Scientific Worldview vs. Integrity of the Text
In his wonderful online presentation, Walton offers up several options people consider when it comes to resolving the apparent contradictions between science and the biblical text:
(1) Construct an alternative science (e.g., Young-Earth Creationsim, Intelligent Design, etc.)
(2) Consider the text to only teach theological truths, not science
(3) Consider the text to be a vehicle for metaphor through use of poetry
Fortunately, these three options aren’t the only ones available to us. The first option, constructing an alternative science, is typically used when one cannot deal with the face value of the text. The YEC might say, “But I am taking the text at face value! The Bible clearly says that God created the universe in six days!” Walton, however, would respond that the Hebrews would have read the very same literature very differently. What a modern, 21st-century reader would consider a “face value,” or “literal,” interpretation of the text does not necessarily equate with what an inhabitant of the ancient Near East (ANE) would consider a “face value” interpretation.
In regard to the second option, considering the text purely theological, Walton asks whether Israel (or any other ANE culture for that matter) distinguished between “science” and “theology.” It is only because our understanding of the material world has progressed far beyond that of ANE cultures are we able to contemplate the difference between the physical and the metaphysical. Four millennia ago, that difference did not exist.
As tempting as it is to go for the third option, Walton urges us not to read the opening chapters of Genesis as mere literary expression, but rather as a literal (not literary) expression of Hebrew cosmology. Ironically, the YEC and ANE interpretations of Genesis 1 use the same methodology while producing two completely different conclusions as a result of their differing worldviews.
Does Genesis Concern Making Things?
99.9% of armchair theologians would say, “Duh!” to this question. ANE scholars, on the other hand, would likely smile and invite you to sit down with them for lunch and discuss some of the following points:
The overarching theme of Genesis 1 is that of God creating order out of disorder.
“Order” is thought of in terms of “functionality,” not structure. In other words, Genesis 1 is not speaking of God creating the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing), but rather of God assigning function to the cosmos and its component parts.
The “existence” of an object is dependent upon whether function (or a name) has been assigned to it, not the fact that it takes up space. In ancient Egyptian thought, for example, things were considered “non-existent” if it wasn’t assigned a function.
Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology
Walton asserts that, “If the Israelites did not have a view of the cosmos like the one that was current in the rest of the ancient Near East, it would only be because God had revealed a different reality that transcended their old-world science. If God did not reveal realities such as a spherical earth or the rotation [on its axis] and revolution of the earth [around the sun], the Israelites would have had no way to arrive at these conclusions.” Walton is absolutely correct. In fact, if a careful study of the Old Testament is conducted, one will find unassailable evidence that the Hebrew understanding of the physical cosmos mirrored other surrounding cultures’ concept of their shared world. Sure, one might find a verse or two that appears to support a spherical earth, but when a list is compared side-by-side with scriptural evidence that the ancients believed the earth to be flat, well … flat-earthers will likely be overjoyed.
The Hebrew word for “created” (בָּרָא, bara’) is used about 50 times in the Old Testament and has, as its objects, people groups (Ps 102:19; Ezek 21:35), Jerusalem (Isa 65:18), physical phenomena, abstractions, people (Gen 5:2)—all things which existed (or experienced, in the case of physical pehonomena) previously to their material “creation.” Contrary to popular belief, the word is “never used in context[s] where materials are mentioned”! Walton argues that, in these instances, God is establishing function and purpose. Thus, in Genesis 1, God is establishing order in the universe. Genesis 1:2 states the cosmos was “formless and empty,” that is, not lacking material structure, but rather order and purpose.
Walton’s conclusion is that “the text asserts that in the seven-day initial period, God brought the cosmos into operation by assigning roles and functions.” And, coincidentally enough, this is what you see occuring when you read Genesis 1. When read in this light, Genesis 1 may very well take on a completely new level of meaning from which you may be accustomed …