7 Reasons Dr. John Walton is wrong on Genesis 1

The main thesis Dr. John Walton presents when speaking on Genesis chapter one is that the six days of creation were not about material creation, they were about function.  Walton is a Hebrew scholar and looks to the ancient near eastern texts to help interpret the book of Genesis.  From these writings he believes the people in ancient times thought in terms of function rather than material origins.   Therefore, Walton presents Genesis chapters 1-11 as the origin of functional purposes such as the origin of food instead of material trees and plants.  This article is limited to discussing Genesis chapter 1. 

1.  NOT FUNCTIONAL ELSEWHERE.  In his Genesis commentary (The New NIV Application Commentary: Genesis) Walton says the function for the fourth day creation of the sun, moon and stars is to provide the function of a calendar.  But the function concept does not hold up in other OT passages.   For example, stars in other OT passages do not represent a “calendar” function; they are seen as material objects.

Genesis 26:4 “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed;
Nehemiah 4:21 So we carried on the work with half of them holding spears from dawn until the stars appeared.

Obviously the early Hebrew people saw the stars and understood them as material objects otherwise the concept of counting the stars would have no meaning.   If the stars are material in other parts of the OT why not include them as material in Genesis 1?  This is an inconsistency and does not allow for scripture to interpret scripture — a fundamental rule of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics).

2.  OT SPEAKS OFTEN OF THE MATERIAL WORLD.  A material world is seen very clearly throughout the OT.

Exodus 14:22 The sons of Israel went through the midst of the sea on the dry land, and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left
Numbers 29:6  besides the burnt offering of the new moon and its grain offering, and the continual burnt offering and its grain offering, and their drink offerings, according to their ordinance, for a soothing aroma, an offering by fire to the LORD . . .

In the above verses we see that the Hebrews understood sea, land, waters and moon as material objects.  In fact it would be disfunctional to not be able to relate to material things as material.  Since the Hebrews understood and appreciated the material world in other OT passages why not Genesis 1-11?  Walton says that he interprets the creation days to be functional so that he can make Genesis “harmonize with modern science”.  (The New NIV Application Commentary: Genesis, p. 81)  In doing so he is skewing the interpretation of Genesis 1 to mean functions instead of material creations.  That goes against another fundamental rule of biblical hermeneutics — we are not to insert our worldview or bias into the interpretation.

3.  SOME FUNCTIONS ARE STATED IN THE TEXT.

Genesis 1:14-15  Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years;
and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so.
Genesis 1:29-30  Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you;  and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to everything that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so.

These verses in Genesis 1 specifically state functions.  So when the author (through the inspiration of God) wants to tell us of a function he does so plainly by using the word “for” to indicate the function.  Therefore, it is logical the rest of Genesis 1 is describing material creation.  This point alone should raise very large red flags for any student of the Bible in regard to Walton’s interpretation of Genesis 1.

On page 84 of Walton’s NIV Commentary on Genesis he writes concerning the interpretation of Day One of creation, “What carries much more importance for the biblical author and in the ancient world in general is the affirmation that God created time.”   Walton is saying that Genesis 1:1-5 is not about God creating the material heavens, Earth and light but God created the function of time.  Then for Day Four Genesis 1:14-19  Walton says God did not create the material “lights in the expanse of the heavens”, including the sun and moon and stars, rather God created the function of a calendar.

I agree that the sun, moon and stars determine our calendar, but they also determine our time.  The 24-hour day is determined by the sun.  A sundial is a way to tell time.  I also agree that the “night and day” phrasing, found at the end of each day of creation, does concern time.  However, it is wrong to think that Day One is exclusively about the function of time since the Sun was not created till Day Four.

4.  FUNCTIONS & SYMBOLS ARE INTERPRETED.  Walton’s method of interpreting Genesis One as a series of functions is like interpreting the Days of Creation as a series of symbols.   Functions, like symbols are flexible allowing for biased interpretations  — a form of eisogesis.

In the following verses how do we know that the function for that day is as Walton says it is.

Genesis 1:3-5 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

For DAY 1
How do we know that the function is time as Walton tells us?  Maybe God is more concerned about light & darkness and day & night rather than time?  After all that is what the passage states.  Also, the people didn’t wear watches back then. To make light and darkness to mean the function of time is to impose our cultural interpretation on the passage.  And it is on DAY 4 that the sun, moon and stars are made and their function is stated in the textGenesis 1:14 “…let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years”   Even if we agree that DAY 1 includes a time element, clearly so does the sun on DAY 4.  

For DAY 2
Genesis 1:6-8  Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so.  God called the expanse heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

This passage speaks of an expanse and separation of waters and heaven.  There is no mention of rain, clouds, snow, hail or weather of any kind.  Yet Walton interprets this passage as having the function of weather.   Water is involved with weather but so is wind and temperature but there is no mention of these.  It would be a more plain and logical interpretation of the passage to say that the expanse is simply talking about material water and not the function of weather.

For DAY 3
Genesis 1:9-13  Then God said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear“; and it was so.   God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas; and God saw that it was good.   Then God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them”; and it was so.  The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good.  There was evening and there was morning, a third day. 

This passage says the waters and land appear, then vegetation, plants & trees.  Walton interprets the function for Day 3 to be the function of food.  Clearly the plants and trees bearing seed is for food as stated in Genesis 1:29  Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for youSo the Bible states the food function but there is more going on in DAY 3 than just food.  There is the land and the formation of seas.  In addition, what about the vegetation?  What about the plants and trees that are not for food?  So again to say that DAY 3 is just for describing the function of food is to short change the passage and I contend it is an absolute wrong interpretation of the passage.

5.  PROPER BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION IS READING WHAT IS THERE.   It is wrong to impose our own agenda on the Bible.   There are statements in Walton’s Genesis commentary that his intention was to “harmonize science and Scripture”.  P. 80   Recorded in 2005 in the Q&A session at Blackhawk Church in Madison, Wisconsin, Dr. Walton said that his wife (who is a biochemist) and colleagues influenced him to accept an Old Earth view.  I too have bias and I am committed to a young Earth view but I am not changing the scriptures to fit my view as I believe Walton is doing.  Doing so is called eisegesis, which means to twist or reinterpret a passage, chapter or book of the Bible to fit one’s own bias or worldview.   Dr. Walton is reinterpreting the passages referring to material items to become functional items because it makes Genesis harmonize with the evolution worldview.

6.  THE BIBLE INTERPRETS THE BIBLE.  Walton’s interpretation of Genesis One is founded on references from the ancient near-eastern literature.  Though understanding the culture is important it is not as important as the Biblical text itself.  Nor is it as important as the context and what other Bible passages say.  I am not aware of any biblical or hermeneutical principle directing us to interpret historical text as functions, unless the function is stated in the text.  However, the opposite is true — for proper hermeneutical interpretation: the text is to be understood plainly unless there is context or type-of-literature issues leading us away from a plain interpretation.  That is a core principle of proper Biblical interpretation.   In the book Understand, by Walter A. Henrichsen, he writes, “The literal interpretation in context, therefore, is the only true interpretation.  If you don’t take a passage literally all sorts of fanciful interpretations may result.”p.54  In the book Scripture Twisting, by James W. Sire writes, “Esoteric interpretation assumes that the Bible does not mean what it says on the surface.”  The author sites Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science as an example of the danger of using the esoteric method of interpretation.

7.  LACKING HEBREW SCHOLAR SUPPORT.   I have not found any well-known largely published Hebrew scholars supporting Walton’s view.  There are well-known Christians supporting the function view of Genesis 1-11 but I haven’t found any well-known Hebrew scholars.  If the theory offers sound theology Hebrew scholars should be lining up to support it.  He does have Bruce Waltke, professor of Old Testament from Reformed Theological Seminary saying, the functions view “merits reflection” which is OK but not a ringing endorsement.  Walton has been speaking on this new view of Genesis for at least 10 years and he describes his view in the popular NIV commentary series on Genesis so it is not like the Hebrew scholars have not heard of it.   If you know of some well-known Hebrew scholars supporting Walton’s Genesis 1-11 view, let me know.   Two negative reviews you should read:  http://tinyurl.com/o3zn3g5 and http://tinyurl.com/kn3pabw

In summary

I believe Walton’s view on Genesis 1 is wrong.  The plain reading of the passage is clear and makes sense.  There is no need to impose an outside interpretation unless you are trying to make it fit the old Earth view.  If God wanted the passage to be interpreted in functional terms He certainly knew how to speak of functions, which were specifically mentioned in the verses noted in #3.  When symbolism is brought ad hoc into the interpretation of the text it does indeed solve all problems because symbols can be interpreted to mean any number of things.  If the text is turned into symbolic language, it is an open door for the symbols to be interpreted by an enlightened leader – this is very dangerous.  In contrast, the Bible tells us that all Christians are to study and interpret the Bible.  Acts 17:11 Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.  Walton calls on the near-eastern texts to help him interpret Genesis 1.  Though outside texts can bring insights it should not be used to overturn the plain interpretation.  

The concept of, “the Bible is not written to us but it is written for us” in this case is being used to manipulate the scriptures to fit an old Earth view.  This phrase, “the Bible is not written to us but it is written for us”, can make us feel that since we can’t understand Hebrew and are not intimately familiar with the ancient near eastern texts, we shouldn’t interpret Genesis for ourselves.  On the contrary, the Bible transcends language, time and culture.  The Bible was not just written by men, it was written with the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Clearly prophecies written in the OT about Christ or future events were not fully understood by the human authors.   For example, in Psalm 22 is a powerful set of prophecies about the death of Christ.  David and the Holy Spirit may have intended different messages, but they are both true.   Prophecy often is dual in nature.  But the Bible is timeless with its messages applying to people of all ages.  The Bible was written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit who is beyond time and culture.  I do agree that the Bible is to be interpreted in light of its original language, culture, type of literature  and other factors.  But let us not forget that God too is the author and He transcends time and culture.  Therefore we are encouraged to study the Bible for ourselves, we no longer need a priest or intermediary.

There is nothing too technical in Genesis 1 for the original recipients to understand.  Days, sun and moon, trees, animals and plants; they all show that God was creator in a fashion that showed His great power, might and creative genius.  Romans 1:20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. On the contrary, if God created over billions of years it makes Him look like a misfit; starting the creation, then stopping and then starting and stopping again.  Then there are all those extinctions  — why would God do that over billions of years?  God would have been extremely inefficient to use evolution to create.  The new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens to name a few), in their books, love to use the old Earth concepts of God to reveal Him as weak, inept, inefficient, capricious and much worse.  Why would God use evolution to create when it would only show Him as inept instead of all powerful?

Walton has a very attractive story about a house and a home.  I like the home idea but Genesis 1 is not talking about a house or a home or Gods temple, it is talking about creation.  The OT has numerous references to blessing of descendants will be like the stars in number.  If Genesis 1 is only about function, where is the explanation for the origin of the sun, moon and stars?  The majesty of God’s creation is throughout the scriptures.  It would be silly to make Genesis 1 about function in light of verses like:  Psalm 8:3 When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;  These are considered as material objects to the author and recipients, not functions.

Rick Lanser MDiv, wrote, “By contending God does not address the initial creation of the material universe in Genesis 1, however, Walton runs into a major problem posed by Hebrews 11:3: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (NIV). The straightforward meaning of this verse is that God created all that is seen from what is not visible; for all intents and purposes, from nothing. If this concept was not derived from Genesis 1:1, from whence did the writer of Hebrews get it? Walton insists that God has chosen to be silent on this important matter. But the writer of Hebrews tells us that “by faith,” we understand that God “commanded” the visible universe to come into existence from no visible precursors. For us to know that God had issued such a command and to place faith in it, that command must have been recorded somewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. Where? Genesis 1 is the obvious choice.”  http://tinyurl.com/o3zn3g5  

All the quoted biblical passages (accept the last one) are from the NASB.

Jim  Bendewald