The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.
What it says
Walton deals with the first three days of creation. His proposition is that days one to three establish function.
For day one he says that the meaning is not that God created light as a physical property. Rather light in these verses is a condition the opposite of darkness. The work described is the creation of night and day. So Walton would translate “let there be light” as “let there be a period of light.”
Why does it say that God created evening and morning? Why is evening first? That is because evening represents the before-creation absence of light. Light, as a function to meet the needs of men, did not exist. So God had to create it, not in the sense of making it for the first time, but in the sense of separating it from the period of darkness so it could be of use.
In regard to the second day, he says that if you insist on treating the firmament as a material creation, you are stuck with a cosmology you know is not scientifically correct. But if you treat it as a functional creation, then the creation of the firmament means, in the first place, that God has provided a space for human life. And, in the second place, it means that rain and snow, which could overwhelm this human space stand restrained. This is true, even though there is no sky canopy as the ancients conceived it.
For those who think Genesis 1 is about God making stuff, the third day, when he separates out the dry land, is puzzling. God does not make anything. However, since Walton does not see Genesis 1 as an account of material origins, this is no problem. It is like the other days. God’s work involves ordering and differentiating. On day two God separated and differentiated cosmic space, dividing the waters above from the waters below. On day three he separates and differentiates terrestrial space, dividing the sea from the dry land.
In Genesis the day three account goes on to say that the dry land became the basis for plant life and agriculture. This is the function.
Each of these days results in a function. Day one sets up our experience of time. Day two sets up our experience of weather. Day three sets up our experience of the fertility of the earth. He points out that Genesis 8:22 speaks of these same three functions (in reverse order) when it tells us that seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter and day and night will endure.
Walton finds parallels to these functions in other ancient Near Eastern literature.
Israel’s understanding of cosmology did not differ from that of other nations around them. They differed in their understanding of God. But they were not supernaturally informed about modern science. God did not give them a “revised cosmic geography”. Instead, he gave them an affirmation that God alone provides the basis for time, weather, and agriculture.
The misunderstanding that Walton is addressing is quite clear in the notes to the NET Bible, which uses the term “expanse” instead of “firmament” for the sky barrier of day two. The note explains “the Hebrew word refers to an expanse of air pressure between the surface of the sea and the clouds, separating the waters below from the waters above.” The next note says that the dome-like nature of the biblical description of this expanse is poetic. So apparently, in this view, the Bible is really making a scientific statement about air pressure, but some biblical writers describe this artistically.
I hate to ridicule this view, but good gravy! The Hebrew does not refer to air pressure! The ancients knew nothing about that!
What makes Walton’s point so attractive to me is that it makes this whole attempt to harmonize the ancient and modern cosmologies unnecessary. There is no need to reject what we know from scientific observation about the atmosphere . But there is also no need to pretend that the authors of Genesis had any idea of what would be discovered much later.
This does not make the Bible wrong. The Bible’s purpose is not to give us a correct cosmology, but to refer all things to God. Genesis was not written to satisfy our curiosity about the precise mechanics of cosmic origins.
I guess I am thinking that Walton oversimplified a little with his talk about function. But he makes an excellent point about the intention of Genesis. It is indeed to refer things like time, weather, and fertility to God. Other people referred these things to the ba’als and developed a fertility religion with amoral gods, ritual prostitution, and, sometimes, child sacrifice. The truth that the prophets and priests needed over against this was not scientific precision, but the ability to refer all things to the God of Israel.