in! There is a reason the NIV and no other translation that I know of gives “prepared” as a translation here. And even if we use that rendering, “prepared” often means the same as “make” in English (e.g., one can “prepare” or “make” a meal, which is a material activity).

Similarly, in the second part of day 6 (vv. 26–28) God proclaimed, “‘Let us make humankind in our image (צֶלֶם) as our likeness (דְּמוּת), that they may rule over the fish of the sea. . . .’ So God created humankind . . . male and female he created them. And God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply . . . and subdue and rule over the fish of the sea.’” As discussed above, the term “image” is a regular word in Hebrew for a physical image of some kind, for example, a statue of a deity (2 Kgs 11:18; Amos 5:26, etc.), and “likeness” emphasizes the similarity of the image to that which it represents (see, e.g., Isa 40:18 with the following verses about idols).

Driving a wedge between material creation as over against giving order to the cosmos by assigning functions or roles is a false dichotomy that cannot bear the weight of the text. And this does not stand up under scrutiny in ANE creation accounts either. For example, at one point Walton cites the opening lines of the well-known Babylonian creation account Enuma Elish to argue that the pre-creation state is devoid of divine agency (p. 29). But he does not include the parts that refer to the lack of material things as well:

When the heavens above did not exist,

And earth beneath had not come into being—
There was Apsu, the first in order, their begetter,
And the demiurge Tiamat, who gave birth to them all;
They mingled their waters together
Before meadow-land had coalesced and reed-bed was to be found—
When not one of the gods had been formed
Or had come into being, when no destinies had been decreed,
The gods were created (Akkadian banû “to build”; cf. Hebrew bānâ “build” in Gen 2:22 and the discussion below) in them.8

Examples could easily be multiplied. The point is that material creation was of great concern in the ANE as well as in ancient Israel.

Man and Woman in Genesis 2

Similarly, according to Genesis 2:7, “the Lord God formed (יצר) the man (הָאָדָם) out of dust (עָפָר) from the ground (הָאֲדָמָה) and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (v. 7). Here the material out of which the Lord made the first man is referred to as “dust” and later, after the fall, it is said that he will return to the ground from which he was made, “for you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19; cf. Gen 18:27; Ps 103:14, etc.). Archetypally, Walton wants to reduce this to immortality and not deal with the fact that the literary images talk about material creation even if the way it is depicted is archetypal (proposition 8). He argues that forming (יצר) does not need to refer to making something materially, and that dust (עָפָר) would not be the material used to do such a thing anyway. It would be clay (חֹמֶר), not dust.

The fact of the matter is that עָפָר may refer to a clay-like mixture such as that used to plaster the walls of a house as in Leviticus 14:41, 45, where the same term (עָפָר) is also used. In Leviticus 14:42 the NIV even translates עָפָר as “clay” because it refers to the plaster as it is smeared on the walls of a house, “Then they are to take other stones to replace these and take new clay (עָפָר) and plaster the house.” There are also places where עָפָר (“dust”) and חֹמֶר (“clay”) are used in poetic parallelism for the constitution of people: “Remember that you molded me like clay. Will you now turn me to dust again?” (Job 10:9; cf. also Job 4:19; 27:16; 30:19).

Later in the chapter the Lord “built” (בּנה) the woman from the “rib” or “side” (צֵלָע) of the man. It is likely that the verb changes here because the material is different, being the kind of material one builds with (v. 22) rather than molds or forms (v. 7). This suggests that “rib” is probably the better translation here since the same term is used for the “beams,” for example, that held up the roof when Solomon built his palace (1 Kgs 7:3). A “beam” or “rib” is something you “build” with. You do not mold or form it. So the LORD God himself shaped and built the first two humans, male and female, respectively. Here in Genesis 2 the Lord gets his hands dirty, so to speak, and he loves it!

I have mentioned above that, although it is clear to me that there is material creation indicated here, an archetypal reading makes good sense too, and they are not mutually exclusive. Many rightly read Genesis 3:1–13 as an archetypal account of the fall into sin: it is not just what happened, but what continues to happen.9 We keep on replaying the dynamics of the fall in our own lives (cf. Rom 7:9–11 and Jas 1:13–18). The question then becomes, how do we read Genesis 2 with that same archetypal mindset? 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. As noted above, both creation stories emphasize this. This does not mean that we need to take the story about forming the man from dust and the woman from man’s rib (or side) literally, but it does mean that God made the first man and woman. The material could have consisted of previously existing hominids shaped into two Homo Sapiens, male and female, made to serve as God’s image and likeness in this world.

Conclusion: Reading the Genesis 1–4 Creation Accounts

There is a good deal more that I could interact with in John Walton’s very interesting and stimulating book, both positively and negatively. Yes, we have major points of contention between us, but we also agree on a good many things. I must admit, for example, that sometimes I find his ANE comparative method to be somewhat out of control in terms of method. He seems to think Genesis 1–2 reflect the same essential features of the cosmos and its creation as can be found elsewhere in the ANE. Sometimes one scholar’s comparison is another one’s contrast. But instead of belaboring such points I think it best to set forth here at the end of this review a brief summary of my own understanding of how we should read Genesis 1–4.10

As I see it, there is good reason to believe that the days in Genesis 1 are intended to be taken as literary days, not literal days.11 The six/seven pattern is a common literary pattern in the Bible. For example, consider Proverbs 6:16–19, which begins, “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him” (v. 16 NIV). The ancient Israelites would have been well aware of this literary pattern, and that it was being used here as a way of shaping the story. Why shape it this way? Well, for one thing it could serve as an analogy for their practice of the weekly Sabbath in Israel (Exod 20:11). Exodus 31:17 puts it this way: the Sabbath is to be “a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he stopped (שָׁבַת) and breathed freely (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ; NIV and ESV, “was refreshed”). The latter verb occurs two other places in the Hebrew Bible (2 Sam 16:14; Exod 23:12 [another Sabbath passage]), both of which refer to people being exhausted to the point where they need to stop and rest. For God it is an analogy; for humans it is a reality.

I agree with Walton that Genesis 1:1 serves as a title for the chapter as a whole and verse 2 refers to the original conditions into which God spoke his first creative word in v. 3. Step by step the chapter unpacks the parts that make up the whole by giving six snap shots of it (1:3–31), progressively eliminating the conditions of verse 2. He paints a literary picture of the observable universe, and teaches that God created every part of it.

The transition from Genesis 1:1–2:3 to 2:4–25 is made with the תּוֹלֵדוֹת “generations” formula in Genesis 2:4a, “These are the generations (or, ‘This is the story’) of the heavens and the earth.” This formula appears eleven times (with minor variants) through the Book of Genesis as titles for the units that follow: 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2. In every case the formula picks up on something from the previous unit and links it to the genealogy or narrative account that follows, thereby binding the units together. This is why the same formula could not be used as a title for Genesis 1. Nothing comes before Genesis 1:1, so the “generations” formula could not link the first chapter to anything before it. Another kind of title, therefore, was used for Genesis 1; namely, verse 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Two other important points arise from this genealogical framework within Genesis. First, the next formula after 2:4 does not come until 5:1. This tells us that we need to treat Genesis 2:4–4:26 as a unit. One should not just treat Genesis 1–2, or 1–3, or 2–3 without Genesis 4. We will return to the special significance of this presently. Second, the importance of the genealogies is often underestimated. The reality is that without people being born there would be no biblical history or storyline, and no theology to go along with it. The genealogical line begins with first Adam in Genesis 5:1 (see also 1 Chron 1:1), and runs all the way through the second Adam, Jesus the Christ (see Adam in his genealogy in Luke 3:38). It also runs on up to all of us alive today and into the future, whatever that holds.

The shift from Genesis 1:1–2:3 to 2:4–4:26 involves something of a shift to a different literary genre. The account of creation is told in quite a different way. Most importantly, Genesis 2 has historical markers that are unlike anything found in Genesis 1. The most obvious example is the four rivers in Genesis 2:10–14, a factor upon which Walton also remarks. We are not sure about the geographical location of the first two, but the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers definitely connect us to the real historical world of ancient Israel (v. 14). And the ancient Israelites would have known that. Assyria is specifically mentioned in relation to the Tigris River. And there is no further description of the Euphrates, since everyone knew where that was anyway. This land was located to the east from where the Israelites were at the time, in Mesopotamia where at least two of these rivers were located. As the genealogical introduction suggests, on some level, here we have entered into true human history in time and space.

As remarked above, this whole argument raises new questions these days, some of them based on the work of the Human Genome Project that has rightly captured our attention. We should not fear or reject truth, whether it is stated in the Bible or made available through new scientific discoveries. It is also true, however, that science sometimes reaches beyond its actual data to theories about the data that may or may not be true. I am convinced that, if the whole truth were told about how God created the universe, none of us would understand it. We are all out of our depth here whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not. Science is in process and we can be sure that changes will keep coming, at least on some points. The same is true with how we read the Bible, although in a different sense. The Bible is inerrant (unlike science), but our interpretations of it are not. For example, is it possible that there were more people around at the time of Adam and Eve than just these two (see above)? All history writing is selective, and God may have chosen to tell us only about this pair because of their significance to the history of humanity.

The shift from the Genesis 1 to the Genesis 2 account of creation also introduces at least one more important shift that has historical and theological significance to both ancient and modern readers. In Genesis 2 the divine name changes from “God” (אֱלֹהִים) to “LORD God” (אֱלֹהִים יְהוָה) starting in 2:4b, “When the LORD God made earth and heavens.” The covenant LORD (יְהוָה) of Israel (cf. Exodus 3:14–15; 6:2–5; etc.) was the same God (אֱלֹהִים) who had created the entire universe. If we know Jesus, we too are in covenant with this same one and only LORD God.

Genesis 3 continues the story that begins in Genesis 2:4. In plain terms: Genesis 3 is where conflict first appears in the Bible, v. 1 is the first appearance of a serpent in the Bible, and this serpent issues a direct and carefully crafted sinister challenge to the Lord’s rule by attacking his image and likeness—people. Thus, the serpent’s actions are an attack upon the Lord himself. The Lord responds with curses upon the serpent (Gen 3:14–15; and the ground, v. 17) that involve, among other things, the woman’s seed crushing, striking at, or bruising the “head” of the serpent’s seed in Genesis 3:15.

There is a battle engaged here, and you and I stand right in the middle of it. In fact, we are the “territory” under dispute. And an attack upon us is by its very nature an attack upon the Lord himself. We were the crowning act of God’s creative activity. We are also the focal point of his redemptive activity, although Walton and Wright have rightly emphasized the larger story of creation as a whole and the Kingdom of God. Thus, for the time being, we stand in the middle of this great big vicious cosmic fray. We had better put on some armor (Eph 6). This concept and its imagery appears in various forms through the remainder of the Old Testament and on into the New, even in the temptation of Jesus, for example (Matt 4:1–11). The serpent got the first Adam, but he could not get the second. Revelation 12 transforms it back into an actual battle again with battlefield imagery. Here again is the battle of the ages, from its beginning in Gen 3 to its end in Rev 12–20, and all through history.

More could and should be said about the first man and woman and the corruption of God’s created order in Genesis 3–4 and following, but we cannot develop that here. As explained above, the Genesis 2 account extends all the way through the end of chapter 4. It is important to note that there has only been one real answer ever given to the catastrophe of Genesis 3 and 4. It is offered in the last line of the Genesis 2–4 account and runs through scripture from there: “At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26b NIV; see also, e.g., Gen 12:8; Ps 116:2, 4, 13, 17; Joel 2:32a; Acts 2:21; Rom 10:13, and many other passages). There is no other answer. There never has been, and there never will be.

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

[2] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009). See also John H. Walton, and D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).

[3] See the earlier remarks on this in Richard E. Averbeck, “A Literary Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Reading of Genesis 1–2,” in Reading Genesis 1–2: An Evangelical Conversation, ed. J. Daryl Charles (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), 94–95.

[4] See Richard E. Averbeck, “Ancient Near Eastern Mythography as it relates to Historiography in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 3 and the Cosmic Battle,” in The Future of Biblical Archaeology: Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Alan R. Millard (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 328–56; and idem, “The Three ‘Daughters’ of Baal and Transformations of Chaoskampf in the Early Chapters of Genesis,” in Creation and Chaos: A Reconsideration of Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf Hypothesis, ed. JoAnn Scurlock and Richard Beal (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 237–56.

[5] In my view, the discussions of Revelation 12 generally do not pay sufficient attention to Genesis 3. Consider, e.g., the pain of the woman in childbirth (Gen 3:16 with Rev 12:2), the battle between the seed of the woman and the serpent (Gen 3:15 with Rev 12:3–9), and the “rest of her seed” (Rev 12:17), etc. See the now the foundations for this discussion in Averbeck, “The Three ‘Daughters’ of Baal and Transformations of Chaoskampf in the Early Chapters of Genesis,” 247–56.

[6] See the very helpful detailed remarks on Rom 8:31–39 in C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, ICC (New York: T&T Clark, 1975), 1:434–44 and James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, WBC 38 (Dallas: Word, 1988), 496–513.

[7] See the bibliography and the treatment of this discovery with a translation of the whole inscription by Alan Millard, “Hadad-yith‘i,” COS 2:153–54.

[8] W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 50–51.

[9] See my own treatment of this in Richard E. Averbeck, “Creation and Corruption, Redemption and Wisdom: A Biblical Theology Foundation for Counseling Psychology,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 25.2 (2006): 111–26.

[10] For a more complete discussion see Averbeck, “A Literary Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Reading of Genesis 1 and 2,” 7–34.

[11] This approach is similar to C. John Collins, Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2006), and see also his contribution, “Reading Genesis 1–2 with the Grain: Analogical Days,” in Reading Genesis 1–2: An Evangelical Conversation, ed. J. Daryl Charles (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), ch. 3.

Richard E. Averbeck

Richard Averbeck is professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages and director of the PhD program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.

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