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:
- 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!
- 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.
- 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?
- Am I ever going to get to the bottom of my Amazon wish list?!