The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.
What it says
This proposition is “Divine Rest Is in a Temple.”
Walton gives us a whole different way of thinking about the seventh day of creation. In a material understanding of creation, where God has been manufacturing elements and erecting structures, the rest day would be because God is all tuckered out from this activity. That does not sound right for God who should be inexhaustible.
What does it mean for God to rest? Walton refers us to Psalm 132 where vs. 7-8 call the temple God’s resting place. Verses 13-14 add:
Certainly the Lord has chosen Zion;
he decided to make it his home.
He said, “This will be my resting place forever;
I will live here, for I have chosen it” (NET Bible).
Walton claims that in ancient Near Eastern thought talk about God or gods resting is temple talk. They built temples as resting places for gods. The idea was not that a god slept there or recuperated. Instead the idea was that by giving the god a resting place, normal or ordered time could begin. Rest meant cessation. After a war, rest meant peace. After a disaster and the clean-up and grieving, rest meant the resumption of normal life.
In a functional view of creation, rest can happen because everything has been set up to function normally. Stability has been achieved. God remains engaged, but now there is an established security that allows life in the fields, market places, and homes to proceed. Walton compares this to a president looking forward to taking up residence in the White House. In the language of the ancient Near East, the president would “rest” in the White House. This would not mean that he was on vacation or retired.
“The role of the temple in the ancient world is not primarily a place for people to gather and worship like modern churches. It is a place for deity–sacred space. It is his home, but more importantly his headquarters–control room. When the deity rests in his temple it means that he is taking command, that he is mounting to his throne to assume his rightful place and his proper role” (p. 75).
Walton cites Sumerian and Babylonian texts to show that they tie the rest of the gods in a temple to the rest of gods after creation. After organizing the cosmos, the gods find a “stopping place” in the temple.
So, for Walton, Genesis 1 is a temple text. He promises to draw out more implications of this in the rest of the book. For now, he says that it helps to understand the continuing nature of creation. It is not just that at some past time God created matter and set the world in motion. It is that once God established functions, he was able to begin the normal work of exercising dominion over his world and bringing its promise to fruition.
Well, taking Genesis 1 as a temple text certainly fits with the theory that priests wrote it. Lots of questions arise concerning the full-blown documentary hypothesis. But the theory gives valuable insight into the intentions of the first chapters of Genesis.
As to the purpose of the day of rest, Walton’s interpretation makes good sense. The rest of the Bible, except for John 1, does not really talk about creation in terms of “in the beginning.” Psalm 104 would be a good example of the regular biblical understanding that God is involved not just at the beginning. Every birth, every plant that springs up, every time the animals get to eat–all these events get referred to God. God is in the “control room”.
The whole argument about creationism stems from having a time-line with creation at the beginning. Creation is one event and the fall of the Roman empire is another that fit on the time-line. But is creation really that kind of event? Or is creation a precondition and a foundation for all the events you would put on a time-line? Or, could you think of creation as something that happens moment by moment every day?
In Walton’s scheme, it seems to me, Genesis 1 is about preconditions and foundations. It is not about an event that you could correlate to the big bang or the emergence of microscopic life forms. It is the set up for the kinds of events that can happen on a time line or get written about in a science or history book. Kantians and existentialists may talk about the ground of being.
The Bible, however, is probably not that philosophical. It is just about life. I am alive and surrounded by things that make life possible and beautiful. Should I be grateful and refer these things to God with worship and thanksgiving? Or should I refuse thanksgiving in the name of some kind of rational skepticism?