Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology

Thanks to Father Christmas I now have John H Walton’s academic treatment  of Genesis in the context of ANE literature, which I find, as others have already said, to provide a much more solid case for a functional view of the Genesis creation story than his more approachable Lost World of Genesis One. But like the latter book, it should not be misunderstood as making the case for a non-literal interpretation of Genesis, but for a literal, though non-materialistic, account of creation.

In other words, the world it’s talking about is the world in which we live, described neither allegorically nor “poetically”. But the material construction of that cosmos, and the efficient causation within it, are simply ignored as not especially important compared to its function. What material “science” there is assumes the ancient worldview and commonsense observation, but it’s as irrelevant to the message of the account as pre-Copernican astronomy is to the message of the Psalms.

“Function” acquires some specific features in the detailed treatment in Walton’s book. Without nuancing the range of ideas across the ANE as Walton’s scholarly treatment does, one can say that the ancient world saw two principal components to creation. The first of these is what the Sumerians called “ME”, the principles on which the Universe operates. The pagan gods were a product of the cosmos, which emerged from the “darkness and functionlessness” of the primaeval state. So they were subject to, rather than being the creators of, these universal priciples, though they were responsible for administering them. However, we should not fall into a modern materialistic trap of equating these “ME” with scientific laws, for they don’t really correspond. What is key is that they relate to what the ancient world considered the three core components of the ordered, created cosmos: time and seasons, weather and fecundity.

The gods were responsible as functionaries of these principles, being allocated or competing for particular roles, or themselves creating other functionaries: for example, in many systems mankind was created to keep the gods fed and watered so they could get on with the important jobs. Their administration of the “ME” consisted largely of establishing destinies for each part of the Universe – part of a god’s prestige lay in the unchangeableness of the destinies he proclaimed. Once more, we should not confuse these with the kind of reliability seen in scientific laws, for their dependability was teleological rather than efficient – it was the ends the gods decreed, not so much the processes.

Genesis both reflects these ANE concepts and cuts across them. The first three days describe Yahweh’s creation of the “ME”(not finding them as givens) : the principles of time (day and night), weather (the firmament and its relation to the waters) and fecundity (the land and its production of vegetation). In the next three days, Yahweh appoints functionaries (ie decrees destinies) for these functional domains: lights to mark times and seasons, birds and fish to be fruitful in the world of weather, animals and finally mankind to be similarly fruitful in turn through consuming, directly or indirectly, the vegetation on land.

Both “tables” of creation contain the profound and unique truths that God is outside the cosmos, creating its principles rather than inheriting them, and that he is not a powerful god, but “the great King above all gods”. Indeed, the second table somewhat pointedly refers to the creation of functionaries often considered gods in the ancient literature. Sun and moon are not named, for example, but are merely “lights”.

The second “USP” of the Genesis account is that though God is pre-eminent in all things, they are all done for the sake of mankind, who is created not as a slave of the gods, but as God’s image, representing and functioning on his behalf as a ruler in the world, more like the gods of ANE literature themselves.

This whole ANE-orientated understanding of Genesis has implications for the creation-evolution debate, of course. It goes without saying that Creationist material-literalism is not well-served by a clearer understanding of the context of the account. But as always my personal interest is more with the other end of the discussion, in the theistic evolution camp. The commonest treatment we see of Genesis in TE is to recognise “ancient science” in it, and either to deem it outmoded, or to put the account in the class of the literary or poetic, in which the accuracy of the “science” is irrelevant. Or sometimes both at the same time. But the net result is to turn Genesis 1 from an accurate scientific account to a vernacular lay account. In other words, Genesis tells us only that things were made by God: we turn to science to tell us how.

But actually Genesis tells a completely different story: it affirms very clearly and literally that God established times and seasonality, the balancing of weather patterns and the fertility of the earth all for mankind’s benefit: and that he appointed the purposes and destinies of everything around us, including us. That’s not unique to Genesis 1, either, but seems to prevail throughout our Bible. After the Flood, as I remember from my first school Harvest Festival speech when I was five:

While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest (fecundity), cold and heat (weather,) summer and winter, day and night (times and seasons) shall not cease.

Even in the New Testament, check out how closely the references to creation match the Genesis functional view I have described, and how little material “science” they bother about:

  • Rom 8.38-39 powers and functionaries.
  • Rom 13.1ff: appointment of authorities
  • Acts 14.15-17: seasons, weather, food
  • Acts 17.24: people and destinies.
  • Col 1.16: heaven and earth, visible invisible, powers.

What this means is that, far from science showing up, and sidelining, the usefulness of Genesis 1 as an account of creation, Genesis rather sidelines science as having anything very important to say about what concerns the Bible writers most. Rather than science posing problems for Genesis, Genesis poses problems for science, in that the latter leaves all the biblically significant questions unanswered and unanswerable. That’s not to say that the Bible renders science an irrelevant or mistaken pursuit, but it does make”science and faith” about as central a theological subject as “bicycle mechanics and faith.”

For Genesis places man as the main end of creation: the beneficient control of time, weather and fertility are issues of concern to us rather than to God or to “nature” (a term meaningless in the Genesis worldview anyway). We relate to them as rulers of creation, adminstering it and subduing it on God’s behalf. And “destinies” – purposes and ends – concern us and our relationship to God very much, but the natural world hardly at all. Neither “table” of the creation is actually accessible to science, the former because science, methodologically, will not accept that God controls natural phenomena, and the latter because science doesn’t “do” teleology, which is what the whole Israelite (and ANE) concept of creation is about.

This “downgrading” of science from being a central biblical issue is not actually to denigrate it. The material business of creation may not be of great concern in Scripture, but it is still a daily issue for us, and it is still a noble pursuit to think God’s thoughts after him: he did, after all, make the efficient causes as well. It’s just that we get less support for the pursuit of science from the Bible than has been traditionally thought. How to do science “Christianly” must be deduced from first principles, as it is for most pursuits. After all the Bible gives little direct guidance on medicine, jazz music or bicycle mechanics, but they are all God-given and have their own “table of destinies” by which they are to be done for the glory of God.

An alternative response one might take is to follow the Peter Enns school of biblical theology a few steps further. It’s true, one might argue, that Genesis teaches a thoroughly functional, teleological and anthropocentric view of God’s creation. But, as Walton has shown, it shares those viewpoints with the other “primitive” cultures of the ANE. Who is to say, in the light of our modern scientific knowledge, that the whole question of teleology and function in the Universe, and our central place in it, isn’t just a result of Israel’s cultural conditioning? The core truth is that Israel’s God produced the world rather than Enlil – if one can live with such a parochial cultural view. One could even say that the idea of a single God outside creation is a truth from God … at least until an ANE text turns up that shows somebody else thought of it too. I hope the stream doesn’t go down that increasingly slippery slope, though given the state of US evangelicalism it wouldn’t surprise me.

No, the real lesson is neither to dismiss science as a valid entity, nor to dilute the Genesis account, but to concentrate our theological contemplation of creation, whether we’re scientists or not, on the very positive, and not necessarily intuitive, things that it teaches us about the world, God and our relationship to both. That, after all, is why it was written.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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