The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.
What it says
Walton’s 4th proposition is that the beginning state in Genesis 1 is nonfunctional. Think of creation as something with a before and an after. If creation is about material existence, then the before state should be material nonexistence. But if creation is about function, then the before state should be a lack of function.
The material interpretation has been assisted by a mistranslation of a word in Genesis 1:2 as “without form”. Walton cites studies of the Hebrew word tohu, which show that it really means unproductive. In other words, what was lacking before creation was not material form but purpose and productivity.
Yet even if we keep the traditional translation, it remains clear that Genesis 1:2 is not talking about a lack of material existence. Material exists. It is just in a non-useful state.
What Walton proposes is that the Hebrew idea of nonexistence was not that nothing existed materially or corporeally. Instead, nonexistence meant the kind of emptiness that exists before something is given a function. He cites Job 26:7:
He spreads out the northern skies over empty space;
he suspends the earth on nothing. NET Bible
“Empty space” translates tohu and the word for “nothing” is unique to Job. Walton sees the ancient Near Eastern idea of chaotic waters in this. The ancients contrasted the existence of their familiar, ordered world with nonexistence of the deserts and tempestuous waters.
The polytheistic peoples told stories that showed the world coming into existence when it began to serve the needs of the gods. The Hebrew God had no needs, so the world came into existence when it began to serve the needs of people. In Genesis 1, people do not get created until the sixth day. But creation up to that point still has the needs of people–for light, for seasonality, for dry land, for plants and animals–in mind. As the world comes to meet these needs it is truly created and comes to exist.
As an example of many ancient Near Eastern texts, he cites this Sumerian text about the state of the world before creation:
“Earth was in darkness, and the lower world was [invi]sible;
The waters did not flow through the opening (in the earth),
Nothing was produced, on the vast earth the furrow had not been made.”
Thus, both the Bible and the ancient Near Eastern texts describe pre-creation as a state with an absence of function, rather than an absence of mater.
According the Merriam-Webster online dictionary this is a definition of existence:
“the state or fact of having being especially independently of human consciousness and as contrasted with nonexistence <the existence of other worlds>”
There is nothing that requires you to see “the state or fact of having being” as corresponding with physics. When the ancients talked about existence, it makes sense that they were not using the ideas of physics.
And today we might argue that, in terms of particle physics, just having a bunch of particles or background radiation does not constitute existence. This would be potential. But energy might move from potential to real only when expressed in specific forces and bodies. Whether you think forces and bodies have purpose and function (intentionality), or whether you think the fact that they sometimes meet our needs is accidental, would be an interpretation.
OK. I know I am out of my depth here. But it is something to think about.
Existence is an abstraction. Even Walton’s notion of function is an abstraction. The ancients thought in concrete, practical terms. What made their lives possible? Light, heat, air, water, food, other people and so on. They told stories about how these had come about. The before-and-after of creation, it seems to me, was not a claim about prehistoric facts. It was probably just the backdrop for their thanksgiving that God or the gods had made life possible now.