Review: The Lost World of Genesis One

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
30
Year: 
2010
Issue: 
1–2
Date: 
January–April
Page(s): 
52–53
Reviewer: 
James F McGrath
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate
Author(s): 
John H Walton
Downers Grove (IL): IVP Academic, 2009.

The Lost World of Genesis One is divided into a series of eighteen "propositions" plus an introduction, conclusion, and FAQ. The chapters are short, each focusing on a key point Walton wishes to make. Most provide ancient Near Eastern background material as well as recommendations for further reading. Walton emphasizes the importance of understanding ancient cultures and creation accounts if one wishes to understand the biblical creation narratives. It is not that ancient Israel's authors "borrowed from" or were "influenced by" ancient cultural currents.They inhabited an ancient cultural context and shared many points in common with other peoples and languages located in their vicinity in time and space. Even when certain differences are highlighted by such a comparison (for example, Israel's emphasis on one God alone as creator), in the process it also becomes clear that the "Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their 'scientific' understanding of the cosmos" (p 16).

According to Walton, statements in the Bible about the nature of the creation should be treated as part of the assumptions of the biblical author, not the teaching of Scripture. If one does not do so, one will find oneself not only arguing without good reason about the age of the earth or evolution, but also compelled to defend the existence of the dome that Genesis says was made to hold up the waters above, and into which the lights are placed (see p 56-8,94-5).For that is the literal, plain meaning of the Hebrew term used in Genesis 1:6-8, and Walton further emphasizes that no one ought to be discussing the literal meaning of the Bible based on reading it in English translation.The literal meaning can only be the meaning of the texts in the original languages.

Walton reinforces his point by highlighting another component of the biblical authors' worldview: their location of thought and emotion in organs where we cannot literally locate them, and in some cases would not even do so metaphorically (biblical references to "bowels" being a case in point). Such language was assumed to be literally, factually accurate among ancient peoples in this part of the world, and the biblical text does not reveal an alternative understanding of human physiology. Just as no one argues on the basis of the Bible that we think with our entrails, likewise there should be no attempt to defend the Bible's statements about material origins as an alternative to modern scientific understandings thereof (p 18-9).

Walton's most distinctive argument is that the days of Genesis 1 depict the organization of the cosmos so as to function, rather than focusing on its material origins.This argument is supported by both a careful analysis of key terms from Genesis 1, as well as comparison with other creation accounts from antiquity.Walton argues that Genesis 1 is better understood as a depiction of the inauguration of the cosmos to serve as God's temple. Against this background the idea of the deity resting in the completed temple becomes central, rather than the final day being something of an anticlimax as in most modern readings of the English text.Walton reiterates his point that "science cannot offer an unbiblical view of material origins, because there is no biblical view of material origins aside from the very general idea that whatever happened, whenever it happened, and however it happened, God did it"(p 113). Although the latter point has been made by others, few have made the case in such a detailed fashion in a way so well suited to an evangelical readership.

Many who subscribe to RNCSE will be troubled by Walton's noncommittal view of evolution, but this may in fact be a strength when one considers the intended primary audience of his book.Walton writes as professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and he thus is approaching a question of biblical interpretation for the benefit of a conservative evangelical primary readership.What he has to say about the creation narrative in Genesis 1 is extremely valuable and highly relevant to those concerned about science education. For the main point of the book is that Genesis 1 is not intended to be an account of material origins, and so Christians should neither oppose nor promote science's best current understanding on the basis of Genesis. Nevertheless,Walton at times seems to place the ancient understanding of the cosmos on a par with the modern scientific understanding of the universe. While there is some truth in his statement that science is constantly revising its understanding in light of new evidence, it would seem that sufficient evidence has amassed and sufficient investigation occurred that it is more accurate to view science's understanding of the natural world as constantly improving rather than merely changing. And it would seem that there is no better that one can do, unless perhaps one is a researcher engaging in pioneering research in the natural sciences,than accept the consensus of the scientific community as it currently stands.Yet when one considers that Walton is making a case against an understanding of Genesis 1 often used to oppose quality science education, and that his intended audience has been indoctrinated with a bias against evolution, it is perhaps for the best that Walton does not connect his arguments about the Bible directly to questions of science. Walton makes a case about Genesis 1 as a biblical scholar,and does so in a way that undermines and challenges many arguments made about the Bible by proponents of pseudoscience. It remains for others to address matters of science in a manner appropriate to that same audience, for which Walton helpfully clears the ground.

About the Author(s): 

James F McGrath
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Butler University
4600 Sunset Avenue
Indianapolis IN 46208

James F McGrath is Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University and the author of The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context (Urbana [IL]: University of Illinois Press, 2009). He blogs at http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com.