“For the Israelites, Genesis 1 offered explanations of their view of origins and operations, in the same way that mythologies served in the rest of the ancient world and that science serves our Western culture.”
Walton begins his examination of Genesis 1 by trying to make clear that our reading and understanding of Genesis 1 hinges on our ability to enter into the culture in which the text was written and understand the solid principles that are there, applying them to our current setting. Working from that starting point, Walton moves on to offer a series of 18 propositions about Genesis 1 and the truths which it contains, some of which I will treat separately and others of which I will treat in groups.
“Genesis 1 Is Ancient Cosmology”
This may seem fairly obvious, but it is a nail that needs hammering nonetheless: “it [Genesis 1] does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions.” As the saying goes, ‘the Bible is not a science textbook.’ A viewpoint that seeks to find modern science in Genesis 1 or to allow Genesis 1 to dictate modern science is labeled ‘concordism,’ and such an activity is not simply an adding of new information to the reading of the text, but a changing of the meaning of the text, something that flies against a proper understanding of the supreme authority of Scripture. And anyone with their head in the scientific world knows that reading the Bible especially to fit current scientific consensus is dangerous; like terms and conditions, scientific consensus is subject to change.
In short, God did not design to communicate the truths in Genesis 1 in any way other than the way that its audience would have understood. So if God did not intend to reveal details about cosmic geography as it ‘truly’ took place, then he intended to make some kind of different point by what he did say in Genesis 1, and what we find there is, like many other things in Scripture, culturally-conditioned; for instance, Bible translations often translate ‘mind’ when the Hebrew word means ‘guts,’ because everything that Westerners associated with the mind was associated with the internal organs in the ancient world. So God doesn’t need to revise peoples’ thinking along such lines, but is pleased to speak to humans on their own level, as he did throughout Scripture.
“Ancient Cosmology is Function Oriented”
This is the proposition which I was referring to when I spoke of a complete paradigm shift in the viewing of Genesis 1; as such, it is this proposition, above all else, that must be understood and internalized to make sense of the matter, despite how difficult it may be.
In our Western world, we believe that existence is tied intrinsically to the material. A chair exists because it is material, a ghost does not exist because it is immaterial, etc. If our senses (esp. sight and touch) can interact with it, it exists. But this is not the only way to think of existence. Does a company exist when it is official? Or when it has a building? More likely we would say that it exists when it is doing business. In short, some things we say exist only when they are performing the function which they are supposed to be performing. The question of existence is a philosophical topic known as ontology, and is simply the study of something’s ‘being’—its existence. In our Western mindset, we hold to a material ontology: something exists because it exists in space and we can sense it there. But in the ancient world, the ontology was primarily a functional ontology, much like the company that I mentioned earlier: something exists because it carries out its appropriate role. (Walton spends a fair amount of time substantiating this claim from multiple near-Eastern cosmologies and makes his case quite well, though you’d have to read the book to see that.) Why this is important is this: “If ontology defines the terms of existence, and creation means to bring something into existence, then one’s ontology sets the parameters by which one thinks about creation.”
You might see where this is headed now: when we read Genesis 1, we immediately think about God’s creative acts as pertaining to his creation of the material forms which we interact with in the world. But that was not what the ancient Israelites had in mind when they read Genesis 1; rather, they had in mind God’s work in creating a series of functions which, when working together, made for a functional and ordered system. So in such a system, the sun does not exist because it is a burning ball of gas, but because it lends light and warmth for the earth (and numerous other functions) and especially for humanity, since humanity is the pinnacle of God’s creation and the reason for creating the earth.
So in such a system, the actual act of creating is not about bringing the material of a thing into being (which, by the way, the ancient Israelites fully believed that God did by himself, from nothing) but rather by making something a functional part of an ordered system, often from a previously nonfunctional condition.
It is at this propositions that I must stop until the next post. As it is, this is plenty of information, and the second proposition is very difficult to wrap around, given how entrenched we are in modern, material ontology (this is not bashing this, just saying that to understand Genesis 1 properly, we need to be able to step outside of material ontology). In the next post I will continue with the propositions, some of which are less weighty and less thought-provoking than the second proposition. So consider what I have said already, mull over it, think about its possible outworking, and stay tuned for continued reading.
(All quotes, unless otherwise noted, and all creative material work unless I specify it as my opinion, comes from John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.)