“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. It is God’s revelation of Himself to Israel and secondarily through Israel to everyone else”.
It is a rising notion that when we read the Scriptures we must remember we are reading ancient Jewish documents. Popular writer and theologian, N.T. Wright recently noted, “
“Twentieth-century scholorship has atleast one great advantage over its predecessors…it has been realized that Jesus must be understood in His Jewish context”.
At the advice of many leaders within the Preterist Movement I finally had the opportunity to read and finish John Walton’s book, The Lost World of Genesis One.
After reading I am not sure that John Walton is a preterist but it was encouraging that he sees the importance of what is called “audience relevance”. As John Walton notes, “The most respectful reading we can give to the text, the reading most faithful to the face value of the text- and the most “literal” understanding, if you will- is the one that comes from their world not ours”.
As I have allowed myself to investigate what is called “Covenant Creationism” I have sought to be intellectually honest. As I begin reading the Bible from the beginning there are a couple contextually issues I run across. The first issue would be the covenantal term “heaven and earth” which is used throughout the Scriptures to speak of God’s covenant with His covenant people- i.e. Dueteronomy chapter 31, Jeremiah 31, and Revelation 21. Another issue I run across is the context- Genesis is compiled by Moses as part of the Torah. Was the Torah revealed to all the nations? God revealed his truth and promises to Israel- not the other nations (Psalm 147:19 ;Romans 9:4-5; Romans 15:8-13). The “other nations” or Gentiles would come in as a result of the work of Jesus Christ- first to the Jew, then to the Gentile (Romans 1:16).
When looked at through this lens we can explain the focus on Israel that we read from the founding of the tribes of Israel onward. Simply put, the Biblical message is about how God fulfilled His covenant with Israel. Many proponents of Fulfilled Bible prophecy see this at “the end” but fail to be consistent in regard to the beginnings. I have had the opportunity to speak with Jeff Vaughn, one of the co-authors of Beyond Creation Science, and I asked him “who were those in Adam”. He began to explain the ancient city/state covenants and how most ancient civilizations would have identified themselves by their deity- i.e. Rome= Romulus. Adamites would have been no different leading us into what is called preadamism. Recognizing the Biblical account of “Adam” as the story of the beginning of covenant- Adam being the first covenant man.
One of the thoughts I have had fairly recently is that of the land of Nod. Who was Abel afraid of when he said:
“Behold, you have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me (Gensis 4:14)”.
So who exactly was going to find Cain and kill him in the land of Nod? Consider that is we take this story to be the literal creation story we have Adam, Eve, and Cain…? Where did his wife come from?
This leads us into the preadamite conversation- where they people created before Adam? I personally believe so. I believe the Biblical account of Adam was a creation story- the historical creation of God’s covenant with Adam and through that lineage. So…did the people in the land of Nod have a god? Jeff Vaughn answered this recently by saying:
“My guess is that they certainly did, but it would be impossible to prove. Is it possible to determine who the patron of the ancient city of Enoch was? The patron god of Enoch could have been the patron god of the inhabitants of Nod. However, they could have replaced their old god when they founded that city”.
Getting through this discussion is so complicated because as Walton notes in his book,
“Rather than translating the culture, we need to try to enter the culture”. It’s a complicated thing to lose all of our cultural paradigms and be willing to be led by understanding another culture. For example, John Walton is asking us to consider the Genesis creation account in light of other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) creation accounts.
“Comparing the ancient cultures to one another will help us see those common threads even as we become aware of the disnctions that separated thenm from one another”
Does anyone ever ask why we accept the Old Testament creation account over the Book of the Dead or other creation stories? I would imagine half the populace are not even aware of other creation accounts.
The following quotes from John Walton’s book demonstrate the vital need for us to consider understanding the Israelite culture and how THEY would have understood the creation account and challenge our preconcieved notions.
“For the Israelites, Genesis 1 offered explanations of their view or origins and operations, in the same way that mythologies served in the rest of the ancient world and that science serves our western culture. It represents what the Israelites truly believed about how it works, though it is not presented as their own ideas, but as revelations from God”.
“Some Christians approach the text of Genesis as if it has modern science embedded in it or it dictates what modern science should look like. This approach to the text of Genesis 1 is called “concordism”, as it seeks to give a modern scientific explanation for the details in the text. This represents one attempt to “translate” the culture and text for the modern reader. The problem is, we cannot translate their cosmology to our cosmology, nor should we”.
“The ancients would never dream of addressing how things might have come into being without God or what “natural” processes he might have used”.
“The Bible’s message must not be subjected to cultural imperialism. Its message transcends the culture in which it originated, but the form in which the message was imbedded was fully permeated by the ancient culture”.
“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”.
One of the definitions of the term ‘ontology’ is “a particular theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence”. That is precisely what is being discussed here. What type of ontology is happening in Genesis? How would the ancient Israelites have understood this text?
“In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties. Consequently, something could be manufactured physically but still not “exist” if it has not become functional”.
What John Walton is seeking to demonstrate is that the Genesis account is using creation imagery in a fashion to explain not necessarily how things came into being but why. This would be referred to as a “functional ontology” and in his book, John Walton seeks to demonstrate this is exactly how the ancients would have understood a creation text. He uses the following illustration:
“As employees we pay little attention to the history of the company we work for. We are more interested in its corporate structure and what responsibility each department has”.
An important thing to notice in the text which is hardly possible for those of us who are not fluent in the Hebrew of Genesis would be the verb Bara that is used for the word ‘create’. There are 2 words used throughout the Hebrew text that is translated as create. Bara is always used for that which God creates, whereas asah is used to say ‘made’.
OT scholar John Walton argues that the Hebrew word “bara” does not mean to create “ex nihilo”, but rather it means to give already existing material a function. Eg. in Gen 1:1, “in the beginning God created” is inherently ambiguous; he believes it should say, “when God began to create” and so in verse 2, “the earth was without form” means that the earth always had existed and God was simply working with pre-existing materials.
“If this is not an account of material origins, then Genesis 1 is affirming nothing about the material world. Whether or not there actually are cosmic waters being held back by a solid dome does not matter. That material cosmic geography is simply what was familiar to them and was used to communicate something that is functional in nature”.
Dealing with the functional origins rather than the material origins, John Walton also notes:
“…Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins but an account of functional origins, specifically focusing on the functioning of the cosmos as God’s temple”.
Moshe Wienfield, a former professor of the Bible at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explained Genesis as a ‘temple text’. Utilizing the ancient understanding of deity and how the deity rests in the temple, John Walton demonstrates that the 7 day rest denotes creation as a ‘temple inaguration’. The following links have more information about this topic specifically:
The “cosmic temple inaguration view” has validity to it when looked at as an Ancient Near East text and especially in light of what the Jewish historian Josephus had to say:
“However, this proportion of the measures of the tabernacle proved to be an imitation of the system of the world: for that third part thereof which was within the four pillars, to which the priests were not admitted, is, as it were, a Heaven peculiar to God…” Josephus, Antiquities, Book 3, Chapter 6, Paragraph 4, Section 123).
“When Moses distinguished the tabernacle into three parts, and allowed two of them to the priests as a place accessible to the common, he denoted the land and the sea, these being of general access to all; but he set apart the third division for God, because heaven is inaccessible to men” Josephus, Antiquities, Book 3, Chapter 7, Paragraph 7, Section 181).
As proper “audience relevance” would note:
“I believe if we are going to interpret the text according to its face value, we need to read it as the ancient author would have intended and as the ancient audience would have heard it”.
John Walton isn’t afraid to be challenged either as he writes:
“One of the most common questions about this view comes from those who are struggling with the worldview shift from material orientation to functional orientation (a difficult jump for all of us). In a last effort to cling to a material perspective, they ask, why can’t it be both?”.
His answer actually blew my mind since this is a question I myself have heard many people ask.
“The comfort of our traditional worldview is an insufficient basis for such a conclusion. We must be led by the text. A material interest cannot be assumed by default, it must be demonstrated, and we must ask ourselves why we are so interested in seeing the account in material terms…”
He then accounts the facts that the nature of the verb bara which is used to express “create” in Genesis is functional, the context of Genesis itself is functional, the cultural context of Ancient Near Eastern writings is functional, and clearly when we read Josephus we see the understanding during the time of Jesus Christ was functional- NOT CONCERNED WITH MATERIAL CREATION!
“As a result, it is difficult to sustain a case that the account is interested in material origins if one does not already come with that presupposition”.
And just to again make the point clear:
“Viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as temple does not in any way suggest or imply that God was uninvolved in material origins- it only contents that Genesis 1 is not that story. To the author and audience of Genesis, material origins were simply not a priority”.
The fact is that in ancient civilication it would have been unthinkable that the deity (in this case the God of Israel) was uninvolved in the creation of all material things- therefore there would have been no need to stress an account of those things. As I have become accumstomed to saying- the Bible was not written to atheists to prove the things about God. Rather the Bible is the historical documentation of how and why God fulfilled His covenant relationship with Israel. Long live FULFILLED ESCHATOLOGY.
Here are a couple ending quotes from John Walton’s book that I thought to share:
“…the Bible upholds the idea that God is responsible for all origins (functional, material, or otherwise), if the Bible does not offer an account of material origins we are free to consider contemporary explanations of origins on their own merits, as long as God is seen as ultimately responsible”.
“…it is much more important to say that God has made everything work rather than being content to say that God made the physical stuff. The purpose, teleology (which is the most important part), is located and observed in the functional, not the material”.
“I have proposed that the most careful, responsible reading of the text will proceed with the understanding that it is ancient literature, not modern science”.
So still you ask? “Wny can’t Genesis 1 be both functional and material?
“Theoretically it could be both. But assuming that we simply must have a material account if we are going to say anything meaningful is cultural imperialism. We cannot demand that the text speak to us in our terms. Just as we cannot demand a material account, we cannot assume a material account just because that is most natural to us and answers the questions we most desire to ask. We must look to the text to inform us of its perspective. In my judgment, there is little in the text that commends it as material account and much that speaks against it”.
I hope this review helps. Below I will include a couple more links to further your studies on this matter.
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor Michael Miano