Book Review: Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One

The Lost World of Genesis“Creations’ debate game changer” is my four words review of John H. Walton’s 192-paged InterVarsity Press published book The Lost World of Genesis One (2009). Noting that the Old Testament was not written to us but for us, Walton returns us to the lost and forgotten ancient Jews to whom the Testament was written to. He, thus, invites us to decipher  ancient Near East cosmology as they would have had understood it. The result, if true, is a game changer in American heating up creations-debate.  It renders the whole debate not only unnecessarily but misguided in the first place.

Walton summons us to interpret Genesis 1:1-2:3b cosmology as ancient Jews would have understood it. He wrote: “We gain nothing by bringing God’s revelation into accordance with today’s science. In contrast, it makes perfect sense that God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood.”(Walton 2009: 15) He invites us to read the text on its “face value”. Before asking what it means to us today, we need to know what it meant to them then.

According to Walton, ancient Near Eastern cosmological origin accounts were not largely concerned with the material origins, to which we have naturally but falsely presupposed they did, but with functional origins. Genesis 1 ought to be interpreted “[a]s an account of functional origins, it offers no clear information about material origins”(162) Day-age creationism, the framework view, gap theories and other proposed views presented by both young and old creationists are all mistaken because they presupposed Genesis 1 as presenting a material origin account. We thus find ourselves oblige to fit Genesis 1 account in accordance with contemporary science. Walton argued that Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins. Thus there is no need, in the first place,  for us to attempt to align it with contemporary science.

Ancient Near East viewed coming into existence not primarily on the materialistic sense, as we do today, but on functionalistic sense. They had “little interest in material origins”(33). Walton informed us that an object existed if it was assigned a functional role in the ordered system. He argued,

Creation thus constituted bringing order to the cosmos from an originally nonfunctional condition. It is from this reading of the literature that we may deduce a functional ontology in the ancient world—that is, that they offer accounts of functional origins rather than accounts of material origins. Consequently, to create something (cause it to exist) in the ancient world means to give it a function, not material properties. (33)

If Genesis 1 is not offering an account of material world but the functional world, the role a being in its sphere of existence plays, then the whole creation-debate is not only pointless but also misguided. Walton case in this book aimed to show that Genesis one is indeed not a material account of the origin of the cosmos but a typical ancient Near East functional account.

Walton contended that the Hebrew term bāra͗ (“to create”) refers to the assignment of functions. Though he accepted creation ex nihilo, a view assumed in a material activity, he believe that Genesis 1 does not teach such a story. God is wholly responsible for material origin but Genesis 1 is not teaching us that. Genesis 1, as ancient Near East cosmological account, is about functional origin. Walton thus interpreted Genesis 1:1 as “In the initial period, God created by assigning functions throughout the heavens and the earth, and this is how he did it.”(45).

Some of reasons Walton offered to show that this is the case is that  verse 2 begins already with the waters of the deep, primeval cosmic water, to which no account of its material existence was given (48 cf. 2 Pet. 3:5).Since the dysfunctional waters do not yet have role in the orderly world, they did not “exist”.  Day 3, a day God, if read in a materialistic way, appears not be making anything new, make sense in functional reading. God created by assigning function, bring into existence, what is materialistically already there.

Similar to framework view but with functional origin twist, Walton showed how the first three days established the major life-sustaining functions of time, weather and food while four through six God assigned plants and animals functions. The phrase “it was good,” Walton commented, ought not viewed in a moral way but in function way, namely the being created is orderly working according to God’s indented role in the cosmos. He also argued that in ancient Near East world every deity rested in a temple (72) and begin supervising the function. The cosmos is thus God’s temple.

Walton’s revolutionary functional ontology approach in reading Genesis 1 is a game changer because it is unaffected by dynamic science. There is no conflict between Genesis 1 and contemporary science because Genesis 1 is about functional origin and not material origin. Christians are unrestricted to follow whatever material origin contemporary science, which ought to be metaphysically neutral, suggests.

The Lost World of Genesis One is one of those books that completely changed the way I think on this issue. Functional reading of Genesis 1 is a paradigm changer.

Further John H. Walton readings: Ancient Near Eastern Thought: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible(2006) and NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (2001)

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton InterVarsity Press, 2009 192 pages (paperback)

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48 thoughts on “Book Review: Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One

  1. Awesome book. I recommend it to everyone. Also C. John Collins brings up a lot of the same arguments well in his mini commentary on Genesis 1-4.

  2. I enjoyed your review. Your characterization of the “creationist” debate as “unnecessary,” “misguided” and “pointless” seems spot-on to me. It is an embarassing distraction, providing further evidence to an increasingly unbelieving world (which will paint us all with the “creationism” brush) that we are ignorant and anti-intellectual. It’s good to see intelligent and informed examination of this subject.

  3. Reading this one myself. Adding Walton’s Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology to the mix as soon as I am done with The Lost World.

    • I just started Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology(2011). It is on scholarly level that I missed 🙂 It provides awesome additional data and sources. Suddenly my over 3100 books and journals on Logos 5 are on use as I dive into ANE 😉

  4. Prayson,
    This book has been on my radar lately after hearing an interview and reading a couple reviews. Because I haven’t yet read it I wonder if you would offer your thoughts on a few things:
    1) What makes Walton’s view better (or different) than the various non-literal readings that have been around for ages – allegory, poetry, etc..?
    2) How does Walton handle Exodus 20:8–11 and commentary in the Talmud which, to my reading, indicates an understanding of a material creation by those who should know best? What other biblical passages does he suggest support Genesis being a non-material creation account?
    3) Does Walton attempt to answer why God would choose to put forth the message in a way that would apparently be misinterpretated by the vast majority of its readers over time?
    4) I understand that the book draws extensively on similarities between the Genesis account and other ancient texts. Does he offer an explanation for why this should or shouldn’t lead us to assign the Genesis account the same truth value as those other ancient texts?

    Of course, if I’m asking too much you’re welcome to just tell me to read the book for myself.

  5. Prayson, I have the following comments:

    1) the failure to distinguish between the natural and the supernatural is essentially pagan, and non-Jewish. If anything, the Jews held to a radical distinction between the supernatural (God) and the natural (Creation), with the latter being dependent on the former for its existence and essence. The first 2 of the 10 commandments are predicated on this notion, that nothing natural can ever be divine. Jesus taught this essential difference in John 4:24 and Luke 24:39, and he was Jewish. Unless ofcourse, he was mistaken.

    2) Ex-nihilo creation by the Word is at the basis of the Judaeo-Christian metaphysic (view of reality). It is absurd to suggest that anything could have existed prior to the speaking forth of the Word of God. Another Jew, the apostle John makes this absolutely clear in John 1:1-3. ALL THINGS were made by the word. So the notion of creation being about making a pre-existing “non-functional” world into a “functional” world is not a Jewish idea.

    3) The book makes a tacit assumption about the nature of truth as relative, and moreover, of God, as accomodating. In other words, truth as understood by the ancient Jews was different from truth as understood by us, and so there is no absolute culture-independent truth to speak of. God knew this, and so he basically spoke to them in their own terms, accomodating himself to their limitation. But this is contradictory to the whole of Scripture, according to which God is the one who enlightens us, moving us from error and darkness to light. God Himself is light (Ps 27:1), and His Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path(Ps 119:105). He shows us things we do not know (Jer 33:3), making us wiser than any cultural teacher (Ps 119:99). But if Walton is right, then God is holding back truth to some people because they are primitive and cannot handle it. Instead He is working simply within their framework, rather than lifting them from error and teaching them truth.

    4) This approach also ignores the polemic/apologetic value of Gen 1-3: Israel, after 430 years in pagan Egypt, was contaminated with pagan ideas about God (eg the Golden Calf Ex 32, and Remphan Acts 7:43). Egyptian cosmology made natural things appear divine – (Geb = earth god, Nut = sky god, Apophis = the serpent). So in Gen 1-3, God is actually destroying this view, and destroying the gods of Egypt (Ex 12:12) by showing that the heavens and the earth were not supernatural at all, and moreover, the Serpent was cursed by God.

    So I understand you have reviewed Walton’s book, but you haven’t demonstrated why we should think that he is in fact correct.

  6. Still another reason why it is impossible to prove a religion wrong. Even if it were shown that the origins of the universe were entirely natural, theists just step back and say, “Well that doesn’t disagree with a different interpretation of our vague and malleable scriptures.”

    • Interesting the Ancient Near East did not have such distinction of natural and supernatural. This is a modern distinction 🙂

      More over we have to understand something before agreeing or disagreeing. If Genesis 1 is about functional origin and not material origin then showing Christianity/Judaism/Islam false because of material origin was not a good critique in the first place. It would be attacking a Strawman 🙂 Would you not agree?

      • Yes, but it’s entirely you’re made up interpretation that it is a “functional description”.

        If God meant it that way, why didn’t he simply add a line in the bible saying so?

        As Ken Ham says, if Genesis didn’t happen, then Adam and Eve didn’t happen, which means that there’s no origin sin. Which means the whole immaculate conception was for what exactly? The whole story of Christianity unravels.

        • John, I reviewed Walton’s book. I am not an Old Testament scholar thus cannot pass judgement on whether it is made up or not. From the historical evidences Walton presented, showing other cosmological origin surrounding Jews and the case he presented from the account itself, it would be foolish for me to dismiss this as made-up.

          Ham, Ross, and I will add Craig, if Walton is correct, are all mistaken because they view this account as of material origin.

          • Say the book is right, and that Ham, Ross, Craig etc are all wrong. But they aren’t wrong for lack of trying – I do believe that they have all made an honest attempt to understand the bible.

            So the fault lies entirely with your God for making the book so ambigious. So I restate my question – If God meant it that way, why didn’t he simply add a line in the bible saying so?

          • I totally agree with you that they did attempt to wrestle with it. The point I am making is that that there attempts are done from a wrong presupposition, if Walton is correct.

            The fault is ours by forgetting that OT was not written to us but to ancient Jewish. Our ignorance of Ancient Near East worldviews is ours to blame.

          • So God didn’t intend for us to read it?

            If he did intend for us to read it, then he could have easily added some lines to clear up ambiguities, no?
            If he didn’t intend for us to read it, then aren’t we angering him by reading it?

          • John, I believe you misunderstood me. I stated that Walton argued that OT(and I will add NT) was written to them and through them for us.

            Yes, we are intend to read it but remembering that it is not to us but for us. Since it was written to them, then we need to try understand how they would have understood it first given their context.

          • > was written to them and through them for us.

            Great – then you agree that God fully intended for us to read it, and fully knew that the majority of current-day Christians would interpret Genesis literally.

            You also presumably fully agree that God could have just added a couple of lines clarifying this, but instead did not.

            Do we agree on this?

          • Of cause John we are to interpret Genesis literally. This is the point Walton presented with reading it on its face value. This means reading it as Ancient Near East Jew would have literally understood it.

            No I do not agree. If it was written to us, you would be correct that He ought to have added couple of lines clarifying this. But it is not. It has everything Ancient Near East Jew knew about their cosmology.

            Walton argued that it was written to them, not us. It is for us but not to us. No clarification was need to them because these was clear in ancient cosmology accounts.

      • Interesting the Ancient Near East did not have such distinction of natural and supernatural. This is a modern distinction

        Not really that interesting that a group of ignorant illiterates didn’t make that distinction. Rather, it is to be expected, I think.

        If Genesis 1 is about functional origin and not material origin then showing Christianity/Judaism/Islam false because of material origin was not a good critique in the first place.

        Having not read this book, I can’t very well critique it. It would certainly not be setting up a strawman, because this belief, mistaken or otherwise, forms the basis of the religion of many. But, I have pointed out before how religion, when it can no longer bend and twist or object to natural discovery, incorporates it and suggests that this is what it really believed all along. It would seem that the author has grasped the concept of the Kalam argument being flawed because nobody has actually ever seen creation ex nihilo, and therefore is deceitful to make blind assertions as premises to the argument. This book would seem to be an attempt to work around this limitation.

        However, I can point out that the definition of “function” in this case seems to be a purpose designated by God. This suggests that these things existed beforehand, doing their material things, as material things will do. The question then, is what is the difference between God’s purpose and what naturally happens without his assigned purposes?

        • That is point. Genesis 1 presupposed already materialistic existing being, thus not giving creation from nothing.

          It is a totally paradigm shift from what we know to day. 😉

          • John, I did not answer his(/her) question at all. I agree with his(/her) observation. I already point out that there was no natural and non-natural distinction thus, the questions would be foreign to them because it presupposes our modern distinctions.

          • So… why didn’t you answer the question?

            In case you missed it:

            The question then, is what is the difference between God’s purpose and what naturally happens without his assigned purposes?

          • I explain that that question presupposes modern distinction of naturally and non-naturally way that is foreign then. It is like asking for the difference between iPad and iPhone in 1990’s 😉

          • Yes, the question was posed in modern time, but it was done in functional terms, which is the paradigm you are pushing. The fact that we know more than we did then is the basis of the question. It is like asking the differences between smoke signals and an iPhone, with no need to go back in time. So, if God assigned functionality to preexisting material, what did this functionless material do beforehand? What exactly is material without function? Why should I believe there is such a thing?

          • We know more than they did in materialistical view not functional. Science deals with material(physical things) not teleology(metaphysical things).

            In the Ancient Near East worldview those materials did not “exist” in any meaningful way. As Walton pointed out in one example, if you have read and understood my review, Genesis 1:2 presupposing water. There is no materialistic origin of water. It is simply presupposed(See also 2 Peter 4:5).

            You are not asked to believe in such a thing. Walton aim in this book is to show that the way we think about “create”, “existence” and other things are not similar to ANE. If we are to understand what they meant, then we are to leave behind our worldviews and enter theirs. 🙂

          • But again that makes absolutely no sense if the OT was written by an all-knowing GOD that knew that the vast majority of people reading it would not the original jews. So why wouldn’t an all-knowing God simply add clarifications if he meant it to be interpreted in the way that you and the book are suggesting?

          • Because it was written to them John not to us. In there time materialistic origin was not important 🙂 If God where to communicate with us, he will use the language and knowledge familiar to us.

            Example also borrowed from Walton. When child asks where babies come from, from Mother’s womb or from the Hospital is how I would explain. They are not interested to know how their dad’s reproductive cell fused with their mom’s cell and the whole drama. 😉

          • > Because it was written to them John not to us. In there time materialistic origin was not important 🙂 If God where to communicate with us, he will use the language and knowledge familiar to us.

            Great – then that means that we shouldn’t read it. By reading it we’re clearly eves dropping and thus annoying God.

          • How does that follow? If I write a letter to my wife for my daughter. How does it follow that my daughter is not to read it?

            My daughter has to know that a letter is written to her mother, thus attempt to understand the language Dad and Mom use to each other, before seeing how it is for her 😉

          • If you wrote a letter to your wife and intended for your daughter to read it, then you would word it so that your wife and daughter could clearly read it. If it only intended for your wife to read it, then you wouldn’t.

            Since you are saying that the OT has NOT been written for us to clearly read it, then it therefore follows that God did not intend for us to read it.

            Therefore if we read it, we are going against God’s intentions.

          • Not true. Say I wrote a letter to my daughter but intended it to be read through out generation. It would be absurd for me to word it for the next generation because there is another next next generation and next next next generation and so on. It would be a would be weird for me to explain iPhone to a 1990’s generation and more weird, assuming that in year 3000 such thing is long forget 😀

            We are going against God’s intentions if we read it as if it was written to us but not if it is written for us.

          • If you’re saying that everything came from water, then science certainly has a bone to pick with you.

            John is right. It stands to reason that if God wanted to convince us, then he would do so, as he as willingly done for these ancient Jews. Instead, we are stuck with an ancient book that mocks our knowledge.

          • That is not what I am saying my dear friend. I am saying that Genesis 1 presupposing water shows that these is not material origin but function one which was common to almost all ANE accounts.

          • So what about it is particularly compelling if it is just like other ANE myths which likewise pointed out how useful certain features of the universe are, and are otherwise useless for explaining the world?

          • That is irrelevant. What is relevant is ANE cosmology worldview, whether true or false is another debate for another time.

            We ought not read into ancient cosmology our contemporary presupositions thinking that they held them too.

            Whether we agree or disagree, it is irrelevant. What is relevant is understanding how AEN viewed creation. If it is different from us, namely not materialistic origin but functional origin, then we are to rethink again 😉

          • And as you say – if God wants to communicate with us, then he will do so in a language and form that we will understand. In this scientific age, that should include scientific evidence.

            So clearly, if you believe in God before he provides this scientific evidence, you are defying God. He’ll probably send you to hell for that.

          • Which Science? Science is dynamically developing. It is not constant. New discoveries rendering old false. So which science?

            Moreover, if Walton is correct, then God is not communicating material origin, to which science is about, but functional. Thus no need for that in first place 😉

  7. Reblogged this on Apologetics on Fire and commented:
    Prayson Daniel ‘s observation on an idea that could be a cosmological game-changer. Important reading. The material vs functional view of origins. This is an example of how systematic theology without a rich a rich logical priority of exegetical theology can lead amiss. What was the intent of the author to the original recipients of Genesis. We dismiss this vital query to our own epistemological peril

  8. It is indeed funny John. This is why I blog. To share knowledge that will help us not twist the Bible to fit contemporary science but to understand it in its context.

    Your question reflects also a problem of not understand Ancient Near East moral codes and thus prone to read our contemporary ethics into a different world.

    • People believed that slavery was good in the old days – okay, fair enough, fine.

      But according to the bible it was GOD that said that it’s fine for a master to whip slaves “for they are his property”.

      So do you agree with God here? Do you agree with God that it’s okay to whip your slaves?

    • John, I am actually preparing an article on Slavery & Good God addressing this complex issue. Not trailing away from the goal of these article, I will address your question in that article and hopeful we could discuss further there.

  9. It’s funny to see Christians having to twist the bible so much to fit science.

    When the bible tells you that it’s fine to whip your slaves “for they are your property”, do you think that was also not meant to be read literally?

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