The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.
What it says
The third of Walton’s propositions has to do with the Hebrew word bara’. This is the word for create in the sentence, “In the beginning God created. . .” This proposition is that create concerns functions.
People often assume that the word means to bring into physical existence. When people say they want to interpret the Bible literally, they often want to take the literal English meaning of the word. Walton defends the impulse toward literalism by saying that such people often want to avoid imposing their own meaning on the text. However, the English dictionary meaning of create is not necessarily the meaning of the Hebrew word.
Since there was no dictionary to define ancient Hebrew words, Walton catalogs how the word gets used in the Hebrew Bible. A startling result of this is that he finds no instances where the Bible uses the word to refer to anyone but God. This certainly is different than the English word. People can create. They can be creative. But in Hebrew the word only applies to an activity of deity.
The object of the verb is often the world (heavens and the earth) or people (he created them male and female). Sometimes it is used for a phenomenon like darkness. Once it is used for a pure heart. He claims that all of these either are or can be functional. None requires a material interpretation. He would take the statement that God created them male and female as typical. The word applies more to ordering and differentiating than to bringing into physical existence.
He comes to the issue of creation out of nothing. The idea kind of assume a material definition of creation. The Bible mentions no materials out of which God creates the world, but this does not mean that Genesis 1 supports creation out of nothing. The idea of a functional creation does not involve fabrication, so, of course, no materials were used.
However, Walton’s claim is that the Bible just is not interested in material creation, not that the world does not materially derive from God. So he does believe that God created the world out of nothing. It just isn’t what Genesis 1 says, because Genesis 1 is not about material creation.
He also argues that the “beginning” refers to a period of time when creation took place, not an instant before creation. Thus, a paraphrase of Genesis 1:1 would say that God specified functions for the heavens and the earth in the initial period.
I doubt anybody truly takes the Bible literally. C. S. Lewis somewhere reminded us that nobody thinks that when Jesus said we should be like doves he meant that we should lay eggs. But what people suspect of a proposal like that of Walton is that he is fudging creation to make it conform to modern skepticism.
Pretty clearly, that is not what Walton is doing. But it is to his credit that he sees that some who object that his understanding of Genesis is not literal have a valid concern. Certainly, there are some today who bend the Bible to fit modern categories.
So it was good that he went to the original language and the biblical usage to make his case. To look at what the Hebrew means is not to make a fanciful interpretation.
I was a little shocked to see that in bara’ there is no basis for the analogy between human creative work and God’s creative work. To think of God as a craftsman or an artist does not take in the fact that the word “create” only applies to deity.
Yet when we interpret creation as the assigning of function, there are many human analogies. The J account in Genesis 2 and 3 where Adam names the animals would be one. So perhaps we need to remind ourselves that one word does not encompass the whole biblical concept of creation.
His position on creation-out-of-nothing is pretty much what I thought it would be. He believes the doctrine, he just does not see Genesis 1 as explicitly teaching it.
I would note that the doctrine and other ideas of material creation probably go back to Greek ways of thinking. So they are not based in modern positivism or scientism. The materialism of our culture likely has classical roots. This would be one reason the creationists find so much material in the history of Christian thought that seems to support them.