Monday, October 3, 2011

John Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology: Review of Chapter 4

Chapter 4 is Walton's exegesis of Genesis 1 in light of the ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment for he argued for in previous chapters.

Walton begins his exegesis in light of his study of the cognitive environment of the ancient Near East by arguing that Genesis 1:1 should be taken as an introductory statement that describes, rather than precedes, the seven days in the following verses.

He then argues that the Hebrew term )rb means “to bring something into (functional) existence” (133), since the term takes as its objects things that are not easily defined materially (humans, natural phenomena, creatures, the cosmos, etc.). His chart relates that often the object is said to be created for a specific purpose or function. (he toys with Ellen van Wolde's idea that the term refers to splitting something, but does not wholeheartedly adopt it.)

He states his proposal for Genesis 1 this way:

In this proposal, the text is making no comment on material origins. It is more interested in indicating how God set up the cosmos to function for human beings in his image. These functions define the idea of existence. The ancients had little interest in the material. (139)

He then defines the Hebrew term whbw wht as an hendiadys that describes nonexistence (in the sense of that which is unordered and lacks functionality). He says that the term chaos is too strong here. Hence, he argues, on the basis of studying the more widely attested term wht that the two words should be taken together as referring to a non-functioning cosmos.
The term wht itself refers to the word Mwht, so it does not refer to a desert wasteland here, but to the primordial waters that are disordered (the two words, as you can see, also play off of one another).

Mwht, of course, is not personified here, a point well established in modern scholarship, despite its popular linkage with Tiamat in Enuma elish in times gone by. The primordial waters simply begin the point of creation from the existence of these waters over a non-functioning earth, as do other ancient accounts.

Walton discusses the xwr of God here, as that which is not a part of the precreation tradition or here, as it describes the preparation of the deity to create (an argument he could have made from the disjunctive waw as well). The spirit is deified and personified. It is the spirit God breathes as He speaks His creative words in the rest of the creation pericope. Hence, it governs the entire process.

Walton concludes from these observations that the Genesis text here has more in common with Egyptian creation accounts than Mesopotamian (at least in terms of 1:1-2).

Then Walton moves on to discuss the creation of day and night as periods, rather than objects. Hence, this is the creation of functional time.

Walton then proceeds to give a traditional interpretation to the word (yqr as that which refers to the space in between the barrier holding up the waters and the waters below. His argument is essentially that the waters are separated from the waters by it. Hence, it cannot be solid. Besides, he argues, despite indications from other contexts and its verbal cognate, there is a different word (Myqx#) that describes the solid structure that holds up the waters. If it describes that, then, according to Walton, (yqr must describe something else. He also argues that this is so because the sun and moon move “in the (yqr.”
The importance, for Walton, then, is that these understandings are rendered obsolete by modern cosmology, and hence, they beg for a functional interpretation that is in accord with their purpose: to create a space for humans to live and to “create a mechanism by which precipitation was controlled” (160).

Walton then notes that God created the basis for fecundity on Day 3, preparing the cosmos for vegetation and whatnot by causing dry land to appear.
He notes that the means to create by separating and naming is a functional way of creating. Naming calls something into existence, i.e., assigns its role and function in the world.

He then concludes that the first three days are seen as “functional in orientation, treating the three functions most significant for human life, not only in the ancient world but in every culture of every time and place, even to the present day . . .” (165).

Walton distinguishes Days 4–6 from Days 1–3 by saying that the latter refer to the establishing of functions and the former as installing functionaries into their correct places. This is where he brings in the previous discussions concerning the MEs and destinies in Mesopotamian literature. Days 1–3 are God initiating order into the cosmos and Days 4–6 are God determining the destinies of the functionaries within the cosmos (i.e., placing in and assigning roles).

Walton then draws a distinctive between Genesis 1 and the ancient Near Eastern accounts as God is outside of the cosmos and institutes the MEs as opposed to the ANE ideas that the MEs exist above the gods as they exist within the cosmos. He notes the parallel that YHWH is seen as the source of the law in Israel, but Shamash is merely the guardian of the law in Mesopotamian thought.

Again, Walton points out that the roles destined to men and women that they are to carry out. The text is role oriented. But despite having commonality with its ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment, it answers the questions differently than the other texts do (perhaps, another “language” and “message” distinction is implicit here in Walton’s argument). Here, the concept of the divine image is marshaled from both Egyptian and Mesopotamian concepts that applied the image of deity to humans in general (Egyptian) and to the king specifically (Mesopotamian). Genesis 1 does both of these as it assigns humanity’s role to it in an archetypal fashion. The blessing of humanity is in contrast to the Mesopotamian concern of overpopulation found in Atra-hasis. “In Genesis, population growth is encouraged as a means by which the other aspects of the blessing (subduing and ruling) are carried out” (177).

Walton comes close to saying what I wanted him to say back in Chapter 1, i.e., that distinctiveness and commonality are to be decided on the basis of message(s) rather than the language game used to convey them. He states that “the arena of discourse is shared by the Israelite and Egyptian environments, but the particulars have a shape unique to each tradition” (149). In other words, in terms of how they think, they think along the same lines. How they say what they want to say is common. The content of what they say, however, could be shared or unique. He states this implicitly again by saying, “By the way in which Genesis 1 uses the shared ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment, it asks the same questions that lie behind all other ancient cosmologies and operates from the same metaphysical platform but gives quite different answers that reflect the uniqueness of the Israelite worldview and theology” (178).

Finally, we come to the understanding of Genesis 1 as a temple text. Here Walton asks the question, “Is there any reason to think that a temple metaphor is present in any way in Genesis cosmology?” Walton argues from two factors: the nature of divine rest in the Hebrew Bible and the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 due to the ANE connections between garden and temple. He is careful to point out that divine rest is linked to the temple in which the deity resides, but that, unlike the form of divine rest that is disengaged from the world in ANE thought, the divine rest in Genesis is engaged. Walton then notes that no other divine rest appears in the Hebrew Bible but that which is associated with his presence in His temple (180).

Then we come to statement that it was all for:

As is the case in temple construction, the mere completion of the material construction phase does not produce a functioning temple. Only when the functions are identified, the functionaries installed, and the deity has entered the temple does it begin to function. This is creation as it was understood in the Ancient Near East. (183)

Hence, in Genesis 1, the world is made for humans, not the gods, and God resting in His temple communicates the idea that God is in control and will preserve them. It is to “support the life of the people, not the life of the gods” (189).

My Thoughts

I agree with so much in this chapter. In fact, most of it has already been argued in other works, including my own, Revisiting the Days of Genesis. Walton does a fantastic job making his argument that Genesis 1 should be seen as functional creation, and that it is functional in regard to how it relates to human beings. Overall, this was an excellent argument made.

Walton and I do disagree on a few issues (all of which, if I am right, contribute to, rather than take away from, his argument). For one, I don’t think that the phrase whbw wht should be understood as an hendiadys. The one word describes an unlivable, non-functional, environment in relation to human beings (basically what Walton concludes), but the second term describes the lack of humans. Days 1–3 relate to the first term and Days 4–6 relate to the second.

In regard to the (yqr, Walton concludes that it must not refer to the cross-blockage that holds up the waters, because (a) there is another word that refers to that object; (b) the waters are divided by it, but the what divides the waters is air; and (c) the luminaries are said to move “in” the (yqr. But (a) simply because a word may have a synonym says nothing toward the matter (many objects have various words ascribed to them); (b) the division is created by the (yqr. There is nothing that says they are touching, as, even in Walton's view, the (yqr isn’t touching the upper waters either, since there is the solid boundary in the way; and (c) the Hebrew preposition can be just as easily, and I think more appropriately, translated here as “on” rather than “in.” In fact, the text says that the birds fly upon the surface of the (yqr. This hardly sounds like air. For a further discussion, see my Revisiting the Days of Genesis, pp. 64–67.

But for the most part, I agree with Walton and think he has proved his case. I do think he could have developed it further. For instance, when he discusses the idea that creation is functional for humans, one might ask, “In what way?” When he discusses the image, one might ask, “How is the image related to the temple imagery?” When he discusses the idea that God is in control, one might ask, “How does the rest of the book support this conclusion?” Finally, if humans are assigned roles, one might ask, not only the question as to what those roles might be, but also as to whether the role as divine image is also creative work. Walton hints at answers to all of these questions, but I wished he had just explicitly pursued them. In any case, Walton has provided a solid foundation for future studies.

Finally, although I still think that the argument would have been well served, and balanced, if ancient thinking concerning the creation of buildings had been brought into the discussion (he does discuss architecture as functional, but does not discuss whether it is to the exclusion of a formal emphasis), Walton answered a lot of my questions and clarified quite a bit in this chapter. It still remains, however, as to whether such a sharp dichotomy can be made between function and form, especially in the Genesis text, but Walton has made it persuasively clear that the subject matter with which the text is dealing is one of function in relation to human existence and the sovereignty of God.
Hence, these objections notwithstanding, I was well pleased with this chapter. I thought Walton did a fabulous job at interpreting Genesis 1 within the ANE cognitive framework he established in previous chapters.

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