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A few reservations about “The Lost World of Adam and Eve”

lost world adam and eve

Today I finished John Walton’s book The Lost World of Adam and Eve (IVP, 2015). Earlier in the year I read his similarly-titled book The Lost World of Genesis One. Laying around my dorm room somewhere are The Lost World of Scripture and The Lost World of The Israelite Conquest. I haven’t bought it yet, but earlier this year he released with Tremper Longman a book under the title The Lost World of The Flood. 

You know, if it works, don’t fix it.

The basic method of these books (and I’m obviously only knowledgeable about the books I have read so far) is to reinterpret the Old Testament text according to its ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context. At the crux of all these particular reinterpretations we find a distinction Walton uses over and over again. Some things are created materially, others functionally. The image of God could be interpreted materially, but we should interpret it functionally. The serpent in the garden could be seen as materially forced to eat dirt, or to functionally eat dirt. The creation of gender could be interpreted as a biological, material reality, or in terms of the function that each plays in the original created relationship. Etc. etc. etc.

The mistake we moderns make is that we read Genesis 1-3 (and, I presume, the Israelite Conquest, and all (?) of Scripture, and the Flood) in material terms when the original authorial intent was to describe functions. Therefore, when we read that God “created the Sun, Moon and Stars to govern over the day and the night” on day four of creation, that means not that God formed their material, physical structures. Instead there was a point in time when God issued the authority to the Sun to govern over the day, and designated this as the purpose of the Sun. Ergo, the verse could be better rendered as God “created-to-govern the Sun, Moon and Stars over the day and the night.” What was created was not the Sun, but that it has the function of governing. Walton uses the same distinction in the exegesis of almost every verse in Genesis 1-3.

Walton supports this distinction in at least two ways. The first is by word studies across the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. I have no problem with this, and some of the word studies were fascinating. The other way is by finding similar motifs or thought-patterns in the literature of ANE societies. Suppose you could find that in Egyptian, Akkadian, Hittite, Neo-Assyrian, etc. religious texts, every single one has a serpent without legs. In some of these texts the serpent is standing up, but is made to crawl on its belly — despite not having legs in the first place. You could then deduce something along the lines of “in the ANE context, for a snake to crawl on its belly is for it to be reduced in its functional posture from striking to passivity” or something like that. Walton does nearly this in Chapter 14.

To be honest, I love this approach. This makes it so much easier for me to dismiss the text of Genesis!, says the side of my personality that reflexively bows to current criticisms out of fear of embarrassment. (Charles Taylor-y side note: when we frame our life stories as one going from ignorance to learnedness, as I realize I have done for most of my life, we condition ourselves to have this reflex). Everything in me wants to be able to stare science in the face and say “oh hey there science how are you doing.” So, I hope that my reservations about Walton’s method can be resolved.

The extra benefit of Walton’s approach is that he can see the theological significance in Genesis 1-3 just like those who interpret it as poetry, while still having a literal view that does not reduce the text’s historicity to mere myth or glyph. By unseeing the material dimension of the text, he can avoid conflict with modern science; by seeing the functional dimension of the text as real, actual history, he can side-step the problems that arise because Adam needs to be a historical figure. It really is the best of both worlds.

While I have found it extremely difficult to explain to people outside of college the difference between material and functional ontology (mostly high school students and some people at church), that is not my real complaint. At some point we can find good metaphors, and Walton introduced one in this book that was not present in Genesis One that I think would be helpful (family moving into a house and then setting up furniture). No, that would be a useless critique. My actual objection is somewhere in his use of ANE texts when interpreting the Old Testament.

For example, in his concluding summary of the book Walton writes that

A number of these elements in Genesis find similarities with ancient Near Eastern literature, while others are entirely unique in the ancient world. Proper interpretation will recognize both. We should note, however, that the Israelites often show marked dissimilarity from the surrounding cultures even when they share concepts with the ancient world. So, for example, even though the ancient Near Eastern literature considers the creation of humanity to involve a large group of humans, the underlying reasons are far different from what would exist in the biblical text if en masse creation of humanity were to be seen from Genesis 1. In the ancient Near East creation narratives, many humans are created at once because many gods were intending to use many humans to supply their needs. The purposes of the gods would not be well served if only a few humans were created. In contrast, if Genesis 1 allows en masse creation of humans (as I have argued), it is not for the same reason. The God of the Bible has no needs, and the function of humans is presented in very different terms. Likewise, the roles and functions of human beings as presented in the Bible cannot be confirmed through science because science is incapable of discussing final causes. (199-200).

The problem that I have with this hermeneutic is this: how can we separate Biblical intent from ANE cultural motif? More concretely, and in the question more relevant to the Genesis One book, how do we know that the authors of Genesis are subverting only the polytheism and use-of-chaos-to-create? Why couldn’t the authors of Genesis be radicals who subverted both of those things AND the entire functional ontology of their time? Why does their subversion of cultural paradigms and motifs and etiologies have to stop precisely when it gets inconvenient for our 21st century modern beliefs? If we were to play “which one of these things is not like the other” with all of the ANE societies, I would hazard that Israel is most dissimilar to the rest. So then, how do we know that this dissimilarity stops only at the level of motif and does not extend also to ontology?

I am sure that I am not the only person to ask this question. I am 100%, 1000% sure that I am not such an original mind to be the first person to ask this. Which means that I have more reading to do. Walton has a scholarly edition of the Genesis One book, and has a few stand-alone books about ancient culture and his methodology. So I’m sure that he has addressed this problem somewhere. For now, the only answer I can imagine is that because the functional/material ontology is something that changed over time, it would then be out of chronology to read materiality back into the text; whereas the inversion or parody or subversion of motifs is something that has happened from the beginning and has continued. So, you have to argue for a subverted motif by ANE context, but you can know an ontological paradigm just by dating the document to a certain century.

That solution seems implicit in Walton’s method. Another potential critique — but I did not think this through much — is that his use of ANE texts seems like some form of affirming the consequent. I wrote in the margin of the book at one point, Can comparative ANE studies PROVE Walton’s interpretation, positively, or can they only disprove, negatively, someone else’s interpretation? There would not be a distinction here if there were only two possible readings of scripture: to disagree with one is to agree with the other. But as we all know, there are a zillion readings of Genesis 1-3 no matter your initial methodological constraints. If/When Walton’s method becomes popular among scholars, no doubt somebody will use the same method to draw entirely separate conclusions about ANE texts. In a world where Old Testament professors at christian colleges are doomed to… never mind. I think my point is clear. Once another scholar proposes any fact about the ANE context, there is no longer anything in Walton’s methodology that would make his reading of Genesis de facto more accurate than theirs. So, the use of ANE comparative studies cannot on its own prove an interpretation, even if it gives strong grounds to dismiss someone’s interpretation as anachronistic.

Maybe I did give that some thought. But this whole post, indeed this whole blog, is not scholarly and mostly gives me something to do that nobody reads anyways. (Except that recently a post of mine from almost two years ago — about a bad study conducted on Chiropractic patients (?) — has been getting a ton of hits.) My most viewed post is about a Starbucks frappe, and my second most viewed post is… also about a Starbucks frappe. John Walton, if you are reading this, know that you are the only one. And please don’t hate me. Or blast me on Biologos for being an unfair critic.

If you are just reading this post and have not read the books, I would strongly recommend that you pick up a copy of The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Adam and Eve. Read them with a healthy blend of charity and critique. Some parts are excellent, some dubious, and others unhelpful. But the whole experience is mind-bending in a way that this blog post can’t convey. At minimum, he is good opposition reading. At maximum, he could rework your entire understanding of the Bible. More likely than either of these, and situated right between them: he will free you from the shackles of your middle school biblical exegesis.

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