The Lost World of Genesis One | Notes & Review

Posted on November 7, 2011


John Walton. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. IVP Academic, 2009. (191 pages)


It is regrettable that an account of such beauty has become such a bloodied battle-ground, but that is indeed the case. (5)

In this book I have proposed a reading of Genesis that I believe to be faithful to the context of the original audience and author, and one that preserves and enhances the theological vitality of this text. (5)


We like to think of the Bible possessively–my Bible…But it was not written to us. It was written to Israel. It is God’s revelation of himself to Israel and secondarily through Israel to everyone else. (7)

…the language is not the only aspect that needs to be translated. Language assumes a culture, operates in a culture, serves a culture, and is designed to communicate into the framework of a culture. Consequently, when we read a text written in another language and addressed to another culture, we must translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to understand the text fully. (7)

As complicated as translating a foreign language can be, translating a foreign culture is infinitely more difficult. (8)

The minute anyone (professional or amateur) attempts to translate the culture, we run the risk of making the text communicate something it never intended. Rather than translating the culture, then, we need to try to enter the culture. (9)

Truly learning the language requires leaving English behind, entering the world of the text and understanding the language in its Hebrew context without creating English words in their minds. (9)

We should therefore not speak of Israel being influenced by that world–they were part of that world. (12)

Mythology by its nature seeks to explain how the world works and how it came to work that way, and therefore includes a culture’s “theory of origins.” (12)

…it should nevertheless be recognized that Genesis 1 serves the similar function of offering an explanation of origins and how the world operated, not only for Israel, but for people today who put their faith in the Bible (13)

PROPOSITION 1: Genesis 1 Is Ancient Cosmology

Some Christians approach the text of Genesis as if it had modern science embedded in it or it dictates what modern science should look like. This approach … is called “concordism,” as it seeks to give a modern scientific explanation for the details in the text. (14)

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. (15)

Through the entire Bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture. no passage offers a scientific perspective that was not common to the Old World science of antiquity. (17)

Instead we strive to identify, truly and accurately, the thinking in the ancient world, the thinking in the world of the Bible, and to take that where it leads us, whether toward solutions or into more problems. (17)

…there is no concept of a “natural” world in ancient Near Eastern thinking. The dichotomy between natural and supernatural is a relatively recent one. …As a result, we should not expect anything int he Bible or int he rest of the ancient Near East to engage in the discussion of how God’s level of creative activity relates to the “natural” world (i.e., what we call naturalistic process or the laws of nature). (18)

We must take the text on its own terms–it is not written to us. God has chosen the agenda of the text, and we must be content with the wisdom of those choices. If we attempt to commandeer the text to address our issues, we distort it in the process. (19)

Sound interpretation proceeds from the belief that the divine and human authors were competent communicators and that we can therefore comprehend their communication. But to do so, we must respect the integrity of the author by refraining from replacing his message with our own. (19)

PROPOSITION 2: Ancient Cosmology is Function Oriented

If we are dealing with an ancient account we must ask questions about the world of that text: What did it mean to someone in the ancient world to say that the world existed? What sort of activity brought the world into that state of existence and meaning? What constituted a creative act?

In this book I propose that the people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system. (24)

In a functional ontology, all of the above steps (computer: material phase, software, installation, power source, someone knowing how to use it) are important in the definition of existence. Unless people (or gods) are there to benefit from functions, existence is not achieved. Unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system, it does not exist. Consequently, the actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence. (25)

The question here concerns not what they perceived but what they gave significance to. (25)

…our ontology focuses on what we believe to be most significant. In the ancient world, what was most crucial and significant to their understanding of existence was the way that the parts of the cosmos functioned, not their material status. (26)

In conclusion, analysts of the ancient Near Eastern creation literature often observe that nothing material is actually made in these accounts. …If we follow the sense of the literature and its ideas of creation, we find that people in the ancient Near East did not think of creation in terms of making material things–instead, everything is function oriented. The gods are beginning their own operations and are making all of the elements of the cosmos operational. 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. We need to note the contrast: we tend to think of the cosmos as a machine and argue whether someone is running the machine or not. The ancient world viewed the cosmos more like a company or a kingdom. (33)

Would they have believed that their gods also manufactured the material? Absolutely, for nothing can be thought to stand apart from the gods. But they show little interest in material origins. Such issues were simply insignificant to them. (34)

PROPOSITION 3: “Create” (Hebrew ברא) Concerns Functions

If existence is defined in functional terms, creating is a material activity. If existence is defined in functional terms, creating is a function-giving activity. (37)

The English reader must face a difficult fact: one cannot comprehend the literal meaning of a word in the Old Testament without knowing Hebrew or having access to the analysis by someone who does. (37)

It can therefore be confidently asserted that the activity is inherently a divine activity and not one that humans can perform or participate in. (38)

The truest meaning of a text is found in what the author and hearers would have thought. (42)

The chapter does involve creative activities, but all in relation to the way that the ancient world thought about creation and existence: by naming, separating and assigning functions and roles in an ordered system. (45)

PROPOSITION 4: The Beginning State in Genesis 1 Is Nonfunctional

If the text offered an account of material origins, we would expect it to begin with no material. If the text offered an account of functional origins, we would expect it to begin with no functions. (46)

We must never forget that translation is the most basic act of interpretation. One cannot convey words meaningfully from a source language to a target language without first determining what they think the text means to say. (48)

The creation account in Genesis 1 can then be seen to begin with no functions rather than with no material. …in the ancient world, function was not the result of material properties, but the result of purpose. (49)

Genesis 2:18 | This verse has nothing to do with moral perfection or quality of workmanship–it is a comment concerning function. The human condition is not functionally complete without the woman. Thus throughout Genesis 1 the refrain “it was good” expressed the functional readiness of the cosmos for human beings. Readers were assured that all functions were operating well and in accord with God’s purposes and direction. Moreover the order and function established and maintained by God renders the cosmos both purposeful and intelligible. So there is reason or motivation for studying the detailed nature of creation, which we now call science, even if the ancient Hebrews didn’t take up this particular study. (50)

All of this indicates that cosmic creation in the ancient world was not viewed primarily as a process by which matter was brought into being, but as a process by which functions, roles, order, jurisdiction, organization and stability were established. This defines creation in the ancient world and in turn demonstrates that ontology was focused on something’s functional status rather than its material status. (52)

PROPOSITION 5: Days One to Three in Genesis 1 Establish Functions

Day 1 | describing the creation of time. (55)

Day 2 | the functions that serve as the basis for weather. (57)

Day 3 | differentiates terrestrial space. (57)

So on day one God created the basis for time; day two the basis for weather; day three the basis for food. These three great functions–time, weather and food–are the foundation of life. if we desire to see the greatest work of the Creator, it is not to be found in the materials that he brought together–it is that he brought them together in such a way that they work. … We should never lose the wonder of this. Functions are far more important than materials. (58)

PROPOSITION 6: Days Four to Six in Genesis 1 Install Functionaries

All of the rest of creation functions in relationship to humankind, and humankind serves the rest of creation as God’s vice regent (67)

SUMMARY | In days four to six the functionaries of the cosmos are installed in their appropriate positions and given their appropriate roles. Using the company analogy, they are assigned their offices (cubicles), told to whom they will report, and thus given an idea of their place in the company. Their workday is determined by the clock, and they are expected to be productive. Foremen have been put in place, and the plant is now ready for operation. But before the company is ready to operate, the owner is going to arrive and move into his office. (70)

PROPOSITION 7: Divine Rest Is in a Temple

Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for. We might eve say that this is what a temple is–a place for divine rest. Perhaps even more significant, in some texts the construction of a temple is associated with cosmic creation. (71)

But in the ancient world rest is what results when a crisis has been resolved or when stability has been achieved, when things have “settled down.” (72)

After creation, God takes up his rest and rules from his residence. … In the Old Testament the idea that rest involves engagement in the normal activities that can be carried out when stability has been achieved can be seen in the passages where God talks of giving Israel rest in the land… (73)

PROPOSITION 8: The Cosmos Is a Temple

Thus the absence of a temple was sometimes part of the description of the precosmic condition. (77)

Indeed, the temple is, for all intents and purposes, the cosmos. This interrelationship makes it possible for the temple to be the center from which order in the cosmos is maintained. (80)

Consequently we may conclude that the Garden of Eden was sacred space and the temple/tabernacle contained imagery of the garden and the cosmos. All the ideas are interlinked. The temple is a microcosm, and Eden is represented in the antechamber that serves as sacred space adjoining the Presence of God as an archetypal sanctuary. (82)

That is precisely what we are proposing as the premise of Genesis 1: that it should be understood as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as a temple. (83)

  1. In the bible and in the ancient Near East the temple is viewed as a microcosm.
  2. The temple is related to the functions of the cosmos.
  3. The creation of the temple is parallel to the creation of the cosmos.
  4. The creation of the temple is parallel to the creation of the cosmos.
  5. In the Bible the cosmos can be viewed as a temple.

Genesis 1 can now be seen as a creation account focusing on the cosmos as a temple. It is describing the creation of the cosmic temple with all of its functions and with God dwelling in its midst. (83)

PROPOSITION 9: The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Relate to the Cosmic Temple Inauguration

We must draw an important distinction between the building of a temple and the creation of a temple. (87)

In summary, we have suggested that the seven days are not given as the period of time over which the material cosmos came into existence, but the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple, and perhaps also its annual reenactment. It is not the material phase of temple construction that represents the creation of the temple; it is the inauguration of the functions and the entrance of the presence of God to take up his rest that creates the temple. (91)

PROPOSITION 10: The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Do Not Concern Material Origins

Viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as temple does not in any way suggest or imply that God was uninvolved in material origins–it only contends that Genesis 1 is not that story. To the author and audience of Genesis, material origins were simply not a priority. (95)

The thological point is that whatever exists, be it material or functional, God made it. (96)

In the “after” picture the cosmos is now not only the handiwork of God (since he was responsible for the material phase all along, whenever it took place), but it also becomes God’s residence–the place he has chosen and prepared for his presence to rest. (97)

PROPOSITION 11: “Functional Cosmic Temple” Offers Face-Value Exegesis

Those who have championed the “literal” interpretation of the text have objected that these approaches are reductionistic attempts to bypass difficult scientific implications and claim that by pursuing them the text is so compromised that it is, in effect, rejected. … I believe that if we are going to interpret the text according to its face value, we need to read it as the ancient author would have intended and as the ancient audience would have heard it. (102)

Divine intention must not be held hostage to the ebb and flow of scientific theory. Scientific theory cannot serve as the basis for determining divine intention. (104)

…there is not a single instance in the Old Testament of God giving scientific information that transcended the understanding of the Israelite audience. If he is consistently communicating to them in terms of their world and understanding, then why should we expect to find modern science woven between the lines? People who value the Bible do not need to make it “speak science” to salvage its truth claims or credibility. The most respectful reading we can give to the text, the reading most faithful to the face value of the text–and the most “literal” understanding, if you will–is the one that comes from their world not ours. (105)

PROPOSITION 12: Other Theories of Genesis 1 Either Go Too Far or Not Far Enough

In this view, 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. (112)

PROPOSITION 13: The Difference Between Origin Accounts in Science and Scripture Is Metaphysical in Nature

It is unconvincing for a scientist to claim that he or she finds no empirical evidence of God. Science as currently defined and practiced is ill-equipped to find evidence of God. (115)

As the result of an empirical disciple, biological evolution can acknowledge no purpose, but likewise it cannot contend that there is no purpose outside of a metaphysical conclusion that there is no God. (115)

God’s purposes and intentions are most clearly seen in the way the cosmos runs rather than in its material structure or in the way that its material structures were formed… (117)

PROPOSITION 14: God’s Roles as Creator and Sustainer Are Less Different Than We Have Thought.

In conclusion I suggest that God initiated the functions in Genesis 1 so that they are seen to originate in him. (122)

PROPOSITION 15: Current Debate About Intelligent Design Ultimately Concerns Purpose

Coincidence is just the word we use when we have not yet discovered the cause…It’s an illusion of the human mind, a way of saying, “I don’t know why this happened this way, and I have no intention of finding out.” – Orson Scott Card

In short, teleological aspects (exploration of purpose) are not in the realm of science as it has been defined and therefore could not be factored into a scientific understanding. (126)

PROPOSITION 16: Scientific Explanations of Origins Can Be Viewed in Light of Purpose, and If So, Are Unobjectionable

We have no cause to reject the science, yet science is incapable of affirming or identifying the role of God. (134)

We don’t organize campaigns to force academic institutions that train meteorologists or embryologists to offer the theological alternative of God’s role. Why should our response to evolution be any different? (135)

PROPOSITION 17: Resulting Theology in This View of Genesis 1 Is Stronger, Not Weaker

Our world tends to subordinate the functional to the material. That is why ever since the Enlightenment (at least) we have generally believed that it is most important for us to think of creation in terms of the material. … The Bible considers it much more important to say that God has made everything work rather than being content to say that God made the physical stuff. (143)

SABBATH. Sabbath isn’t the sort of thing that should have to be regulated by rules. It is the way that we acknowledge that God is on the throne, that this world is his world, that our time is his gift to us. (146)

The theological commitment we draw from Genesis 1 is that God is the author of order. (147)

  1. The world operates by Yahweh’s design and under his supervision to accomplish his purposes.
  2. The cosmos is his temple.
  3. Everything in the cosmos was given its role and function by God.
  4. Everything in the cosmos functions on behalf of people who are in his image.

PROPOSITION 18: Public Science Education Should Be Neutral Regarding Purpose

If a science course intends to discuss material origins from the perspective of a material ontology (which is essential to the nature of empirical science), there is no point at which the Genesis account becomes relevant, because Genesis does not concern material origins and does not have a material ontology. (151)


  1. Genesis operates primarily within a functional ontology as a faith system.
  2. Genesis is insistent in affirming teleology with no possible neutrality.
  3. Consequently Genesis should not be taught in empirical science classrooms, for it is not empirical science.
  4. Empirical science operates within a material ontology and can be taught as a byproduct of that ontology.
  5. Empirical science need not favor teleology or dysteleology and should remain neutral on the issue as much as possible.
  6. What science has to offer concerning descriptive mechanisms of material origins can be explored in metaphysically neutral ways without offense to biblical affirmations in Genesis 1.
  7. If metaphysical naturalism were to be allowed in the science classroom, then there would no longer be any logical reason to ban discussions of design. Since metaphysical naturalism opposes teleological conclusions, it functions on the same metaphysical plane as design, which opposes dysteleological conclusions.
  8. Irreducible complexity has a potential role in the empirical science classroom but should not be a matter for legislation one way or the other.

Summary and Conclusions

The position that I have proposed regarding Genesis 1 may be designated the cosmic temple inauguration view. (161)

It is the mark of stubborn and dogmatic persons to be oblivious to the need either to test their own beliefs or to recognize the successful tests that opposing beliefs have undergone. – Gerald Runkle

We must keep in mind that we are presumptuous if we consider our interpretations of Scripture to have the same authority as Scripture itself. … We must not let our interpretations stand in the place of Scripture’s authority and thus risk misrepresenting God’s revelation. (167)

— VIA —

For those engaged in this subject, Walton must be contended with. His theological work and textual criticism is beneficial, by the way, not just on Genesis, but the whole of Scripture. Learning to read texts on their own terms must be the fundamental “rule of thumb” for any reader of the Bible.

The one area of the book that is considerably weak, in my estimation, is Walton’s reference to Intelligent Design, specifically irreducible complexity. Not only because the Dover, Pennsylvania case was in 2004, time enough for some editing for this work, but also because it seems that the very argument Walton is putting forth a priori negates design as valid for empirical science.

The number of reviews online is encouraging, as I do hope that more will consider Walton’s work, not because he is smarter than others, but because he is one of the few who is approaching the Biblical text on its own terms.

Posted in: Bible, Religion, Reviews