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Genesis 1: Ontological or Functional?

Scot McKnight has begun a review of The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John Walton. In his second installment, McKnight notes how Walton draws a distinction between conceiving of creation in terms of bringing things into material existence and in terms of gathering materials and giving them a function. The first is how we have usually read Genesis 1; Walton argues the second is what might more reasonbably be expected given the ancient cultural context:

To prove his point Walton sketches what is known about ancient cosmology texts and he looks at text from Egypt (Memphite theology, Papyrus Leiden I 350, Pyramid texts etc) and from Babylon, including Atrahasis and Enuma Elish. His conclusion is noteworthy: these texts do not discuss creation as bringing something into material existence but of assigning function. That is, creation was about gathering materials and giving them function.

“Creation thus constituted bringing order to the cosmos from an originally nonfunctional condition” (35).

Four brief observations:

  1. Walton’s point seems not to be that there was no creation ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) but that that is not the point in Genesis 1. I’ll withold judgment until I see Walton’s argument in its totality, but I can say that it’s never a good idea to read something into a specific text that isn’t there, even if that something is true!
  2. By sticking to the text in its context, Walton gives us another way of “harmonizing” the Bible with science, but without encumbering the Bible with any particular scientific evidence or theory of origins. Since science is always marching on, this can only be a good thing.
  3. The reference to possible Egyptian parallels reminds me of a paper by another Wheatonian, James K. Hoffmeier, who pointed out some similarities between the Genesis creation narratives and Egyptian cosmology: “Some Thoughts on Genesis 1–2 and Egyptian Cosmology,” JANES 15 (1983) 39-49. If “P” material like Genesis 1 can be so fruitfully read against an Egyptian background—e.g., if elements conventionally classified as reactions against Babylonian mythology can be explained in terms of Egyptian ideas—what are the implications for dating these traditions?
  4. Am I ever going to get to the bottom of my Amazon wish list?!
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3 Comments

  1. Just a side note.

    I don’t think creation “ex nihilo” isn’t really supported by the Hebrew verb to create “barak”. The verb seem to have more a connotation of to mold or shape. This is supported by the fact that if the verb is intensified it means to cut down.

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  2. Just a side note.

    I don’t think creation “ex nihilo” isn’t really supported by the Hebrew verb to create “barak”. The verb seem to have more a connotation of to mold or shape. This is supported by the fact that if the verb is intensified it means to cut down.

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  3. mikelioso says:

    I always tell folks that want to debate the Bible VS. science that at the time Genesis was top science. I think it blends both Babylonian ideas and Egyptian. I agree with Elliot Friedman that P comes from the time of Hezekiah and Egypt was an ally of Judah vs. Assyria, and also I think it was when the Memphis creation story was “hot”. For any one wanting an account of how the world was made but not wanting old kid tales about YHWH planting gardens, Egypt seemed like the place for answers, those Egyptians were pretty smart. Their are a number of Mesopotamian ideas though, it seems that Israel’s early religious expression was more Mesopotamian than Egyptian. I firmly believe our Ideas about the past are better than the Bibles and I don’t think now it is hubris to say we may find out just how God made the universe. The Bible ain’t too shabby though. It’s better than Hesiod’s version and the Eluma nish. And it rightly predicted the big bang. Keep in mind that what/why ever made existence is, de-facto, God. I think the Egyptians realized this and the Judean’s followed suit.

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