John Walton’s new book The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate explores a topic at the center of much of the controversy between science and Christian faith. Following the format used in his earlier books The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Scripture the chapters are organized according to propositions about the text and its interpretation. The first five propositions summarize concepts from the first two books and his more scholarly book Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology. These propositions focus on the nature of scripture and the interpretation of Genesis 1 to provide a necessary foundation for the move into Genesis 2 and 3 and the problem of Adam. Today’s post will outline the major ideas in this foundation.
Genesis is an Ancient Document. The better we understand the ancient context, the better we will understand the message of the text. Walton will often remind us that Genesis was written for us but it was not written to us. As scripture it is for everyone, but this does not remove the need for continued study and interpretation. Every translation involves interpretation.
Some ideas in the text are incidental arising from the ancient Near Eastern culture, they are not part of the message of the text. For example, Genesis assumes that the waters above are separated from the waters below by a solid dome of some sort. Most people until very recently would have had no trouble believing this and it was a common view in the church, as the picture from Lucas Cranach included in Luther’s bible illustrates. Today we know this isn’t true and most don’t feel that this “error” undermines biblical authority. Likewise, we no longer view people as thinking with their intestines, even though this language is used in the text of scripture. Genesis isn’t a science text and it isn’t teaching science. We would do well to remember this and to avoid reading modern science back into the text or out of the text.
The need for expertise and scholarship to dig the depth of meaning from the text is simply a fact. We all walk alongside and stand on the shoulder of others as we read and study the text. Walton goes on:
Such study is not a violation of the clarity (“perspicuity”) of Scripture propagated by the reformers. They were not arguing that every part of Scripture was transparent to any casual reader. If they believed that, they would not have had to write hundreds of volumes trying to explain the complexities of interpretation at both exegetical and theological levels. They were, instead, trying to make the case that there was a “plain sense” of Scripture that was not esoteric, mystical, or allegorical and could only be spiritually discerned. Everyone could have access to this plain sense. (p. 22-23)
A better understanding of ancient Hebrew, ancient Near Eastern culture, literature, expectations, genres, styles, daily life, all of these will improve our understanding of Scripture. We need careful scholarship and we all need to pay attention to this scholarship.
Creating Focuses on Establishing Order by Assigning Functions. This is a big part of Walton’s overall argument. When we read Genesis 1 with modern eyes it seems obvious that the point is the material creation of the world. Before we can draw such a conclusion, however, we should dig into the text in its original context. Within the ancient Near East creation involves establishing order rather than producing material items. It isn’t that the latter is out of the question, it just isn’t the primary focus.
Our translations can illuminate and also obscure the ancient meaning of the text because every translation involves interpretation. Walton argues that the words translated made or created in Genesis 1 generally refer to establishing order or assigning function rather than to material creation. For example, “God made two great lights” could as easily be translates as “God provided two great lights” in the same way that God provided families for the midwives who defied pharaoh.