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Appearances matter

Author presents a false contrast between the material and functional in Genesis

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John Walton's book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (InterVarsity, 2009), is bound to create a stir. Why?

John Walton as an Old Testament scholar addresses a broad audience about the meaning of Genesis 1. Walton wants to be sensitive to what Genesis 1 said to ancient Israelites, who do not bring to Genesis the same questions as do 21st-century people influenced by science. He claims that Genesis 1 and other ancient accounts of creation focus on function and not on material.

For example, on the third day, God gathered the waters into one place, creating two functional spaces, the dry land and the sea. No new material was needed. On the fourth day God made the sun and moon and stars with a function: "to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness" (Genesis 1:17-18). Genesis says nothing about the material composition of sun, moon, and stars, nor would such information (which is technical information in modern science) be relevant.

Walton correctly observes that Genesis 1 focuses on practical functions rather than on chemical (material) composition. But sometimes he shifts to a second meaning of "material" and "function." He construes "function" as narrowly religious: The seven days of Genesis 1 (which he construes as 24-hour days) describe the inauguration of a cosmic temple to its full functioning as a temple. Before the seven days there would still be an earlier ordinary operation of the astronomical, geological, and biological worlds over extended periods of time. These earlier events belong to "the material phase" that Genesis allegedly does not mention (pp. 92-99). The label "material" now includes all aspects of physical appearance.

This picture implies that, when Genesis 1:9 says, "'Let the dry land appear.' And it was so," it does not mean that the dry land appeared. Rather, God caused the dry land area (already physically and geologically separated from the sea area for millennia) to function for the first time as a room within the cosmic temple, and to be seen as a room.

People in most cultures experience the world as a whole. They do not constantly separate "material" and "functional" aspects. All aspects of common experience, including physical sensation, are "functional" in a broad sense, because they impact us meaningfully. Ancient people were interested in the physical appearance of the world, and Genesis 1 talks about it, along with other functions. The dry land did appear on the third day. It was part of a total process in which God built a world in which He would dwell. Physical appearance and many other "functions" belong to this whole. As many interpreters from past centuries have recognized, Genesis 1 speaks about what ordinary people can see and experience. It says that God made it all, including whatever additional aspects future generations might uncover (including science!).

In his better moments Walton comes near to saying this. He understands that Genesis 1 does not offer a description in modern scientific jargon, and that it has a different focus from modern scientific accounts about past ages. But Genesis does not merely address-as Walton implies-a totally separate "layer" of personal purpose and temple consecration that has no implications about physical appearances. Both Genesis 1 and science make statements that have implications about physical appearances. They are not simply two layers that never overlap in their implications.

Walton has read Genesis with a false contrast between material and functional, and with equivocal meanings for the two terms. As a result, he artificially detaches Genesis 1 from questions of physical appearance and produces an unsustainable interpretation.

Problematic descriptions in Walton's book increase the difficulties: Both ancient mythological views and Genesis 1 are labeled "Ancient Cosmology"; they embody "Old World science" and "cosmic geography," terms that can confusingly suggest material affinity with modern science. This unfortunate labeling undermines Walton's stress on the distinctive focus of Genesis 1.

In short, Walton's book has mixed value. Positive insights about the practical focus of Genesis 1 mix with some unsound claims.

Vern S. Poythress Vern is professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a former WORLD correspondent.


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