John Walton’s The Lost World Of Genesis One and LDS cosmology
While I am no expert in biblical scholarship or analysis, I find discussions over biblical intent and historiography to be fairly fascinating and so follow some of the latest developments. I just stumbled upon a pretty incredible series on Beliefnet about the latest book by Old Testament scholar and Wheaton college professor John Walton entitled The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. I’ve not yet gotten to read the book, but I plan on ordering it soon and am going to be making some comments based on what I’ve discerned from the many reviews of the book as well as the Beliefnet series. Walton is a non-lds scholar and this work is primarily addressed at the evangelical community as shown by the lengthy discussion of the relevance of his conclusions in regard to Young Earth Creationism and Biblical Literalists. Frankly, the last half of the book seems a bit more concerned with debate within protestant circles, but the scholarly research in the first half on ancient near eastern cosmology seems to be something that is in incredible concordance with the Latter Day Saint traditional view of creation.
Walton begins by writing about how Genesis one can only be understood as an ancient cosmology rather than an account of the physical world as we might discern it by today’s science. This perspective seems even more useful to a Latter Day Saint, as we have some other wise curious and difficult to place passages of cosmology in the Pearl of Great Price. Walton m akes some insightful comments here that we should keep in mind as Latter Day Saint scholars “In other words, God gave his revelation in a way that would be understood by his audience. To ignore this fact would be “cultural imperialism” (pg 21).” (One blog post from the Bloggernacle that I found recently very compelling on the topic of cosmology and LDS symbolism– “The Great One is Kolob, Because It is Near unto Me”)
Walton then moves on to a topic of much concern to LDS scholars. He spends the rest several Chapters analyzing the creation account of Genesis One. His conclusion is that the account is not “material oriented” but instead “function oriented.” By stating this, Walton affirms the LDS view that the account in Genesis is one of cosmic organization rather than creation. Walton “propose[s] that people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by vertue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system…in relation to society and culture” (pg 26, italics his). Walton focuses on how the Hebrew word Bara refers to function rather than structural creation and argues that Genesis one parallels other Ancient Near East texts by showing a move from nonfunctional to functional. The Hebrew Phrases Tohu and Bohu, he argues never relate to material form and always to a lack of function. Walton argues that the notion of Creation Ex Nihilo is imposed on the bible from a materialistic ontology that is foreign to it.
Its amazing how closely this scholarship parallels the cosmology expressed by Joseph Smith in the last years of his life and in the King Follet sermon in particular. Joseph also focused on the meaning of the word bara and talked about how ““God had materials to organize the world out of chaos … [which] may be organized and reorganized but not destroyed.” Indeed, this modern scholarship almost eerily seems to mirror restoration ideas that would have been completely foreign to Joseph Smith in the 19th century environment.
Walton next goes to show how days one through three in the Genesis account establish function, while the next three days Install functionaries. Thus, in Walton’s understanding the first-fourth, second-fifth and third-six days are paired. On the first day, time is given structure through the delineation of light and dark, while on the fourth day the sun and moon are established as functionaries to rule over these forces and mark the passage of time. On the second day, sea and water are divided for their varied functions establishing weather, while the fifth day concerns the establishment of functionaries in the waters and sky. The third day involves the growth of food and vegetation while the sixth day places living creatures and especially human beings as functionaries in this regard. It seems to me that this functional divide is completely consistent with the LDS point of view and it seems like a quite elegant way to understand creation.
The next part of Walton’s book seems even more relevant to Latter Day Saints. Walton offers a very meaningful analysis of the Sabbath day as a day on which God is established as functionary of the Universe. Thus, he speaks about the cosmos as the “temple” of God and views the notion of God’s ‘rest’ in a profoundly unique way “Rest is what happens when a crisis has been resolved or stability achieved.” Thus, the Sabbath day is primarily concerned with the final sanctification and purification of the Universe. On the other days, the universe has been brought from chaos into form and on this day God is installed in a ruling position. Walton speaks about parallels with Near Eastern temple rituals, which usually occurred over a seven day period with the seventh day being a focus of Holy Activity. Thus, Walton advances the notion that temples were anciently created as Microcosms of the cosmos.
I was reminded of Hugh W. Nibley’s work on the Meaning of the Temple. Indeed, it seems that this view corresponds very nicely with the Latter Day Saint iteration of a temple as a place of theopony and cosmic encounter with deity. It is rewarding to see yet another mainstream protestant scholar offer views strikingly in parallel with scholarship and work that has been done by Latter Day Saint scholars for decades.
I recommend this work heartily because it is likely to be a vastly influential work on academic protestant circles and something that should hopefully help to show some of the inherent strengths in our elegant cosmology that seems rooted so deeply in Ancient Near Eastern thought. I am so thankful for a restoration which has brought all of these ideas to beautiful and rewarding light.