Saturday, October 1, 2011

John Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology: Background and a Review of the Introduction and Chapter 1

I'm going to be blogging through and reviewing my old Hebrew Exegesis teacher, John Walton's, new book, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology. I've been waiting for this book to come out for some time, so I was pleased to receive it in the mail today. Dr. Walton was the one who taught me much about linguistics and their applications to the exegetical method. It seemed like we had to read a couple thousand pages in the subject and do a paper putting what we read into practice every week. Hebrew, unfortunately, was new to me then (I had just learned Hebrew grammar on my own the Summer before), but I eventually caught on to the importance of what he was teaching us. I will be forever grateful for his extreme patience with us as we attempted to make sense of what we were studying.

The Study of Genesis has been a perpetual project and love for me over the years. In fact, much of Walton's thinking concerning Genesis 1 as a cosmic temple text was a conclusion I came to after studying ancient Near Eastern texts and their relationship with Genesis 1 for my M.A. thesis at Trinity. I doubt he remembers, but after reading his commentary in the NIV Application series, I approached him at a conference we were both attending (he as one of the many professors and I as the only student there), and said to him, "The key to Genesis 1 is the temple." I said it to him because I thought that he should pursue that line of thought as the primary one in interpreting Genesis 1, where his commentary hit on it only as something that seemed less developed. Of course, my thinking on it was only in the beginning stages as well, but I wanted to encourage him to keep plugging away at that particular idea, simply because he was onto something, and it needed to go further than previous studies (such as that of Levenson's) to flesh out the implications of what was being said.
With that background in mind, I am grateful that he decided to continue to flesh it out.

However, Dr. Walton's book aims at more than just presenting Genesis 1 as a description of the cosmic temple. It primarily seeks to offer up the thesis that what is described in Genesis 1 is the creation of functions, rather than the creation of forms. What he means by this is that the text is meant to describe what is created in terms of what they do, rather than in terms of what they are. Because of this, the form may have previously existed (in fact, as I would argue as well, Genesis 1:2 indicates that material does exist, although not necessarily formed material), and hence, Genesis 1 is not a beginning of material origins, but of functional origins (i.e., when God made/organized the forms to function for a specific purpose).

Walton begins his argument by first giving us some needed reflection on the appropriate methodology for interpreting Genesis in its ancient Near Eastern context. He first warns us that tying the Genesis text to a specific literary text in the ancient Near East has not thus far been successfully accomplished, as what is required is a rigorous study that showed the literary genre, structure, context, geographical, chronological, national, and ethnic proximity to the Genesis text. Although he is open to studies proving such in the future, he sees this as something yet to be done (2-3).
Hence, Walton opts for using these texts as bits and pieces of evidence that exist to reconstruct the "cognitive environment" (i.e., the way that the culture thinks about this or that) and compare it with the Genesis text in terms of both its comparative and contrastive ways of thinking about the subject matter it addresses. Walton states that the requirements for proving the cognitive environment are less stringent than those of proving a specific literary connection: "There is a great difference between explicit borrowing from a specific piece of literature and creating a literary work that resonates with the larger culture that has itself been influenced by its literatures" (3).

He then creates categories that give us a wide range of possibilities for how a text in the Hebrew Bible may be being used in its ancient Near Eastern environment:

1. It may ignore the ideas of the larger ancient Near Eastern culture.
2. Be somewhat familiar with an idea found therein.
3. Is very familiar with an idea but rejects it in favor an alternative.
4. Accept certain ideas found within the larger culture, but turns these ideas into a polemic. I think what Walton means by this is that they accept the premises of an idea, but not its conclusions. Hence, the premises are reinterpreted toward an alternate conclusion, thus distinguishing this category from number 3, where the entire idea, including all of its premises, is rejected.
5. A clear awareness of an idea that is transformed to speak to something in its new context. The only way I can make sense of what Walton is saying here in distinction to the previous category is that this is a text that shows an acceptance of an idea's premises, but is not necessarily polemical in terms of what it argues. It simply takes the idea and makes something new of it.
6. It may consciously adopt ideas from the larger culture.
7. It subconsciously adopts ideas because it shares a cognitive environment with the larger ancient Near Eastern world.

Walton's purpose in the book, then, is to show us how Genesis 1 can be illumined by our application of these seven categories to its interpretation, the most pressing one, for Walton, being the establishment of the cognitive environment, which, he says, can be accessed through three things: texts, archaeological artifacts, and iconography (i.e., studying pictures) left on ancient structures (I would have probably just thrown these latter two into the same category and made the distinction between textual and non-textual archaeological data, but he likely wants to distinguish a delineation of importance between what is read, what is written, what is depicted, and what is left to us that is neither written nor depicted).
Such data helps us through the danger of imposing our own cognitive environment on an ancient text, as Walton states we have done so, more often than not, with the text of Genesis 1. In comparing and contrasting the cognitive environment gained from these sources with Genesis 1, we will be more capable of noting where it agrees or disagrees with its environment.

After Walton warns us of reading too much into, and hence, trying to get too much out of, ambiguous or idiosyncratic sources, as well as overinterpreting the relationship between texts that only have remote similarity or taking seemingly similar statements made by each text out of their larger contexts,Walton states that since different scholars have different presuppositions in their approach to studying the issue, some may even conclude that he is guilty of the very pitfalls he lays out.

He, then, continues to lay out some basic elements that he will argue in the book make up the cognitive environment of the larger ancient Near East. These include:

A) Ontology: Since to create is to bring into existence something that did not exist before, one must study what existence means in the ancient Near East. This will be Walton arguing that existence is seen in terms of function.
B) Centrality of Order/Disorder: This will be Walton making his argument that order, i.e., what he terms as controlling functions, makes up the central concern in ancient Near Eastern cosmology.
C) Metadivine Functions: This is the idea that each deity is assigned a role to control/rule over a particular area in the cosmos. This will be Walton arguing that their roles are functional in terms of bringing order to the world.
D) Position of Deity in the Cosmos: Deities are viewed as inside the cosmos, rather than outside of it. Hence, even they are viewed as seeking order. I'm not sure what Walton will argue here, but I would only guess it will be that cultural thinking about divine issues of order in terms of function in the metaphysical realm give us more to go on for determining how humans think about their own world in the physical realm, since the two are not dichotomized in ancient Near Eastern thought; but I'll leave this one until I get to his argument establishing the idea.
E) Theogony/Cosmogony: The idea that a god does not exist until his function exists gives us insight into how people in the ancient Near East thought of the cosmos. Hence, the sun-god only comes into being when the functions of the sun come into being tells us that deity is thought of in terms of function, rather than form.
F) Theomachy (i.e., fighting gods): Walton simply says that he will look at how theomachy relates to the cognitive environment (whether it makes it up or is largely idiosyncratic).
G) Cosmic Geography: This deals with the universe in terms of its "shape," which Walton is quick to say that this does not necessarily indicate an idea of material shape.
H) Temple/Rest: The relationship between temple and cosmos gives us an understanding of the concept of the resting deity in ancient Near Eastern thought. Hence, it helps us understand the cognitive environment as looking toward order.
I) Role of Humanity: Looking at how humans view themselves gives us a big piece of the puzzle in reconstructing their cognitive environment, i.e., how they think about themselves in terms of their role within the cosmos tells us also how they think about the cosmos.

Walton, then, addresses a common critique of those who might be seen as glossing over differences in order to present the ancient Near Eastern world as much more a philosophical monolith than it really was by stating that "this is not to ignore the important differences but simply to note that it is important to recognize common ground when it exists" (11).

Walton ends his first chapter with a discussion of hermeneutical issues in regard to comparative studies and the cognitive environment. His argument here is simply that all literature reflects its culture. Even if something is new, it is informed in some way, whether in comparison or contrast, with both what is contemporary and by what precedes it. In fact, Walton refers to what precedes Israelite literature as the "broad ancient stream of culture from which it was watered in the course of centuries or even millennia" (13). It simply makes up their "'native' way of thinking" (Ibid.). But he is also clear to say, "that one culture shares a world of ideas with another culture suggests neither priority (in time) or superiority (in value or quality) of the ideas, nor that one system is 'primitive' because it is older or 'secondary' because it is more recent" (14).

What Walton is attempting to address here is the false idea that if the Bible is the Word of God, then attributing the language and its significations to the cognitive environment diminishes it as a product of man. This misunderstanding is a problem both for the individual who believes it to be the Word of God and the individual who believes it to be merely a product of its environment. Both assume that God would only communicate distinctively, and if the Bible does not, it is not the Word of God. This idea, of course, is fallacious because, if the Bible is the Word of God, God would use human language, which exists in its conceptual world, and if it is not the Word of God, all cultures retain enough to distinctiveness to be appreciated rather than supposed as just a borrowed product. Hence, Walton views these two extremes as missing the point, as they are not mutually exclusive ideas. One can see distinctiveness and commonality and believe that the Bible is God's Word or simply, from a secular perspective, that Israelite culture contains both what is shared and what is not.

My Thoughts

PROS: I appreciate Walton's care in avoiding some of the common pitfalls of the comparative method. He has set out his goals very clearly in the process. His argument is not difficult to follow and his ability to organize his thoughts are very helpful to the reader. I agree with him that his task in showing the cognitive environment does not require the same kind of evidence as one who seeks to make a literary connection between two documents. I think his categories for how the Hebrew Bible may interact with its environment as something that will be very helpful to students who need this sort of introduction. I also think he has set his sights on the right ancient Near Eastern elements to study when it comes to proving his argument.


Although I agree with Walton that a full blown study that employs a rigorous argument, one taking into account the issues he suggests, that connects the Genesis text to a specific literary text is needed, I don't think it's the case that we are only left with the generic cognitive environment as comparative. In my M.A. thesis, I attempted to demonstrate that what Walton calls the cognitive environment is very important for studying Genesis 1, and that many of the supposed literary dependencies are actually just a part of that environment, rather than instances of direct interaction.
However, I do think it is clear that the author of Genesis is interacting with Atra-hasis specifically. Obviously, we disagree that Atra-hasis is the text with which Genesis is contending, but we do agree that all of the elements needed to establish the point have yet to be argued in a definitive work.

When it comes to the categories Walton establishes for how the Hebrew Bible interacts with its world, although I agree with them, I think that what Walton should have argued is that this interaction is primarily (although not solely) one of language, rather than ideology. It is the cognitive environment that controls what type of language/communication is used: what issues one addresses and how they address it. It dictates the concepts of communication. It provides the arena in which the participants will either shake hands or fight. Certainly, the cultural environment raises the issues to be addressed, and it determines the language with which to address those issues, but the answer to those questions is itself the message that may or may not be distinctive.

This brings me to his discussion of what is distinctive versus what is common. The very reason one can have similarity and dissimilarity in thinking while being influenced by the same environment/culture is because the cognitive environment is primarily language rather than ideology. If it were ideology, then it would either not be shared, and thus there would be no shared cognitive environment, when something was distinctive, or nothing would be distinctive, which seems to be what Levenson is saying, but this would be the opposite of what Walton wants to argue.
He quotes Levenson's pessimistic view that Israelite distinctives (yes, I know, it's not really a word, but we're making it one) are likely non-existent. Although Walton disagrees with the totality of this statement, he seems to agree with Levenson that they are diminishing in light of the ever increasing ancient Near Eastern data. But this is true only in terms of language, i.e., that conceptual framework one uses to communicate ideas to another. For example, Walton notes that the law codes cannot be seen as distinctive, but their theory of law is. I think he means by this what I would argue: that the law itself is distinctive because of its religious context (i.e., Yahwism), not because of the issues the laws address, which are a part of the larger concerns of the culture, are encoded and communicated the way that they are. Likewise, where is the idea of Adam and Eve in the ancient Near East? Certainly, the way they are presented is all a part of the cognitive environment/linguistic conceptual framework of the ancient Near East, but the idea is not present; but Walton does not draw this out. Hence, a distinction between language and what that language communicates in context must be heeded in order to see that the entire Hebrew Bible is distinctive in regard to its message(s). In other words, what it communicates must be distinguished from the way that it communicates, or thinks about, it. We can see that a deity riding on a cloud is a part of the larger conceptual framework of the ancient Near East that communicates sovereignty, but notice that it communicates it. It's language. What is distinctive to Israel is that YHWH, not Baal or Marduk, is the one who rides on the cloud, i.e., is the one who is sovereign.
 Hence, in my opinion, Walton did himself a disfavor by even bringing up the idea of distinctiveness as a way of combating the two extremes. Instead, he should have simply noted that they both are making a mistake in confusing distinctiveness of language with the distinctiveness of  the message.

What Walton is right to do is to study those concepts that make up the ancient Near Eastern way of thinking, not because the Israelites might think the same way (even asking about distinctiveness before one studies the data is flawed, as there is no way to know until one studies the ideology), but because it teaches us the significations of their language within that cultural context so that we can then interpret what they are trying to say.
So Walton is actually on the right track, but in my opinion, he is not as clear in terms of what he's really trying to say here. It is not that the Israelites share ideology in terms of their theology and ethics (which is what most of us believe the Bible primarily communicates to us through an historical framework) with the larger ancient Near Eastern world, the fact that they do not is obvious. Instead, they share the culture's conceptual framework to communicate their ideas. And for those of us who believe the Bible is God's Word, what the Israelite authors believe also becomes language that God uses to communicate through and to them. So some discussion concerning a distinction between language and ideology would have been helpful, as I think this is what Walton is trying to say anyway.

This brings me to another critique in that I was hoping for a discussion concerning what the message(s) of the Bible is, and how that bears on how we interpret it. But without the fine distinctions between language and message, we are left with an ambiguous idea that the Bible is somewhat distinctive, but mainly common. But this begs the question, "In regard to what?" What Walton is arguing is for commonality of "creation thinking" in regard to what issues are addressed and the ways of thinking one employs to address them, but if it is only to say that Israel is concerned with the same things that concern other ancient Near Eastern peoples, then he is only addressing the language game of the culture, not the ideology presented.

Now, I think, for Walton, Genesis 1 is literally talking about the creation event. I can't be completely sure about that, but if that is his view, then this would explain why some of this may be muddied, as the cognitive environment would not merely be that which raises the issues addressed or control the way one addresses them, but also be the content of the message conveyed through that language (i.e., light is created to function as daytime, so this is literally the record of God creating daytime). If the message, however, is not about the functions themselves, but only uses functional language to communicate something else (i.e., God is the creator and has sovereign control over His creation as evidenced by the thriving existence of humanity upon the earth), then the cognitive environment is extremely important to understand the issues at hand and the language used to address those issues, but does not address the subject of commonality or distinctiveness in terms of ideology. But, again, maybe this is something addressed later in the book.

In any case, this doesn't do damage to his main argument, as he is attempting to show that what is being addressed in Genesis 1 and the way it is being addressed has commonality with what is being communicated in other ancient Near Eastern texts. Where the failure to clearly distinguish between language and message might bite him later on in the book, he can still pull off his argument without it.

Overall, one should not take my criticisms to be more than they are, since I largely enjoyed his discussion of methodology and hermeneutics in the comparative process, and find little here with which to disagree. I simply think a point of clarification in what would have been in order. I look forward to blogging through the rest of what Dr. Walton has to say in what looks to be an exciting, and much needed, study on Genesis 1.

No comments:

Post a Comment