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Genesis and Beyond: Sabbath Summary

The Adventist Forum conference is now over, but as I attempt to summarize some of the Sabbath’s happenings, I am struck by the range of viewpoints present this weekend. In addition to the Spectrum spread this conference featured the Biblical interpretations of John Walton, Ph.D., an evangelical Christian with teaching experience at the Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. But even more significant, the main Sabbath respondents to him were Jacques Doukhan and Roy Gane, both professors of Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary at Andrews University. Roy Gane is the past president of the Adventist Theological Society. The afternoon roundtable included a representative from the Discovery Institute making a case for Intelligent Design. And one of the hottest sessions featured a debate between two scholars titled: To Change or Not To Change Belief #6 (Creation). Jim Londis, who has served as pastor of the Sligo Church, president of Atlantic Union College, and is the current chair of the Department of Arts and Humanities at Kettering College presented the case against change, while John Baldwin, a former pastor in Greater New York, and professor at Union College, current professor at the Adventist seminary and author of a book defending a Ted Wilson-esque reading of Genesis made the case for changing the wording of the belief about Creation. In addition to this variety of opinion as a part of the official program, I ran into an attendee from Weimar Institute, from Michigan Conference and know of a pastor, a graduate of David Asscherick’s ARISE Institute who also attended throughout the weekend. And I almost forgot to mention a pack of students from Andrews University who joined us for Sabbath. A spectrum indeed! (Perhaps the broadest mix of Adventists assembled thus far to address the origins issue?) 


Our Sabbath began with a musical prelude, scripture and prayer by Bonnie Dwyer, an offering call by Debbi Christensen (apparently a man told her at ASI that he likes the blog, but not that Carpenter guy!)—but thankfully, we surpassed our fundraising goal. Then we were treated to a rousing sermon by Richard Rice—”Who(se) Are We?” After a break John Walton continued his exegesis of the first Genesis texts by emphasizing two main points: the functional ontological purpose of Genesis chapter 1 and how the seven days of creation relate to the idea of a cosmic temple. 

Let me just say now that there is no way that I can do justice to Walton’s step-by-step logic in compiling evidence u minds. In fact, after seeing how language and culture effect the text I surprisingly found my own faith in the spiritual depth of scripture reaffirmed. 

Since most of what John Walton presented is in his book, The Lost World of Genesis One, I am going to save myself some time (I have a 6:10 am flight to catch) and intercut quotes from a thoughtful Baker Book House review which corresponds to the main points that I heard. 

Walton says we have lost our way in understanding Genesis 1 because we have lost its cultural context. The only interpretation of Genesis 1 that we have understood has to do with the material creation of the universe. But what if the chapter is not describing a material creation at all? What if it is describing creation as it would have been understood in its ancient Near Eastern context? In that context Genesis 1 is describing not the material creation of the universe but its functional creation. That is to say for those in the ancient Near East the universe did not “exist” in any meaningful way until its parts had been assigned a purpose or role. Walton explains, “[T]he actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence. Of course something must have physical properties before it can be given its function, but the critical question is, what stage is defined as ‘creation.’” (27) For those in the ancient world to create something “means to give it a function, not material properties.” (35) It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this distinction in order to properly understand Genesis 1.

One of the great questions that Walton asks is why didn’t God call the light “light”? Why did God call “light” day? He answers this by pointing out that “day” is a period of “light”—it’s about time. God is creating, or showing ultimate control over the basic ordering of human life—day and night. That’s how he got serious about Genesis and now he sees no longer it as a story about physical origins. The beginning of Genesis is about God giving something functional purpose, not material existence. After all, God is hovering of the pre-existing waters (material) and the sun, which gives light doesn’t show up until day four. But before we go down a rat hole of the old gotcha questions, Walton saves both logic and the Biblical record by suggesting that the first three days concern basic divisions for the physical experience of humans: light/dark, earth/sky. (Noting the similarity of the Hebrew to other places where rulers give laws or decrees, Walton calls them “basic cosmic laws.”) The next three days revisit those recent divisions and assign moving material bodies to each sphere: sun/moon, birds/fish, animals/humans. That Genesis 1 is really about “dividing” not creating. This becomes even more clear when one actually reads the text and sees all the “govern”, “rule” and “separate” ideas.

17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness.


20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.


26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,a]”>[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”


28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” 

Is the central focus of Genesis 1 origin or order?

To really appreciate what Walton is saying here, it’s vital to understand what “creating” means in the Ancient Near Eastern world. 

To the modern mindset “existence” is entirely related to the physical composition of something—it is an ontological focus rather than a functional one. But as Walton demonstrates, “[i]n 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.” The problem seems to revolve around the word “create.” To the modern mind the word refers almost exclusively to the material composition of something. The functional sense of the word is better seen when we say something like we “created a committee.” The people already existed but the committee did not exist until roles were assigned to certain individuals and a purpose was given for them to meet. This is what God is doing in Genesis 1. He is assigning roles and purpose to a chaotic system. He is creating order with a purpose.

This does not mean that God didn’t create the material world. By definition God did make everything or God wouldn’t be divine. God made reality. But this is not that story. It appears that we Christians have pinned a theological need onto a series of texts that have a difference purpose. Not physics, but philosophy. Really, who really needs narrative proof that God, as ultimate Being, is responsible for all being? If one has a high-view of God than that truth is built into the definition of the Divine. What Walton does is actually show us the purpose of Genesis 1. It’s not about proving that God created everything—every ancient believer already knew that—the point is to establish God as the creator of purpose for human experience. 

This becomes particularly relevant for Seventh-day Adventists. Walton, who is not a member of the remnant, appears to be proclaiming a significant portion of the Three Angel’s Messages to the wider Christian world. Not only is he focusing our attention on “Him who made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.” (Note that separate sphere language again.) But Walton loudly cries out: it’s seven days of the creation of human meaning, stop stopping at six. The creation of the Sabbath is the climax of this narrative. According to the text, on the seventh day, God enters into the experience of this new creation. That famous verb “rest” actually refers to God residing in this new space/time dimension where humans have the imago dei

What’s the point of God resting on the seventh day? According to Walton, God rests in a temple and only a temple. Walton explains this is not just a siesta on a Sunday afternoon. “For deity this means that the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken. This is more a matter of engagement without obstacles rather than disengagement without responsibilities.” (73) The temple is not primarily a place of worship but a home or more importantly his “headquarters—the control room.” (75) From here, the temple, God assumes his rightful place. Genesis 1 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. The most central truth to the creation account is that this world is a place for God’s presence.” (84-85)

The purpose of Genesis 1 is the establishment of divine order and presence. It’s not proof that God is ultimately responsible for it. Everyone in the Ancient world already knew that. And Genesis 1 is not proof that the material world suddenly appeared in six days. It’s proof that God newly ordered existing material, including taking mud and turning it into humans. Genesis is not science. It’s more like philosophy. Those Adventists who worry that stopping to read these verses as science will result in a loss of Seventh-day Adventist identity are partially right. They do us a favor to note the text’s central focus rests on the Sabbath. And as someone who takes evolution seriously I keep the Sabbath as central to my Seventh-day Adventist identity because the power of the Genesis Sabbath is not dependent on the world being created in six days. The reason to keep the Sabbath is not about creation. It is about the Creator of order. After all, the Sabbath reminds me that God’s presence extends to human space and time and that I too may rest in the divine order by exercising my image dei given power to order the world for the good of all creation.  


Both Jacques Doukhan and Roy Gane gave prepared responses sharing their agreement and disagreement with Walton’s ideas in relation to the common Adventist interpretation of Genesis 1. (Instead of trying to summarize their papers, thanks to their gracious agreement, I will be embedding both in full on this blog. I should receive email copies in a day or so.) 

After all this fun, as I made my way to Sabbath lunch, I wondered: could Walton’s “cosmic temple” concept mix in ethically enriching ways with Adventist theologies of the heaven/earth sanctuary and our bodies as a temple of the divine?

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