Thursday, March 15, 2018

Reading Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology by John H. Walton #1

Walton GenesisToday’s post begins my read through of Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, by John H. Walton. In all his books Walton makes the important point that we must read the Bible through the eyes of its original audience before we can understand its message and apply it to our own culture. This is notoriously difficult to do, so there will be disagreements, but I think it is very important to have these discussions. I have been posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (NT is Mon-Wed-Fri) and we can discuss comments and questions about the passage there. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the theology are in blue below. I am using the Logos version of the book.…

I have used Walton's Introduction to the Old Testament and read some of his "Lost World" books so I thought it would be good to go back to the basics with his viewpoint. I also like to use his basic biblical hermeneutic that "the Bible was written for us, not to us." The preface to this book lays out his premise quite clearly and succinctly.

I contend that Genesis 1 never was an account of material origins but that, as in the rest of the ancient world, the focus of the creation accounts was to order the cosmos by initiating functions. I further contend that the cosmology of Genesis 1 is founded on the premise that the cosmos should be understood in temple terms. ix

In Chapter 1, Cosmology and Comparative Studies: Methodology, he explains how he would use the Ancient Near Eastern backgrounds to understand the text of the Bible. This was not a case of the biblical writers just completely adopting ANET ideas and copying them into the biblical texts. The idea is more that God revealed Himself to Israel in terms they would understand and they wrote the revelation in terms that would be understood in an ancient worldview. Thus, when we read the text through our modern worldview; if for example we see a blue planet in a solar system when we read Genesis 1; we will tend to misinterpret the text and miss its main message. For example, many poetic texts in the Bible adapt the "battle of the gods" motif, but they do it to assert Yahweh's uniqueness in the supernatural world, his unquestioned ability to bring order and beauty to the chaos, and maintain it; not to explain natural phenomena. I think it is also clear that temple imagery is there in the creation stories and continues to be used to reveal God's relationship to His creation. I would have to say that the idea of functional creation is there in Genesis 1, but not sure that it completely negates the idea of material creation. 

All literature is dependent on the culture from which it emerges and on the literature of the cultures with which it is in contact...That all literature is dependent, however, does not rule out the possibility that new ideas or perspectives may emerge; it only recognizes that no literature or idea is without a precursor of some sort, even if there is something in the “new” literature that departs from the “old.” For interpretation to be legitimate, it must acknowledge the debt that the “new” owes to the “old” and explore the intertextual linkage between the two...We should not be surprised, then, that understanding the Hebrew Bible requires its interpreters to recognize the pervasive connection that ancient Israel had with the legacy of ancient Near Eastern literature and thought. 12–13

Israel’s adaptation of ideas or materials from surrounding cultures was guided by what the people of Israel believed about their interaction with Israel’s god, Yahweh, and modern interpreters can choose to agree with the Hebrew Bible’s perspective or not. Whatever the modern interpreter’s assessment of the divine role, the Israelites’ self-identity was based (eventually—we need not quibble about the time-frame here) on the belief that there was only one God, and God chose their forefathers to be in a unique relationship with them (a relationship defined by the covenant). 15

Chapters 2-3 are a survey of Ancient Near Eastern creation stories. Chapter 2 is short and contains a helpful chart that overviews references in the various creation stories and can be used to quickly compare the emphases of the various stories. Chapter 3 is much longer and surveys the major themes of these creation stories. Basically, the point made from this survey is that ancient creation stories were more about organizing material and corralling powers, rather than creation of matter, to accomplish something. Creation is about organizing, naming, separating and assigning function. Instead of viewing the universe as a machine, Walton compares the ancient view of the universe to a business. Creation was thus an organizing of the "powers" by the gods, to give order, mission, purpose and function and to assign the various parts of creation their separate roles. All of these various parts were sacred and inhabited by the gods. Part of the purpose of Israel's revelation is to "desacralize" the objects of creation, without removing the One God from His intimate Presence and control over the purpose, functions, and His mission for His creation. Thus, creation in Genesis 1 is an organization of the chaos (creation ex nihilo is found in other passages), giving it order, meaning, purpose, and beauty.

Cosmic creation in the ancient world was not viewed primarily as a process by which matter was brought into being but as 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

When we moderns think about the ancient world (including the Bible), it is most natural for us to imagine that ancient peoples simply thought of the world as a machine with Someone running it, rather than seeing that they did not in any respect conceive of the world as a machine. In the ancient functional ontology, the cosmos is more like a business. In this metaphor, it is clear that a business only functions in relationship to people, both the company’s employees and its customers. 45

The main gods (Anu, Enlil, Enki) would be the officers of the company or the board of directors, and the lesser gods would have the role of vice-presidents. Kings would be something like department supervisors and priests similar to managers and, in some senses, like union bosses. Temples and cities would be roughly equivalent to the departments of the company or, perhaps, franchises, and people would be the employees, whose rituals are akin to punching the clock and putting in their time to help the company run; their only lot in life is to work their fingers to the bone until they are fired or reach retirement, having given their blood, sweat, and tears in service to the company and its officers, with little to show for their efforts. 48–49

Chapter 3 continues by describing the roles of gods and humans, "cosmic geography," and temples in the ancient Near Eastern worldview. The gods in this view were inside and part of creation rather than separate from it. They were defined by their functions within the cosmos, whether it was direct (driving the sun across the sky for example) or administrative (ruling and supervising other lesser gods). Humans were created mainly to relieve the gods of menial work and to meet the gods' needs through worship, and sacrifice. Cosmic geography was concerned, less with the materials of the universe as in our modern "machine view," than with who is in charge of its functions (a bureaucratic business view of the universe). Ancient views generally agreed that the universe was three-tiered with the land in the center, a solid dome or tent sky above which held back chaotic waters, and the netherworld below which were more chaotic waters. Temples were very important because they were both a representation of the universe and the hub from which the gods operated it. They provided a link between heaven and earth, and gods and men. The deity was at rest when the temple was functioning as it should be. The biblical revelation happens in this ancient environment and speaks in its language to these ancient people to reveal the True Creator (who is separate, holy, from creation but works inside it) and correct their misunderstandings. Our job is to take this revelation, understand it in its original context, and explain its unchanging theological truths within (and to correct) the worldviews we encounter today.

The roles of the gods...all concern functions, not material origins, and the functions all operate from within the system rather than acting on it from outside. The authority and jurisdiction of any god is circumscribed by his or her relationship to the components of the cosmos or to other deities. 68

Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Canaanites, Hittites, and Israelites all thought of the cosmos as composed of tiers: the earth was in the middle, with the heavens above and the netherworld beneath. In general, people believed that there was a single, disc-shaped continent. This continent had high mountains at the edges that some believed held up the sky, which they thought was not vapors or air but solid (some envisioned it as a tent, others as a more substantial dome). The heavens where deities lived were above the sky, and the netherworld was beneath the earth. 88

Individual temples were designed as models of the cosmos, but in addition, and more importantly, the temple was viewed as the hub of the cosmos. It was built in conjunction with the creation of the cosmos. Gods took up their rest in the temple for a variety of reasons, one of which was the ruling of the cosmos as they continued to maintain the order that had been established and to exercise control of destinies. 119

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