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Vibrant Dance 2: Walton: The Cosmic Temple Inauguration View of Genesis One

{RJW Note:  The fifth plenary session was by Dr. john Walton, Professor of Old Testament, Wheaton College and Graduate School Wheaton, Illinois. Dr Walton handed out a one page summary, including a table laying out his outline of Genesis 1 to everyone, so I did not ask him for a copy of his talk text. Thus, today’s post is a merger of my notes and the handout, which is reproduced here in its entirety. }

The Handout:

Interpreting Genesis One in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context[1]

Literary Introduction to the Chapter (1:1; 2:1)
Beginning State is Nonfunctional (1:2)
Cosmic Temple Inauguration
Establishing Functions (1:3-13)
Installing Functionaries (1:14-31)
Day One (1:3-5) Basis for Time
Day Four (1:14-19) Celestial Bodies
Involved in Carrying Out Functions
Day Two (1:6-8) Basis for Weather
Day Five (1:20-23) Creatures Inhabiting Cosmic Space
Carry Out Their Own Functions in the Spheres Delineated
Day Three (1:9-10, 11-13) Basis for Food
Day Six (1:24-25, 26-31) Creatures Inhabiting Terrestrial Space
Day Seven (2:2-3): Divine Rest in the Functional Cosmic Temple

Key points to Interpretation
             Genesis One is a Temple Cosmology (cosmos established as sacred space)
             Deity rests in a temple and rest is related to rule and stability not leisure and relaxation
             Creation accounts in the ancient world and Genesis One are most concerned with functions and functionaries
             Hebrew bara' refers to creation through the establishment of functions
             Genesis One is an account of functional origins not material origins
             There is no biblical account of material origins[2]
             Seven days are connected to inauguration of temple functions
     We look to science to provide the narrative of material origins with the proviso that we understand God to be the primary actor in that narrative

My notes from the talk:

Walton’s first emphasized the critical importance of authority and source of authority in understanding any text, reinforcing Kaiser’s point from earlier. First, he said, we must realize God’s purpose is carried out through human purpose. Second, we must acknowledge that authority is vested in the author. Therefore, we must realize that Scripture was written for us, but not to us:  the message transcends culture, but its form is culture bound. With this understanding, we must take our place in his audience.

In other words, we have to see the world the way the text sees the world. To the ancient near east (ANE), the function of things was much more substantial than their material existence. The ancients did not have a material picture of say, the moon—to them it is just a light. The green cheese question would have completely gone over their heads. Simply put, the material world was not very important to them. {RJW Note:  could this be because most of the pagan world saw the world as capricious and random, so it was safer to look for causes behind the world than the world itself?}

Thus, we need to ask, “who’s cosmic geography (cosmology) will undergird the text?” Since Genesis was written to an ANE audience, we should expect it to reflect their understanding of the nature of the universe, rather than ours. Thus, when we read their work, we can learn how they understood their universe. For example, all peoples believed there were waters above and below the earth. Since the sky is blue, they reasoned, there must be water above it. Furthermore, as mentioned above, they weren’t concerned so much with a physical, material cosmology.

The obvious question that arises is, if God is so powerful and knows how He created the universe, why would He not correct their false understandings? To answer that, first understand that there is a difference between a culture’s mythology and their cosmology. If you will, the cosmology is an assessment of what is, and the mythology is the why it is. Thus, in the Genesis creation account, God was defining the Hebrew mythology rather than their cosmology. (Mythology here is used in the generic sense of being a loose synonym for worldview.) In short, as we will learn later, His primary purpose is to teach them about Himself and distinguish Himself from the pagan gods in the surrounding cultures. The cosmology was not the point.

Thus, we must see the text the way the ancient Israelites saw the text, and not rush to science to get a scientific view. At least initially, our goal is to understand the text the way the author wanted to be understood without trying to squeeze anything out of it or read anything into it.

We need to understand the genre of the literature, which raises a couple of questions: 
                How is the text different from what we expect it to be?
                What is the ancient cosmology—what are the implications, how do we interpret it?

Taking the text at face value includes accounting for the perspective of the culture in which it was written. Also, we need to focus on the nature of the Biblical revelation. For example, not everything in Bible is stamped as having God’s authority (ie spellings, etc., show variations due to normal human involvement with the text). Thus, when the Bible uses a geocentric frame of reference, we don’t have problems (also, for example, when it talks about the pillars of the earth or the four corners of the world). Is God going to spend his time revealing science to them? He speaks to them in their science to communicate His revelation to them. His purpose is to reveal Himself.

Walton made a rather surprising statement that there is not one instance of scientific revelation in Scripture. There is a lot of revelation about Himself, but not science. It is important to remember that observation of natural cause and effect doesn’t remove God from the picture. Regardless of HOW God did it, the important thing is He did it. God gave us the task of figuring out how he did it, just revealed what science couldn’t—Himself.

Another way of describing the issue is that every author has certain usage and philosophical conventions they use as a basic framework for communicating. Thus the problem of correlating Scripture with science is further complicated because reconstructing the physical cosmos from Genesis 1 would be like reconstructing the human anatomy from Picasso. Picasso used his chosen conventions to convey the truth he wanted to convey. Thus, we are completely unable to recreate his painting model from his painting. The same is true of the Biblical science.

With this introduction to his epistemology and hermeneutics, Walton was ready to describe his view of Genesis 1, a view he called “functional ontology.” {Ontology is the metaphysical study of the nature of being.} We are now able to understand their worldview, retrieved from ancient literature, sometimes including pagan myths, but also including other documents and literature. Thus, we understand that this functional ontology is how they thought, the filter through which they viewed reality, not merely false ideas borrowed from pagan mythic sources.

To begin to see the point, ask yourself, “why didn’t God call light ‘light?’” He called the light ‘day,’ which is a period of time in which light exists. God is separating a period of light from a period of darkness and then named them. He was not trying to create darkness and light. Note that He says, “Let there be light,” rather than a more active creative act. In other words, on day 1 God created the basis of time as a first step to bringing order to the cosmos.

The word used here is bara’ which means created. It has 50 occurrences in the Bible, and only takes God as subject or actor, so it is a divine activity. It takes a wide variety of objects of creation: people groups, Jerusalem, wind, fire, abstractions, a clean heart, etc. {I’m not sure if he gave references for all of these. If so, I didn’t get them in my notes.} In each of these examples, we find they are NOT MATERIAL, but FUNCTIONAL. Again, the ANE cultures didn’t care about the material, but rather the functional. The purpose of bringing functions into being was to create order out of chaos.

Genesis 1:2 makes a point of stating the earth was formless and empty. Thus, the starting point of the week of Creation is not lacking matter, but order. Both darkness and the sea are elements of chaos in ancient world, and this comes out clearly in the early verses of Genesis 1. The Hebrew word, tohu means lacking worth or purpose:  a place where nothing is done.

There is an Egyptian parallel: there word for “nonexistent” is a reference to that which has not yet been differentiated and assigned a function, yet having potentiality. Thus, to create means to move something from nonexistent to existent—in a functional ontology, means to take something without purpose and give it purpose.

So what is ‘created’ or given function in Genesis 1?
“Let the dry lands emerge, let the plants sprout”—He created the material (the physical Earth), but He is now giving it function.

In Genesis 8:22, we see these three elements, time, weather, and food, reaffirmed in God’s postdiluvial covenant with Noah. “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter,… will never cease.”

In the ancient functional ontology, existence is defined by having a function, not by having a material structure. Thus, Genesis 1 provides an account of functional origins. {I missed the next couple of slides.} Consider that nearly all of the modern controversies are concerned with what the Biblical view is of the span of time over which things were created. That is not the concern of Scripture, but rather that order is brought out of chaos by creating time and function.

But it goes deeper than that. It turns out that “rest” is the main goal of creation. While humanity may be the climax of the first six days, the climax of the creation account is the rest on the seventh day. Furthermore, to the ANE mind, the temple and the cosmos are interchangeable. In fact, a temple is constructed as micro-cosmos. The concept behind a temple is it defines sacred space, and has circles of increasing sacredness as you move to its center, i.e. the Holy of Holies. In creating the physical universe, God created a chaotic environment. In the Creation week, He brought order to it, working from the outside in, until reaching the center in the Garden of Eden. The process of creating order from chaos, in that culture, is equivalent to the process of sanctifying or inaugurating a temple. In fact, the ceremony of sanctifying Solomon’s temple took…seven days. The temple was built over a much longer time period, but until it was inaugurated, it had not function, and therefore it did not exist, until everything was in place, and declared for service.

But what does this have to do with rest? To the ANE mind, rest means rest from one’s enemies—i.e. means Israel can live their lives with some control, not worrying about interference from enemies. So on the seventh day, God’s rest is more than relaxation, but settling in to the order created so He can rule it, to reign, to control.

Walton refers to Psalm 132:7-8; 13-14 as a proof text, showing how the themes of temple, rest, and rule come together as a single concept.

7 “Let us go to his dwelling place,
   let us worship at his footstool, saying,
8 ‘Arise, LORD, and come to your resting place,
   you and the ark of your might.
13 For the LORD has chosen Zion,
   he has desired it for his dwelling, saying,
14 “This is my resting place for ever and ever;
   here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.

So let’s look at the seven days controversy in light of this analysis. A linguistic evaluation of the text indicates they should be 24 hour periods. Fine. But what is happening during days? Most of the discussion is concerned about the age of the Earth. But is that the focus of the text?

If the 7 Creation days is like a temple inauguration, then the objects are not necessarily being made in those 7 days. If the days are concerned with bringing order rather than making things, then the seven days have nothing to do with Earth’s age. Again, the temple is built, but doesn’t exist, because it isn’t inhabited, so the Creation is the sanctifying of the temple (the Cosmos).

In conclusion, Walton asserts that the text asserts that in the 7 day initial period of Creation, God brought the Cosmos into operation by assigning roles and functions as opposed to bringing it into existence.

Day 9 Praise:  The late singer Rich Mullins once stated that music was the most existentially useless thing in the world. It has no inherent purpose from a naturalistic, evolutionary viewpoint, yet it is one of the most wonderful aspects of human life. What kind of wonderful God do we have that would think of such a thing, and treat us to it so lavishly?


[1] Chart devised by Ken Way from J. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).
[2] Without question or doubt, God is responsible for material origins

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