Monday, March 12, 2012

Functional Creation: John H. Walton’s THE LOST WORLD OF GENESIS ONE

John H. Walton. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. InterVarsityPress Academic, May 2009, 192 pp. $16.00 paperback. ISBN-10: 0830837043; ISBN-13: 978-0830837045. Kindle edition: May 2009, 1340kb. $8.10 ebook. ASIN: B003VM8QK0

First, thanks where thanks are due: I was introduced to John H. Walton’s study of the worldview of Genesis 1 by means of D. John Butler’s astute reading of and responses to Walton’s work in Plain and Precious Things: The Temple Religion of the Book of Mormon's Visionary Men  (please see my review/essay at  It is rare that references and footnotes in one book stimulate enough interest for me to search out another title, but in this case, it was well worth it.

Having said that…on to the essay:

It is a truism of literary studies that the great works (often Great Works) survive because they speak anew to each generation. What is also true but frequently less understood and less often applied is a second fact: that in creating the Great Works of the past anew for each generation, we fundamentally alter those works, sometimes removing them quite far from what their authors intended.

We continue to read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, because in them we see great minds engaging with fundamental, undying truths of human existence. It is only when we begin to search and study, to dig into the ruins of past times and cultures that we realize that many of the truths we have found are not always there in the originals. Beliefs change. Gods rise and fall. Cities, kingdoms, and cultures die…and with them die essential presuppositions about the nature of things…Earth, Heaven, God (or the Gods), the Cosmos.

One of my pet peeves concerning contemporary literary criticism centers around the way a great number of modern critics have denigrated Milton’s accomplishment in Paradise Lost by focusing on one small element of his epic: his treatment of Eve. He has become, in modern eyes, a wild-eyed misogynist, a rampant patriarchalist, an unrepentant sexual chauvinist of the worst kind. And it is relatively easy to extract individual lines and passages from the poem to support such a view.

When we take the time to look at the prevailing views of the seventeenth century, however, something almost magical occurs. Those pernicious –ists largely disappear, submerged beneath a deeper awareness that for his time Milton was, if not pro-feminist (for one thing, that phrase had not yet been invented), at least quite remarkable in his treatment of Eve. She is created from Adam, to be sure, and is subordinate to him; but she is also independent, capable of thinking for herself, more than willing to tackle the task of stewardship in the garden separate from Adam, and—most critical of all—ultimately capable of accepting her role in the Fall and submitting to her punishment from God.

As we read even more widely, we discover that Milton advocated readily accessible divorce for what we might now refer to as irreconcilable differences…and stipulated that such divorces be available to both male and female equally. True, he did not escape all of his century’s predispositions toward women—he did not teach his daughters to read and write, for instance—but in key ways he was far from being a misogynist.

 Or to take another example:

With few exceptions, modern readers are tempted to see the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf as essentially an exercise in storytelling, with the villains of the piece—the monstrous Grendel and his equally hideous mother—as metaphors, symbols, abstractions for the natural forces that surrounded the poet’s community, threatening them from all sides. Even the fleeting references to Christianity are frequently explained away as merely interpolations by a later scribe—perhaps the one who first set the ancient poem to parchment. Neither the old gods, nor the new one, are taken seriously.

One of the key exceptions, however, was J.R.R. Tolkien, who, in 1936, delivered a lecture on “Beowulf: the Monster and the Critics,” in which he argued that such readings risked missing entirely the Beowulf-poet’s intentions…and for a simple reason: the original audiences of the poem believed in monsters. Monsters, demons, dragons—all were taken literally by the Anglo-Saxon culture. In fact, for the year 793 (somewhere around the time Beowulf was being performed as an oral poem) the prose Parker Chronicle reported such forbidding omens as “excessive whirlwinds, lightning storms, and fiery dragons flying in the sky.”

Reading the poem from that perspective alters nearly everything in it. The monsters may be symbolic, and many of the structures literary and poetic…but the poem is also real.

Given my background in ancient literatures, particularly epic, Walton’s proposals in The Lost World of Genesis 1 were immediately fascinating.

What if we have been reading Genesis incorrectly? Basing our interpretations on modern presuppositions rather than upon the assumptions of the ancient Israelites? What if they were in fact more closely allied in their cosmology—and their imagination—to other Ancient Near Eastern cultures that they are to 21st-Century Western thought?

Specifically, what if the account in Genesis 1 is not a scientifically-oriented retelling of the material creation of the cosmos—the creation of matter ex nihilo, out of nothing—but rather concentrates on another form of origin entirely?

Here Walton reaches out to touch upon Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, and other Near Eastern accounts of creation—many of them only re-discovered in the past century or so—to argue that they have one particular feature in common: they are far more interested in functional creation than in material creation. Almost none of them, Genesis included, betray any interest in the mechanisms of creation—those very scientific elements so acerbically argued about today, including the contradictory principles of evolution and creationism. Instead, they saw creation in terms of how the various stages and objects related to human community.

By working carefully through a series of propositions, The Lost World of Genesis 1 posits a non-functional cosmos prior to God’s first utterance in Genesis 1:1. Material creation, he argues, had been accomplished already…and most critically, by the Word of God. The actual mechanisms—the science—involved is, from this perspective, irrelevant. God created the universe; how He did it is up to Him. That He might have employed evolution as we currently understand it is possible; that He might have employed other means we do not yet understand is also possible. What is crucial is that He did create this world and its surrounding space, and that He did it for a specific purpose. And that until his purpose was completed, the cosmos existed but did so without function.

That purpose was to establish a place—a Cosmic Temple—in which He might dwell and from there interact with the human race He designed for that world. The Earth was not created because God needed it; it was created because humanity needed.

By replacing a material-oriented creation with a function-oriented creation, Walton makes practically irrelevant a number of modern concerns. How old is the Earth? It could either be very old or very young, depending upon the mechanisms God used; either way, we simply do not know and Genesis does not tell us. Was the Earth created in six days? Again, we do not know; but Walton makes a solid case for Genesis as a ritual, in which God established both function and functionaries in his pre-existent world, and that might have indeed been performed in six days’ time.

He continues with other key questions, but these indicate the course of his thought. Genesis was not intended to be scientific. The ancient Israelites who received it would not have understood such things, nor were they interested in them. They might, however, like their neighbors, been comforted by hearing their Creation epic repeated—or perhaps even enacted as a ritual—and with each repetition the sense of order and meaning in the universe would be enhanced.

It is more than a bit presumptuous to distill 192 pages into a thousand words or so. For that reason, I recommend reading Walton’s own words and following his meticulously detailed arguments.

And thinking about them.

That is what I found most exciting about the book…the new directions of thought he proposed. A number of them were implicit in Butler’s analyses in Plain and Precious Things. Others emerged from the discussions and supports Walton elicited.

For example: He spends a fair amount of time on the first verb in Genesis 1, “create.” He notes—quite rightly, I think—that for us to understand anything about Genesis and creation, we have to go beyond the modern meanings of the word, since they inevitably lead us to speculations about material origins. What is required, he argues, is that we go back to the Hebrew texts, and then beyond those texts to the cultural milieu in which the original word—bara—was used. Ancient usage, not etymology or modern definition, is crucial.

The creation of the sun, for instance, is not at all concerned with the sun as a great burning globe of hydrogen with such-and-such a surface temperature, of such-and-such dimensions. Genesis provides no clue as to how God made the sun. What it does emphasize is that the sun was made for a purpose—to give light to the earth and to govern the day.

Throughout Genesis, the verb create is associated with functions…which led me to an “Ahah!” moment: what Walton was really saying is that in Genesis, the cosmos is not newly created but rather is given its final function and purpose…is organized to fulfill a specific goal.

And that, of course, led me to Joseph Smith’s lecture on God and Creation in the “King Follett Sermon,” in which he states that the word translated as “create” actually means “to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship.” Nearly 170 years before Walton, Joseph Smith came to the same conclusion; the primary difference is that Walton’s analogies involve building computers and establishing companies.

Coupled with Butler’s commentaries on the Book of Mormon in Plain and Precious Things and my own frequent ruminations on The Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price, it was a logical step to move beyond Walton’s text and in essence turn it toward a purpose it did not originally have (having just explained in great and gruesome detail to beware such tendencies)—it becomes, not proof of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling per se, but another evidence that many of the things Joseph Smith said are virtually unaccounted for by any other means.

He understood, long before the discovery of Asshurbanipal’s library in the mid-19th century or the translations of numerous ancient Middle Eastern creation epics in the 20th that context counts.  If, as Butler argues, in 1830 he published a book that incorporates throughout detailed Temple references and Temple imagery gauged to be understood by initiates and paralleling in many aspects Ancient Near Eastern ritual and ceremonial; and if in 1844, he suggested that the creation of this universe as detailed in Genesis is crucial for the why not the how –the purpose not the mechanisms—it becomes increasingly difficult to account for how he could know such things…unless the same Creator who spoke to the Old Testament author of Genesis 1 had also spoken to him.

Ah, you might think. There he goes again, interpreting everything in Mormon terms. Typical.
Well, sometimes it is difficult not to, especially when the book under discussion opens the possibility itself.

Toward the final pages of The Lost World of Genesis 1, Walton (who has been citing bible scholars and authorities throughout) suddenly cites a new kind of writer—a novelist. Orson Scott Card.
Seeing that name in the context of a non-LDS biblical study is nearly as disconcerting as hearing a General Authority cite C. S. Lewis in General Conference, especially when the citation is to something clearly defined as fiction…and science-fiction at that.

Using a passage from Card’s The Call of Earth, Walton discusses the nature of coincidence, relating it to cause/effect relationships we do not yet understand. Even more significantly, a few pages further in he cites Card again, this time from Prentice Alvin, in a long passage discussing the fact that everything—down to the tiniest particles of existence—acts through intelligence and owes obedience to God.

The Call of Earth, from “The Homecoming” series is among Card’s most explicitly LDS novels, based as the series is on the Book of Mormon; and Prentice Alvin, from the “Seventh Son” series, is among his most explicitly Joseph-Smith oriented novels.
This is not to argue that Walton is proposing an LDS version of creation; far from it. But it is to suggest that, for LDS readers at least, his dissection of language in Genesis 1 and the conclusions he reaches about the nature of  Creation and of the Cosmos may sound a familiar tone.

Walton does not conclude that all matter is eternal, as Joseph Smith states; and he certainly does not venture to mention any other LDS doctrines. But his reading of Genesis as a functional Creation epic seems spot on and fits comfortably into the doctrines of the Restoration.

Strongly recommended.

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