Saturday, August 22, 2009

Creation Out of Nothing

(This post is the 5th in a series discussing John Walton's new book, The Lost World of Genesis One.)

A good friend of mine (and I mean that both in the ordinary sense and in the Proverbs 27:17 sense) interacted with my last post. He said he found some support for Walton's interpretation in the fact that his English version of the Jewish Torah reads (in Gen. 1:1)
When God began to create heaven and earth...
In other words, maybe Genesis 1:1 is not an independent clause discussing an absolute beginning but part and parcel of verse 2 (and following) that warrants a construct reading.

The issue my friend raises can be used to demonstrate some of my problem with Walton's arguments... There is a debate among scholars as to whether Gen. 1:1 should be understood as a construct (as my friend's "Jewish Torah" renders it) or as an absolute (and independent of verse 2, 3, and following). Walton, who is about to advance a radical new theory all about Genesis 1, doesn't interact with this debate at all. Rather, he assumes the interpretation that will support his new view. By contrast, Copan and Craig (in their book, Creation Out of Nothing, which can only spare one chapter for the entire Old Testament) devote 13 pages to this issue, acknowledging and responding to the arguments for a construct view, and then giving half a dozen different lines of reasoning for rejecting that interpretation. Along the way, they quote other scholars who have investigated this at a level at which (at least as far as the evidence available to us in his book) Walton has not...
After surveying the relevant scholarship, Gordon Wenham asserts that 'the majority of recent writers reject [the construct] interpretation.'

Commentators Keil and Delitzsch declare that the phrase translated 'in the beginning is used 'absolutely,' and a translation such as 'In the beginning, when...' simply cannot be a reasonable treatment of the text.'

James Barr, arguing that there is no grammatical evidence that 'beginning' is construct in Genesis 1:1, calls such a reading 'intrinsically unlikely.'
Gordon Wenham writes: "Most modern commentators agree that verse 1 is an independent clause to be translated, 'In the beginning God created...'"
Copan and Craig go on to address other exegetical issues, issues in which Walton's thesis depends upon one particular rendering when scholars disagree that that rendering is correct. You see my point... In almost every case, Walton does not even do an ordinary job of addressing the relevant issues, whereas the radical conclusion to which he comes would seem to warrant an extraordinary level of support.

One exception--one exegetical issue to which Walton gives some attention--is the meaning of the Hebrew word bara, used in Genesis 1:1, 21, and 27. His third proposition (chapter) is "'Create' (Hebrew bara) Concerns Function." He looks at the 50 times in which this verb is used in the Old Testament (always with God as the subject), and concludes that
grammatical objects of the verb are not easily identified in material terms, and even when they are, it is questionable that the context is objectifying them.
I have at least two problems with this line of argument. The first is that he seems to be unable to see this issue from the other side. If one does not begin by rejecting a material understanding of these objects, it is really rather easy to find such an understanding in many of these verses.

More importantly, Walton's reasoning in this particular case highlights a problem found more generally throughout his book. He repeatedly sets up the dichotomy between a functional understanding and a material view. But those who find creation ex nihilo in Genesis 1 need not find there a material understanding but instead an ontological claim. To be sure, verse 1 has always been understood to apply to the creation of the matter, energy, space, and time of the universe--the totality of the creation, which certainly includes matter. But most understand the use of create/bara in verse 21 to refer to soulishness, an entirely new, albeit immaterial, thing. Likewise, those who find creation out of nothing revealed in Genesis 1 find the bara in verse 27 to have as its object creaturely spirit, again an immaterial thing.

So a significant portion of Walton's argument--for a functional and against a material understanding--is misguided. Moreover, Walton betrays (early on, in his Proposition 1) general misunderstanding about the material/immaterial issue. His claim here is that God did not correct the 'scientific understanding' of the ancient Israelites to whom Genesis 1 was addressed:
For example, in the ancient world people believed that the seat of intelligence, emotion, and personhood was in the internal organs, particularly the heart, but also the liver, kidneys, and intestines. Many Bible translations use the English word "mind" when the Hebrew text refers to the entrails, showing the ways in which language and culture are interrelated. In modern language we still refer to the heart metaphorically as the seat of emotion. In the ancient world this was not metaphor, but physiology. Yet we must notice that when God wanted to talk to the Israelites about their intellect, emotions and will, he did not revise their ideas of physiology and feel compelled to reveal the function of the brain.
Here's the problem: unless we have accepted an inaccurate metaphysical view (materialism) from some modern science (as Walton seems to have), then refering to the brain as the seat of intelligence, will, and emotion is likewise metaphorical. That is, in actual fact, thoughts, beliefs, desires, will, and emotion are mental--and thus immaterial--events, and not material or physical ones. As such, they--and our personhood--are no more accurately described (in our day) as residing in the brain than they were (in Moses' day) as residing in the liver.

This realization, of course, causes Walton's argument here to fall apart, but it also gives us some insight to the fact that his concern with "scientific consensus" (evidenced by the number of chapters of his book devoted to it) is fraught with fundamental problems. I'll turn my attention to some of those problems in the next post.

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