The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton
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Many thanks to Adrianna Wright at IVP for this review copy!
I was very excited to see Walton’s book would be available this year, and even more so when I received a copy for review. There are two reasons I was anxious to read this book. One, I have become disenchanted with my original understanding of the creation account of Genesis 1 (namely, the literal six-day creation view) and, two, I have become weary of the incessant debate between evolutionists and ID advocates. These two issues meet head-on in Walton’s book as he makes a case for understanding the creation account of Genesis one in terms of function, not material creation, and how this plays out in the ongoing evolution/ID debates, particularly with reference to public education.
Walton arranges the book into eighteen propositions, successively building his case for function-oriented creation in Genesis 1. Each chapter (proposition) is relatively short, which makes for easy reading, but is substantial enough that Walton’s thesis is adequately argued. In propositions 1 and 2, Walton orients the reader to a proper setting in which to read and interpret Genesis 1 and discusses the way Genesis’ creation account would have been understood in its original time and culture. Propositions 3-7 deal primarily with textual matters concerning the various acts of God’s creative work in Genesis 1. Propositions 8 and 9 focus on the concept of the cosmos as Temple, seeking to provide a synthesis of the argument thus far. Proposition 10 argues specifically against Genesis 1 as an account of material creation. Propositions 11 and 12 are essentially a discussion of the positives of the view articulated in the book, as well as a brief address of competing views of Genesis 1. In propositions 13-18, Walton discusses his view of Genesis 1 in relation to science, with the final proposition focusing on public education and the ongoing evolution/intelligent design debate.
Overall, Walton does a fine job of articulating an interpretation that could easily consume twice or three times as many pages.[i] Walton’s knowledge of the Ancient Near East is obvious, though certainly condensed for this work, and his exegetical ability is clearly seen. However, given the scope of the book, I was a little disappointed that there was not ample space for more thorough discussions of various aspects of this interpretation of Genesis 1, particularly the exegetical discussions (see below).
There were a couple of negatives concerning this book. First, I find that Walton is somewhat repetitive concerning the thesis of the book; if you got to the end of this book and couldn’t remember what it’s primary argument was, it wasn’t for lack of stating it! Second, as with any book of this length (considering the weight of such a topic), there are some sections that I would have liked to have had more interaction with sources and more detailed analysis of varying viewpoints. Though I believe Walton is very skilled in his exegesis, I also wanted more detailed discussion of the various scriptures he cited in defense of his argument.
These two points aside, my opinion of the book is decidedly positive. One of the more appreciable aspects of the book is Walton’s dealing with sensitive nature of the issue of origins, an issue that is often guarded by dogmatic antagonists from both biological evolution and ID camps. Though not all advocates for either position could or should be categorized in this way, they are the ones who usually get the most attention. Essentially, Walton believes both sides to be in error (generally speaking) regarding their posturing for a place in the classroom. He rightly argues that both theories (as well as others) should be taught in the classrooms, so long as each theory’s metaphysical assumptions are held in check.
He rightly acknowledges that proponents of biological evolution enjoy the dominant position at present, but that this should not be a threat to Bible-believing Christians. Given his interpretation of Genesis 1, he concedes there is at least open the possibility of biological evolution as a means of God’s creative work (though he is not convinced of this and does not advocate the theory). Rather than being a threat to faith, Walton views this as an opportunity to find common ground on the discussion of origins, because Genesis 1 is essentially irrelevant to this matter. This approach to Genesis frees the Christian from using Genesis to defend something it does not address.
In summary, I think Walton’s book is a much-needed contribution to a discussion that is polarizing for the many involved. It hearkens the reader of Genesis 1 to shed his/her contemporary spectacles and view the text through the lens of those to whom it was written, to read Genesis 1 as a ancient cosmology, not a paradigm of modern science. Walton says,
“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” (p. 19).
To understand what the text means to us, we must first understand what it meant to them, and if you are seeking to understand better Genesis 1, I highly recommend this book!
“One of the sad statistics of the last 150 years is that increasing numbers of young people who were raised in the environment of a biblical faith began to pursue education and careers in the sciences and found themselves conflicted as they tried to sort out the claims of science and the claims of the faith they had been taught. it seems to many that they have to make a choice: either believe the Bible and hold to a young earth, or abandon the Bible because of the persuasiveness of the case for an old earth. The good news is that we do not have to make such a choice. The Bible does not call for a young earth. Biblical faith need not be abandoned if one concludes from the scientific evidence that the earth is old” (p. 96)
“Divine intention must not be held hostage to the ebb and flow of scientific theory. Scientific theory cannot serve as the basis for determining divine intention” (p. 105)
“The most respectful reading we can give to the text, the reading most faithful to the face value of the text—and the most ‘literal’ understanding, if you will—is the one that comes from their world not ours” (p. 106).
“In the functional view that has been presented in this book, the text can be taken at face value without all of the scientific gymnastics of YEC” (that is, Young Earth Creationism; p. 109)
“That is precisely what we are proposing as the premise of Genesis 1: that it should be understood as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as a temple” (p. 84).
[i] As noted here, Walton does have more detailed treatment of the thesis of this book slated for publication sometime in the near future, entitled Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology, from Eisenbrauns.