Monday, October 3, 2011

John Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology: Review of Chapter 3

Walton’s book consists of only two more chapters, but they are long ones. Chapter 3 is almost 100 pages by itself, and Chapter 4 is another 70 (Chapter 5 is really just his conclusion and consists of only 7 pages). As such, my next couple reviews will be a bit longer, but I will attempt to condense the information as much as possible without losing the thrust of his argument. (Walton summarizes his argument on pp. 119-121, but I wanted to give some commentary along the way, so here it goes).

Walton begins Chapter 3 with the distinction between ancient Near Eastern and modern concepts of cosmic ontology. To a modern person, cosmic ontology is material in that the “cosmos is perceived to exist because it has material properties that can be detected by the senses” (23). Functionality is something that results from its material properties. In other words, the material produces the function. Hence, the material can exist aside from its functions. When something is created, then, in the modern mind, it is created materially.
Walton contrasts this with ancient Near Eastern, cosmic ontology as evidenced in the creation sources as that which is interested, not in material origins, but in functional origins. He states that if they were interested in material origins, we would likely see that discussion in the texts. If they were interested in non-material origins, we would see that emphasized in the texts (and we do).
But Walton is not simply begging the question here. He is laying out his thesis, and states that he will argue for a functional cosmic ontology by asking three questions of the texts:
1.      What did they [i.e., ancient Near Eastern people] consider to constitute non-existence?
2.      What activities do they describe as bringing something into existence, and what is the situation “before” and “after” these acts?
3.      How did ancients describe the existing cosmos that they perceived with their senses—that is, the elements that they considered to be foundational building blocks of the cosmos?
By this he wants to establish that things have their existence by virtue of their function as opposed to their form.
In answering the first question, non-existence is seen as pushing back boundaries in the creation of space rather than transforming what does not exist into something that exists. What does not exist is that which is not differentiated, defined, etc., even if the material exists (e.g., land, water, people, etc.). He then discusses the term chaos as appropriate when one keeps in mind that it is that which is in contrast to order in terms of function. He prefers, however, to call it the precosmic state as a way of avoiding any associations with the idea that it is personified.
In answering the second question, he surveys the Egyptian literature and presents it as that which moves from unity to diversity in terms of assigning functions as acts of creation. He notes that creation was seen not as the manufacturing of material things but were largely teleological that reflected the divine purpose for assigning an object a function. Here Walton is arguing that what we see in Egyptian literature is that something may exist before it is said to exist primarily because existence is not acquired until functions are created. Hence, the gods exist within the one god, Atum, but do not exist because they are not yet differentiated by assigning them names and functions in the cosmos. So what exists before, in the precreation state, are still disorganized, non-functioning entities that do not come about until “created,” i.e., assigned names and functions.
He then contrasts the same in Mesopotamian literature and concludes, noting the role that naming created objects (i.e., defining them) has in bringing about their existence in the cosmos:
All of this indicates that cosmic creation in the ancient world was not viewed primarily as a process by which matter was brought into being. It is a process by which functions, roles, order, jurisdiction, organization, and stability were established. This makes it clear that creation in the ancient world was defined by the determination of functions and, in turn, demonstrates that the ontology of ancient peoples was focused on a thing's functional, rather than its material, status (34).
Walton then proceeds to answer the third question by showing that the ancient worldview was one where the activities of the gods governed what occurred in the material world. Hence, causation was not thought to be a product of the material world, but of the gods. The created world itself functioned, not according to natural laws, but according to the functions of the gods. Walton takes us through numerous ancient Near Eastern texts that establish his this part of the thesis of his argument that causation is always the product of the deity.
Hence, the precosmic condition of the world was not a world devoid of matter but one devoid of functions, or we might say, functioning matter. It is a world that lacks “function, order, diversity, and identity” (42). The functioning aspect, according to Walton’s argument, is not a result of the material, but of the gods’ direction of that material. Function and order are the focus of these accounts, rather than creation of matter. The purpose of the gods cause the world to go around, and it is this teleological perspective that virtually ignores matter as the source of order in the world. An object simply has a form that facilitates the destiny assigned to it by deity. The form is not the cause or the end purpose of the created thing.

Walton sums up his study in answering the three questions this way: 

The acts of creation involved naming, separating, and temple building. This coincides with what Eliade observed concerning the perspective prevalent in the ancient world: the “ontological thirst” of the ancients was the pursuit of a view of reality that could give meaning to life. Modern material ontology offers no secure understanding of the meaning of life, but the functional ontology of ancient near Eastern peoples gave meaning to the reality that they experienced in the way the world worked in the ancient cognitive environments, it was more importance to determine who controlled functions and who or what do something its physical form. We could therefore conclude that in the ancient world something was created when it was given a function. (43)

Walton gives a great analogy for the difference between seeing the cosmos as a machine and seeing it in terms of a business. Moderns tend to view the universe as a machine controlled by no one, and we project that idea onto ancients by simply supplying a controller in their thought. In other words, we just think they believed in the cosmos as a machine, but with someone controlling it. Walton argues that they perceive the cosmos more as a business that functions only in relation to people. It has customers, employees, and employer. Thus, he concludes, that the “functions of the cosmos and culture are all in relation to people (and at times in relation to the gods, insofar as they share the world with people)” (45). And these functions are a result of the gods being who they are, not as a result of them pulling strings from outside of the cosmos. They exist within it, and produce the functions we experience therein.

Walton then spends the rest of the chapter supporting the idea this idea by looking at the concept of ME in Mesopotamian thought as the fabric of life, that which is the archetype for all else. It is the governing principles by which life takes place. Walton shows that the concept is associated with design and destiny in terms of its execution. An individual is assigned MEs that accord with his destiny and design. Hence, its purpose is assigned to it according to its form. Until assigned, the MEs are static, inactive. It is only when they are assigned through a destiny given that they become dynamic, or active. It is at the point of activation that creation takes place.

What Walton is attempting to show here, I believe, is that the decrees and destiny given to a form assumes that the form is already existing. Hence, since it is at the point of creation that the functions are assigned (as they are assigned according to the form), we must assume that the making of the form is not the point of creation for the Mesopotamian mind. The assigning of functions is.
It’s possible that I’ve misread Walton’s intentions here, as his discussion of the nature of ME is flooded with the same seemingly contradictory material that other studies have been. The ME is simply hard to nail down, but Walton likely interprets it close enough for us to get the point.

Walton then discusses similar, although not completely parallel, ideas in Egyptian literature (e.g., the concept of maat). Here, Walton makes connections between the Mesopotamian concepts of ME (static) and destiny (dynamic) and the Egyptian concepts of Maat and Shu. He notes some major differences but still maintains that the general idea is common.

Walton then springs from this to discuss theomachy as the transition from the theogonic/cosmogonic model to a political/bureaucratic model in Enuma elish (an observation I found to be fascinating). In Egyptian texts, like the Memphite Theology, that place Ptah at the head of the theogony to convey rulership, theogony is not replaced but used to convey that message. Thus, the transitioned understanding is that the cosmos has a “Divine Creator-King” (68). In this line of thinking, the question becomes, Who is in charge?
Walton then proceeds to argue the nature of the image of God in the ancient Near East as one where, regardless of whether it is applied to an object, a king, or humanity in general, the person “holding the image of God is a container for the divine presence and represents the deity in the role or function of this deity” (84). Walton states that, although the image is not combined with cosmogony, it would make sense to combine it to one within the political/bureaucratic model. Hence, humans are presented in these texts as being in place of, in the service of, or on behalf of the gods. They represent the gods by taking on the role and authority assigned to those gods.

Walton, then, nicely sums up the bulk of his argument for us. He has attempted to show that:
1.      Gods are inside, not outside, the cosmos.
2.      Gods are involved in cosmic origins in terms of functions (e.g., the theogonic or political model).
3.      The cosmogonic/theogonic model gives way to the political/bureaucratic model in the second millennium BCE.
4.      Theomachy is not usually a part of creation (and may not be a part of it at all).
5.      Human origins focus on roles in terms of station or function within the universe.
6.      Materials mentioned in the creation of humans have archetypal significance rather than material significance.
7.      The image of god concerns role and is mainly found within royal ideology, laying out the functions of the king.
8.      The Great Symbiosis: People and the gods work together to ensure the preservation of order in the cosmos and its smooth operation.

He ends with a discussion on divine rest and the temple in its relation to creation. As I, and a host of scholars with me, conclude with Walton, the temple is linked to creation because it is the pinnacle of order. The gods rested in their temples as a political sign of control. Hence, this plays nicely into the idea that the primary question of the ancients is not, Who made all this stuff and how was it made? but Who is in control?

My Thoughts


I think the emphasis of the ancient Near Eastern view of creation as functional is clear. Walton has done a good job at showing this emphasis from the texts and a lack of emphasis on the material forms in terms of what creation means in the cognitive environment of the ancient Near East. I largely agree with the bulk of what Walton has argued thus far in the book. I'm really enjoying the robust argument put in such, overall, accessible terminology.

Walton does, in fact, define his use of “precreation” as chaos in this chapter, as long as chaos is understood as that which is not ordered in terms of functionality. I agree completely with him here, and am glad that he clarifies this. He defines his use of theomachy, as well as making other ambiguous things said in Chapter 2 much more clear.

Phrasing the discussion by the words existence and non-existence I think is stacking the deck in Walton’s favor. The problem is that the evidence is better viewed as chaotic versus what is ordered, but this then brings us to simply unformed material versus formed material. What is chaotic/disordered is beyond the realm of what is created/ordered, whether locally or cosmically, that much is true, but what is outside the realm of creation has also a lack of forms, not just a lack of functions.
In fact, what Walton failed to discuss to some degree is the possibility that forms are not emphasized because they are created in primeval time. He simply states that based upon what he has presented in the previous chapters, "the apparent neglect of curiosity about the physical structure of the cosmos is therefore not simply a consequence of the ancients' inability to investigate their physical world" (89). But this doesn't logically follow from what he argued thus far. What he has show is what they emphasize when they think about creation, not why they tend to think that way about creation. In other words, the ancients don’t know how they were created, or when they were created for that matter. They’re not really as familiar with their forms, but they do experience their functions. Hence, it is not necessarily because the ancients don’t tie form and function together that we don’t see an emphasis of form in the creation accounts. We don’t see minute details in historical accounts that describe primeval history either. That’s because they don’t know that history very well. What Walton should have included was a study of things that are created contemporaneously to the ancient Near Eastern people. In other words, how do they think about building houses and temples? Do they ignore form to speak of function only, or do they include detailed discussions of both? Do we not do the same in our thinking about form and function when building a house? The house is not a house until it is livable space. It is built for the purpose of function. We do not say it is built (i.e., created) until it is finished. The materials already exist. The actual house may have been founded and even the frame and walls built, but until it is completely done (with functional appliances and all) and functional as living space, it is said to be still in the process of being built. Hence, I'm not sure if the sharp distinction between the way we think as moderns and the way they think as ancients is warranted. Certainly, our modern thinking has shifted from ancient thinking, but has it really shifted that much?

Could one not object to Walton’s dichotomy by saying that if the ancients emphasize functionality, it is not to the exclusion of the creation of the form that is intertwined with it? Indeed, many have made that objection. What is not relevant about this objection for Walton’s purposes though is that he is attempting to prove too much. He only needs to prove that the emphasis is on the function in ancient Near Eastern creation accounts rather than on the form. The problem, once again, as I see it, is that Walton is attempting to argue that Genesis 1 is a literal description of whatever is being created. In other words, he believes that this is the account of when God assigned functions to the cosmos. This understanding causes him to think that if the materials already exist in the account, and it is the functions that are emphasized, then the functions, not the forms, are being brought into existence here. I would argue instead that functions are emphasized in ancient Near Eastern creation sources, and Genesis 1 uses that language to communicate the role of God and man in the world. In other words, that this was never meant to record what happened at creation, but to give us a theology about God and man by using the ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment to communicate that theology in terms of the genre of cosmogony.
Hence, the ancient person, who does not know what happened at creation, is not going to emphasize details he does not know about the material creation of something. What he does know is how it functions today, and he extrapolates from that its functions were assigned at creation. Hence, he emphasizes that in his account. This doesn’t mean that he necessarily thinks in terms of a dichotomy between form and function when it comes to creation. If he does the same when he builds a house or temple, then Walton has a better argument in distinguishing the two, but that’s a discussion that he did not have in the book.
However, I do think Walton proves the case that functions are emphasized due to the ancient Near Eastern mindset that thinks of the cosmos as existing and functioning as a result of the will/activity of the gods, rather than the product of the material forms. The facilitate the functions that are decreed/assigned to the gods, who in turn assign them to the rest of the created order.
What I’m not sure Walton has proven is whether the creation of the form is not simultaneous with the assignment of the function. Certainly, the material world exists already in the ancient mindset, but it exists in chaotic form. It would see that when the function is decreed that the form is given. Yet, I have the feeling that Walton is trying to separate the two: the creation of the form may occur separately from the assignment of the function. I don’t see that in the texts that he cited. So he may be trying to get too much, or “overextrapolate” and “overinterpret,” from the texts by seeking to argue from the preexistence of unformed material to the preexistence of formed material. But maybe I am reading too much, and overinterpreting, him, so I will again wait for the next chapter. Again, a study of "currently created" things, like buildings, is important in my mind if we are attempting to establish that the ancient thinking is not just a result of their lack of knowledge of the objects (e.g., there is a lot more myth, i.e., what we might call "functional history," in the ancient recording of primeval history than there is in more contemporary records due to a lack of access to primeval information). If one is to establish that functionality is the way they think about creation because the forms are not to be taken into account as that which produces the function, then such a discussion would have been helpful.

However, many might must see this as nit-picking in light of the very well laid out argument that Walton has presented here, especially in light of his argument that what occurs is the cosmos is the result of divine activity, rather than a product of the form. I am still waiting to be convinced, however, that it is not a matter of the functional resulting from divine activity through the form that is created. Walton, in fact, argues that the forms are created to facilitate the function as the "tools that the gods used for carrying out their own purposes" (89-90). So the main issue for me, and other scholars, is the sharp dichotomy between form and function, not the emphasis of function over form in ancient Near Eastern creation accounts. That is the argument Walton needed to prove (if he is going to argue what I think he is going to argue based on his book, The Lost World of Genesis 1).

 Summation of My Thoughts

Overall, Walton has indeed made a convincing argument that the emphasis of the ancient mind is on functions, not forms. Creation is an organizing and assigning event, not necessarily, or even primarily, one of bringing about the forms. What I am not sure of is whether this really impacts what scholars already believe. For instance, I already believed that Genesis 1 is set up this way in the framework of ordering the world for the purpose of human life and preservation, culminating in the ultimate symbol of order, God’s rest in the cosmic temple. Thus, the creation account is functional for humanity. Walton proves all of this to be true in his book, and I am grateful for that. 

However, I am still apprehensive in seeing the main point of his argument, which is to show that Genesis 1 is not the creation of material but of functions. The dichotomy is the problem. He has made a good argument thus far that the cognitive environment is one that produces thought in functional terms, but many of the texts speak of simultaneous creation of form and function. The form is for the purpose of the function, but the form is created at that time nevertheless. If anything, the assignment of function, since the form is created for it, would precede, rather than follow the creation of the form; but this is the opposite of where I believe Walton wants to go with this. His next chapter, however, may clear up many of my itching questions.

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