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Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology

It is my belief that when we read Genesis 1 as the ancient piece of literature that it is, we will find new understanding of the passage that will result in a clearer understanding of how the initial audience would have heard it. In the process, we will also find that many of the perceived conflicts with modern science will be able to be resolved. I have explored this in a recent book titled The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP) and the technical aspects of ancient Near Eastern literature and the Hebrew text will be explored in greater depth in a forthcoming monograph, Genesis One As Ancient Cosmology (Eisenbrauns).

By John H. Walton
Professor of Old Testament
Wheaton College
March 2010

Genesis 1 is Ancient Cosmology

The Bible was written for everyone, but specifically to Israel. As a result we have to read all biblical texts, including (and maybe especially) Genesis 1 in its cultural context—as a text that is likely to have a lot more in common with ancient literature than with modern science. This does not result in claims of borrowing or suggestions that Genesis should also be read as “mythology” (however defined), but that ancient perspectives on the world and its origins need to be understood.

Ancient Cosmology is Function-oriented

In the ancient world and in the Bible, something existed not when it had physical properties, but when it had been separated from other things, given a name and a role within an ordered system. This is a functional ontology rather than a material ontology. In this view, when something does not exist, it is lacking role, not lacking matter. Consequently, to create something (cause it to exist) means to give it a function, not material properties.

“Create” (Hebrew Bara’ ) Concerns Functions

The Hebrew word translated “create” should be understood within a functional ontology—i.e., it means to assign a role or function. This is evident through a word study of the usage of the biblical term itself where the direct object of the verb is always a functional entity not a material object. Theologians of the past have concluded that since materials were never mentioned that it must mean manufacture of objects out of nothing. Alternatively, and preferably, it does not mention materials because it does not refer to manufacturing. Bara’ deals with functional origins, not material origins.

Beginning State in Genesis 1 is Non-functional

In Genesis 1:2 the “before” picture, as throughout the ancient Near East, is portrayed in non-functional, non-productive terms (tohu and bohu) in which matter already exists. If this were an account of material origins, it would start with no matter. As an account of functional origins, it starts with no functions.

Days 1-3 in Genesis 1 Establish Functions

In the ancient world, light was not an object, and day 1 does not recount the manufacture of an object. Verses 4-5 do not make sense unless we understand “light” as referring to “a period of light.” If that is what it means in vv. 4-5, then it logically must mean the same in v.3. Thus on day 1 God created a period of light to alternate with a period of darkness, i.e., God created time—a function. On day two, God created weather (described in accordance with their cosmic geography) and on day three he created fecundity/fertility/agriculture. These three functions are referred to again in Gen. 8:22 and are the principle functions that figure in ancient Near Eastern cosmological texts.

Days 4-6 in Genesis 1 Install Functionaries

Days 4-6 involve installing the functionaries that will operate within the spheres of the three functions described in days 1-3. The description continues to be functional (notice on day 4: signs, festivals, days and years—all functional in relation to people). This incidentally solves the age old problem regarding how “light” can be created on day 1 and the sun not until day four. The contradiction only exists if this is an account of material origins. In a functional perspective, time is much more significant than the sun; the former is a function, the latter simply a functionary. Everything is designated “good” indicating that it functions properly in the system (notice later, it is NOT good for man to be alone: functional). The description of people is also in functional terms from the image of God through the blessing. And God created (bara’ ) them MALE AND FEMALE—functional categories.

Divine Rest is in a Temple

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.

The Cosmos Is a Temple

In the ancient world and in the Bible, the cosmos was understood to be a gigantic temple (Isa. 66:1), and temples were designed to be a micro-cosmos (see description of the Garden of Eden and the Temple vision of Ezekiel; there is symbolism in the tabernacle/temple furniture and décor). Genesis 1 is portraying cosmic origins in terms that would be recognized as a temple building account.

The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Relate to the Cosmic Temple Inauguration

If cosmic origins are described here in functional terms and follow the pattern of temple building texts, then the point is made that the cosmic temple is here being made functional. When a temple was built, it became functional not when all of the physical work had been done (building, furniture, priests’ garments) but in an inauguration ceremony that in a variety of texts throughout the ancient world lasted seven days. During those seven days, the functions of the temple were identified, the functionaries installed, the priests commissioned and most importantly that which represented the deity was brought into the center of the sacred space where he took up his rest. Then the temple was functional—it existed. If this is the paradigm in Genesis 1, then the seven days can easily be understood as regular days and the account can be understood as an inauguration of the cosmic temple that initiates the functions by which it operates.

The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Do Not Concern Material Origins

If the seven days refer to the seven days of cosmic temple inauguration, days that 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 to say that God was uninvolved in material origins—it only contends that Genesis 1 is not the story of material origins.

“Functional Cosmic Temple” Offers Face Value Exegesis

The hermeneutical commitment to read the text at face value elevates this interpretation since it makes an attempt to understand the text as the author and audience would have understood it. It does not reduce the text to a symbolic, figurative, theological or literary reading, as is often done in the attempt to correlate the text to modern science. Concordism applies scientific meanings to words and phrases in the text that are modern—that the ancient readers would never have had. Day-age seeks to make room for an old earth. Both of these approaches struggle because they are still trying to get Genesis to operate as an account of material origins for an audience that has a material ontology and cannot think in any other way.

Other Theories of Genesis 1 Either Go Too Far or Not Far Enough

The Framework Hypothesis recognizes a literary structuring that is evident in the text, and the theory here proposed does not deny it. But the theory here goes much further than the framework hypothesis to suggest that our understanding need not be limited to simply a literary structuring. The functions of days 1-3 correlate to the functionaries of days 4-6. Someone who has embraced the Framework Hypothesis would have no problem going the next step and embracing this functional perspective. Many YEC and OEC proponents have built their theories assuming that Genesis 1 is an account of material origins.

The Difference Between Origin Accounts in Science and Scripture is Metaphysical in Nature

The principle factor that differentiates a biblical view of origins from modern scientific view of origins is that the biblical view is characterized by a pervasive teleology: God is the one responsible for creation in every respect. He has a purpose and a goal as he creates with intentionality. The mechanisms that he used to bring the cosmos into material existence are of little consequence as long as they are seen as the tools in his hands. The teleology is evident in and supported by the functional orientation.

God’s Roles as Creator and Sustainer Are Less Different Than We Have Thought

Modern Christianity, trying to survive in a material and naturalistic world, has often adopted a practical deism. When origins are seen only in material terms, creation is a job that is carried out and completed in the distant past and consequently, describing God as Creator becomes only a historical statement characterized by almost total discontinuity with the present. At the other end of the spectrum, process theology runs the risk of getting bogged down in a philosophical and theological morass by positing such a high level of continuity that there is no beginning or end to the narrative of the cosmos. The view presented here sees enough discontinuity that there was a beginning and will be an end, but retains a much stronger sense of continuity through the understanding that as God initially set up the functional cosmos, he is still at the helm and is actively engaged in maintaining order against the threat of disorder (whether the disorder is cosmic, environmental, or human).

Current Debate About Intelligent Design Ultimately Concerns Purpose

Since the proposed model is thoroughly teleological, God’s involvement is absolute and pervasive since his role as Creator is ongoing. Consequently every aspect of creation is the result of intelligent design whether it is irreducibly complex or not, and whether it can be explained in terms of a recognizable process of cause and effect or not. Natural selection could never be viewed as entirely natural, and random mutation is not random. ID protagonists may be able to identify areas where the inadequacies of the reigning paradigm are more clear than others and offer illustrations where no current explanations suffice, but these examples should merely be seen as existing on a spectrum. Perhaps such observations may help identify continuing weaknesses in the reigning Neo-Darwinian paradigm but Intelligent Design protagonists do not at present have an alternative description of material origins to offer.

Scientific Explanations of Origins Can Be Viewed in Light of Purpose, and If So, Are Unobjectionable

If the proposed theory is on target, Genesis 1 does not offer a descriptive model for material origins. In the absence of such a model, Christians would be free to believe whatever descriptive model for origins makes the most sense. The major limitation is that any view eventually has to give God full control of the mechanisms if it claims to be biblical. A biblical view of God’s role as Creator in the world does not require a mutually exclusive dichotomy between “natural” and “supernatural” though the reigning paradigms are built on that dichotomy. In the ancient world (in a functional ontology), the dichotomy was static vs. dynamic. Some aspects of the cosmos were viewed as static and others dynamic, and deity was active (determinatively so) in that which was dynamic. Consequently, it does not matter that there may be perfectly acceptable and definable empirical descriptions and explanations for observed phenomena and aspects of origins. Such would not exclude divine activity because without the natural/supernatural dichotomy, divine activity is not ruled out by empirical explanation. We can affirm with the Psalmist that God “knit me together in my mother’s womb” without denying the premises of embryology. Likewise, those aspects of evolutionary mechanisms that hold up under scrutiny could be theoretically adopted as God’s mechanisms.

What scientific ideas or conclusions is the believer who wants to take the Genesis account seriously obliged to reject? Is there science that is unacceptable in biblical/theological terms? Or is it only the metaphysical implications of some scientists? Is it the Genesis account that serious scientists are compelled to reject? Or only the implications of some traditional interpretations? I propose that it is our misguided interpretations that have brought about a conflict that does not in fact exist.

Resulting Theology in this View of Genesis 1 Is Stronger Not Weaker

The resulting theology, beyond what has been mentioned above, allows a more focused dialogue with our contemporary world. The theology behind a teleological, functionally-oriented cosmological ontology argues precisely the point that must be argued. Evolutionary mechanisms are not the problem; metaphysical naturalism is.

Public Science Education Should Be Neutral Regarding Purpose

While it is true that science cannot help but have metaphysical underpinnings, we can teach empirical science without presuming to dictate metaphysical conclusions. Public education should be free to teach empirical methods without comment on teleology or dysteleology. If Intelligent Design offers legitimate critique of some aspects of the reigning empirical paradigm, it ought to be taken into account at that level. But it should not be used to introduce teleological metaphysics into the science classroom any more than evolutionary theory should be used to introduce dysteleological metaphysics or metaphysical naturalism. Neither is acceptable or necessary in the science classroom focused on empirical methods. But somewhere students should be taught about metaphysical systems and the alternatives that are out there, and how a variety of metaphysical systems could integrate with science. This is not an issue of faith, or of a particular religion, or of biblical teaching; it is simply an issue of a well-rounded education.


Public education should be interested in teaching evolution with all of its warts and problems, and science should be committed to refining and even overhauling or overthrowing any reigning paradigms that are showing weaknesses. This is the nature of scientific inquiry. Having said that, whatever aspects of evolution that continue to provide the best explanation for what we observe should not be objectionable for Christians. Being believers in the Bible does not require us to reject the findings of biological evolution, though neither does it give us reason to promote biological evolution. Biological evolution is not the enemy of the Bible and theology: it is superfluous to the Bible and theology.