What if taking the Bible “literally” doesn’t mean what you think it means?
In The Lost World of Genesis One, Dr. John Walton of Wheaton college affirms that Genesis 1 is talking about a literal seven days of creation—but he also argues that “creation” might not mean what you think it means.
“When someone insists that Genesis 1 should be interpreted literally,” Walton says, “It is often an expression of their conviction that the interpreter rather than the author has initiated another level of meaning.”
The problem, of course, is that reading the Bible in English creates layers of interpretation before we ever see the words on the page.
Related post: Outsiders: Reading the Bible Out of Context
We have to look at what the Hebrew text says if we really want to determine exactly what the English text says. “It does us no good to know what ‘create’ literally means,” Walton says. “We have to know what bara literally means.”
If you aren’t fluent in Hebrew, don’t worry. When it comes to language, usage determines meaning. This means that even without knowing the language, we can see how Hebrew scholars have determined bara was used in every instance it appears in the Old Testament.
Walton considers functional creation to be the moment purpose is established, whereas material creation is the moment physical shape is formed.
So does bara pertain to material creation, or functional creation? Can we even determine that for certain?
“If all occurrences [of bara] were either material or ambiguous,” Walton says, “We could not claim support for a functional understanding. If all occurrences were either functional or ambiguous, we could not claim clear support for a material understanding. If there are clear examples that can be only functional, and other clear examples that can only be material, then we would conclude that the verb could work in either kind of context, and ambiguous cases would have to be dealt with on a case-by-case-basis.”
In the 50 or so occurrences of bara in the Old Testament, “grammatical subjects of the verb are not easily identified in material terms, and even when they are, it is questionable that the context is objectifying them.” Walton goes on to clarify, “That is, no clear example occurs that demands a material perspective for the verb, though many are ambiguous.”
Is Genesis 1 talking about functional creation?
In The Lost World of Genesis One, Walton uses a number of analogies to highlight the difference between functional and material creation. Consider the creation of Solomon’s temple.
“We must draw an important distinction between the building of a temple and the creation of a temple,” Walton says, “. . . a temple is not simply an aggregate of fine materials subjected to expert craftsmanship. The temple uses that which is material, but the temple is not material. If God is not in it, it is not a temple. If rituals are not being performed by a serving priesthood, it is not a temple. If those elements are not in place, the temple does not exist in any meaningful way. A person does not exist if only represented by their corpse. It is the inauguration ceremony that transforms a pile of lumber, stone, gold and cloth into a temple.”
In other words, with functional creation, the act of bestowing a purpose on the materials is what actually determines the moment of creation. To many Christians, an explanation like this will almost immediately sound like an attempt to accommodate modern science, or to use science to interpret Scripture.
The problem, Walton argues, is actually the other way around—some Christians try to use the Bible as a science textbook. But when you look at what mattered to the ancient Hebrews, when you look how the ancient cultures around them describe creation, the functional creation of the earth is what was most important. The material creation was inherently assumed—it didn’t need to be explained in a step-by-step process.
Here’s the paragraph that I think best encapsulates Walton’s argument in The Lost World of Genesis One:
“If the seven days . . . concern origins of functions not material, then the seven days and Genesis 1 as a whole have nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth. This is not a conclusion designed to accommodate science—it was drawn from an analysis and interpretation of the biblical text of Genesis in its ancient environment. The point is not that the biblical text therefore supports an old earth, but simply that there is no biblical position on the age of the earth. If it were to turn out that the earth is young, so be it. But most people who seek to defend a young-earth view do so because they believe that the Bible obligates them to such a defense.”
He is not suggesting that we cannot disagree with the scientific community—and in fact, he frequently suggests that we should disagree when the scientific community attempts to use what we know about the material world to “disprove” the spiritual world or determine the purpose of the material world (in other words, why we exist). But the biblical obligation to defend the material creation of the earth as “defined” by Genesis 1, Walton argues, simply does not exist.
“We need not defend the reigning paradigm in science about the age of the earth if we have scientific reservations, but we are under no compulsion to stand against a scientific view of an old earth because of what the Bible teaches.”
Now you may be wondering, “So if Genesis 1 isn’t about the material creation of the earth, when did that happen?”
Make no mistake: Walton absolutely believes God is the material creator of the earth as well, and he suggests (as I’ve quoted above) that the ancient Hebrews would have inherently understood God’s role as functional creator to also imply his role as the material creator.
“Viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as temple,” Walton says, “does not in any way suggest or imply that God was uninvolved in material origins—it only contends that Genesis 1 is not that story.”
Why is Genesis chapter 1 so important?
For me, like some of you, interpretations of Genesis 1 have a very personal significance. To some, suggesting that Genesis 1 is talking about anything other than the material creation of the earth undermines the reliability of all of Scripture. Regardless of what Bible scholars say about Old Testament genres, to them, Genesis 1 must be taken literally. But as Walton suggests, in order to understand what the Bible is literally saying, you have to know what it was saying to the people it was originally written to.
On the other side of the spectrum, the church is bleeding—we regularly lose people to the perceived divide between religion and science. My brother and his wife both left the church after pursuing their biology degrees at a private Christian university—in part because they couldn’t reconcile what they were learning to be true about creation with the church’s inability to consider if that were in fact true.
My brother and his wife have M.A.’s in ecology and biology. I have a B.A. in English literature. My brother now works in a lab at a university, researching the human genome and studying the biology of Neanderthals. The conversation about functional creation vs. material creation in Genesis 1 doesn’t matter to me because I want to compromise Scripture for the sake of science—it matters to me because I love my brother. I want to use the best available apologetics as a conversational tool to point him to Jesus. And if the Bible doesn’t ask us to defend a particular position here, why create additional walls for unbelievers to overcome?
Walton addresses people caught in the middle of this perceived divide: “It seems to many that they have to make a choice: either believe the Bible and hold to a young earth, or abandon the Bible because of the persuasiveness of the case for an old earth. The good news is that we do not have to make such a choice. The Bible does not call for a young earth. Biblical faith need not be abandoned if one concludes from the scientific evidence that the earth is old.”
Again, Walton is not saying that one cannot make a case for a young earth. He’s saying that if Christians truly take Genesis 1 literally, the Bible doesn’t call for us to make that case.
How do I learn more about Genesis 1?
In Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, Walton focuses less on the implications of Genesis 1 for the origins debate, and more on how ancient cosmology comes into play here. There is, however, a lot of overlap in the conversation.
Drawing heavily from ancient near eastern literature, Walton says, “My intention, first of all, is to understand the texts but also to demonstrate that a functional ontology pervaded the cognitive environment of the ancient near east.” In other words, he says, “I posit that, in the ancient world, bringing about order and functionality was the very essence of creative activity.”
After building his case for this pervasive functional ontology, Walton spends the second half of the book showing how this ontology affects our understanding of Genesis 1.