Response to John H. Walton at the Adventist Forum Conference

(system) #1

The main thesis of John Walton is that Genesis 1 is not “an account of material origins”, it does not mean to speak about the Creation, the beginning of heavens and earth as such, but should rather be understood “as an account of functional origins” (p. 163). Walton defends this reading of the biblical text on the basis of four arguments. The problem I have with Walton is that he is often right.

1) Walton is right in his reference to Ancient Near eastern cosmogonies. They are indeed more about the functions of the cosmos rather than about the material of the cosmos. What has been overlooked, however, in Walton’s analysis, is the reason for this emphasis in ancient cosmogonies: unlike the Genesis stories of Genesis 1 and 2 these stories are not meant to be “creation stories.” These cosmogonies are referring to ancient traditions about origins for other purposes than just reporting about origins. In that sense one can say that there are no cosmogonic texts in Ancient Near Eastern literature. For these cosmogonies are rather anthropocentric; they do not mean to explain the presence of created objects, but rather to provide reasons for phenomena observed in the present human condition. In Egyptian literature, for instance (on the characteristic features of Egyptian cosmogony, see S. Bickel, La Cosmogonie égyptienne avant le Nouvel Empire OBO 134, Editions Universitaires Fribourg, Vandenhoek & Ruprecht Göttingen, Fribourg, 1994, p. 213), in one passage of spell 1130 of the Coffin Texts, we find a text which, although constituted with cosmogonic material, does not intend to inform about the origins of the world, but to understand the existence of evil in the world. The reason for these acts of Creation is in fact explicitly given in the introduction (VII462c); it is “to silent evil” (n-mrw.t sgrt jsft). The intention of this text is then essentially anthropocentric. The actions of the divine creator are all man-centered and serve only the purpose of accounting for a function of the world. What is noteworthy is that this literary role is also attested in the Hebrew Bible. Besides the Genesis Creation story whose cosmogonic nature is clearly and explicitly affirmed in its introduction as well as in its conclusion (Gen 1;1, cf. Gen 2:4), the Bible counts a number of “cosmogonic” texts whose purpose is other than cosmogonic. They use cosmogonic traditions anchored in the biblical memory only to serve the purpose of a theological idea, or to deal with an anthropological concern. Job 38-41 refers to Creation to convey the idea of God’s grandeur versus man’s littleness, and to incite repentance and humility (42:6). Proverbs 8:22-36 refers to Creation to promote the searching of wisdom (v. 35). Psalm 104 refers to Creation to justify the act of worship and blessing the Lord (v. 1, 33-34). Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 refers to Creation to teach about the vanity of the world and of human condition (v. 2, 14). Walton’s argument about the function of cosmogonic texts holds, then, only for the texts whose recognized intention is indeed functional in nature, while it does not hold for the Genesis Creation text whose explicit intention is basically cosmogonic. The fact that the Hebrew Bible contains both Creation genres, the cosmogonic account and the functional account, the latter referring back to the former, constitutes another evidence of the cosmogonic intention of the Genesis Creation accounts.

2) Walton is also right concerning the functional uses of the verb bara’. Indeed in several biblical occurrences, this verb does not directly refer to the historical “making” of objects but appears in texts to express a theological idea implying a functional understanding. The reason for this usage is simply that the purpose of this reference to Creation is not to speak about cosmic origins, but to evoke a process that has affinities with that of the original event of Creation. This is why in most of the passages where the verb bara’ appears, it is in connection to the idea of newness (Ex 34:10; Num 16:30; Deut 4:32; Ps 51:10; 102:18; 104:30; Is 4:5; Is 41:19-20; 42:5, cf. v. 9). This also explains why the verb bara’ is often used to evoke the idea of salvation which implies a process of radical change from a negative state to a positive one (Is 42:5, 43:1; 15). Now, these texts are not just using the motif of Creation for their own functional purpose; the way they allude or refer to the event of Creation, their words, syntax, and structure denote clearly that they all refer to a single literary source as recorded in Genesis 1-2 (see Doukhan, The Genesis Creation Story).This way of pointing back to the past document presupposes the event of Creation. It is not the idea of function, the experience of salvation or of newness that produced and therefore preceded the idea of Creation, but the other way around. Creation is already assumed as a past event and it is on the basis of this reference that the functional idea has been generated and elaborated. The fact that these secondary texts refer to the Genesis account of Creation and apply it in a functional sense, does not mean, then, that this was the meaning implied in the Creation accounts. This referring back to the Genesis Creation story may even suggest that the sense of function was not originally intended in the Creation accounts, and may well have been an a posteriori application. Indeed among the texts which use the verb bara’, there are a number which refer to Creation for no other purpose than for what it is, namely, a specific historical event of the past (Is 42:5; Deut 4:32; Ps 89:47; Eccles 12:1). The same reasoning could apply for Ps 148:5 where “celestial inhabitants” have been created, according to Walton, “to praise the Lord,” when the Psalm is in fact saying that Creation is the reason for worship, not that the function of Creation is worship, but that worship is the natural human response to Creation, a message which pervades the whole book of the Psalms. Worship follows Creation, and not the other way around. It is not worship that justifies and makes sense of Creation, as is implied in a functional understanding of Creation. It is Creation that makes sense of worship. Besides, in the great majority of texts, as listed and classified by Walton himself (p. 41, 43), Creation, in spite of Walton’s opinion, does concern real material objects, in addition to their functions; for cosmos, light, plants, animals, and people are material objects.

3) In his exegetical analysis of the Genesis Creation story, Walton is right. He is right when he observes that at the pre-creation stage (Gen 1:2) nothing functions yet. But the reason for this unproductivity is not just because it does not work. It does not work yet simply because there is nothing there yet. The terminology chosen by the author intends to mark negativity of existence rather than just unfunctionality. This understanding is suggested through the parallelism between the two Creation accounts which makes the words tohu wabohu (“without form and void”) in Gen 1:2, correspond to the negative words ’ayin (“not”) terem (“not yet”) and lo’ in Gen 2: 5 (see Doukhan, Creation, p. 54); an equivalence which is confirmed in biblical usage (Is 40:17; Jer 4: 23; Isa 45:19). Walton is right in his functional understanding of the word tov (“good”). But it will not be right to limit the sense of tov to that meaning. Thus the word tov may also refer to aesthetic beauty (Gen 24:16; Dan 1:4; 1K. 1:6; 1 Sam 16:12), especially when it is associated with the word ra’ah (“see”) as is the case here (Gen 1: 1, 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31); it may also belong to the ethical domain (1 Sam 18:5; 29:6, 9; 2 Sam 3:36). Thus, the view that God refers only to function when He says “it is not good for man to be alone,” (51) is confining the value of the human conjugal condition to a mere utilitarian condition, and overlooks other aspects of that relationship, including ethics, aesthetics, and even love and emotional happiness, as the immediate context suggests (Gen 2:23).

Walton is right when he sees function in the Creation accounts. The most obvious textual evidence is found in the text reporting the creation of the luminaries, where the syntax clearly supports Walton’s thesis of the creation of function, and not of material. Indeed, the objects there mentioned are directly and systematically related to their function through the lamed of purpose (vs 14-18). The luminaries exist (v. 14, 15), are made (v. 16), and are given (17-18)for the function (lamed of purpose) of separating day and night, light and darkness, and of ruling over time, a function previously held by God Himself (v. 4). Yet, there are many other works of Creation where the intention of function is absent. On days five and six, the account records the creation of living beings, animals and humans, as well as the creation of their function of reproduction. God did not just make them to reproduce, as if only function was intended (67). The two creations, material and functional, are mentioned (Gen 1:27, 28). Also, the parallel between the plants coming from the earth, and the living beings appearing on the earth, suggests that both creations pertain to “the same sort of marvel” (67), thus confirming the act of creation for the plants as well as for these creatures. Both are in the same manner the result of an external divine creation, and not the inner product of a natural function of the earth. As for Walton’s understanding of the creation of humans in God’s image as a function, following and therefore distinct from the actual creation of the physical human, this comes not only against the fundamental holistic view of biblical anthropology, but also against the actual biblical description of the creation of man coming directly from God’s hands and breath (Gen 2:7). According to the biblical text, the divine creation of humans concerns their material as well as their spiritual components. Although Walton notes the difference between Near Eastern texts which “only deal with the mass of humanity” and have only an “archetypal understanding” of human origins (70), and the Bible which speaks about the creation of an individual or a couple, he does not draw the logical lessons from this observation. For the biblical accent on the particular individuals Adam and Eve denotes a concern that is more historical than philosophical. Before being a spiritual message about the meaning of human destiny (function), the biblical account is a report of historical significance (material). This brief commented review of some of the divine acts of creationshows how creation of function systematically accompanies creation of matter. However, even Walton’s definition of function is not clear. So, it often appears that function belongs to the spiritual domain and not to the material domain. Not only is this dissociation artificial—how can for instance the function of taste in the vegetable be separated from its material reality?—but it also pertains to a dualistic approach that is foreign to biblical thinking. For the material without its function, the body without the spirit, do not exist, just as the function without the matter, or the spirit without the body do not exist. As a matter of fact, the ruach, the spiritual dimension, is also the principle of biological life (Ps 104:30). It is also significant that the biblical account does not totally ignore the creation of function. But the very fact that when function is intended it is specifically indicated through the use of syntax and grammar, suggests that when it is not there, it should not be assumed.

4) Walton is right in his observation of the connection between the temple and Creation. Like in the ancient world, “temples were considered symbols of the cosmos” (79). The Bible contains many evidences of that connection. Yet, Walton’s deduction that “the Cosmos Is a Temple” (78) and therefore that Genesis 1 “should be understood as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as a temple” (84), goes too far and even distorts the biblical intention. In the Bible it is not Creation that is like the temple, but instead, it is the temple that is like Creation. It is not Creation that speaks about the temple with the intention to convey ideas of salvation; it is the temple that speaks about Creation in order to emphasize the cosmic scope of salvation (see the theology of Kippur which promotes the “cleansing of the sanctuary/temple”, implying the cleansing of the Creation, cf. Doukhan, Daniel, p. 129-130, cf. Levenson). The reason for this chronological misplacement is that in Walton’s perspective, the temple precedes Creation, and therefore Genesis 1 is a temple text which does not intend to speak about origins, but rather to convey spiritual lessons related to the life and liturgy of the temple, a hypothesis which Walton founds on the controversial and never documented premise of an enthronement festival or New Year celebration of creation (90-91). In fact this chronological reverse is consistent with the traditional idea dear to biblical criticism, that the story was originated in the post-exilic Priestly source, a view that has been reassessed by Y. Kauffmann (see Y. Kauffman, The Religion of Israel p. 175-200). This reverse sequence is also suspect as it betrays the classic Marcionite paradigm that prioritizes spiritual redemption over material Creation (see C. Westermann’s discussion on creation/redemption in Creation, p. 113-123), a scheme that has been adopted by such theologians as Bultmann, Barth, von Rad, and still dominates the contemporary theological scene (see Doukhan Creation, p. 190-197; 227-240). This whole current of thought is in fact indebted to the mental habits of Western thinking anchored in the Cartesian paradigm that places thinking before existence (“I think, therefore I am”), whereas Hebrew thinking takes the reverse direction and prefers, on the contrary, to place history and existence before the spiritual and theological constructions (Ex 24:7). Indeed, Hebrew thinking is essentially historically oriented, and this is immediately evident in the literary genre that characterizes the Genesis creation story, which is the toledot, the genealogy (Gen 2:4a, cf. Doukhan, Creation, p. 213-220). Furthermore, the fact that the biblical author uses the term toledot for the Creation of heavens and earth as well as for the genealogy of the patriarchs (Gen 12-50), shows his intention to relate historically the event of Creation to the rest of the Israelite history. If History and the emphasis on the concrete physical flesh and matter are so fundamental in Hebrew thinking, as recognized by many biblical scholars, how come, then, that such an important aspect of Creation, its historical and material dimensions, would be completely ignored in the Creation story? If “Genesis 1 is not that story” (96), where is that story? Walton’s response is simply that “the material phase had been carried for long ages prior to the seven days of Genesis” (99). One implication Walton draws from this assertion is that “death did exist in the pre-fall world” (100). Not only is this information completely absent in the biblical text, but it even goes against the thrust of the Genesis text, which is all about life (Gen 1:29-30) and is written from the “not yet” perspective (see above my observation on its parallel with Gen 2).

This last observation may reveal the other problem I have with Walton’s approach to the biblical text: although he holds a high value of Scripture in a good evangelical tradition, his theological and philosophical presuppositions still prevail over his exegesis. He himself confesses this priority: “Even though it is natural to defend our exegesis, it is arguably even more important to defend our theology” (150).

I do understand Walton’s dilemma and share his concern especially in regard to the science and religion debate. If the biblical text means what it says, a creation of matter in six literal days, we have a serious problem; our thinking, our intelligence, is challenged. We are thus confronted with the following alternatives: either we suppress our thinking and, by faith, we slavishly and naively submit ourselves to the words of the text; or we ignore the text to feel comfortable with our thinking. For thinkers with faith, neither of these options is satisfactory. Thus the temptation has often been to change the text or “interpret” it to make it fit with the truth of our thinking. Concordism has thus often been a good option for those who hold a high view of Scripture along with a high view of science and reason, a temptation to break the tension and solve the unbearable question. I do not think that this direction is satisfactory either. I suggest, then that, whether we receive the biblical text as it is, or are engaged in the demanding adventure of thinking, we assume our question without an answer. For the question without an answer is more important than the answer without questions. On the other hand, the answer which is given to us is more important than the answer which we may give. Unfortunately, in our discussion about our questions without answers, we have missed the answer that was contained in creation itself. The beauty and the power of life, and the wonders of creation, all that which makes my question irrelevant, is more important than all my brilliant solutions. Indeed we should not abandon the seeking and the searching of the wonders of creation, “all that has been done under the sun,” this is the “grievous task God has given to the sons of men” (Eccl 1:13). At the same time, we should realize with Qohelet that this whole enterprise is just “vanity and grasping for the wind” (Eccl 1:14), and therefore rather, or at least also, meditate on this “truth” of Creation that has been offered to us, which is far more important than all the answers we are tempted to give.

—Jacques B. Doukhan D.Heb.Lett.,Th.D., is Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament Exegesis at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at