Just the other day I mentioned I’ve been reading John H. Walton’s Lost World of Adam and Eve. Anytime we wade into the murky depths of Genesis, especially chapters 1-11, we run the risk of subjecting ourselves to complete nonsense. At the same time, we should always be diligent about questioning our own assumptions about any biblical text, perhaps especially these early chapters. I found Walton’s thoughts to be both well-reasoned scholarship and sufficiently challenging. So pleased am I, in fact, that I’d like to share some of Walton’s major insights in a multi-part review.
Commence: The Lost World of Adam and Eve, pt. 1, in which we discuss the difficulties of reading the Bible.
If you are an Evangelical Christian who grew up in the church, as I did, then you’ve likely heard it said (many times) that the Bible was written for you personally.
All that sounds really good, and it makes for a good youth group talk, but it’s not quite that simple.
Among the great gains of the Reformation was the sudden blossom of the biblical text into contemporary languages. One no longer needed to read Greek or Hebrew or Latin to engage with Scripture directly.
Yet we often make the mistake that since we have the Bible in plain English (too plain, in some cases), it must be, in its entirety, easily understandable. If I approach the Bible as God’s love letter to me, I can easily forget that these texts were originally law and prophecies and writings for an ancient people long ago. What I interpret in black-and-white English may not be what came across to an ancient Israelite hearing the word in stereophonic Hebrew.
This is such an important reminder: We must read Scripture with a healthy skepticism of our own assumptions. Failure to do so is actually to place ourselves above the Bible.
This is Walton’s starting point. He affirms the Bible’s authority, especially for believers, but, he cautions,
Authority is tied to the message the author intends to communicate as an agent of God’s revelation. … If we read modern ideas into the text, we skirt the authority of the text and in effect compromise it, arrogating authority to ourselves and our ideas (19).
When approaching the origins texts at the beginning of Genesis, then, we have to understand that the author of Genesis was trying to communicate in language an ancient Israelite audience would have understood, using a framework they would have known intuitively.
One of the non-controversial examples Walton uses is the biblical notion that there existed below the earth large bodies of water, from whence wells and springs issued, as well as a vast body of water above the sky, since rain regularly fell from there. Today, we know that while there are indeed massive aquifers under the earth, there is not a vast sea in the sky. Yet the biblical writers did not know this, and God did not inspire those writers to blow every Israelites mind with such newfangled theories as the global water cycle. Rather, the Lord communicates in terms understood by the immediate audience. (Theologians, for those who care, call this condescension.)
So the Reformers were right, the Bible is approachable. Scripture is meant for all people in all times. But it is a little more awkward conversing with these ancient texts now than, say, two or three thousand years ago.
Anyway, all this is to say that Walton’s goal in writing this book is to try to take the narratives surrounding Adam and Eve—as well as any New Testament material addressing our first parents—on its own terms. He wants to try his best to understand how an ancient Israelite might have understood these stories. From there, Walton will place any insights alongside any contemporary scientific ideas to see if there exist any inherent disputes.
Join us next time, when we explore cultural obsessions, ancient and modern.