The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate
Heiser, Michael S., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. By John H. Walton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009, 192 pp., $16.00.
John Walton is well known in the evangelical academic community, having written or edited a number of valuable books. His commitment to serious scholarship is unquestioned, and he has earned the trust of the evangelical community. His résumé is an important backdrop to The Lost World of Genesis One, since its content is bound to disturb some readers.
Walton's thesis is straightforward: since our modern scientific culture is just that - modern - our cultural context would have been utterly foreign and incomprehensible to the biblical writers. For Walton, any attempt to embed modern science into Genesis 1, whether by traditional, literalist creation science, or other approaches by Christian scientists involving evolution or modern Big Bang cosmology, amounts to imposing a foreign culture onto the text.
Walton unfolds this general thesis by offering eighteen propositions, each of which forms a chapter. Over the course of these propositions, he carefully lays out comparative ancient Near Eastern data that mirrors and informs Genesis 1 as a compelling example of ancient cosmology, albeit with a unique theological purpose. Those steeped in Semitics and ancient Near Eastern studies would not find much that is new here, except perhaps for Walton's contentions that Hebrew bara' speaks of "functional ordering" rather than creation and that the cosmos needs to be viewed as God's temple, which becomes a guiding rubric for what God does throughout Genesis 1.
Walton's book is aimed at the non-specialist. Consequently, the bulk of the linguistic and literary evidence for Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology is appropriately withheld. What is included adequately informs the reader that Genesis 1 is quite consistent with the ancient cosmologies known from surrounding cultures.
The first proposition ("Genesis 1 is Ancient Cosmology") is arguably the most crucial. Walton knows full well that many of his readers will object to his thesis, perhaps especially those who equate biblical inspiration, authority, and inerrancy with the question of whether Genesis 1 is scientifically coherent in its literal exposition. He patiently and clearly explains why this is ill advised and perhaps even impugns God's decision to dispense revelation when he did at the time in which he did. The danger lies not in making Genesis palatable to modern science, but in changing the intended meaning of the inspired text itself. Walton writes:
If we accept Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology, then we need to interpret it as ancient cosmology rather than translate it into modern cosmology. …