Genesis 1: God Creates with Purpose

When I was in college, I listened to a lot of Christian talk radio and sermons on tape.  What I heard bolstered up my Christian world view which was a particular help in my philosophy classes.  I remember hearing one theologian (I think it was R. C. Sproul) state that Genesis 1-3 was one of the most difficult passages in scripture to interpret.  I thought that was crazy!  As a literalist, the Biblical account was clear to me.  God created the world some thousands of years ago in six literal 24 hour days.  There were two accounts of the creation: Genesis 1:1-2:3 focused on creation as a whole, and 2:4-25 told the story again, paying special attention to the creation of Adam and his wife.  A serpentine creature possessed by Devil destroyed the pristine Garden of Eden by tempting the woman to disobey God’s command not to eat of a special tree.  She convinced Adam to do the same, so sin and death came into the world.  God divvied out judgment to man, woman, and serpent, and cast the first human couple from the garden paradise.  What’s hard to understand about that?

These days, I’ve recognized what that speaker meant.  I’ve considered some different perspectives on the Bible’s creation account, and would like to share some of the most influential works that have moved me into a new direction.  Each of the authors has a high respect for the scripture and recognizes the authority of the text.  However, as experts in their field, they are sensitive to interpretive issues that the average person would not catch.

John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

When anyone reads the Bible, he or she naturally and automatically interprets it based on their own culture and experiences.  For example, since I am an American, any reference to stars and stripes makes me think of the American flag and what it represents: fifty stars which represent states, thirteen stripes which represent the original colonies.  Feelings such as patriotism might also arise.  Since I have lived in America all of my life, I recognize such symbols immediately and effortlessly.  The point is, all people recognize the symbols from their own culture.  So, we also recognize that the writer of Genesis 1 was, at the very least, familiar with ancient Mesopotamian symbols and used them when he wrote the creation account.  Walton argues that we must read Genesis 1 as the ancient Mesopotamian would.  As he puts it, Genesis 1 is scripture, so it was written for us; but it was not written to us.  It was written to an audience already familiar with these symbols.   That means that it takes more work for us to unearth these symbols to correctly interpret the writing.  We go too far when we expect that the writer was using symbols relevant only to us–a modern audience.

Walton uses small chapters to take us step-by-step to a better reading of Genesis 1.  He promotes the view that the Biblical creation account is about transforming chaos (Genesis 1:2) into order.  He posits that the word for “create” in Hebrew has to do with making something purposeful, and thus God ordered the chaos that existed to give the world a specific function–bringing glory to himself.  He made it into something that could serve him and put images of himself–mankind–into positions of authority over it.  Walton also shows how Genesis 1 portrays all the created cosmos as a temple directing worship to its creator.  This strikes me for two reasons.  First, it shows further relevance to the ancient audience, who would appreciate the importance of the actual temple in Jerusalem.  Second, it gives more reason for people to find reason for praising God through creation (Ps. 19:1).

As for the seven days themselves in Genesis 1, they have nothing to do with how God actually created the universe and instead represent the seven-day inauguration of the world as a cosmic temple (1 Kings 8:65; 2 Chron. 7:9).  God is certainly behind the creation of all things, but Genesis 1 is really about establishing a worldview for the Hebrew people at the time of writing.  They were steeped in other ancient creation accounts and world views.  These neighboring stories taught the people that they were a mere byproduct of divine conflicts between deities.  The Hebrew account told a different story.  God took the chaos that existed before (Genesis 1:2), carefully ordered it, and gave it all purpose and meaning.  Mankind is not a side effect of warlike events, but God took great care to hand craft governors in his own image to rule on earth as he does from heaven.

So we are to read Genesis 1 as a theologically instructive account of creation that has nothing to do with how God created the universe.  Walton doesn’t stop there, but also gives his thoughts about the teaching of evolution in the classroom.  Genesis 1 ought not be taught as science in the public school system since it was never intended as a scientific document.  On the other hand, evolution should never be taught as a world view in the public school system.  Just because a person believes that evolution is true, it does not mean that person is a naturalist, thinking that there is no meaning or purpose in the universe.  Though Genesis 1 does not reveal the science of how God created the universe, it does reveal that he created it with meaning and purpose.

Why all the trouble?  Why not just read Genesis 1 literally?  Walton insists that he is reading it literally:

“I believe that this is a literal reading.  A literal reading requires an understanding of the Hebrew language and the Israelite culture.  I believe that the reading that I have offered is the most literal reading possible at this point.  Someone who claims a ‘literal’ reading based on their thinking about the English word ‘create’ may not be reading the text literally at all, because the English word is of little significance in the discussion” (170).

I really appreciate his approach!  What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Genesis 1: God Creates with Purpose

  1. I finished this book about a month ago. I really enjoyed his approach. I really enjoyed his views on science and the gospel and how science had no business teaching about purpose while theology had no business teaching about science. I am always apprehensive about any pro-evolutionary book….the problem being that evolution often times starts a slippery slope toward nihilistic philosophy….but this one left me feeling less antsy. I do like that humans are not included in this evolutionary tract….that God did not create the world from nothing in Genesis 1 (even though he had created it from nothing at some point) bu he did create humans in his image during that time….which to me leaves humans out of the evolutionary process….which is fine by me

  2. Yeah, Walton rocks! He’s helped me a lot.

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