Review of J. Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Walton, John H., Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, Ind.; Eisenbrauns, 2011). Pp. 214. Cloth. $34.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-216-7.

1. Structure and thesis

This book builds on three of Walton's earlier publications—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Baker 2006), his article on Chaoskampf and functional ontology,[1] and The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP 2009). The book has a clear structure. After his mainly methodological introduction (1–16), Walton outlines creation and cosmology for the ancient Near East in chapters 2 and 3 (17–121). In chapter 4 he discusses Gen 1 in light of the previous two chapters (122–192), and the concluding chapter 5 provides an overview of the comparison (193–199).

In the preface, he underlines his approach and his two main theses. For an intelligible approach to ancient texts, one needs an understanding of the cognitive environment. As Gen 1 shares the cognitive environment of the ancient Near East, he highlights two elements Gen 1 has in common with the cosmology of its cognitive environment: functional ontology and “the close connection between temples and the functioning cosmos” (x).

The following sections discuss the comparative method and Gen 1's ancient Near Eastern background, as well as Walton's conclusions concerning what Gen 1 shared with its ancient cognitive environment. Then the two main theses are presented: functional ontology (see below, §2) and the connection between cosmos and temple (see below, §3). These two sections integrate material from the ancient Near East with Gen 1. Walton employs the same method in his fourth chapter because an understanding of the ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment (presented in chapters 2 and 3) is needed to understand Gen 1. A review of these main points of Walton's book will show that there are problems with Walton's conclusions about the presence of God in the cosmos, for which I briefly suggest an alternative (§4). This leads to the concluding section, which briefly addresses the theological uniqueness of Gen 1 (cf. ix) and the various contexts that play a role in such a study (§5). For a number of scholars the textual and theological context of Gen 1 is the Priesterschrift, but Walton completely ignores this context.

The focus of this book is on cosmology as a part of the cognitive environment. In the first chapter Walton outlines some of the differences between “our” modern conceptions and ancient ones. The book compares Gen 1 with its cognitive environment—especially Mesopotamian and Egyptian thought, with minimal reference to ancient Syria, Ugarit, and Hittite Anatolia. Walton outlines a scale of six categories between resemblance and distinctiveness: 1) Views from the ancient Near East that the Hebrew Bible “ignores”;[2] 2) “Hazy familiarity”; 3) Conscious rejection; 4) Disagreement; 5) Transforming adaptation; and 6) Subconsciously shared cognitive environment. He argues that all such comparison (regardless of type) is not necessarily a matter of consciousness or a historical relationship. Thus resemblances as well as distinctions may be due to a shared cognitive environment, but it is also possible that different cultures independently (without interaction with other cultures) developed their own ideas, regardless of cross-cultural resemblances. Walton points out that the interpretation of ancient sources (he names both text and iconography) is crucial for a comparative study and should be done accurately, each source in its own context, in order to avoid comparison of categorically different entities or easy conclusions of shared cultural ideas.

It is striking, that while he makes references to iconographic material (e.g., in chapter 3, footnotes 237 and 255), he does not show any of the images. In fact, the only image in the book is on the cover, and this image is not addressed. Discussion of this image representing an Egyptian view of the cosmos, however, could have led to a more balanced understanding of cosmography and God's presence in the cosmos (see below).

Already the first chapter gives a broad delineation of “the basic elements of the cognitive environment that are present throughout the ancient Near East with regard to cosmology” (8), which are important for reading Gen 1:

  • Ontology is not, like our modern understanding, about matter.
  • Cosmological literature is primarily concerned with order and control.
  • Meta-divine functions, such as Mesopotamian me, underline the importance of rule and correspond to the metaphor of the cosmos as kingdom.
  • Deities are usually inside the cosmic system, and there may be realms beyond divine control.
  • “Theogony and cosmogony are deeply intertwined” (10).
  • Theomachy is mainly an Akkadian phenomenon and mostly absent from creation accounts.
  • Cosmic geography reveals the organization of the cosmos and its functionality rather than its material shape.
  • The relationship between cosmos, temple, and divine rest is important.
  • Humanity is central in the cosmos.

His second chapter enumerates these “basic elements of the shared ANE cosmology” (8) and provides a helpful schematic comparative overview of “features” and “elements” of creation in ancient Near Eastern cosmological accounts (18–21). Implicitly, Walton chooses to broaden creation as cosmogony to cosmology.

The third chapter elaborates on all of the aforementioned elements, while slightly modifying them:

Ontology is diversification which establishes “functions, roles [identity], order, jurisdiction, organization, and stability” (34). The world was made into humanity's Lebensraum. He claims that Israel's theology desacralized the world without objectifying it (45).

Although there are differences between Mesopotamia and Egypt regarding the “cosmic governing principles,” for both of them order and function are central to their thinking. One might compare the Mesopotamian me with the Egyptian “eternal sameness” as static elements in the cosmos; next to these there is an awareness of the contingency of life which is limited by decrees in Mesopotamia and directed towards the achievement of Ma'at in Egypt.

Deities were inside the cosmos, except in Egypt with regard to the god who is responsible for creation (and who subsequently dissipates into the cosmos). The deities can come into conflict (theomachy) with each other, with humans, or with personified macrocosmic disorder (this last category is Chaoskampf). However, theomachy is never part of initial cosmogony.

Although Egypt and Mesopotamia show little commonality regarding humanity, both express its place in terms of the matter from which it is made—clay and sometimes divine tears or blood. Human beings serve the gods and rule creation on their behalf. Gods and humans cooperate to sustain cosmic order.

Walton mentions details characteristic of the shared ancient Near Eastern cosmic geography (much of which is found in his 2006 monograph plus some further Egyptian material). There was a three-tiered cosmos, comprising heaven, earth, and netherworld. The solid “sky” separated heaven (where deities live) and earth, while simultaneously keeping apart the waters above and below the sky. The celestial bodies hung in the air below the sky. The center of the cosmos was located in the temple (underlining the rule of the gods) and could be represented with a “world tree” or a mountain. This mountain, with its roots in the underworld and reaching into the heavens, was therefore an appropriate portrayal for the divine dwelling places. Walton calls the ancient Near Eastern cosmic geography “predominantly metaphysical and only secondarily physical and material: the roles and manifestations of the gods in the cosmic geography were primary” (89). He strengthens the link between temple and cosmos with the observation that “creation texts do follow the model of temple-building texts” (110). In preparation for his chapter on Gen 1, he claims that “seven days is an appropriate period of time for temple building or inauguration” (117), based on the Gudea cylinder inscriptions.

The fourth chapter gives Walton's interpretation of Gen 1, and the fifth chapter summarizes his reading of Gen 1 in relation to its ancient Near Eastern background. He points to a number of ideas shared within the broader cognitive environment, such as the functions of the cosmos, divine rule, human care (especially for creation), the “close association between temple and cosmos” (194; although one might question the context Walton uses to reach this conclusion; see below, §5), and even creation by speech.

Walton sees the pre-cosmic state described in (Gen 1:1–2) as closely resembling Egyptian myth, whereas the creation account proper has closer parallels with Mesopotamian concepts arising from the “seven-day temple inauguration” (196) paradigm, which he bases on the “intrinsic relation between cosmos and temple.” Walton tones down this last observation, however, in his concluding chapter (see §3).

Israel was conscious of the following differences with the rest of the ancient Near East: In Gen 1 all humans are created in God's image, not only royals, and God blesses the people rather than claiming them for His own needs. Further, the Hebrew Bible does not have a theogony, and Gen 1 does not have a divine bureaucracy because the Israelite divine council is construed “somewhat differently” (198 n. 3). He concludes, “The greatest differences in both degree and number pertain to the divine world. Israelite thinking has no element of theogony, for the Creator-God of Israel has no beginning, and there are no other gods whose existence needs to be explained” (198). Yet Walton still deems it necessary to deal with the divine council in the context of the רקיע (see below, §4).

In sum: “Far from being a borrowed text, Genesis 1 offers a unique theology (italics mine; see §4), even while it speaks from the platform of its contemporaneous cognitive environment” (ix). In his concluding chapter, he tones this down stating that Israel does not offer any new ideas or new questions, but only several innovative answers (197). In general, his concluding chapter is much more cautious than his more detailed elaborations (and some of his earlier publications).

2. Functional ontology

The most important thesis in Walton's book is that Gen 1 presents a functional ontology. He draws on the distinction made by Heidel between material and functional ontology. Heidel argues that Gen 1 was different from the ancient Near Eastern accounts of creation in presenting a material and not a functional ontology.[3] Walton argues instead that the focus of Gen 1 is on functionality, like other ancient Near Eastern accounts of creation, rather than on matter, like modern cosmic ontology. Based on this observation, his reading of Gen 1 can be summarized in terms of the creation of functions on the first three days and the creation of functionaries on days four through six. However, at different points in his discussion Walton variously assigns the third day with one of three functions; (cf. 155, 161, 163).

A division into two three-day periods and the seventh day is common for Gen 1.[4] Walton's unique addition is that he distinguishes three days for functions and three days for functionaries. This distinction plays a role within Walton's overarching concept of reading the seven-day creation account of Gen 1 against the Mesopotamian model of a temple inauguration ritual (152–184).

3. The cosmos's temple imagery and rest

Walton's idea that the cosmos was created as a temple (e.g., 189) is linked with his view that, in the Hebrew Bible, the temple is the entire cosmos (e.g., 192). Within Gen 1, he further elaborates on this in conversation with the classics of Weinfeld and Levenson. The latter has argued this to be “the main point of the old priestly theology,”[5] but Walton presents the Mesopotamian “seven days” model as the key to this comparison and the foundation for the temple imagery of the cosmos (179). His strongest argument seems to be Gudea's “seven-day dedication ceremony” (118), but it would have been helpful to provide quotations from a substantial number of lines to underpin this point, much like Walton does for many other comparative texts.

His understanding of the literary structure undergirds his reading of temple imagery. He observes that Mesopotamian temple inauguration usually took seven days, beginning with bringing in the furniture and ending with the inauguration of its functionaries. The final step was rest on the seventh day when the god entered into the sanctuary, and “the temple came into existence” (183), that is, became functional. God's rest (rest functions as a metaphor for ruling) in the Hebrew Bible is always associated with the temple (180). “Creation takes place when the cosmos/temple is made functional for its human inhabitant [!] by means of the presence of God” (183).

This similarity with other ancient Near Eastern thought goes hand-in-hand with an important difference between Gen 1 and the rest of the ancient Near East (as has often been observed): humanity is not created to work for the gods, but God focuses creation to support life for the people (e.g., 189), as God does not have any needs for humanity to satisfy.

Following from Walton's approach to Gen 1 as the first chapter of the Hebrew Bible (and the Christian Bible) rather than the start of a smaller unit, he does not discuss the chapter's importance within, for instance, the Priesterschrift. This position allows him to support his case for the cosmos as temple in Gen 1 through discussion of the Garden of Eden as a temple. One gets the impression that he hopes to substantiate the essential connection between cosmos and temple (and vice versa; cf. 109 n. 327; 187) without viewing the Priesterschrift as an essential context for Gen 1, and he attempts to do this by turning instead to the number seven.[6] In his conclusion he remains more cautious concerning temple and cosmos, putting his earlier elaborations into perspective with the paradoxical observation that:

Despite the intrinsic relationship that existed between cosmos and temple in the ancient world, the concept never seems to have been extended so far as to consider the entire cosmos a temple. It is also uncertain that Genesis contains this picture, though the evidence points in the direction that it did. (196)

His reading of the model of “temple inauguration” leads to the question of whether the comparison with the inauguration leads to the conclusion that God entered the cosmos on the seventh day in order to bring it into existence with his presence. This might be an anomaly within Walton's proposal, as he also states several times that God is not present in the cosmos, according to Gen 1.

4. From cosmic geography to Genesis 1's unique theology

Walton's account of the cosmic geography of Gen 1 is much closer to the Mesopotamian perspective. A slightly different conclusion could have arisen with a more thorough study of the Egyptian material: elaboration on the cover image itself could have initiated such a nuance.[7] Walton argues, “Genesis 1 does not provide a revised Cosmic Geography for Israel to adopt in contradistinction to the perception and belief systems of the rest of the ancient world” (161). It seems that in this case, however, he reduces this “rest” to merely Mesopotamia. But even with his presentation of the Mesopotamian material problems arise. For example, he employs the iconography of the “Sun-God Tablet” for his argument on the structure of the heavens, and refers only to Woods in support of his argument. However, his interpretation follows Keel rather than Woods.[8]

A distinct problem arises with Walton's interpretation of רקיע that distorts Gen 1's cosmic geography and perhaps even Walton's own interpretation of the divine in Gen 1. When discussing the cosmic geography of Gen 1, he reaches his conclusions only after including information from other biblical passages, such as Ezek 1:22–26, Job 37:18, and Psalm 89:6–7. Thus Walton suggests a solution to problems brought to the text of Gen 1 by introducing different texts with possibly different concepts. Attempting to understand the רקיע within the logic of Gen 1 might avoid some of these problems. Although Walton notes, “Hebrew style does not hesitate to use a verb and a direct object of the same root” (156 n. 101), his application of this principle to Job 37:18 is problematic: Job uses the verb רקע in conjunction with שחקים. When dealing with only Gen 1 and its statement that the רקיע is called שמים (in 1:8), it may well be that the רקיע denotes the solid expanse or firmament with the waters above—and that the name שמים was applied to the “space” where (ב) sun, moon, and stars were placed. With Van Wolde, one could point out that the רקיע, also in terms of its etymology, could refer to a solid (metal) entity and that the birds do not fly within, but rather על־פני, “across it.”[9] Walton's combined interpretation of several biblical texts leads to the conclusion that God (and the heavenly council) would have a place within the cosmos.

Walton's interpretation of the רקיע, his emphasis on functional ontology, and his understanding of the cosmos's temple imagery (which implies God's entrance into the cosmos as if it were a temple in order to get the cosmos functioning; see §3) are at odds with other statements in his book, such as: “In Genesis Yahweh is outside the cosmic system” (167). And: “In Genesis, God is outside the cosmos, not inside or part of it, and he has no origin” (177). First of all, he seems to generalize his observations on Gen 1 to the whole book of Genesis, and secondly, in the former quote, he underlines this generalization by seemingly equating God (אלהים, in Gen 1:1–2:3) with Yhwh in Genesis (maybe especially Gen 2–3). He contrasts this observation with the ancient Near Eastern deities who are inside the cosmic system. The discussion of רקיע and his idea of “God's entrance” on the seventh day show how even Walton seems to reserve a place for God within the cosmos.

It might therefore be better either to drop the thesis that God is only outside the cosmos or to revise the cosmic geography—or do both. Such conclusions could foster the awareness that the Hebrew Bible contains different views, and that one cannot combine different verses as if they were propositions spread over the canon waiting to be combined to a new whole. This may hold for the Hebrew Bible's view(s) on cosmic geography as well.

Moreover, turning to the discussion of the רקיע, it appears that “heaven(s)” do not refer to a divine dwelling place, but only evince meteorological and other “inner-worldly” characteristics. Therefore, God cannot be assigned a dwelling place above the רקיע and thus have his presence located there. Moreover, Gen 1 does not reflect the Mesopotamian idea of multiple (three) heavens and might conform instead to Egyptian cosmology, which is without evidence for different heavens.[10]

In sum, Walton's view of Gen 1's cosmic geography seems to be based on other biblical texts, but also strongly informed by Mesopotamian cosmic geography. He envisions heaven as God's dwelling place, located somewhere above the expanse/ firmament. But Gen 1 (purposely) does not provide us with this information. Based on what we can read, we are left with a heaven that is the water storage above, and the earth amidst the sea below—not the three heavens found in Mesopotamian myth. Likewise, even though Gen 1 speaks about the sea, the sea cannot be simply tagged as the netherworld for sake of a tripartite cosmos.

From the observations above, it seems apt to distinguish between God's place and God's presence and heuristically draw some more terminological distinctions into the debate. When Walton states that “God is outside the cosmos, not inside or part of it, and he has no origin” (177), is this intended as an affirmation of transcendence or a denial of immanence? Although phrased as a “yes or no” question, God's presence in creation according to Gen 1 need not be understood in binary fashion. One can compare this understanding of the issue of God's place and presence in the cosmos with other scholarly positions. Resembling Walton's interpretation is Mark Smith's reading of Gen 1 as a model of creation through presence.[11] Smith reasons with the context of the Priesterschrift and concludes, like Walton, the “cosmos as temple” view. Speaking from another “mode of presence,” one might instead argue for a categorical difference between God and creation like Konrad Schmid.[12]

In order to bring Smith, Schmid, and the different positions within Walton's book together, one might differentiate modes of presence and phenomenologically different concepts of “space.” Schmid and Walton seem right in their acknowledgement that God, the Creator, is not part of creation. He did not create a heaven for Himself, not even a שחק. Still, God is present in the creation—even during the first six days. The relevant question is: how? It is not necessary to link this presence with the possible temple imagery of the cosmos in Gen 1. The Spirit of God,[13] God's words and acts of creation (such as making, naming, and blessing), and humankind point to modes of God's presence.

This study expresses various contradictory statements and implications concerning God's presence and location within the cosmos. It seems better to conclude that in Gen 1 God acts (thus emphasizing functionality rather than ontology) in the space of creation and can be present in different ways, such as through his Spirit. The focus of Gen 1 is not beyond the cosmos; like a functional ontology, it is less interested in the question of God's whereabouts, although in ancient Near Eastern thought the deities have locations inside the cosmos. The broader field of theology can provide insight into God's relation to the cosmos such as different “modes of presence.”

5. Conclusions

Walton states that Gen 1 offers a desacralized view of the world (without personified divine creations, such as sun or moon) and lacks adversarial powers. He deems it misleading to interpret chaos as a term describing the pre-cosmic situation: the cosmic waters are neutral and without function (144–145).[14] A desacralized world without theomachy also fits an understanding of Gen 1 as Wissenschaftsprosa.[15] In the context of the high level of abstraction for God's acts of creation and the lack of an analogy in human activity, Gertz argues, thus “enthebt das Verb [ברא] das Schöpfungshandeln jeder Vorstellbarkeit.”[16] This is in line with Walton's rendering: “In the initial period, God brought cosmic functions into existence” (133).

Above, a few elements have been discussed that are unique to Gen 1, such as the role of humanity in God's image. It might have been helpful for Walton to go a step further, perhaps interacting with a model like that Janowski, who formulates the interrelatedness between cosmology and theology with the triplet: “Weltauffassung–religiöses Symbolsystem–Lebensstil.”[17] Such a model could have invited Walton to articulate the unicity of Gen 1's theology. This might lead to conclusions such as that Gen 1 attempts to show that God is in control, He is near, and He provides and cares—whatever the answers to the questions of “whether,” “where,” and “where else” God is or needs to be present.

The book gives the impression of being a thorough study of the ancient Near East; nonetheless I tend to disagree with some of Walton's assessments, mainly due to issues of context. Walton might draw too much on Mesopotamian cosmography, and he is unclear about his textual context. The unspoken textual context may be Gen 1 as part of the Priesterschrift, leading to his conclusions about the cosmos as temple, corroborated with a “creation account” in the first chapters of Genesis. However, his book gives the impression that he prefers to support the cosmos-temple connection with Mesopotamian sources, rather than with Priestly theology. This textual context may be Genesis, to which he refers in order to deny God's presence in the cosmos (167, 177). At other points his textual context seems to be the Hebrew Scriptures in order to level the cosmography of Gen 1 with his exegetical conclusions from the Psalms. Walton has imprecisely combined different contexts and thus comes to conflicting conclusions for Gen 1. This difficulty underlines how important it is to be aware of one's context: the cognitive context employed for comparison to give the text relief, the iconographic context (though undervalued here), the textual context of the text itself to make inferences and reach broader exegetical conclusions, and the context of the scholar. In reviewing Walton's book, some of these contexts are mentioned, but others remain unaddressed. Despite the weaknesses pointed out here, the book makes an important contribution to the understanding of Gen 1 in its ancient Near Eastern context and makes some provisional steps towards “a more vital biblical theology of creation” (199).

Izaak J. de Hulster, University of Göttingen

[1] J.H. Walton, “Creation in Genesis 1:1–2:3 and the Ancient Near East: Order out of Disorder after Chaoskampf,” CTJ 43 (2008), 48–63. reference

[2] The word “ignores” seems to imply awareness coupled with a conscious act of disregard, whereas this category actually addresses those elements absent due to a lack of knowledge. reference

[3] A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (2nd ed.; Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1951; Phoenix Books, 1963) mainly draws on Enuma Elish, but then compares this with both other Mesopotamian creation accounts and finally with Gen 1. reference

[4] Others conclude such a division from their hermeneutical framework of Priestly theology, e.g., M. Bauks, “Genesis 1 als Programmschrift der Priesterschrift,” A. Wénin (ed.), Studies in the Book of Genesis. Literature, Redaction and History (BETL 155; Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 333–345 (334). reference

[5] J.D. Levenson, “The Temple and the World,” JR 64/3 (1984), 275–298 (296). reference

[6] While Walton rightly focuses his search on seven days, the number seven as such offers many various interpretive directions, as shown by, e.g., G.G.G. Reinhold (ed.), Die Zahl Sieben im alten Orient: Studien zur Zahlensymbolik in der Bibel und ihrer altorientalischen Umwelt (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2008). reference

[7] Cf. E. Hornung, “Himmelsvorstellungen,” LÄ, II:1215–1218. reference

[8] See C.E. Woods, “The Sun-God Tablet of Nabû-apla-iddina,” JCS 56 (2004), 23–103, (76–80); and O. Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World. Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 173–75. reference

[9] E.J. van Wolde, Reframing Biblical Studies (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 163–165. reference

[10] When Egyptian literature speaks about different heavens, this usually implies different regions in heaven. reference

[11] M.S. Smith, Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 11–37. reference

[12] Cf. K. Schmid, “Schöpfung im Alten Testament,” K. Schmid (ed.), Schöpfung (Themen der Theologie 4; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 71–120 (89). reference

[13] The interpretation of רוח אלהים as “spirit of God,” as “immanent manifestation of God the Creator” should be boldly acknowledged here (as Walton does on 151) because of the Hebrew Bible context within which this verse is read. This is contrary to Walton's indecisiveness concerning the interpretation of רוח אלהים in the concluding chapter (195): “The text of Genesis leaves both the identity and the role of the spirit/wind unclarified.” reference

[14] It seems that, like Smith (Priestly Vision, 64), Walton views Gen 1 as ignoring the reality of evil. reference

[15] Similarly, J.C. Gertz, “Antibabylonische Polemik im priesterlichen Schöpfungsbericht,” ZTK 106 (2009), 137–155 (148). reference

[16] Gertz, “Antibabylonische Polemik,” 154. reference

[17] B. Janowski, “Das biblische Weltbild. Eine methodische Skizze,” B. Janowski and B. Ego (eds.), Das biblische Weltbild und seine altorientalischen Kontexte (FAT 32; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2001), 3–26, (15–18). Walton refers to this volume (87 n. 225), but does not seem to interact with it, nor with any of Janowski's other works. reference

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