So a book about biblical interpretation in the context of ancient cosmological paradigms might not strike you as summer reading material, but please don’t let that stop you from picking up a copy of The Lost World of Genesis One by Old Testament scholar John Walton.
I loved this book.
It’s accessible. It’s well-written. It’s profound. It’s practical. It’s exhaustively researched. It’s short.
In just 190 pages, Walton explains that the most “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1-2 is one that takes the Hebrew language and Israelite culture seriously rather than imposing modern scientific paradigms onto the text.
Writes Walton, “The Old Testament does communicate to us and it was written for us, and for all humankind. But it was not written to us. It was written to Israel.” Consequently, we must “translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to understand the text fully.” (p. 11)
With this in mind, Walton argues that Genesis 1 is reflective of ancient cosmology and that ancient cosmology is typically function-oriented rather than material-oriented.
“If we accept Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology, then we need to interpret it as ancient cosmology rather than translate it into modern cosmology," he explains. "If we try to turn into modern cosmology, we are making the text say something that it never said. It is not just a case of adding meaning (as more information has become available) it is a case of changing meaning.” (17)
In other words, God used ancient near Eastern language and culture to communicate directly to his people, not modern scientific language and assumptions to communicate directly to us.
According to Walton, attempts to mine the ancient text for answers to today's scientific questions amounts to what is called concordism, which holds that the Bible must agree—(be in concord with)—all the findings of contemporary science. While concordism leaves the reader scratching her head as she attempts to figure out how there could have been waters above the sky (Genesis 1:7), Walton’s approach “maintains that this terminology is simply describing cosmic geography in Israelite terms to make a totally different point.” (p. 18) (He also notes that concordism is often selective, as you don’t see a lot of folks trying to come up with a physiology for our times that explains how people think with their entrails, as was assumed by ancient people and referenced in multiple biblical passages.)
Notes Walton, “Through the entire Bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture.” (p. 19)
“We must take the text on its own terms—it is not written to us,” he says. “Much to our dismay then, we will find that the text is impervious to many of the questions that consume us in today’s dialogues. Though we long for the Bible to weigh in on these issues and give us biblical perspectives or answers, we dare not impose such an obligation on the text. God has chosen the agenda of the text, and we must be content with the wisdom of these choices…The Bible’s message must not be subjected to cultural imperialism.” (p. 21)
I underlined that paragraph…and drew little stars around it…and wrote a note beside it that said,“Scripture doesn’t answer every question.”
There is a certain relief that comes with the realization that as much as I wish the Bible weighed in on evolutionary theory….or modern physics….or the level at which God is creatively involved in natural processes…these were not questions that Israel was asking, and so we are simply not privy to the answers.
Instead, (according to Walton), Genesis One concerns functionality, and the seven days relate to what he calls the “Cosmic Temple Inauguration”…ancient concepts that are a bit too complicated for me to tackle here, but which are clearly and concisely articulated in the rest of The Lost World of Genesis One.
So if you love the Bible, but struggle with how to embrace it in light of modern science, please consider reading this book...now. Besides, people will think you’re really smart when they see you reading it by the pool with your pina colada!
What is your reaction to my statement that “Scripture doesn’t answer every question”?
Relief? Disappointment? Outrage?