The Lost World of Genesis One

Written by John H. Walton Reviewed By Douglas J. Becker

Anyone familiar with John Walton’s Genesis commentary will already have an idea of the argument of this book, although it is more developed here. Walton argues that Gen 1 concerns itself not with material creation, but rather with the establishment of functions in the created order. The book is not overly technical (no knowledge of Hebrew is assumed), and Walton offers suggestions for further reading at the ends of several chapters. This is helpful, given that he spends a significant amount of space discussing Mesopotamian and Egyptian mythical texts—a subject with which most readers lack familiarity. His major lines of evidence are as follows (modified from p. 163):

  1. Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts are typically concerned with function, rather than material origins.
  2. The Hebrew term bāra͗ (“to create”) refers to the assignment of functions.
  3. The beginning state of Gen 1:2 is one that lacks function, not materiality.
  4. The first three days establish the major life-sustaining functions of time, weather, and food.
  5. In days four through six God assigns functions to plants and animals.
  6. The refrain, “It was good,” is a comment on function.
  7. God’s rest on the seventh day implies that he is taking up residence in his temple, since “everyone” in the ancient world knew that “deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple” (p. 72).

Walton is to be commended for his rigorous adherence to historical-grammatical exegesis, refusing to affirm anything about the text that cannot be demonstrated exegetically. This is why in discussing the application of science to Genesis, he opines, “Reading the text scientifically imposes modern thinking on an ancient text, an anachronism that by its very nature cannot possibly represent the ideas of the inspired human author” (p. 109). Those concerned about the implications of Walton’s position on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy must note that he consistently champions his view as a “literal” reading, representing the “face value” of the text (chap. 11).

Chapters 13–18 are dedicated to issues ranging from intelligent design to public education, and he does an excellent job in this section. In chapter 16, he addresses the question many will be asking: Under his view, is Genesis compatible with biological evolution? Walton is open to Christian acceptance of this historically divisive theory. He writes, “One could accept biological evolution as providing a descriptive mechanism putatively describing how God carried out his purposes” (p. 153). Those highly committed to an anti-evolutionary polemic will have trouble with this chapter. However, Walton does not advocate uncritical acceptance of biological evolution, nor does he himself clearly adhere to it. At the very least, those who do not concur with him on this issue will gain exposure to the thought process of a biblically faithful and informed scholar of this persuasion.

One possible weakness in Walton’s argument is his insistence on reading Gen 1 in purely functional terms. Might it not be that Genesis is concerned with both material existence and function, perhaps with an emphasis on the latter? He takes up this challenge in chapter 10, claiming that a “material origins” perspective lacks positive support. But is this true? No doubt, much of the language of Gen 1 concerns God’s commanding his creation to act: “Let the earth sprout vegetation” (v. 11), “let them be for signs and seasons” (v. 14), “let the waters swarm” (v. 20), etc. But is the same true of God’s declaration, “let there be” (ye, vv. 3, 16, 14), as well as his acts of separation (vv. 7, 9), and his setting of the lights in the firmament (v. 15)?

Further, his discussion of the meaning of bāraʾ is not entirely convincing. He cites thirty-four of the thirty-eight occurrences of the verb in the Qal stem, noting, “no clear example occurs that demands a material perspective … though many are ambiguous,” and “a large percentage of the contexts require a functional understanding” (pp. 42–43). He then uses added support from extrabiblical creation accounts to tip the scales towards a functional understanding. This argument is vulnerable in several places. First, the many ambiguous examples should give us reason for pause. Second, it is not clear that the parallels he mentions actually do possess a purely functional ontology. Third, the verb ʿāśâ (“to make”) is also used in Gen 1. Though Walton correctly notes that this term can simply mean “to do” (p. 65), fitting with his functional view (e.g., 2:2–4), how would we then understand it in 1:7, 11, 12, 16, 25, or 26 (e.g. “Let us do man in our own image”)?

There are a few other areas that need clarification, such as Walton’s contention that time itself is created on day two and whether the evidence for a cosmic temple in Gen 1 is as powerful as he contends. However, the book’s many strengths outweigh its weaknesses. John Walton has written a work that pastors and non-specialists will find understandable. It will challenge many to think about Genesis in the way Christian scholars have been championing for many years now—as an ancient document, speaking to people with an understanding of the world very different from our own. Hopefully, it will open the doors to a conversation that is long overdue.

Douglas J. Becker

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Deerfield, Illinois, USA

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