Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Reading Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology by John H. Walton #2

Walton GenesisToday’s post begins my read through of Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, by John H. Walton. Chapter 4 discusses Genesis 1 and its relationship to the ancient Near Eastern worldview he has surveyed in chapters 2-3. 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.…

He begins with a detailed look at Genesis 1.1. He analyzes the literary relationship of the verse to rest of the  chapter and book of Genesis and does word studies on the word "beginning," "create" and its related word, "make," which is also used to describe God's creative work in other biblical texts. First, he concludes that 1.1 does not describe a separate creative act before the days of creation begin, but is a summary of the acts of the 7 days beginning in verse 3. I would tend to agree with Walton here because this understanding fits best with the grammar of the text, as it is in our traditional Hebrew Bible, and also fits better with the literary tôlĕdôt structure of the book of Genesis. If one wants to change the pointing (vowel markers of the text which were added sometime later) of verse 1, it could be a subordinate clause to verse 2 (in the beginning when God began...the earth was formless). I think that is possible but less likely. The verb bārāʾ, create, is only used in the OT with God as the subject, implying that it is only a divine activity. However, the objects it takes make it clear that it does not always deal with material creation. It can mean to organize, designate, animate or assign function to already existing material, as in the creation of humans from clay. The same is true of the Hebrew verb ʿāśâ, "make," which is a more general word for "doing." Walton's conclusion here is that Genesis 1.1 is a summary statement of the 7 days of creation which primarily describe God's ordering, organizing and assigning functions to material creation. I would agree with him that Genesis 1.1 is not talking about the original creation ex nihilo (other scriptures make this point), but would not rule out materials being created here. What we have in Genesis 1 is an organization of nonfunctional, unusable material into a world prepared for God's people. How God's original creation became "formless and empty" (or whether God created it that way) is not explained in the text here. 

The ‘beginning’ is a way of labeling the seven-day period of creation described in the remainder of Genesis 1 rather than a point in time prior to the seven days. As an independent clause, it offers no description of creative acts but provides a literary introduction to the period of creative activity that then flows into the tôlĕdôt sections that characterize the remainder of the book. 127

The verb only appears with deity as its subject in the approximately 50 times it occurs in the Hebrew Bible. This is an important observation: it has led to the common conclusion that the activity denoted by bārāʾ is a prerogative only of deity and not an activity that humans can undertake or even in which they can participate. 128

If we do not arrive at the text of Genesis 1 with the preconception that the focus is on the bringing into existence of the material world, the context itself would not lead us to think in predominantly material terms. In the initial period, God brought the cosmos into existence (by setting up an ordered system and giving everything its role within that system). 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. 139

The next section describes the pre-creation situation as it is presented in Genesis 1.2. Walton again points out the similarities to the "cognitive backgrounds" of other ancient texts. The key concepts that are discussed here are tōhû and bōhû (usually translated formless and empty), Tĕhôm (the deep) and rûaḥ ʾĕlohîm (the spirit of God). The earth or land is described as tōhû and bōhû. Though many see "chaos" as proper translation for this phrase, Walton prefers non-functional based on Egyptian background. That is the earth is awaiting God's creation to assign it function and meaning. The earth is also described as Tĕhôm, deep waters. Israel did not see Tĕhôm as a god/monster to be defeated but as non-functional waters awaiting the hand of the Creator to give them order and purpose. He uses the tradition translation of rûaḥ ʾĕlohîm as "spirit of God" rather than "mighty wind" as suggested by some scholars. The presence of God is there and his word will be activated to create everything in the world to meet his specifications and purpose. A key point in Genesis 1 is that God is the Creator of all that exists. There was no “battle of the gods” to form the universe. Creation is done with God’s personal, purposeful design.

Gen 1:2 is the biblical text that describes the precosmic condition as it was understood in Israelite thought...Whether the topic is geographical areas, nations, cities, people, or idols, the term refers to that which is nonproductive, nonfunctional, and of no purpose. This conclusion is fully supported by the contexts in which tōhû is used and by the terms that are used parallel to it. 139, 141

The Israelite portrayal does not present the precreation state as negative or personal/personified; instead, it is a neutral, functionless ambiguity. 145

It is evident that the rûaḥ ʾĕlohîm is not only superintending the work of creation but in fact brings creation about through the word. The passage is emphasizing the actual powerful presence of God, who brings the spoken work into reality by the Spirit. Thus, the Spirit and the word work together to present the fact that the one God is responsible for all that is seen in the physical universe. quoting Wilf Hildebrandt, 150

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