John H. Walton is an evangelical scholar who, like Seventh-day Adventists, believes in the uniquely authoritative divine revelation and thought inspiration of the Bible in the sense that God used ancient Near Eastern people to convey His messages for human beings of all subsequent ages. For him, as for us, the meaning of a given passage of Scripture must be ascertained within the context of the biblical text itself. The question is: What does the Bible intend to say? Enduring principles of God’s messages transcend time and place to reach us, but their communication is often clad in the ancient cultural garb of the human messengers and their original audience. Culture is not the biblical authority, but even divine communication to humans takes their culture and world-view into account in order to be effective.
We can grasp the basic principles of God’s salvation through Christ and His will for our lives without trans-cultural awareness. But deeper understanding of God’s written Word requires some careful cultural translation so that we do not simply read our own world-views into the Bible. To assist us with the conceptual translation process, scholars have been making ancient cultural background materials, including texts, relevant for comparison with the Bible. Walton has played a leading role in this by writing Ancient Israelite Literature In Its Cultural Context; Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament; co-authoring The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (with Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas); and editing the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament.
Walton has adopted the “contextual” approach to biblical comparative studies, which was championed by W. W. Hallo. This approach, now generally accepted by those working in this area (including myself), recognizes that elements common to the Bible and its ancient environment must first be examined within their respective cultural contexts before they are compared with each other. Comparison must consider differences as well as similarities. Even items that appear identical may function differently within different cultural systems. Study of ancient Near Eastern materials can enhance our understanding of the Bible by comparison and contrast, but it can never override or replace careful analysis of the biblical text itself.
I agree with Walton’s basic comparative approach, which he applies to Genesis in several books: Genesis (NIV Application Commentary); The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate; and most recently, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology coming out at the end of September, and which he has graciously made available to me. I have used the same kind of methodology to enhance exegesis, including in collaboration with Walton, who edited my contributions to the NIV Application Commentary (Leviticus, Numbers) and the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament (“Leviticus”).
Functional Creation as Cosmic Inauguration
Like Seventh-day Adventists, Walton accepts literal days in Genesis 1 and a special role for the seventh-day Sabbath. It appears that we could embrace Walton’s biblical interpretation of Sabbath as the culmination of God’s week-long inauguration of His cosmic temple as a significant contribution to Adventist theology. Among many fine insights, he has also enriched our understanding of Creation by drawing attention to God’s work of organizing the cosmos and assigning functions for the benefit of humanity as an integral part—indeed, the most significant part—of His creative process.
There is strong biblical support for Walton’s proposal that the writer of Genesis 1—like other ancient Near Easterners, but unlike modern readers—was not primarily concerned with fabrication of new materials:
1. Physical material, such as water, already existed in an unproductive state before God created light on the first day of Creation (Gen. 1:2-3).
2. Not every day of creation brought new material into being. Most notably, the Sabbath obviously involved no new material. Neither would the writer of Genesis have recognized light as material because he had no access to the recent discovery of physicists that it consists of particles in wave pockets. Even if the writer regarded the so-called “firmament,” better translated “expanse,” and the sun, moon, and stars as material entities, he would not have known what they were made of.
3. The Hebrew verbs for “create” and “make/do” used in Genesis 1 take direct objects that are not limited to material things.
But Walton goes a controversial step further by concluding that Genesis 1 does not even secondarily include bringing some material things into existence. For him, this stage occurred before the Creation week of cosmic temple inauguration, during an indeterminate period of time that is simply outside the scope of the biblical account. He believes that God originally made everything out of nothing, but holds that Genesis 1 does not tell us this story.
Walton’s view does not require long ages for material Creation, but it opens the door for this possibility. If he is right, he has “cut the Gordian knot” to resolve long-standing tension between the Bible and scientific theories, including those maintaining that life and death on Planet Earth goes back millions of years, although Walton finds that Romans 5 rules out human death before the Fall into sin recorded in Genesis 3. He allows that God may have evolved life over a long period of time, but if so, the Lord was involved with the entire process. He points out that ancient peoples, including the Israelites and the author of Genesis 1, believed “that every event was the act of deity…The idea that deity got things running then just stood back or engaged himself elsewhere (deism) would have been laughable in the ancient world because it was not even conceivable.”
Walton is right that we should not try to get more out of a biblical passage than what is there just because we want to and because we have believed that it should answer all our modern questions. But if his basic methodology is correct, why has he come up with a conclusion that threatens the interpretation of Genesis 1 generally accepted by Seventh-day Adventists? This interpretation finds that life forms on Planet Earth originated no more than a few thousand years ago at the beginning of biblical historical time, although the galactic universe may have existed long before in deep time (millions of years or more), and some suggest that Earth’s inorganic matter was present long before the planet was rendered habitable during the seven days of Creation.
Does this mean that the church, which is committed to relying on the actual meaning of the biblical text, should now adopt Walton’s interpretation that all material creation preceded the Creation week of Genesis 1? Not necessarily. In any discipline, a valid methodology provides a helpful environment or framework for investigation, but it does not dictate one possible correct conclusion. Proper methodological controls only narrow the range of options to potentially correct ones. Differing conclusions can result from variations in application of the same methodology. It does not mean that everyone is right. As in science, further data, investigation, debate, and testing of hypotheses can eliminate options and refine understanding. So any true scholar, such as Walton, who develops a new theory expects that his application of methodology to raw data will be rigorously tested.
Walton clearly lays out his evidence and is convincing on many points. I am trying to sympathetically comprehend his theory and its profound implications, but must honestly confess that I do not see how the Genesis 1 Creation week could involve no material creation in terms of structuring physical matter. This conclusion appears to go somewhat beyond the biblical evidence that Walton presents and seems problematic in practical terms. Here are my reasons:
1. Assignment or inauguration of function culminates a process that can earlier include bringing something material into existence. Walton would agree thus far, but he says that the earlier phase happened before the Creation week. So in his view, the cosmos and its inhabitants were already fully formed before Genesis 1:1 and just needed to be organized and celebrated. But how could life survive on Planet Earth before its elements, such as time, weather, sea versus land, and food received their orderly functions, which made them productive for humans and animals? Granted that there was already plenty of material in verse 2, but it was still unproductive and therefore incapable of sustaining life.
2. Walton has effectively demonstrated that the verbs in Genesis 1 for “create” (bārāʾ) and “make/do” (ʿāśâ) cover much more than treatment of material objects, and in the context of this chapter, their meanings are primarily functional. Nevertheless, this emphasis does not rule out consideration of material, as Walton acknowledges in his new book, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology:
“When ʿāśâ refers to God’s creative activity, the objects of the verb, as is true of bārāʾ, range beyond material products to include functions. The objects appear that we expect: earth, sea, dry land, heaven, “expanse,” heavenly bodies, sun and moon, animals, and people. But also in the list are the windows of heaven (2 Kgs 7:2, 19), Moses and Aaron (1 Sam 12:6), and the nations (Deut 26:19; Ps 86:9)….The variety of direct objects used with ʿāśâ suggests that there is no clear distinction between the material and the functional aspects of meaning in this verb.”
3. Genesis 1:3 does not refer to the absolute origin of light in the entire history of the universe (cf. Isa 14:12; Ezek 28:14). However, it does recount the origin of the period of daylight, which has recurred ever since. Daylight is a function of light, rather than a material, as Walton rightly points out. But it is also an observable phenomenon of interest both to the ancient author and to the modern empirical scientist. If daylight began to benefit Earth no earlier than the beginning of the Creation week, which occurred only a few thousand years ago in the context of biblical chronology, it seems impossible to harmonize the biblical account of origins with long-age scientific theories.
4. In Genesis 1-2 there are several instances in which naming to assign function is separate from and subsequent to bringing a phenomenon (light; “expanse”), state (dry surface land), or entity (animal; woman) into existence (1:3-5, 6-8, 9-10; 2:19-20, 21-23). If giving existence is only defined in terms of assigning function, why are there two phases here?
5. The literary genre of Genesis 1 and 2 has been debated for a long time. But within the overall framework of Genesis, it is clear that these chapters are some kind of narrative history that sets up the bases of human life and civilization, the continuation of which is recounted in subsequent chapters. Walton points out that physical elements utilized by God in forming Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 were archetypal, representing characteristics of humanity as a whole. But in the narrative context, these archetypes were expressed by materials just as real as other materials mentioned in the chapter (e.g., gold and precious stones in v. 12).
6. Walton’s view raises a serious question of theodicy: Would the biblical God, who values order for the benefit of His creatures, bring them into physical existence in a world that does not yet have the orderly functions they need in order to thrive? Why make them suffer and likely die like that? This is not the way Genesis 1-2 portrays God’s character.
Walton has greatly enriched my understanding of Genesis 1-2 and has convinced me that these chapters are not primarily focused on material origins. Rather, they are about two things:
1. What God did during the Creation week to make Planet Earth and its environment functional and productive as a habitable and inhabited place. This process involved His formation and ordering of new phenomena, states, and physical entities, including organisms.
2. Genesis 1-2 provide the relational, theological foundation for the entire Bible by showing how God has always been the omnipotent Source, Originator, and therefore legitimate Ruler of everything and everyone on Earth.
Walton has shown that the biblical account of Creation is not designed to answer modern scientific questions regarding material origins. Therefore, science has plenty of scope for filling in details regarding the question of what happened at Creation. But science cannot answer the questions of why or how it happened. There are many theories regarding when it happened, but this is also challenging for science to answer because it is a historical question that partly depends on the answers to the questions of why and how it happened. If it happened because God chose to make it happen at a certain point in time, it was He who altered the natural “laws” and history of the cosmos. This complicates extrapolation of a purely scientific explanation of causes and their history from presently observable effects that operate according to the current functional order.
We need the best science and the best theology, recognizing their limitations and working together in humble recognition that we need to live without knowing all the answers (Deut 29:29). Rather than fixating on differing perspectives regarding origins, scientists and theologians should cooperate in exploring the awesome greatness of God that is lavishly revealed in nature and His written Word.
Roy E. Gane, Ph.D., is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Languages at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary.