Walton – Proposition 8

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.

Walton’s 8th proposition is that “the cosmos is a temple.”

He shows that there is a close tie between creation and temple building across the ancient Near East.  Furthermore, he argues that in many cases the ancients identified the temple with the cosmos.  An Egyptian temples, for instance, the ceiling stood for the sky, the floors stood for the earth, and the columns and wall decorations represented trees and plant life.

Walton does not argue that the Hebrews directly used the writings of the Babylonians or Egyptians or that they derived their temple design in all respects from other religions.  Rather, he thinks that Israel shared the world-view of the ancient Near East.  They thought more like Egyptians, Sumerians, and Babylonians than like us.

It should not surprise us, then, that the biblical descriptions of sanctuaries make sense in light of the cosmology of the ancients.

The imagery of the Hebrew temple causes Walton to think of the temple as a “mini cosmos”.  This is true vertically in the sea on the back of twelve bulls (1 Kings 7:23-26) and the bronze pillars (1 Kings 7:15-22), which he speculates represented the pillars of the earth.  But the horizontal arrangement of the temple is even more suggestive.  The courtyards represent an approach to God from less organized and functional to more organized and functional.  The lamp and the “bread of presence” in the antechamber stand for the functions of giving light and food that we remember from Genesis 1.  Then there is the veil separating God in heaven from the place of human dwelling.

He moves on to Genesis 2 to claim that the Garden of Eden also represents an archetypical temple.

He quotes this passage from Isaiah 66:1-2:

This is what the Lord says:

“The heavens are my throne

and the earth is my footstool.

Where then is the house you will build for me?

Where is the place where I will rest?

My hand made them;

that is how they came to be,” says the Lord.

This passage shows the bond between the temple and the 7th day rest.  It also shows the bond between creation and the temple.  Solomon’s dedication prayer for his temple expresses the reality that heaven cannot contain God, much less the temple (1 Kings 8:27).  Repeatedly the Bible tells us that the cosmos is full of God’s glory.  Yet it pictures that glory coming to dwell in a sanctuary (Exodus 40:34).

Walton gives the following points to show the progression of his argument:

1.  In the Bible and the ancient Near East the temple is viewed as a microcosm.

2.  The temple is designed with the imagery of the cosmos.

3.  The temple is related to the functions of the cosmos.

4. The creation of the temple is parallel to the creation of the cosmos.

5. In the Bible the cosmos can be viewed as a temple (p. 84).


The gospels, with their report of the veil in the temple being torn in two, certainly pick up on the notion that the temple represents heaven and earth.  Also the book of Hebrews is full of this kind of thing.  So I think most Christian Bible readers would be familiar with the idea that the temple was the moral and spiritual world in microcosm.  But they might be surprised at the notion that the temple is a mini cosmos in Walton’s functional sense.

I love Walton’s approach in that it gives an alternative to what seems a very shallow and forced view of Genesis 1in literalists–both atheists and fundamentalists.  I found this short video of him explaining his view:

But here is a question I have.  Walton takes the position that there is a world-view or cosmology that characterizes ancient Near Eastern thought.  He does not distinguish a somewhat different approach that may have existed in the desert.  There may have been a different way of thinking among desert tribesmen such as Edomites, Midianites and the original Israelites.  I am thinking of the standing stones or masseboths found in the Negev and eastern deserts.  If these represent a desert religion that banned the representation of God in human or animal form and involved worship in the out-of-doors, then there might be more pluralism in the background of Hebrew thought than Walton allows.

Walton wants to bring in Genesis 2 and see the Garden of Eden in temple terms.  This, to me, is the least convincing part of his argument.  I would tend to see Genesis 2 stemming from a somewhat different cosmology than Genesis 1.  It is true that Ezekiel probably used the Garden of Eden idea when he envisioned a future temple.  Ezekiel was a priestly writer, but I am not convinced that the author of Genesis 2 had priestly or temple-related concerns.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
This entry was posted in Ancient Israel, Bible, Genesis, Isaiah and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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