Almost There: A Review of “The Lost World of Genesis One” by John Walton

There are very few books that both impress me and yet finally leave me unconvinced of the author’s thesis. Most books that don’t convince me are because they have major gaping holes, massive assumptions, or simply poor arguments. But John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One is erudite, compelling, and beautifully reasoned…and yet still unconvincing. My hang-ups about the conclusions he draws, however, may reveal my own hesitancy to shift from a literal five-day-creationism. This means I probably have more studying to do.

John Walton is a respected Old Testament scholar. Among his many accomplishments is coauthor of The IVP Background Commentary on the Old Testament. Here, then, is a man who does not come to the text of Scripture as a scientist seeking to manipulate the text, rather he comes at this as a conservative Evangelical Bible scholar seeking to understand the text. So Walton writes:

The interpretation set forth in this book arose out of my desire to fully understand the biblical text. Understanding evolution and its role is a much lower value. (170)

This focus is evident when compared to the recent work of Hugh Ross, who often loses sight of the text for all the science. Walton, however, focuses exclusively on the nature and content of the opening chapter of Genesis. He has 17 propositions which he explains and defends in less than 200 pages. His primary argument, however, is that the ancient cosmology of Genesis 1 focuses not on the origin of the material world, but on the function of that world.

Walton argues that Genesis 1 is inline with the cosmological understanding of its day, which did not concern itself with material origins.

In this book I propose that 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. (26)

He supports this argument by breaking down the text of Genesis 1. He analyzes the Hebrew word for “create,” stating that it has to do with functionality. This interpretation, he states, is the literal reading of the text, if not the “face value” way of looking at it. He also breaks down the “days” of creation by explaining how each relates to functionality and not material origination. It all climaxes, really, in the long-held theological position that the world is the theater for God’s displays. Or as Walton sees it, “in the Bible the cosmos can be viewed as a temple (84).”

The truth is that this paradigm answers a lot of questions that I have had about various aspects of the creation account, least of which is how it relates to scientific discoveries. I’ve always wrestled with God’s “resting” on the seventh day. So, when we consider that on day 7 God rests I ask myself, “why?” Was God tired from His creative process? Did all that material origination wear him out? In viewing the cosmos as the temple of God, however, we see that His resting has significant theological motivations. Here it is not a sign of weakness or weariness, it is a reference to His dwelling in the “temple.” He rests to take up residence.

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. This is what makes day seven so significant, because without God taking up his dwelling in its midst, the cosmic temple does not exist. (84)

But as I hear all of these arguments, and they are good, I can’t help but wonder why this position seems so foreign to Bible scholars. Walton attempts to answer this by saying that the interpretation has surfaced as we have come to understand these ancient cultures better; much from these cultures was lost to us for centuries. It has only been recently that we have learned such things. I concede his point, but we have writings from the early church fathers on this very book and they do not support his conclusions anymore than contemporary scholars do. So, why has it taken so long for this understanding to come to light, and why only now when Evolutionary theory has made the church look silly in the eyes of the world? Why now has it come to the surface?

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t mean to disparage John Walton. He is a credible, respected, and proven Evangelical Old Testament scholar. This work bears the marks of a professional and proficient student of the Scriptures. But I can’t help but be skeptical of the validity of such a new position. Furthermore, I don’t think there is anything wrong with agreeing with a functional interpretation while still also holding to a classical material creation. Walton begrudgingly says that “theoretically” that could be possible (171). I am not ready, then, to abandon my standard position…but this book has certainly made me question my bias, and reevaluate my position again. I guess you could say that I am almost there.

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