A funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. All of us in the West tumbled into the so-called Enlightenment along the way. Beginning sometime in the early 1600’s, with effects ranging into the present, we collectively became utterly obsessed with the observable universe. On the pro side of the revolution: Science! Among the cons is the now unconscious belief among Western civilization that if we can neither taste, touch, smell, hear nor see it, it must not exist.
Empiricism is the ultimate epistemology. Everything else is immaterial.
But—Surprise!—this has not always been the case across the globe. In fact, this has not been the prevailing worldview in most cultures throughout most of history. As far as world history is concerned, we empiricists are the oddballs.
This is one of John H. Walton’s initial—and extremely valuable—points in reference to the way we approach the origins texts in Genesis. The ancient Hebrews were a pre-modern culture, who wrote pre-modern (not primitive) literature, and we need to check our materialist mindset at the door of Scripture.
As it applies to Genesis 1-3, our primary concern in the modern world is over material origins. Since what matters to us is matter, our questions about origins surround how the matter got there. Where did the observable universe come from? How did the earth, as a substance, come to be? And when, exactly, did all this happen?
What The Lost World of Adam and Eve (see pt. 1 of the review) tries to hammer home in the first several chapters (itself a summary and extension of Walton’s earlier book, The Lost World of Genesis One) is the fact that the ancient Israelites did not view the world in the same ways that we do. As a result, neither the writers of the biblical texts and the original audiences for whom they were intended were asking the kinds of questions we ask about origins.
This is a grave error, and Walton is blunt about it: “We cannot start by asking of the Bible our scientific questions. The Bible is not revealing science, and the biblical authors would be neither aware of nor concerned with our scientific way of thinking” (25). When we ask of Genesis 1-2 the age of the earth or the material from which we came or the manner in which matter came to be, we are asking the biblical authors questions they are not interested in answering.
No, the Bible has bigger questions to explore.
Walton’s contention, which he backs up with evidence from several other cultures from the ancient near east, is that ancient peoples, the Israelites included, are interested in how things got their God-given function in the world, rather than in how things physically came to be.
For example, the language “formless and void” many of us are accustomed to in Genesis 1:2 is not a description of a shapeless or material-less world. Instead, it is a statement about a purposeless or un-ordered world:
The starting condition in Genesis 1:2, the pre-creation situation that describes nonexistence, is a condition that is not lacking material. Rather, it is a situation that is lacking order and purpose. … For Israel, creation resolves the absence of order and not the absence of material. If this “before” picture conveys “nonexistence,” we would deduce that “existence” is not a material category pertaining to an ordered condition (28).
In other words, an ancient mind perceives a thing to exist if and when it has purpose and function. If a thing is without purpose or without meaningful function, it is waste and ceases to exist in any meaningful way.
Purpose and function. That is what the ancient Israelites regarded as of ultimate importance. Their questions regarding the origins of their world centered around the question, “Why are we here?” This is a question far more powerful than asking where our matter came from (fascinating as that may be). Much more significant to ask, given the fact we are here, what our God-ordained purpose—individually and, more importantly, collectively—might be.
Just what that purpose is, we’ll explore tomorrow.