Genesis 1 is perhaps one of the most controversial and hotly debated passages in the entire Bible. There are many different interpretations of this chapter that have been proposed over the centuries, and I don’t pretend to be doing anything different here. However, I have noticed that the majority of attempts to interpret Genesis 1 have neglected to take the book’s ancient cultural background into consideration. Instead many attempts look at what modern science has to say and then either reinterpret Genesis in light of science or try to bend science to a particular interpretation of Genesis. Old Earth Creationists (OECs) such as Hugh Ross are guilty of the former, with Young Earth Creationists (YECs) like Ken Ham doing the latter. I believe that both are in error. Both are concerned with finding concordance with science rather than letting The Bible speak for itself.
Genesis Through Ancient Eyes
While The Bible was written for us, it was not written to us. It was written to Israel, in their language, in their culture, with their background. One of the widely accepted principles of biblical hermeneutics is to interpret The Bible in its cultural context. What this means is to interpret Bible passages the way the original author and audience would have understood it. As my hermeneutics teacher put it “We need to get into the shoes of the author. We need to step into his world and think like he thinks”. Or as Michael Heiser often says on The Naked Bible Podcast, “We need to have the Israelite in our heads as we interpret The Bible”. When looking at any passage of scripture, we need to ask “Is this how an ancient would understand this phrase?” If not, we can dismiss that as an accurate interpretation. One way of stepping into the shoes of The Bible’s ancient audience is to read the literature that was written during that time period. A survey of Ancient Near Eastern literature can give you clues into how ancients would understand things such as what the sky is made of, the shape of the Earth, what the entrails are for, and so on. Another way is to look at the original language of The Biblical text itself. The Bible was inspired in Hebrew, not in English, and therefore some Hebrew words may carry meanings or connotations that get lost in translation.
The Cosmic Temple View
The Cosmic Temple interpretation of Genesis 1 says that just as temples in the Ancient Near East were microcosms of the universe, Genesis turns this around and makes the universe a macrocosm of a temple. The 7 days were days of God not bringing material things into existence, but ascribing function to everything that exists. And this “function” wasn’t a scientific function (as obviously, the stars would be burning even before this inauguration occurred), but their function relative to the service of mankind, His image bearers. On the 7th day, God “rests” in His temple, as gods did once the inauguration of their temples was finished.
This interpretation is defended in depth in John Walton’s book The Lost World Of Genesis One and also in John Walton’s Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology.
I think this interpretation of The Bible’s opening chapter is the most plausible, and in this article, I would like to go into the evidence that supports it. This evidence comes from within the biblical text itself as well as from the Ancient Near Eastern literature. The former category of evidence is the most important since The Bible is the uniquely inspired Word Of God (2 Timothy 3:16) and therefore needs to speak for itself. However, the latter can be helpful as well. As Walton has pointed out in his presentations on Genesis, in some cases, to really understand what the text is saying, it isn’t enough to just have the Hebrew words translated into English words. We need to have the culture translated for us as well. If we don’t look at The Bible the way an ancient Israelite would and instead look at it through modern western lenses, then we’re more prone to eisegete rather than exegete. We cannot impose our modern categories on an ancient text, and we cannot assume that they would have thought of cosmic origins, cosmic geography, or existence in the same way we do. I’ll try to be as concise as I can in this article in presenting the evidence. Interested readers can get John Walton’s books for more thorough treatments.
What Does It Mean For Something To Exist?
Ontology is the term philosophers use to refer to the concept of existence. The ontology of X is what it means for X to exist, what attributes X has, whether something is possibly instantiated or necessarily instantiated (as is discussed in treatments of The Modal Ontological Argument For God’s Existence). In our modern, western culture, we have what could be called a “material ontology”. We think of something as existing because it has material properties. For example, you might say my computer exists because it is composed of atoms, molecules, and wires. You can see it, touch it, taste it, and use it. However, there is more than one way that something can “exist”. For example, suppose instead of thinking of material ontology, you thought in terms of functional ontology. What do I mean by functional ontology? A functional ontology asserts that something only exists if it has functioned within an ordered system. Regarding my computer, someone who merely sees the big Acer on my desk would say “Yeah, your computer exists. I can see it. I can feel it.” But what if my computer recently broke (God forbid as I can’t afford a new one right now). In that case, someone with a functional ontology would say that the computer ceased to exist, even though, materially speaking, it didn’t vanish in a puff of smoke. In this scenario which I hope doesn’t come about until I can save up some Patreon money, the computer would not “exist” because you cannot surf the internet on it, I cannot write books or blog posts, or do Skype calls on it. I can’t use it to upload episodes of The Cerebral Faith podcast. In a functional ontology, given that the computer no longer does anything for anybody, it no longer exists.
Or you could use this very blog post as an example. On a material ontology, this blog post exists when all the words I intend to convey are typed up, grammar checked, and spell checked. However, on a functional ontology, if I set it to draft and I don’t publish it for months, the blog post could not be said to exist. The function of a blog post is to inform readers of what I want to tell them. And until I hit the publish button, it isn’t functioning for my blog’s visitors.
Why is this discussion important? Because we have to understand what kind of ontology the Ancient Near East held to if we’re to understand what it means when a creation text says that the god created something. “Creation” can be minimally defined as bringing something from non-existence into existence. But we need to use The Colombo Tactic on Moses and say “What do you mean by that? What do you mean by existence?” Depending on the answer will depend on what kind of origins account Genesis 1 is. If Moses and the rest of the Ancient Near East thought of existence in functional terms, rather than material terms, then that will most likely be what Genesis 1 is talking about, especially if we see functional ontology present in this and other biblical creation texts (e.g Psalm 104).
THE COGNITIVE ENVIRONMENT OF THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST IS THAT OF A FUNCTIONAL ONTOLOGY
The Egyptian Papyrus Insinger is from the Ptolemaic period. Although the manuscript comes from the first century after Christ, the material within the manuscript dates much earlier, to either the second or third century before Christ. Approximating closely to the climax of this document, the document describes eighteen lines of the creative handiwork of the god.
“He created light and darkness in which is every creature.
He created the earth, begetting millions, swallowing them up and begetting again.
He created, day, month, and year through the commands of the lord of command.
He created summer and winter through the rising and setting of Sothis.
He created food before those who are alive, the wonder of the fields.
He created the constellation of those that are in the sky, so that those on the earth should learn them. He created sweet water in it which all the lands desire.
He created breath in the egg though there is no access to it.
He created birth in every womb from the semen which they receive.
He created sinews and bones out of the same semen.
He created going and coming in the whole earth through the trembling of the ground. He created sleep to end weariness, waking for looking after food.
He created remedies to end illness, wine to end affliction.
He created the dream to show the way to the dreamer in his blindness.
He created life and death before him for the torment of the impious man.
He created wealth for truthfulness, poverty for falsehood.
He created work for the stupid man, food for the common man.
He created the succession of Generations so as to make them live.”1
Here, the functional nature of the creation text is overwhelmingly evident. The god is said to have created summer and winter. Why? For the rising and setting of Sothis. Moreover, seasons such as summer and winter aren’t material objects. He created food for the sake of living creatures. He created the constellations. Why? So that those on the earth should learn from the constellations. The god is said to have created remedies to end illness, wine to end affliction. It says he created death for the purpose of punishing the impious man. Every line in this creation text is loaded with functional ontology. The creation of these things was functionally oriented towards a purpose. Summer and Winter for the rising and setting of Sothis, food to nourish creatures, constellations so that Earthlings could learn the messages of the stars, and so on and so forth. This is only one of a plethora of Ancient Near Eastern examples that present a functionally oriented ontological creation.
The Babylonian creation epic known as Enuma Elish tells the tale of Marduk opening up a can of whoop-butt on all the rebel deities, and when they are defeated, the text goes on to describe his work of “creation”. This work of creation is to be found in the fifth tablet, and as you read it, you can see clearly the functional orientation of the created features.
John Walton, in his book “The Lost World Of Genesis One”, outlines these functional features as follows. John Walton writes:
“• Lines 1-24 show Marduk organizing the celestial sphere: stars, constellations, the phases of the moon.
• Lines 25-45 are not represented in many of the translations included in the major anthologies of ancient texts. Even in their broken form, however, their basic content can be discerned.’ In 38-40 Marduk makes the night and day and sets it up so that there is an equal amount of light hours and night hours over the course of the year. On line 46 he fixes the watches of night and day. These creative activities have to do with organizing time.
• Lines 47-52 are more legible and deal with the creation of the clouds, wind, rain, and fog, and appointing himself to control them. Here the functions that concern the weather are created.
• Lines 53-58 tell of the harnessing of the waters of Tiamat for the purpose of providing the basis of agriculture. It includes the piling up of dirt, releasing the Tigris and Euphrates, and digging holes to manage the catchwater.
• Lines 59-68 conclude with the transition into the enthronement of Marduk and the building of his temple and the city of Babylon-the grand climax. It is no surprise that a creation text should ultimately be about the god who controls the cosmos and about the origin of his temple.”2
Finally, in a Sumerian document pre-dating Enuma Elish by a thousand years, Enlil is described as being involved in creation in these same areas (i.e daytime and nighttime; fertility and food; sluices of heaven/weather and seasons):
“An [god’s name] lifted his head in pride and brought forth a good day. He laid plans for …… and spread the population wide. Enlil set his foot upon the earth like a great bull. En lil, the king of all lands, set his mind to increasing the good day of abundance, to making the …… night resplendent in celebration, to making flax grow, to making barley proliferate, to guaranteeing the spring floods at the quay, to making …… lengthen (?) their days in abundance, to making Summer close the sluices of heaven, and to making Winter guarantee plentiful water at the quay.”3
The Egyptian Instruction of Merikare says:
“Well tended is mankind—god’s cattle
He made sky and earth for their sake . . .
He made breath for their noses to live.
They are his images, who came from his body . . .
He made for them plants and cattle,
Fowl and fish to feed them . . .
When they weep he hears .“
Notice the strong functional orientation in The Egyptian Instruction Of Merikare. Over and over again functions are emphasized. He made this for that, and this for that, and this for this purpose.
Assyrian Kar 4 says:
“After heaven was separated from earth, its firm companion, so the mother goddesses could live there;. after building up the earth to make the ground firm, when the designs were made firm in heaven and earth to establish levee and irrigation ditch in good order. …the great gods, the Anunna, the great gods, sat down in a lofty dais … Enlil himself deliberated.”
This is only a small sampling of ANE texts.
THE BIBLE’S CREATION VERBS: BARA AND ASA
Does The Bible also have this functional orientation? Let’s look. We must focus on the Hebrew words for “create” and “make” which are”bara” and “asah” respectively. The Bible was inspired in Hebrew and Greek, not in English, and words in the original languages sometimes carried nuances that English words don’t always have. Though even the English word “create” can refer to material creation or functional creation, as my computer and blog post analogies above illustrate. Now, we cannot assume that the creation ontology is material just because we happen to think in those terms.
The meanings of words are established by their usage. It is the context that determines whether the Hebrew word “bara” is intended to be taken as an act of material creation or functional creation. Sometimes in The Bible, “bara” is intended to convey material creation, but there are many examples in which the term is used and no material object subsequently comes into being in a material sense.
Biblical Examples Of Create/Bara Not Referring To Material Manufacturing
Example 1: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” – Psalm 51:10
This Psalm is King David’s prayer of forgiveness after he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had Uriah killed. Here, we have a clear cut example of creating (bara) not being used to refer to the material manufacturing of anything. No one thinks that David is asking God to physically manufacture a new blood pumping organism (i.e heart) ex nihilo and then give it to him to either supplement or replace the one he already has. Rather, the Psalmist is asking God to reorient his moral character towards goodness instead of evil, godly desires rather than his own sinful ones. For God to “create in [David] a pure heart” would be to transform his character. Obviously, that does not involve manufacturing anything material, in neither the ex materia nor ex nihilo way.
Example 2: “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of his might and because he is strong in power, not one is missing.” – Isaiah 40:25-26 (ESV).
In this passage, God asks through the prophet Isaiah whom he will compare God with. God tells him to look to the heavens. If we want an idea of what God is like, we are to consider the vastness of the cosmos. This passage had an impact for the ancients because, although they didn’t know just how big the universe was, they knew it was of substantial size. This verse has more of an impact for us today because we know just how vast the universe really is. For us, it’s a billion times over larger than people in the Ancient Near East believed it was. The universe is the closest thing God can point to for a comparison of Himself.
The point I want to make here, however, is that God asks “Who created these [the stars]? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name.” While we moderns know that stars are gigantic burning balls of gas thousands or millions of lightyears away, the original audience Isaiah was addressing did not. Ancient Israelites did not know that the sun, moon, and stars were physical objects. They considered them non-physical. Therefore, reading the text like an ancient would, we would have to say that when God speaks of “creating” the stars, he isn’t referring to the manufacturing of anything material. The stars were not material in their thinking.
Example 3: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” – Isaiah 45:7 (KJV
Although the English word here is “form”, the Hebrew word is “Bara” which is usually translated as “Create”. Now, we know that darkness is not a physical substance. Darkness is the absence of light. Moreover, according to Ancient Near Eastern thinking, again, they would not have considered even light to be a physical substance. They were not thinking in terms of particles and waves. Reading the text through an ancient’s perspective, this verse doesn’t really say that God created anything material. The KJV renders the second set of contrasts “peace” and “evil”, and atheists have used this (not to mention Calvinists) as a proof text to argue that God is the author of sin. However, a better translation would be “disaster”. Notice that “peace” is not the opposite of moral evil. Good is the opposite of evil. The opposite of peace is a disaster, or conflict, or tension, or war. More current translations have rightly translated the word as “disaster” (NIV, CSB, HCSB), “bad times” (NLT), or “calamity” (ESV, Berean Study Bible). But, however you translate it, we can see that what God is saying he makes is not a material thing. Disasters, calamity, evil, these things aren’t physical. Sure, they involve physical things. For example, disaster may involve crumbling physical buildings, peoples’ physical bodies becoming injured, homes being destroyed, etc. But the “disaster” itself is not physical. The disaster is a non-physical thing which affects that which is physical. A storm is physical and property damage is certainly physical, but the “disaster” is not the same thing as a storm. After all, who would consider the raging hurricane on Jupiter a disaster since it’s not affecting anyone?
Example 4: “And he said, Behold, I make [bara] a covenant: before all thy people I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among which thou art shall see the work of the LORD: for it is a terrible thing that I will do with thee.” – Exodus 34:10 (KJV)
Are covenants physical things? No. A covenant is an agreement between two parties. Again, one may point out that material things are included in covenant making (circumcision in the Abrahamic covenant being one example), but the covenant itself is not. So, here is another example of God bara-ing something and no material thing is made. Moreover, notice that covenants bring order to a system. In a covenant, things go well when both sides keep their end of the bargain.
Again, there Old Testament passage in which Bara just cannot be taken any other way than material manufacturing. But, the fact that there are uses of Bara that do not involve God bringing any new material into being opens up the possibility that when this word is used in Genesis, it may not be referring to the material origin. In order to know what “bara” actually means in Genesis, we’d have to look at how it is used.
As Kenneth Matthews, in his book The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Exposition of Holy Scripture, Genesis 1:-11, volume 1 says, “Bara refers to God bringing about a new activity, not necessarily a new thing.” 4
Biblical Examples Of Asa/Make Not Referring To Material Creation
While some might concede that bara (create) may not refer to material creation, surely asah, “make” does, right? No. Any Hebrew lexicon will tell you that Asah doesn’t always refer to “making”, but also “doing”. Asah means “to make” or “to do”.5 In some instances, it is even translated as “prepared” or “appointed. For example, 1 Samuel 12:6 says “Then Samuel said to the people, ‘It is the LORD who appointed [asah] Moses and Aaron and who brought your fathers up from the land of Egypt.'” Obviously, we don’t read this verse and think that God made Moses and Aaron ex nihilo. No, he merely assigned them the function of being the deliverers of the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. Psalm 118:24 says “This is the day which the LORD has made; [asah] Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” While this is properly translated as “made”, notice that God didn’t “make” anything “material”. A day on your calendar is not a material thing.
*In The Beginning, We Misunderstood.
There’s are good reasons to believe that the opening verse of Genesis 1, which says “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” is not a description of an act of creation which preceded the acts of creation within the 7 days.
Michael Heiser wrote that “If you are dependent on your English Bible, you most likely think of the Bible in terms of verses. You need to realize the verses of the Bible are arbitrary and not part of the original text. We need to look at Gen. 1:1-3 the way a Hebrew grammarian does: as a set of clauses. In case you have tried to forget English grammar (or had poor English teachers) clauses are NOT the same as sentences (though the terms can overlap). For our purposes, a clause is a string of words that presents a single thought. The clause will often have a subject and a verb. (“The man ran”; man = subject; ran = verb) that together express the single thought. However, a clause may not have a noun subject (“Look out!”) and may not have a verb (“You jerk!”). All that matters is that a single thought is expressed. In the noun-less example, the subject is not stated, but a single thought is expressed: the speaker wants you or someone else to get out of the way. In the verb-less example, the single thought is that the person the speaker is speaking to is a jerk or is behaving like a jerk. …”6
Michael Heiser has argued that the Hebrew Masoretic vowel points and the wording of the Greek Septuagint do not imply that Genesis 1:1 should contain the phrase “In the beginning”. Why? Because in the Hebrew, there is no definite article! Since there’s no definite article, Genesis 1:1 should be translated as “When” not “In the beginning”.7 “When God created the heavens and the earth.” This may appear to be a very inconsequential change at first glance, but simply by changing “in the beginning” to “when” causes a HUGE change of meaning in this verse and the verses that follow. What this means is that Genesis 1:1 is no longer an independent clause. It’s a dependent clause.
This makes verse 1 a dependent clause on verse 2, and it indicates that when God got to work in creating, the Earth was already there. This means that God doesn’t really start “creating” anything until verse 3.
Verse 1 of Genesis 1 is an independent clause, verse 2 is a circumstantial clause, and verse 3 is the main clause.
This formula was quite typically in the opening of the creation accounts of that era. You can see this exact same structure in the Enuma Elish, The Atrahasas, Kar 4, and the creation account of Adam and Eve (see the figure below).
Genesis 1:1 doesn’t imply an absolute beginning to all matter, energy, space, and time, but like other creation accounts of that time begin with the implications that there was an unspecified amount of chaotic time prior to the creation week.
Also, notice that material is already present in verse 2. In verse 2, we have the Earth, water, and darkness. The Spirit of God is hovering over the surface of the waters. Now, we have to ask; is this really what we would expect out of a material account of origins? Unlike what I used to believe, Genesis 1:1 is not a creative act like The Big Bang, no. God doesn’t start His creative activity until verse 3. So, what this means is that this creation account begins with the material already present. But if this were an account of material origins, wouldn’t it begin with no materials? I should think so! Instead, what we see is that the creation account begins with materials, but no functions.
“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that it was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day.” (Genesis 1:3-5, NIV)
In Genesis 1, God’s first creative act is “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). This cannot be interpreted as an act of material creation if for no other reason than that the ancients did not consider light to be a material sort of thing. They had no knowledge of photons. For them, light did not consist of anything physical. Therefore, the author of Genesis could not have meant that when “God said ‘let there be light’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3) that anything physical came into existence.
But, moreover, it is interesting that God does not call the light light nor does He call the darkness darkness. He calls the light “day” and the darkness “night” (verse 5). Why is this? “Light” and “day” are not synonyms, even in Hebrew. Professor John Walton argues that the figure of speech known as “Metonymy” is being employed here. Metonymy is a figure of speech that substitutes the effect for its cause, mentioning the cause instead of the effect. “Light” is substituted for “Day” and “Darkness” is substituted for “Night”. What God is referring to is the period of light and the period of darkness (i.e daytime and nighttime). What this suggests is that what God creates is time. Time is what is created on Day 1! Day and Night! This is further supported by what Genesis says in verse 4, the verse immediately preceding verse 5 “God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness”. If these were material objects scripture was talking about, verse 4 would make no sense as darkness and light cannot be joined together. They can’t co-exist. Since they can’t be together, they cannot be separated. Now, if it’s the period of light and the period of darkness (time) that scripture is talking about, then Genesis 1:4 makes a lot more sense. What God separates is the period of light and darkness, not physical light from physical darkness.
From looking at scripture alone, we can see a good basis for affirming that God created a function on day 1, not anything material.
“And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. God called the expanse ‘sky’. And it was evening, and there was morning — the second day.” (Genesis 1:6-8, NIV)
On Day 2, the most important thing scripture is trying to communicate is not whether there is literally a solid dome moderating the amount of cosmic waters that fall down upon the Earth, but that God set up a weather system that would regulate the amount of rain that would fall upon the Earth. This is important. After all, too little rain and we starve because there’s no water to make crops grow. Too much rain and we are overwhelmed. That scripture refers to a “vault” or “firmament” is merely an incidental feature of the Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology. The main point The Holy Spirit’s inspired author is trying to get across is that God set up a weather system. The functional ontology of the “vault” is explicitly stated by God, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” What’s the function of the vault? To separate water from water.
“And God said, ‘Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground ‘land,’ and the gathered waters he called ‘seas.’ And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.’ And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning — the third day.” (Genesis 1:9-13, NIV)
On Day 3, we have God installing the cycle of naturally grown food. As John Walton points out in The Lost World Of Genesis One, if Genesis 1 were an account of material creation rather than functional creation, then God didn’t really create anything on Day 3. After all, water already existed, and so did the land (it just existed underneath the ocean before it rose up through tectonic uplift according to Hugh Ross). If it’s a functional creation narrative, no problem exists. Walton points out that “From a functional perspective, the soil, the water and the principle of seed-bearing are all very much related as essential to the production of food. The emergence of dry land from the waters is a common element in Egyptian cosmology, and there it has a definite referent. That is, the emergence of the primeval hillock in cosmology reflects the yearly reality of the fertile soil emerging in the aftermath of the inundation of the Nile. Thus it is clear that the emergence of dry land is associated with the growing of food. Day three reflects the wonder of the ancient world at the whole idea that plants grew, dropped seed, and that more of the same plant came from that tiny seed. The cycle of vegetation, the principles of fertilization, the blessing of fecundity-all of these was seen as part of the amazing provision of food so necessary for people to survive.” 8
God did not materially bring these things into existence. He assigned them functions. Also, remember that function is not to be understood in scientific terms (e.g the sun is functioning because it’s burning), but functioning in that it is serving the needs of humanity (e.g the sun, moon, and stars, mark times for seasons, days, and years).
That time, food, and weather were of creative significance are also explicitly seen in Papyrus Insinger. “He created day, month, and year, through the commands of the lord of command. He created summer and winter through the rising and setting of Sothis. He created food before those who are alive, the wonder of the fields.”
In Noah’s Flood narrative in Genesis 6-9, God brings the world back to a non-functional state. Genesis 8:22 God states the re-installation of the functions of time, weather, and food.
“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.’ And it was so. God made the two great lights — the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning — the fourth day.” (Genesis 1:14-19, NIV)
God is installing functionaries which carry out their own functions delineated in the first 3 days (Time, Weather, Food). The text offers no material nature of the celestial bodies. All it says materially speaking is that they exist in the heavens. This is not problematic if this is an account of functional creation. The function of the heavenly bodies is clearly stated “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.’ And it was so.” (Verse 14, emphasis mine). The purpose of the sun, moon, and stars are to mark time “seasons, days, and years”. Again, I want to remind you that by “function”, I do not mean scientific function, but an anthropologically oriented function. That is to say, function in related to how the created things serve humanity.
If anthropological functional ontology is the purpose of Genesis 1, then the fourfold description of the sun, moon, and stars (signs, seasons, days, years) are pertinent only to homo sapiens. The one that seems to be the odd one out is “seasons”. However, we shouldn’t conceive of seasons here in the sense of winter, spring, summer, and fall. Rather, seasons here most likely refers to festival celebrations, and obviously, festival celebrations are something carried out by human beings. This conclusion is drawn from the fact that the Hebrew word in other places in The Bible refers to precisely that. In other places in The Bible, the Hebrew word translated “seasons” designates the festival celebrations that are associated with the sowing season, the harvesting season and so on.
Remember that I pointed above that the word “asah” which is present in this text is often translated as “Do” “doing”, “prepare”, “ordain”, etc. I would argue that given the functional orientation of this passage as well as Genesis 1 as a whole, this word should properly be translated as “God prepared the two great lights” or “God ordained the two great lights”.
“And God said, ‘Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.’ So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.” – Genesis 1:20-21
On Day 5, the functionaries simply carry out their own functions in the cosmic space that they inhabit, unlike the functionaries on day 4 which help accomplish the functions associated with the sphere they inhabit. The Bible talks about what these critters do rather than the roles that they serve. Fishies teem in the waters. Birdies fly high in the sky. But even though the primary purpose of the sea creatures and sky creatures is said to teem in the waters and fly in the sky, notice that a functional assignment is not absent from the text. The passage above goes on to describe God assigning the fish and birds functions. What’s the function? To be fruitful and multiply. It is the function of the fish and birds to be fruitful and multiply. That is their function in their respective realms.
“And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:24-25, NIV)
On Day 6, God creates land animals and human beings (Genesis 1:31). I talk about what it means that God “created man in [their] image” in my blog post “The Image Of God, Mental Faculties, and The Sanctity Of Life”.
As in Day Five, God brings forth the living creatures and our interpretation is a wash. Either he is creating specific kinds of animals, or he is defining the animals based upon their function in relation to mankind.
Most Christians tend to think of Day 7 as being the day where God just simply ceases from creative activity. It’s as though God dusts off His hands and goes “Well, I’m all done.” But Professor Walton, from ANE Literature and from the biblical texts itself, argues that Genesis 1 is a “temple text” and that the 7 days represent God inaugurating His cosmic temple, where at the end of the inauguration period, God takes up His rest.
The hypothesis is that just as ancient temples were treated as microcosms of the universe, what Genesis 1 does is take that idea, flips it on its head, and makes the universe a macrocosm of a temple. God’s work in the 7 days is “creating” functions and functionaries to serve Him and His priests (humanity) in the cosmic temple.
In his review of John Walton’s book, blogger AMAIC explains that “In the ancient world, as soon as ‘rest’ is mentioned everyone would have known exactly what sort of text this was: gods rest in temples and temples are built so that gods can rest in them. Rest is not a term of disengagement but a term of engagement, i.e., everything is in place now so the deity can take up his place at the helm in the control room of the cosmos and begin operations. Rest throughout the Bible indicates that everything is stable and secure and life and the cosmos may proceed as they were intended.”9
This hypothesis is well supported on the following lines of evidence.
Line Of Evidence 1: Ancient Near Eastern Literature Tell Us That Gods Rested In Temples and Temple Inaguration Was Closely Associated With Cosmic Origins.
” House …… inspiring great awe, called with a mighty name by An; house …… whose fate is grandly determined by the Great Mountain Enlil! House of the Anuna gods possessing great power, which gives wisdom to the people; house, reposeful dwelling of the great gods! House, which was planned together with the plans of heaven and earth, …… with the pure divine powers; house which underpins the Land and supports the shrines! House, mountain of abundance which passes the days in glory; house of Ninhursaja which establishes the life of the Land! House, great hillside worthy of the purification rites, altering (?) all things; house without whom no decisions are made! House, good …… carrying in its hands the broad Land; house which gives birth to countless peoples, seed which has sprouts! House which gives birth to kings, which determines the destinies of the Land; house whose royal personages are to be revered! Will anyone else bring forth something as great as Kec? Will any other mother ever give birth to someone as great as its hero Acgi? Who has ever seen anyone as great as its lady Nintud?” — click here for the entire text.
In many creation, texts describe the absence of a temple as a major part of the pre-cosmic condition. This is clearest in the preamble that concerns the founding of Eridu.
“The holy house, the house of the gods, in the holy place had not yet been made; No reed had sprung up, no tree had been created. No brick had been laid, no building had been set up; No house had been erected, no city had been built; No city had been made, .no creature had been created. Nippur had not been made, E-kur had not been built; Erech had not been created, E-ana had not been built; The Deep had not been created, Eridu had not been built; Of the holy house, the house of the gods, the habitation had not been made. All lands were sea. At that time there was a movement in the sea; Then was Eridu made, and E-sagil was built, E-sagil, where in the midst of the Deep the god Lugal-dul-azaga 1 dwelleth; The city of Babylon was built, and E-sagil was finished.”10
Then Marduk settles the gods into their dwelling places, creates people and animals, and sets up the Tigris and Euphrates.
In a prayer to dedicate the foundation brick of a temple, it is obvious that the cosmos and temple were conceived together and thus are virtually simultaneous in their origins.
“When Anu, Enlil, and Ea had a (first) idea of heaven and earth,
They found a wise means of providing support of the gods:
They prepared, in the land, a pleasant dwelling,
And the gods were installed in this dwelling:
Their principle temple.” 11
Line Of Evidence 2: The Bible Refers To The Universe In Temple Language In Different Places
As J. Richard Middleton observes; “As Job and Proverbs (among many other biblical texts) suggest, creation is pictured in the Bible as a building. But creation is not just any building. The Bible follows ancient Near Eastern convention in understanding the world as God’s ‘house,’ that is, as a cosmic sanctuary, a temple for God to inhabit, with heaven corresponding to the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence is concentrated. Much of the Old Testament treats God’s presence in the Jerusalem temple as the earthly correlate of YHWH reigning from heaven. However, Isaiah 66 stands out in challenging those rebuilding the temple after the exile; since creation is already God’s dwelling, he has no need for a humanly constructed ‘house.'”12
“Thus says the Lord: Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place? All these things my hand has made, and so they all came into being, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 66:1-2a; NRSV emphasis mine, adapted)
In this verse, God describes the heavens as His throne and the Earth as His footstool. This is the language we would expect if God viewed the universe as His temple.
Psalm 132:7-8 says“’Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool!’ Arise, O Lord, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might.”
This passage refers to The Temple as God’s “resting place”. God “rests” in the temple. God “rests” in Genesis 1, at the end of the creation week. And since we know from Isaiah 66 that God considers the cosmos His resting place (He considers the heavens His throne and the Earth His footstool). In light of this, a strong inference can be made that God considers the cosmos His temple, and what happens in Genesis 1 is the creation of His temple, in which He “rests” at the end.
Temples don’t exist unless the deity has come to take up his rest in it, and religious rituals are being performed. Without the deity and the rituals, all you have a physical building. Just as without chefs preparing food and people placing orders, you would only have a building and not a restaurant. The temple would “exist” in a material sense, but not in a functional sense. God may have taken billions of years to prepare the physical structure of His cosmic temple, but the cosmic temple was not a cosmic temple until God took 7 days to inaugurate it with the culmination of Him taking up His rest.
Line Of Evidence 3: The Number 7 Carried Special Symbolic Significance For Temple Inaugurations.
Michael Jones of Inspiring Philosophy notes “The use of 7 was a typical cultural symbol for a temple inauguration.
– The construction of the tabernacle was completed in 7 stages (Exodus 40:19-32).
– The ordination of a priest was 7 days (Leviticus 8:33-35).
– Solomon’s temple was constructed in 7 years (1 Kings 6:38)
– Dedicated to God during a 7 day festival on the seventh month (1 Kings 8:2, 65)
– Even Solomon’s dedication speech was given in 7 petitions (1 Kings 8:31-35).
Outside of The Bible, we find this as well. The Gudea Cylinder (2125 BC) speaks of a seven-day temple dedication and Ugaritic Texts (KTU 1:4:VII 16-40) speak of Baal completing his cosmic temple in 7 days. The point being that the 7 days in Genesis 1 seem to favor a more functional understanding of the passage. The temple and the tabernacle were constructed from pre-existing material. The materials were simply organized to function properly in the worship of The Lord.”13
I Am Not Denying Creation Out Of Nothing
In taking this view of Genesis 1, we are not
saying that God did not create the universe out of nothing. Not only does scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicate that He did (see my post “The Kalam Cosmological Argument
“), but later biblical passages explicitly state this such as John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1. Not only do these New Testament passages have nothing in the text that would indicate a functional creation, but these passages were written in a post-Aristotelian world in which the cognitive environment was that of a material ontology. All I am saying is that Genesis 1 does not teach creatio ex nihilo, not that it cannot be found in The Bible.
Genesis 1 is an account of functional creation in a 7 day period in which God inaugurates His cosmic temple. On the last day of creation, God Rests In His Cosmic Temple. God causes His temple, His cosmic temple, to be fully functional within a period of a week.
While The Cosmic Temple may have taken much longer to “create” in a MATERIAL sense (and the scientific community is unanimous in affirming that it did), creating the universe in a FUNCTIONAL sense only took 144 hours about 6,000-100,000 years ago. Just as it took Solomon a long time to build Yahweh’s earthly temple (1 Kings 6 says it took him 7 years), but it didn’t take that long to have the grand opening, so to speak.
1: Translation from Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature (Berkley: University Of California Press, 1980), 3:210-11
2: John H. Walton. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Kindle Locations 383-395). IVP Academic. Kindle Edition.
3: As cited in John Walton’s “The Lost World Of Genesis 1”
10: The Seven Tablets of Creation, by Leonard William King, , at sacred-texts.com, http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/stc/stc15.htm
11: As cited in The Lost World Of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and The Origins Debate by John Walton, page 79, IVP Academic.
12: J. Richard Middleton, “The Ancient Universe and The Cosmos”, July 19th, 2016, https://biologos.org/articles/series/evolution-and-biblical-faith-reflections-by-theologian-j-richard-middleton/the-ancient-universe-and-the-cosmic-temple
13: Inspiring Philosophy, “Genesis 1: And God Said!” – published on June 7th 2019, — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R24WZ4Hvytc