The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.
What it says
“Days four through six install functionaries.” That is John H. Walton’s sixth proposition concerning Genesis 1. These verses do not describe God manufacturing the sun, moon and stars; the air, sea and land animals; and human beings. They describe God giving these entities tasks or functions.
The lights in the heavens (v. 14 ff.) get tasked with being signs for seasons, days, and years. They are also tasked with giving light upon the earth and ruling over the day and night.
The creatures of the air and sea in vs. 20 ff. are tasked with being fruitful and multiplying. So are the land animals in 24 ff. Rather than God creating them directly, the verses have God saying “let the waters swarm” and “let the earth bring forth. It does say of the sea monsters of v. 21 that God created them. Walton thinks this is to refute the myths that have God creating the world in a struggle with leviathan, the sea monster. Even the sea monster owes its place in the world to God. (Walton does not talk about this, but my opinion is that in Hebrew thought the Nile Crocodile is the prototypical sea monster. The sea is not necessarily the salt water ocean.)
Then, finally, on day six in vs. 26 ff., men and women get tasked not only with being fruitful and multiplying, but with having dominion over the plants and animals.
Walton here jumps over to Genesis 2. There God creates a man from the earth and a woman from the side of the man. This might seem like material creation, manufacturing them out of preexisting materials. Yet even in the second creation story, the emphasis is on function. The man is to work and keep the garden. The woman is a helper who prevents the man from being alone.
Walton says that in other Near Eastern origins stories the cosmos was set up to serve the gods. The Hebrew story is anthropomorphic. Creation serves man. However, man as male and female reflects the image of God. So while the rest or creation serves man, humanity stands in a unique relation to God.
These other stories often do speak of humans being created out of some material or ingredient: the tears of a god, the blood of a slain god, or clay. The Genesis 2 use of the dust of the earth shows that Hebrews worked in that thought-world.
Nevertheless, the Bible’s interest was not material creation but the assignment of function. Walton likens this to the “creation” of a job in a modern business. The creation of the job involves the assigning of a work space and the provision of tools. But mostly it involves non-material things like telling you who you report too, what your hours are, and what is expected of you.
First of all, even if the Bible was broadly talking about material creation, I have never understood how the statement that God created humanity from the dust of the earth in any way contradicts evolution, unless you posit that God can’t have anything to do with it or that the language cannot be poetic in any way. The same with the earth bringing forth the plants and animals. Dust of the earth. Primordial soup. Whatever.
I think that hundreds of years and a major difference of perspective separate the source of Genesis 1 from the source of Genesis 2:4 ff. Although I understand Walton seeing them both generally reflecting the ancient Near Eastern background, his failure to deal with the differences that can’t be harmonized bothered me a little. Even if you don’t buy the larger JEDP theory, the two completely different creation stories at the beginning of Genesis stand out.
I agree with Walton that the emphasis in Genesis 1:14-31 is the assigning of tasks or functions. I can’t help but point out Karl Barth’s interpretation of the image of God. He took the statement in v. 27 (also Genesis 5:1-2) that God created them in his own image; that he made them male and female, at face value. The image of God in man, according to Barth, consisted in our being created male and female. He understood this to mean that the image of God meant being able to relate intimately with the other. This relates to the odd language where God refers to himself in the plural: let us make man in our image. Whether you give this a trinitarian interpretation or think God speaks to his angelic court, the plural means the essence of God is relational.
This runs against PC gender ideas today in that it uses gender binary language. The image of God in man resides in the oppositeness (I just made this word up over the objection of my spell check program) of the opposite sexes.
Barth’s idea, though, would fit with creation as differentiation of function. The functional wholeness of God’s creation reflects God’s unity even in the distinction of function. I know someone could pick this up as justification for rigid gender roles. But I don’t think we need to go there. Barth’s idea just recognizes the dimorphism and hormonal contrasts that people actually have as males and females.
A lot of what Walton says about Genesis 1 just seems like horse sense to me. Using scientific categories instead of common sense has thrown some of us off. I mean what we know from scientific instruments and experiments is more accurate and more facilitative of technology than common sense. But common sense talk still has a place and purpose. We still use vernacular, but scientifically inaccurate, phrases like “sunrise” or “shooting star”. Common sense describes the world from a perspective unaided by telescopes, microscopes, or particle accelerators. It was the only perspective accessible to the sources and editors of Genesis. We should not demand that they communicate from a vantage point unavailable to them.