Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology

Written by John H. Walton Reviewed By G. A. Dietrich

Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology is John Walton’s technical and expanded version of The Lost World of Genesis One (InterVarsity, 2009). In Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, Walton argues that Gen 1 should be read as the creation of an ordered/functional structure rather than actual acts of material creation. According to Walton, his first intention “is to understand the texts but also to demonstrate that a functional ontology pervaded the cognitive environment of the ancient Near East” (p. viii). Walton’s epiphany moment was when considering Gen 1:5 and asking, “Why didn’t God call the light ‘light?’” (p. vii). Walton’s conclusion is that it is more than the creation of “light”; it is the function of the “day.” With this idea as his foundation, Walton uses Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology to describe how Gen 1 was never intended to be an account of material origins (land, water, animals, man, etc.), but the focus of Gen 1, like the rest of the ancient Near Eastern world, was to bring order by looking at functions.

The structure of Walton’s work is laid out simply but with vast detail. There are five unequal sections to the book. In the first sixteen pages, Walton frames his methodology by looking at cosmology and comparative studies. In the second section, only six pages in length, he uses tables to compare different creation accounts from the ancient Near East. The third section, the largest section of the work (100 pages), looks at the ancient cosmological cognitive environment. In this section he goes into more detail and develops the importance of creation to the relationship between the cosmos, the temple, and divine rest. The fourth section looks in-depth (72 pages) at Gen 1:1–2 and the seven days of creation. Walton focuses on exegesis in this section and deals extensively with the technical aspects of Hebrew. He further develops his idea of the importance of the temple in this section. The final section is a conclusion as Walton ties together his argument that Gen 1 should be seen as functions instead of acts of creation. He says, “the most important result of this study . . . is the realization that the Genesis account pertains to functional origins rather than material origins and that temple ideology underlies the Genesis cosmology” (198–99).

There is much to commend Walton’s work. After all, he is trying to provide some answers to questions that have plagued people since the primeval days of creation. Though he is not always easy to read and understand, he does force the reader to slow down and consider what he says. If the reader doesn’t slow down to digest the material slowly, then the time spent reading this book will be wasted.

One of the points to commend is how Walton looks at Gen 1 hermeneutically. He believes that “all literature is dependent on the culture from which it emerges and on the literature of the cultures with which it is in contract” (p. 12). This point is perfectly made when considering literature at face-value. However, what I do not see is Walton taking into account the ability of the Spirit of God to transcend culture and literature. Does God have to use the narrator in a non-supernatural way and work only within the framework of contextual literature?

Walton understands the opening verse of Gen 1 as an independent clause that should be understood as a period of creation rather than a point in creation (p. 127). His conclusions here are based similarly on how one should understand the word ברא. Walton alerts the reader to the idea and danger the modern reader is in when “imposing modern concepts of cosmological ontology onto the ancient world” (p. 127).

Walton clearly has an excellent understanding of ancient Near Eastern writings and culture. He has written Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Baker, 2006), which demonstrates his ability with the genre. However, despite his excellent understanding of ancient Near Eastern texts, he occasionally does not cite them when making an argument or will cite them in such a fashion to make it difficult to figure out what is factually cited versus what he would deem common knowledge. As a reader who is very curious about the topic, it makes coming to conclusions on my own very difficult to be able to discern between the two.

If the reader can persevere and come to the end of the book, they will find that Walton makes a positive addition to the scholarly community on Gen 1. However, persevering through the text will be difficult for many because of the difficult vocabulary and the significant Hebrew exegesis. Those hurdles can make it difficult for the reader to cut through the text and get to the point of Walton’s argument. Overall, Walton’s work is helpful, but since he is a pioneer in this field and so little has been written and researched on this particular view, it will be sometime before Walton’s view is taken all that seriously. I would caution the reader that simply because he is a pioneer does not mean he should be discredited. His contribution is significant and could end up being extremely helpful for many.

G. A. Dietrich

G. A. Dietrich
Northland International University
Dunbar, Wisconsin, USA

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