Sunday, January 17, 2010

John Walton and The Lost World of Genesis 1

One of the benefits of Christmas break is the opportunity to catch up on some reading, and yes, I do feel sympathy for students who have little or no time to read they would like rather than what their professors have assigned. I had the opportunity this past week to complete John Walton's new book, The Lost World of Genesis One. The purpose of this essay is not to critically review or to endorse Walton's interpretation but merely to summarize some of the key concepts for those who are interested in the conversation (and controversy) that the book has generated.

Walton uses 18 propositions to develop two key ideas. First, Genesis 1 is an ancient document reflecting an ancient cosmology and that modern scientific theories about the origins of the universe, whether they be creationism or evolution, should not be read into the text. Second, Genesis 1 is not describing the material creation of the universe but rather is an account of the functional origins of the world. More specifically, the world is given its functions as God's temple, where God has taken up residence and from where he rules the cosmos.

Walton would have the reader see that much of the modern debate over Genesis 1 concerning how God created the world or the age of the earth is an attempt to use Genesis to answer questions that are foreign to the text itself. Genesis 1 "does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions. The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their 'scientific' understanding of the cosmos." Like other ancient peoples, they understood the sky to be a material substance able to support the residence of the deity and to hold back the waters above the earth. They viewed the earth as resting on pillars. God revealed truth through the creation account, but the purpose of the creation account was not to give ancient Israel advanced cosmological understanding. Genesis 1 was not designed to address how God's creative activity relates to the natural world or the natural processes that stand behind creation.

All of these are modern issues imposed on the text and not the issue in the culture of the ancient world. We cannot expect the text to address them, nor can we configure the information of the text to force it to comply with the questions we long to have answered. We must take the text on its own terms—it is not written to us. Much to our dismay then, we will find that the text is impervious to many of the questions that consume us in today's dialogues. (p. 21)

As we begin our study of Genesis 1 then, we must be aware of the danger that lurks when we impose our own cultural ideas on the text without thinking. The Bible's message must not be subjected to cultural imperialism. Its message transcends the culture in which it originated, but the form in which the message was imbedded was fully permeated by the ancient culture." … we must respect the integrity of the author by refraining from replacing his message with our own. (p .21)

We should not worry about the question of 'truth' with regard to the Bible's use of Old World science. As we mentioned before, some scientific framework needs to be adopted, and all scientific frameworks are dynamic and subject to change. Adoption of the framework of the target audience is most logical. The Old World science found in the Bible would not be considered 'wrong' or 'false' as much as it would just offer a different perspective from a different vantage point. (p. 61)

God did not give Israel a revised cosmic geography—he revealed his Creator role through the cosmic geography that they had because the shape of the material world did not matter. (pp. 61-62)

Concordist interpretations attempt to read details of physics, biology, geology, and so on into the biblical text. This is a repudiation of reading the text at face value. Such interpretation does not represent in any way what the biblical author would have intended or what the audience would have understood. Instead it gives modern meaning to ancient words." (pp. 104-05)

The theology of Genesis 1 is built around the idea that the cosmos serves as God's temple. Walton demonstrates how the ancient Near Eastern concepts of the temple as a microcosm of creation and the cosmos as a temple are reflected in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Isa 66:1-2; 1 Kgs 8:27). The glory of the Lord that fills the earth (Isa 6:3) is also the glory that takes up residence at the sanctuary in Israel (cf. Exod 40:34). Various objects in the temple and tabernacle represent various aspects of creation (1 Kgs 7:23-26—the basin as sea; 1 Kgs 7:15-22—the bronze pillars; the veil separating the heavens and earth). The Garden of Eden represents a temple (cf. the waters flowing through Eden in Gen 2:13-14 and the waters that flow from the temple in Ezek 47:1-12; Ps 46:4; Zech 14:8; Rev 22:1-2). For further development of the cosmic symbolism, I would also recommend chapter 2 of G. K. Beale's work, The Temple and the Church's Mission.

Genesis 1 can now be seen as a creation account focusing on the cosmos as a temple. It is describing the creation of the cosmic temple with all its functions and God dwelling in its midst. This is what makes day seven so significant, because without God taking up his dwelling in its midst, the (cosmic) temple does not exist. The most central truth to the creation account is that this world is a place for God's presence. (pp. 84-85)

The idea of the cosmos as a temple has profound implications. "Once we turn our thinking away from 'natural world' to 'cosmic temple' our perspective about the world around us is revolutionized." We are no longer able to look at the world from a secular perspective. All of live is sacred and lived in God's presence. Even the most mundane activities of life become acts of worship. God's presence is "the defining element of existence." We also have a sacred responsibility to protect and take care of the earth.

The cosmos as temple also impacts Walton's understanding of the significance of the seven days in Genesis 1. The number seven is pervasive in temple accounts from the ancient world, and thus the seven-day structure of Genesis 1 is related to the idea of temple building and inauguration ceremonies for a temple. The seven days of Genesis 1 thus have no bearing on the age of the universe (whether read as literal days or long eons of time):

… it is evident that the nature of the days takes on a much less significant role than has normally been the case in the views that focus on material creation, in that they no longer have any connection to the material age of the earth." (p. 91)

… the seven days are not given as the period of the time over which the material cosmos came into existence, but the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple, and perhaps also its annual reenactment. It is not the material phase of temple construction that represents the creation of the temple; it is the inauguration of the functions and the entrance of the presence of of God to take up his rest that creates the temple. Genesis 1 focuses on the creation of the (cosmic) temple, not the material phase of that preparation." (p. 92)

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 a conclusion designed to accommodate science—it was drawn from an analysis and interpretation of the biblical text of Genesis in its ancient environment. The point not that the biblical text therefore supports an old earth, but simply that there is no biblical position on the age of the earth. If it were turn out that the earth is young, so be it. But most people seek to defend a young-earth view do so because they believe that the Bible obligates them to such a defense. I admire the fact that believers are willing to take unpopular positions and investigate all sorts of alternatives in an attempt to defend the reputation of the biblical text. But, if the biblical text does not demand a young earth there would be little impetus or evidence to support such a position. (p. 95)

Walton's intent in this work is to allow the text of Genesis to speak for itself on its own terms. He writes, "The interpretation set forth in this book arose out of my desire to fully understand the biblical text." His purpose is not to argue for evolution or any other particular view of how God created the material world, though Walton is certainly open to evolutionary thought in ways that will be uncomfortable to many conservative Christians.

According to the interpretation offered in this book, the Bible does not tell us [how the world was created] , so we are left to figure it out as best we can with the intellectual capacity and other tools that God gave us. But the material world was created by him. (p. 169)

I am not suggesting a wholesale adoption of evolution, merely suggesting that neither Genesis 1 specifically not biblical theology in general give us any reason to reject it as a model as long as we see God as involved at every level and remain aware of our theological convictions." (p. 137)

Evolution represents the current scientific consensus to explain the many observations that have been made in paleontology, genetics, zoology, biochemistry, ecology and so on. The question is how much of what is involved in biological evolution runs counter to what I understand to be biblical claims and theological reality. In the interpretation of the text that I have offered, very little found in evolutionary theory would be objectionable, though certainly some of the metaphysical claims of evolution remain unacceptable. (p. 170)

Walton seems open to the idea that Adam and Eve could be understood "corporately as the first humans, not a single original human pair" (p. 139), but his explanation of how this could reconcile with Romans 5 and the Adam/Christ headship issue is not clear. Fossil homo specimens would be part of the prefunctional cosmos and would not be viewed neither as human in the image of God nor as moral beings responsible before God. Death existed prior to the Fall (and was thus potentially part of the evolutionary process), and the only consequence of the Fall was that death was passed on to human beings (cf. Rom 5:12). Walton briefly discusses the issue of origins in public education, arguing that Christians should focus on demanding that metaphysical naturalism, a matter of belief rather than science, not be bundled together with the teaching of evolution," rather than trying to promote the teaching of young-earth creationism or Intelligent Design in the classroom (p. 165).

Whether one agrees with Walton's interpretation or not, his caution we must not allow modern agendas attached to the issues of origins to prevent us from hearing the theological message of Genesis 1 is an important reminder. From an apologetics standpoint, Walton's work also helps us to see that defending a theistic worldview is far more important than defending a particular view on how God might have created the material world.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why Israel Means Israel, Part 3

The two previous blogs on this topic have set forth the biblical support for the belief that there is a future for the people and nation of Israel. I would like to address one final topic related to this issue—how does the future Israel promised in the Bible relate to the present nation of Israel? I believe it is clear from Scripture that we must be careful to distinguish between the restored Israel of the Bible and the modern state of Israel that exists today. The secular state of Israel today does not meet the criteria for the restored people promised in Scripture. Israel's restoration is conditioned upon national repentance and recognition of Jesus as Messiah (cf. Deut 30:1-5; Zech 12:10-14; Acts 3:19-22). The Lord's new covenant blessings for Israel include empowerment for Israel to fully obey the Lord's commands so that they will never again forfeit the Promised Land (Deut 30:6-9; Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:26-29). The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict demonstrates how far present conditions fall short of the future envisioned by Ezekiel where the Jews will share their land with sojourners and treat them as "native-born children of Israel" (Ezek 47:22). Stanley Ellisen comments: "Judged on biblical grounds, the nation today does not pass divine muster. The promise of the land is directly tied to the nation's response to Messiah. Though her international right to the land can be well defended, her divine right by covenant has only sentiment in its favor." The prophetic promises concerning the restoration of Israel will only become reality when Israel has returned to the Lord and recognized her Messiah. Israel's divine right to retain the Promised Land and to enjoy the blessings of the land hinges on her obedience to the Lord.

And yet, while we do not know the future and what will happen to modern Israel, the formation of Israel as a nation would seem to be the beginning of her ultimate restoration. Merrill comments: "If the present nation of Israel isn't the nation to come, it's the foundation for it. The account of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 describes Jews who are alive physically but not spiritually. The text says they will come to life as a miraculous act of God. We've got the bones—we just need the Spirit." The prophecy against Gog in Ezekiel 38 envisions a powerful army of seven nations attacking Israel in the last days ("the latter years") when Israel is dwelling securely in the land (cf. Ezek 38:8-11). However, the prophet Zechariah also envisions this assault of the nations as a purging judgment on the people of Israel themselves (Zech 12:2; Zech 14:2). We also see the idea of the purging of Israel in the land as preparation for the coming of Christ in Matthew 24:15-22. The fulfillment of these prophecies requires a physical return of Israel to the Lord prior to Israel's full and complete restoration to the Lord. Thus, the return of Israel to the land in 1948 has potentially set the stage for the fulfillment of what is envisioned by the OT prophets in the last days.

We can only say "potentially," because we do not know the future and the specifics of how God will ultimately restore his people. Church history reflects the poor track record of Christians who have tried to predict the future with their Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. No one could have predicted the history of the Jewish people over the past 2000 years, and we engage in fruitless speculation when we go beyond what Scripture unfolds for us about the future. At the same time, the endurance and preservation of the Jewish people is confirmation of God's faithfulness and testimony to the fact that Israel has a role to play in the consummation of salvation history. A number of years ago, novelist Walker Percy explained that he was Catholic in large part because of how God's preservation of the Jewish people. Percy wrote:

Why does no one find it remarkable that in most world cities today there are Jews but no one single Hittite even though the Hittites had a great flourishing civilization while the Jews nearby were a weak and obscure people? When one meets a Jew in New York or New Orleans or Paris or Melbourne, it is remarkable that no one considers the event remarkable. What are they doing here? But it is even more remarkable to wonder, if there are Jews here, why are there not Hittites here? Where are the Hittites? Show me one Hittite in New York City.

The continuation of the Jewish people and the presence of the modern state are a major reason why biblical scholarship has more and more questioned the idea of supercessionism and come to realize that God has a future for Israel and that the promises to Israel are not merely to be read in a figurative and spiritual manner.

Recognition that God has a future for Israel does not mean that we endorse every action of the nation of Israel today. Mark Bailey, the president of Dallas Theological Seminary, observes that we have often allowed our theological discussion of the place of Israel in Scripture to be "hijacked by the contemporary political conflicts in the Middle East." Any form of political militancy either for or against Israel is incompatible with the Christian faith and the ethic of Scripture.

Recognition of God's special purposes for Israel should also not lead us to look down upon Arabs as our enemies. Christians have a responsibility to be peacemakers and to help to overcome the prejudices that equate Arab peoples with militant forms of Islam. In his book, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel, Dr. Tony Maalouf reminds us that the Bible has special promises of blessing for Ishmael and his descendants. God preserves the life of Hagar and Ishmael in one of the most touching scenes in all of the Old Testament (cf. Gen 21:14-19). Ishmael was circumcised as a member of the covenant community (Gen 17:25-26) and was also extended specific national blessings in addition to the ones given to Isaac and his descendants (cf. Gen 21:13, 18). The divine pronouncement that Ishmael would be "a wild donkey of a man" and that "his hand will be against everyone" (Gen 16:12) is not intended as a curse or insult. It does not characterize Ishmael's offspring as rebellious and violent but rather testifies to their strength and independence as desert-dwellers and nomads. The imagery is not markedly different from the way that Jacob portrays his own sons when blessing them at the end of his life (cf. Gen 49:13, 17-19). In the future kingdom of God, Isaiah envisions the descendants of Ishmael (Midian, Sheba, Kedar, Nebaioth) coming to Jerusalem to bring tribute to the Lord (cf. Isa 60:1-9). Maalouf writes:

The same God who predicted a shining of Messiah's glory over a faithful remnant of the Jews (Isa 60:1-3) foreordained the drawing of the Arab faithful remnant to the glory of salvation light (60:5-7). God's visitation of Jerusalem in messianic times cannot be separated from his visitation of his people among the Arabian tribes of Midian and Sheba (60:6) or the Christian worship of Ishmael's children (60:7). Removing unwarranted biases against Arabs, which neither the Bible nor history sustains, would play a healing role in the Middle East conflict. It would also create a better attitude for dialogue between the antagonists."

Beginning with God's promise to Abraham, God's special relationship with Israel carries forward until the final act of salvation history, but God's plan was always one of inclusion. The blessing of Abraham's physical descendants was to be the instrument for the blessing of all peoples. The Old Testament promises that Israel's restoration and renewal will bring about the salvation of the Gentiles (Isa 19:19-25; Isa 49:6), and the New Testament completes the picture by demonstrating how the salvation of the Gentiles through the preaching of the gospel will prompt the restoration of Israel (Rom 11:25-26). Failure to understand God's abiding purposes for Israel ultimately diminishes the grand design of salvation history.