The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.
Walton, contrary to my initial impression, has a second part of his treatment of proposition 2 that marshals evidence for his belief that Genesis 1 reflects a functional understanding of creation. This evidence begins with a list of Near Eastern texts that illustrate a functional approach. The way this starts out as just a list is what caused me to think it was a kind of appendix after the end of the chapter.
What it says
But after a few pages of listing Egyptian, Babylonian, and Sumerian texts, he argues that these texts represent a functional approach to cosmology and creation.
An important point is that they developed their cosmology from their own vantage point. The reason we have our scientific cosmology is because microscopes, telescopes, satellites, and other instruments have given us a new vantage point. The ancients just had their observation and logic. For instance, they observed rain. Rain meant that there had to be water up there someplace. But since it did not always rain, something had to restrain the water above. This was the basis for the idea that we find both in old Near Eastern texts and Genesis 1 that a solid firmament or canopy separates us from the water above.
Walton brings forth several arguments to show that the ancient Near Eastern texts display a functional view of cosmology and creation. The Egyptians thought of the sun, moon, and stars as divinities. There was no emphasis on any idea that these were material structures. Rather, the emphasis was on how they functioned in the universe.
The ancient myths speak of a non-functioning state before creation. In the beginning there was darkness, non-flowing water, and unrealized potential. The creation occurs, not when things come to exist materially, but when they receive order, partly by gods giving them names, and partly by the gods separating one thing from another.
A significant feature of the texts is that the gods organize time by separating day and night, summer and winter, and by creating seasonal weather.
In all of this Walton sees the functional nature of Near Eastern cosmology and creation ideas. Creation does not consist of granting material existence to creatures. It consists of dividing and organizing them into functioning entities.
He admits that, if asked, the ancients would probably have agreed that the gods also gave everything its material existence. But they were not interested in this. In the end (and this really is the end of this chapter) he comes back to his contention that our culture’s material definition of existence is only one way of looking at the world. He reasserts his thesis that in the ancient Near East people saw existence as consisting in having a function in an ordered system.
Walton is an expert on ancient Near Eastern thought. He has written Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. I am assuming that his treatment of the Near Eastern texts here is a summary of some of that book.
So in this chapter he has contrasted the view of some creationists that the Bible’s creation story is in direct competition with a scientific account of material origins to a different conceptual world–one where the question of material origins would not seem relevant.
Therefore, on second thought and further reading, Walton’s treatment of cultural assumptions seems more appropriate. He does present evidence that the world that produced Genesis 1 was one where a functional definition of existence prevailed (although I am sure no one in that world would have used such abstract language as “function” and “system”).
My only question is whether the material definition of existence really represents our culture or is just a positivist or fundamentalist oddity shared by atheists and biblical literalists. It seems to me that most people would have a more elastic view, a view more open to imagination and possibilities.