Books Faith

Impressions of “The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate,” by John Walton

The Lost World of Genesis One is a short work that makes a claim I never heard before: the first chapter of the Hebrew Bible contains a literal, day-by-day account of the functional creation of the world. If true, this resolves multiple disputes that have been active in Christian circles for nearly two-thousand years. I’m still not sure what to make of it.

The Book of Genesis opens with these lines

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.
Genesis 1:1-5

In the above passage, three things to pay attention to:

  • the word “created”
  • the phrase “without form, and void”
  • the existence of “the face of the deep”

God Created

The word translated as “Created” is “Bara”, which in the Hebrew Bible is only used with God as the subject. Walton asks a question I never heard before: what is the ontology of “create” in that sentence? Would it have been understood as the creation of physical substance or of functional relations? To use the analogy of a restaurant, is this a story of the construction of a building, or the hiring of a waitstaff, kitchen crew, and ailing of the proper paperwork?

There’s perhaps even a clearer analogy: the creation of the Temple. The building in the Temple, like most actions in the Old Testament, has a form of dual causation: human agency and divine agency. Solomon spent seven years building the physical temple, such as engraving the images of garden scenes and palm trees

Then [Solomon] carved cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers on them, and overlaid them with gold applied evenly on the carved work.

And he built the inner court with three rows of hewn stone and a row of cedar beams.

In the fourth year the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid, in the month of Ziv. And in the eleventh year, in the month of Bul, which is the eighth month, the house was finished in all its details and according to all its plans. So he was seven years in building it.
1 Kings 6:35-38

But the dedication of the alter took place in 7 days. That is, the temple was legally constituted in 7 literal, 24-hour days thought he physical material was there beforehand

At that time Solomon kept the feast seven days, and all Israel with him, a very great assembly from the entrance of Hamath to the Brook of Egypt. And on the eighth day they held a sacred assembly, for they observed the dedication of the altar seven days, and the feast seven days. On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he sent the people away to their tents, joyful and glad of heart for the good that the Lord had done for David, for Solomon, and for His people Israel.
2 Chronicles 7:8-10

Following the seven-day legal incorporation of the alter, there was nothing to do but eat, drink, and be merry. To have a true meal and enjoy the true presence, which is to say be joyful in the Lord. Such was life in Jerusalem. Such, John Walter claims, was life in Eden.

Without Form, and Void

The comma in the New Kings James Version is unfortunate, because “without form, and void” is the fossilized phrase “tohu wa bohu“. Tohu means something like waste, formlessness, or confusion, but bohu only appears in the conjunction with tohu. Whatever bohu once meant, the word had become a fossil within the phrase “tohu wa bohu” by the time the Book of Genesis was written.

Walton argues that the formlessness refers to a lack of functional or legal form. To create a business as a legal person you need to file articles of incorporation which have a proper form, and need to be properly signed and filed if they are not legally void.

Walton again draws an analogy to the temple here, but as a Catholic another analogy would be to the Eucharist, the bread and wine which really and truly becomes the body and blood of Christ. There is a ritual form to the sacrament that must be enacted it order for the sacrament to properly exist. A heretical priest might illicitly celebrate communion, but a Presbyterian minister explicitly stating “this is only a way for us to remember the Lord” would not have the proper form of celebration to even celebrate the Sacrifice, and the sacrament of course would be void — it never would have functionally or legally occurred, even though undeniably people in a Presbyterian service eat bread and drink wine.

The Face of the Deep

The funniest passage in St Augustine’s Confessions is a joke about what happened before creation:

Behold, I answer to him who asks, “What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?” I answer not, as a certain person is reported to have done facetiously (avoiding the pressure of the question), “He was preparing hell,” saith he, “for those who pry into mysteries.”

The context was that Biblical literalists of Augustine’s day noted that darkness was on the face of the deep before the first day, and therefore argued that God did not create the deep. Pseudo-Christian Gnostics use similar logic to argue that the God of Genesis is neither the “Word” nor the “God” of the new testament, as the implication of the Gospel According to John is the deep itself was created:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
John 1:1-5

Of course, if Genesis 1 is the recounting of the legal incorporation (as opposed to physical instantiation) of the Earth, the controversy dissolves. What was around before a lawyer joins the bar, or a priest celebrates Holy Orders? A physical human, a physical courthouse or church, physical clothing, and so on. But a legal brief filed on behalf of a client by a lawyer who had not joined the bar would be formless and void, as would be a mass celebrated by a priest who had not enjoyed holy orders.

Such a legal interpretation of Genesis 1 also explains other things which may have been around before the creation of the Earth, including the “morning stars” and the “Sons of God,” who God mentions in a rather sarcastic address:

Now prepare yourself like a man;
I will question you, and you shall answer Me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?
To what were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Job 38:3-7

Or Wisdom, who explicitly brags that her relationship with the Divine precedes the existence of the Deep

“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way,
Before His works of old.

I have been established from everlasting,
From the beginning, before there was ever an earth.

When there were no depths I was brought forth,
When there were no fountains abounding with water.
Proverbs 8:22-24

Walton uses this as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of Wisdom literature as understanding the functional ordering of the universe. He does not, but could have, noted that in the Old Religion of the Canaanites, the Stars were God’s officer corps from before the creation of the world. And these this celestial army of the sky fights for the Earth:

They fought from the heavens;
The stars from their courses fought against Sisera.
Judges 5:20

The Host of Heaven, the Starry Military, is an idea that somehow seems as always in our mind

Some Brief Criticisms

Walton focuses considerable attention on “create,” but not “make,” which also appears in Genesis 1. Walton’s focus on the philosophy of ontology in the opening chapters will make the book more interesting to philosophers of science, but may turn off general readers. Additionally, it may not be entirely relevant, as the distinction it’s never shown that the Hebrews, Canaanites, used the ontological categories of “physical” or “functional” in the way that Walton does. Indeed, Walton himself does not use these terms in a scientific sense!

For instance, describing the Second Day, Walton argues that we scientifically know there was no physical creation activity on that day, as the firmament is not solid

Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” 7 Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. 8 And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day.
Genesis 1:6-8

But not all physical materials are solid. Water is solid when its ice, but it is no less material if it melts (and becomes water), or sublimates (and becomes vapor in the atmosphere). Fiery plasma is a phase of matter as well. And matter itself converts into energy (which is how the sun is powered). Few would argues from this that the Stars are non-material entities!


The Lost World of Genesis One is going to stick with me. Walton’s argument appears to unify multiple strands of biblical research and commentary into an elegant, unified whole. I am keeping it in mind as I read on…

I listened to The Lost World of Genesis One in the Audible edition.

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