John Walton, Ph.D., a Hebrew scholar and professor of the Old Testament, studies ancient and Near Eastern texts to help interpret Genesis, the first book of the Bible. When speaking on Genesis 1, Dr. Walton presents his thesis that the six days of Creation are not about material Creation. They are about function. From the ancient writings he studies, he concludes that people in those 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 discussing Genesis 1 presents seven reasons and biblical foundations to challenge Dr. Walton’s thesis.
- CREATION IS NOT VIEWED AS FUNCTIONAL ELSEWHERE IN SCRIPTURE.
In his Genesis commentary, The New NIV Application Commentary: Genesis, Walton says when God created the sun, moon, and stars on day four, it was to provide the function of a calendar. But the function concept does not hold up in other Old Testament (OT) passages. For example, stars in other OT passages are seen as material objects and do not represent a “calendar” function.
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 inconsistency does not allow Scripture to interpret Scripture — a fundamental rule of biblical interpretation known as hermeneutics.
- THE OLD TESTAMENT OFTEN SPEAKS 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. 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 dysfunctional not to 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 to 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.
- 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 God’s inspiration, wants to tell us of a function, he does so plainly by using the word “for” or “to” in order to indicate the function. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that the rest of Genesis 1 describes material creation. This point alone should raise red flags for any student of the Bible regarding Walton’s interpretation of Genesis 1.
On page 84 of Walton’s commentary on Genesis, he writes concerning the interpretation of Creation day one, “What carries much more importance for the biblical author and in the ancient world, in general, is the affirmation that God created time.” Walton says that Genesis 1:3-5 is not about God creating the material heavens, Earth, and light but the function of time. On page 122, Walton summarizes, “Thus far we have argued that Genesis 1 is not the record of the creation of physical matter but a divine organization and organization and assignment of functions to the cosmos.” On the following page, Walton says the moon and stars helped to calculate the solar year and “to synchronize the lunar calendar with the solar 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 Creation day, concerns time. However, it is wrong to think that Creation day one is exclusively about the function of time since the Sun was not created until day four.
- FUNCTIONS AND SYMBOLS ARE INTERPRETED.
Walton’s method of interpreting Genesis 1 as a series of functions is like interpreting the Creation days as a series of symbols. Functions, like symbols, are flexible, allowing for biased interpretations — a form of eisegesis.
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 Creation Day One:
How do we know that the function is time, as Walton tells us? Maybe God is more concerned about light and darkness, day and night, rather than time. After all, that is what the passage states. Also, people didn’t wear watches back then. To make light and darkness mean the function of time is to impose our cultural interpretation on the passage. And it is on Creation day four that the sun, moon, and stars are made, and their function is stated in the text:
Genesis 1:14 “ … let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years.”
Even if we agree that Creation day one includes a time element, so does the sun on day four.
For Creation Day Two:
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 the weather, but so are wind and temperature, and 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 Creation Day Three:
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. And 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 according to their kind with seed in them’; and it was so. The earth brought produced vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, according to their kind; and God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.”
This passage says the waters and land appear, followed by vegetation, plants, and trees. Walton interprets the function of Creation day three to be the function of food. Clearly, the plants and trees bearing seed are 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 you;”
So the Bible states the food function, but there is more happening on Creation day three 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 Creation day three is just for describing the function of food is to shortchange the passage, and I contend it is an absolutely wrong interpretation.
- 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 (p. 80) that he intended to “harmonize science and Scripture.” During a question and answer session at Blackhawk Church in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2005, Walton was recorded saying that his wife, a biochemist, influenced him about science issues. I, too, have bias and 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 Bible passage, chapter, or book 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.
- THE BIBLE INTERPRETS THE BIBLE.
Walton’s interpretation of Genesis 1 is founded on references from ancient Near Eastern literature. Understanding the culture is important, but not as important as understanding the Biblical text. Nor is it as important as the context and what other Bible passages say. I am unaware 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 plainly understood 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 his book Understand, Walter A. Henrichsen 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, he writes, “Esoteric interpretation assumes that the Bible does not mean what it says on the surface.” The author cites Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, as an example of the danger of using the esoteric method of interpretation.
- FUNCTION VS. MATERIAL THEORY LACKS HEBREW SCHOLAR SUPPORT.
Though there are well-known Christians who support Walton’s view, I have not found any renowned, largely published Hebrew scholars who agree with the function view of Genesis 1-11. If the theory offers sound theology, Hebrew scholars should be lining up to support it. He does have Bruce Waltke, Ph.D. professor of Old Testament from Reformed Theological Seminary, saying the functions view “merits reflection,” which is okay but not a ringing endorsement. Walton has been speaking on this new view of Genesis for at least 10 years, and he describes his perspective in the popular NIV commentary series on Genesis, so it is not like the Hebrew scholars have not heard of it. Let me know if you know of some respected Hebrew scholars who support Walton’s Genesis 1-11 view, let me know. Dubious and Dangerous Exposition is an article posted on creation.com that refutes the claims of Dr. John Walton. You can read the article by following this link: http://tinyurl.com/kn3pabw
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, specifically mentioned in the verses noted in point number 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. Outside texts can bring insights, but they should never substitute 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 only partially understood by 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; all show that God was the 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 the course of billions of years, He looks like a misfit. Starting the creation, then stopping, and then starting and stopping again. Then there are all those extinctions to consider. 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, and Christopher Hitchens, to name a few) love to use the old Earth concepts of God to reveal Him as weak, inept, inefficient, capricious, and much worse. David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale University, wrote, “If there was an intelligent designer, what was his strategy? How did he manage to back himself into so many corners, wasting energy on so many doomed organisms? What was his purpose? And why did he do such a slipshod job? Why are we so disease prone, heartbreak prone, and so on?”
Indeed, 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 about a house, home, or God’s temple; it is about Creation. The OT has numerous references to the blessing of descendants being 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 material objects to the author and recipients, not functions.
Rick Lanser M.Div., 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