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Responding To Tsumura on “Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology”

I am someone who favors the Functional Origins/Cosmic Temple Inauguration interpretation of Genesis 1. This view is prominently defended by and most commonly assosiated with John H. Walton of Wheaton College. Walton has defended this thesis primarily in two books; one scholarly level book and one popular level book. The former being Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology and the latter being The Lost World Of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and The Origins Debate. Walton first argues that Genesis 1 should be read in its Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context. That is to say; we should read Genesis (and any part of scripture for that matter) the way the original author and audience would have understood it. Genesis is an ancient text and it should therefore be read through ancient eyes. What this means is that we should reject Concordist1 approaches to scripture as categorically false. We should not read Genesis 1 as an account giving us accurate scientific details. I often like to categorize concordism as “Holding The Bible in one hand and a science textbook in the other”2 When Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” or when Genesis 1:20 describes the creation of sea life, we should not mentally connect these passages to the scientific facts of The Big Bang and the Cambrien Explosion respectively. 

With the drive to get at authorial intent, Walton then proceeds. Walton’s thesis is twofold; (1) Genesis 1 is about God assigning functions to all things, not physically manufacturing things, and (2) God takes 7 days to inaugurate the cosmos as His temple.

Walton defends these points by looking at the biblical text (Genesis 1 as well as other Bible verses having to do with creation) and by examining several Ancient Near Eastern creation myths. With regards to the latter, Walton shows that nobody in the ANE seemed concerned with answering the question of when, where, and how the cosmos and everything in it came to be, but rather with why the gods made what they made. 

In this article, I will respond to a critique of the aforementioned interpretation by Old Testament scholar David Tsumura. You can click here to access Tsumura’s article.

The article is titled;

“Review of John H. Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, Eisenbrauns, 2011,” JAOS 135.2 (2015)

First Argument: Amos 4:13 and Job 38 Show That Material Ontology Is Of Primary Interest

Tsumura wrote “He says that Gen.1 was an account not of material, but of the ordering of the cosmos by initiating functions. However,there are passages in the Bible such as Amos 4:13, Job 38 ff ., etc. where the ‘material ontology’ is a primary interest“

My Response

Amos 4:13 is a blank statement that God created mountains and wind. It’s primary purpose is to exalt the greatness of Yahweh. And the nature of how these things were created is so ambiguous that one would be hard pressed to discern whether Amos has functions in mind or material. This isn’t really a helpful verse. Job 38 is interesting. The way it’s worded does make me think that material manufacturing is in view here since some of the language is reminiscent of the building of the Jerusalem temple in 1 Kings (e.g laying the foundations). But this shouldn’t bother one who holds to the Waltonian interpretation as Walton himself agrees that the Israelites believed God was responsible for the material manufacturing of the cosmos in addition to the installment of functions.3 They did not think that Yahweh and matter were co-eternal. The question would be; does the presence of material alone mean that the world existed? If the foundations of the earth were laid but it didn’t function yet, it might be like a temple which was built but would only be a mere building until it began functioning as a temple. Job 38ff doesn’t really answer this question. Even if Yahweh is referring to his material manufacturing activity (which he did do and which the Israelites presupposed), it doesn’t answer the question of whether material form is a sufficient condition for existence. In other words, Job 38 and Genesis 1 may be speaking of two sides of the same coin; with Genesis 1 focusing on functions (functions being logically posterior to material form) and Job 38-40 focusing on material manufacturing of the cosmos (which is both chronologically and logically prior to everything having a function).

If Walton is right, then for God to merely bring things in physical being wouldn’t be enough for those in the ANE to consider them to “exist”. But depending on how far back Genesis 1’s oral tradition goes, they may have just assumed that after bringing the world into material form, God went on to give things their functions and thus TRULY bring them into being.

Like Noel Weeks whose critique I previously looked at, it is no strike against the functional origins view if ancients knew that things could not have material form, and then be manufactured to have material form. What would be a strike against the view is if we have good evidence that material form, in their minds, was all that was needed for something to be created and to truly exist.

Suppose a construction worker gets in a time machine and goes back to the year 3,000 BC. Suppose he takes some wood from a tree and makes a cabin. It’s empty, no furniture, no one is living in it. An ancient might ask the construction worker “Aren’t you going to finish creating this home?” The building is, from a material ontology, already finished. But from a functional ontology, it isn’t finished until the cabin begins to function as a home for residence. The hypothetical ancient’s question might baffle our time traveling construction worker. “What are you talking about?” he may ask. “There’s nothing left to build. It’s ready to be lived in.” “But no one is living in it. You have a house, but not a home.” After some dialogue, the construction worker from the future puts a bed in the house and some lamps to light up the place after dark. The ancient comes in one night and looks around at what he’s done with the place. “Now you’re finished creating the home”.

Notice that this hypothetical ancient’s question presupposes that he knows something has to have material form before it can have a function. In a different scenario, a home decor team might arrive in the time machine and set up a pre-existing cabin to be lived in. In this ancient person’s mind both the construction worker and the decor team “created” a home to live in. The former introduced both the material and the functions, the latter played no part in the house’s material formation but did provide the necessary functions.

It could be that Job 38 is the house story and Genesis 1 is the home story. But if Walton is right, you need both sides of the story in order to have a full account of creation. If Walton is right, then both of these passages are telling only half the story. 

Second Argument: To Deny That Genesis 1 Is About Material Origins Is To Deny The Doctrine Of Creatio Ex Nihilo.  

Tsumura wrote “By accepting the existence of a “precosmic world,” which is not “a world absent of matter,” in the Genesis story, Walton appears to have given up the traditional Biblical doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. However, his interpretation has many problems.”

My Response:

At one point during Tsumura’s critique, he accuses Walton of misrepresenting him. It’s ironic because here Tsumura is misrepresenting Walton! Walton explicitly said he still affirms creatio ex nihilo. He just thinks support for that is to be found elsewhere in The Bible (like John 1).4 I agree. Also, I am a proponent of The Kalam Cosmological Argument. Even if I didn’t affirm creatio ex nihilo on biblical grounds at all, I would still have philosophical and scientific grounds for affirming it. So for me personally, I have more than enough warrant for affirming the doctrine. I don’t really need Genesis 1 to be about material origins when I’ve got John 1 and the Kalam. 

Third Argument: The Verb Bny Means “To Build” And Its Cognate Terms Are Used For Material Ontology. 

Tsumura wroteAs the Ugaritic epithet bny bnwt “creator of creatures” for the god El suggests, the ancients were certainly concerned with the material origins of the world, though their cognitive environment and their linguistic descriptions were diferent from those of the moderns. The verb bny means “to build,” and its cognate terms are used for the material ontology: e.g., Gen 2:22 and Akkadian banû “to build, create” (CAD, B, 87f.). In other words, the ancient people assumed that material was brought into existence by creator god(s).”

My Response:

John Walton is well aware of this. In his book, he says that ANE peoples just presupposed that their God or gods were responsible for the material. That was just a given. What they wanted answers to was not “How long ago did God create everything? And how did he do it?” These are the questions we ask today. What they wanted answered was “Why did God create everything? What purpose does the world serve? What is my purpose? Why am I here?” And that’s the question Genesis 1 (as well as other creation myths) attempts to answer. So if the epithet indicates the gods were physical manufacturers, that doesn’t really tell us anything. 

Fourth Argument: John Walton Only Looks At Creation Myths and Genesis 1. What About Other Types Of Documents?

Tsumura wrote “Walton’s argument is mostly based on the creation myths and Gen. 1. But the mythological texts are not the only sources for the cognitive view of the ancients. Personal names, liturgical texts, pantheon lists, and archaeological findings often exhibit aspects of religion that are very different from those relected in mythology, as is well illustrated in Ugarit.”

My Response:

Yet Genesis 1 is a creation myth. I hold that it is a “myth that is true”, 5 it’s a divinely inspired myth. It is not a myth in the sense of “false story” or a synonym for “Old Wive’s Tale”. But rather, Genesis 1 belongs to that literary genre. Thus, it makes perfect sense to compare Genesis 1 and, say, The Enuma Ellish, Atrahasis, Asyrian Kar 4, et. al. 

It is a strange critique to fault Walton for not looking at texts of different genres than Genesis 1. 

Fifth Argument: The Temple Language Is Only Metaphorical.

Tsumura wrote Walton holds that the cosmos should be understood in temple terms, just as the temple in ancient Near East is variously “equated with the cosmos” (p. 109). Similarly, “the cosmology of Genesis 1 is built on the platform of temple theology: both of these ideas—rest [Gen 1] and the garden [Gen 2]—are integral to the temple theology of the ancient world” (p. 187). Walton seems to agree that cosmos and temple are “homologous”; he holds that “in Genesis, the entire cosmos can be portrayed as a temple, because the cosmos and temple serve the same functions” (p. 189). However, one still needs to consider the possibil- ity that this use of language is metaphorical. Since the ancient Near Eastern poets sometimes described the building of a temple using cosmic metaphors, the narrator of Genesis 1 could have used a temple metaphor to describe the cosmos. But there is no reason to think he did, because the Hebrew verb šbṭ nor- mally means “to cease,” not “to rest.” Certainly texts like Isa. 66:1 do not suggest that God dwells within the cosmos as his temple. I hope to discuss this theme more thoroughly in a separate article.”

My Response:

I’m not sure what Tsumura is trying to gain by saying that descriptions of the cosmos in temple terms are metaphorical. What would be the point in the biblical authors talking about the cosmos using temple language unless they believed that the cosmos (which in their minds was a three tiered dome structure)6 was the habiting place of Yahweh. Indeed, the third heaven where God’s throne is is part of the cosmos; it’s just at the very top of the dome above the cosmic waters. 

But puzzling appeal to metaphor aside, I find Tsumura’s dealing with the word sabat to be quite strained. Yes, it often just means “to cease”. For example, in Lamentations 5:14, we read “The elders have gone from the city gate. The young men have stopped [sabat] their music.” and in Genesis 8:22 we read “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease. [sabat]” 

There are lots of examples like this. However, in the context of work and observation of the sabbath, the idea of “rest” is clearly implied. One normally ceases one’s work because one is tired and needs rest. This isn’t the case for God, obviously, but it seems like making much out of nothing. 

Moreover, the fact that Exodus 20:11 links the reason for the sabbath to God “resting” on the 7th day after 6 days of creation seems to strengthen the idea that “rest” is what’s being communicated and not the mere cessation of activity. Tsumura seems guilty of what I think I’m going to start calling the “Word Buffet” fallacy, taken from a gripe Walton has about Day-Age proponents. They look at a Hebrew word in a lexicon, see that it can have a range of meanings and then they choose one meaning that suits the interpretation they’re trying to push rather than seeing whether the context indicates that that particular definition is the one being used.

Isaiah 66:1 says “This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool'” 

Tsumura says that this verse doesn’t support the view that the biblical authors saw the cosmos as the temple God dwelled in. Yet he doesn’t give any reasons why. He just says he’d address it in a future article. I wish he would have gotten into it here as it’s puzzling to me how this doesn’t support the temple view. 

We have to remember how the ancient Israelites viewed the cosmos; it was a three tiered (three heavens) structure. A dome covered the flat disk earth, land sat on cosmic waters where the dangerous Leviathan lurked deep beneath, near the bottom of the abysmal waters. The dome had windows that opened and closed to let in some of the cosmic “waters above the earth” occasionally. That was why it rained. The clouds, the sun, the moon, and the stars were way up high and just slightly under the dome. This was the first and second heaven. If an ANE Israelite had ambitions of “space travel” and assuming he could do such a thing (maybe The Doctor showed up in his T.A.R.D.I.S and picked up an ancient Jew as a traveling companion), he would expect to go into the cosmic waters once they reached a certain point, and if they kept going up, they’d eventually arrive in God’s domain.

In the modern day, we rightly know that Heaven is not “up” anywhere. Heaven, where Yahweh, the divine council, and deceased humans awaiting the resurrection unto life dwell is in some other world, something akin to a parallel universe. Something more like The Soul Society in the Bleach manga series than something that actually occupies the very top of our universe. We still talk of Heaven as up and Hell as down because the biblical imagery is so ingrained in our thinking, but we know better. God accommodated to the ancients’ dome cosmology. 

With all this in mind, when God says “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool”, the Israelites would have understood this as God’s dwelling place beginning at the highest heaven (the third heaven) and extending all the way down to the dirt where people dwell (the earth). It’s metaphorical language obviously. Yahweh wasn’t like the Colossal Titan sitting on a giant chair, whose large feet you might run into during your travels. They knew full well that God is spirit (John 4:24). God wasn’t sitting on a physical chair above the sky with giant physical feet resting somewhere on the earth blocking traffic. It was clearly metaphorical, but the metaphorical language conveyed that Yahweh dwelled in the universe. He was basically chilling in the cosmos; resting from the highest of heights to the place as low as we humans are.

So interpreting “heaven” and “earth” with an ANE mindset rather than a modern evangelical one, the temple theology is very explicit. That same God repeated this fact when he became incarnate centuries later. Jesus said “But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne ;or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.” (Matthew 5:34-35)

Conclusion 

David Tsumura has not succeeded in refuting The Functional Origins/Temple Inauguration interpretation of Genesis 1.
 


NOTES 

1: Concordism is the view that The Bible and Science are in concord with each other, hence the name. However, if that’s all the term meant, then there wouldn’t be a problem. There is a sense in which all Christians are concordists. Denis Alexander differentiates between three types of concordism; Type A, Type B, and Type C. See his article “The Various Meanings Of Concordism” on BioLogos.org. —https://biologos.org/articles/the-various-meanings-of-concordism. I would fall under Type C. Types A and B are what Walton argues we should reject, and I agree with him. Type A essentially extracts scientific information from biblical passages such as descriptions of God “stretching out the heavens like a tent”. Some Type A Concordists will take verses like that and say “The Bible talked about the expansion of the universe thousands of years in advance.” Type B concordists will take Isaiah 40:22 which says that God “sits above the circle of the earth” and argue that The Bible taught the Earth was round in a time when everyone thought it was flat. Or they’ll take Job 26:7 which says God “hangs the Earth on nothing” and envision this to mean the globe floating through space. 

2: When I say this, I’m playing off of the phrase “You read The Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other” in the contexts of eschatological debates. The saying actually originates from Karl Barth, though he never put it quite that explicitly. 

3: “To the author and audience of Genesis, material origins were simply not a priority. To that audience, however, it would likewise have been unthinkable that God was somehow uninvolved in the material origins of creation. Hence there wouldn’t have been any need to stress a material creation account with God depicted as centrally involved in material aspects of creation.”

– Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: 2 (The Lost World Series) (p. 96). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

4: See Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: 2 (The Lost World Series) (p. 44). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

5: Michael Heiser’s book “The Unseen Realm: Recovering The Supernatural Worldview Of The Bible” (2019, Lexham Press) originally went by the title “The Myth That Is True”. He most likely got the title from C.S Lewis in which he called the story of Christ “a myth that is true” in a letter to Arthur Greeves from The Kilns (on his conversion to Christianity), October 18 1931.

6: This is common knowledge among Old Testament scholars. For one resource which talks about this, see, for example, Ben Stanhope, (Mis)interpreting Genesis: How the Creation Museum Misunderstands the Ancient Near Eastern Context of the Bible (Scarab Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2018), 88. 

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