Yesterday I blogged about how modern folks have a certain way of looking at the world and the nature of the existence of an object, or its ontology. We tend to think of the material properties of an object as its primary characteristic of being. In other words, a coffee table is still coffee table regardless of where it is or how it is used. But the ancients didn’t think this way. They weren’t concerned with material origins because that question was settled—whatever was made was made by the gods. Instead, they thought in terms of functional origins. Of course the gods made the sun but their concern was with how it came to function in the world.

Because the ancients held to a functional ontology, we need to rethink a very important word in Genesis 1—create. If the most important thing about something is how it works instead of what it’s made of, we need to understand the word create in terms of function instead of materials.

In his book The Lost World of Genesis One, John Walton does a comprehensive word study on the Hebrew word bara, which we translate create. (And remember, in order to read a text literally its crucial that we know how to read it in the original language, not our English translation.) He finds that in every instance of the verb bara, God is the subject and the object is difficult to identify in material terms. This leads him to conclude that “the Israelites understood the word bara to convey creation in functional terms.” (43)

So what does this mean? When we read Genesis 1:1, we tend to read it like this:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing.

Of course none of us consciously add that bit at the end because we wouldn’t dare do that to the biblical text, but that’s the assumption that we work from. To create something means to give it material properties. But to the ancient mind, to create something means to give it a function and a purpose. So the first readers of Genesis 1:1 probably read it in some way like this:

In the beginning, God established the system of heaven and earth.

And the rest of the chapter doesn’t so much tell us how he did that, but why he did it.

I come across many big words in my reading, and to be honest, I don’t always know what they mean. But I like to pretend I do so that I don’t feel stupid. One of the words that I’ve come across again and again and never understood well is ontology. It comes up often enough in the books I read that I probably should have looked it up in the dictionary, but alas, in the words of Krusty the Clown, I’m a lazy, lazy man.

John Walton uses the word ontology in his book The Lost World of Genesis One on nearly every page, but he graciously provides a definition of the term at the very beginning. “The ontology of X is what it means for X to exist.” (24) Using the example of my coffee table, the ontology of my coffee table is how I define the “principle quality” of its existence.

In our post-Enlightenment world, we define the principle quality of the coffee table’s existence as its material construction. In other words, the coffee table exists whether or not it’s a part of my living room décor. It exists because it has been built. The source materials of wood and paint have been combined in such a way that a coffee table has been created. Where it is (my living room or the showroom floor) and how it is used (to store magazines or prop up my feet) is irrelevant to its existence. This is what we would call a material ontology. The coffee table exists because it has been constructed out of certain source materials.

But Walton contends that this is a relatively new way of understanding ontology—of looking at the world. The ancients, he says, were not concerned with material ontology because everything existed according to the will of the gods. In other words, there was no distinction between natural and supernatural. There was only supernatural. So the question was not, “Where did this come from” or “Who made this”. They knew the answer to that—the gods. The question was, “How does this work”. “People in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function within an ordered system.” (26)

This means that we have been asking the wrong questions of Genesis 1. We have been asking the text to answer questions of material ontology, but it was written to answer the questions of functional ontology. We have been asking, “Where did the universe come from” and “How was it created”. But, in Genesis 1, God is telling us how it all works and why it was all created. In order to understand Genesis 1, we need to shift our ontology. We need to look at the world through the lens of ancient cultures rather than our own post-Enlightenment worldview. Until we can do that, we’ll never understand that all-important first chapter of the Bible.

There is, perhaps, no more hotly debated biblical text than Genesis 1. Within the Church, Christians interpret this chapter in at least four ways: 6-day literalism, day-age theory, the gap theory, and literary framework. (For a good look at the strengths and weaknesses of these four views, check out this session {with handouts} from our e4 course.) Evolutionary atheists outside of the church use this text more than any other to attack the authority and veracity of the Scriptures. It is a morass of passion, propaganda, and poor exegesis. Can we possibly hope to find clarity within and direction out of the swirling chaos of the creation v. evolution cultural war?

I just finished reading John Walton’s excellent book, The Lost World of Genesis One. (Review coming on Friday) I highly recommend that you read this book because in it, I believe, Walton points the way out of this mess. I’ll be blogging on this book for the rest of the week, and I’ll start with Walton’s most important point.

When you read Genesis 1, what do you think is going on? Is it the story of God creating the material universe out of nothing in a meager six days? How do you suppose that the people of ancient Near Eastern cultures, including ancient Israel, understood their own creation myths? What was of greatest significance to them?

Since the Enlightenment, material origins has been of greatest significance to the Western mind. When we think of creation, we think of how something came to have the physical properties it now has. Take the coffee table on which my feet are currently propped, for example. What materials is it made of? (Wood and wicker.) How was it constructed? (Probably in a factory somewhere.) These are the questions of origin that we ask.

Believe it or not, these are not the questions of origin that the ancients asked. They were not concerned with material origins. Instead, they gave significance to functional origins. That is, they didn’t necessarily care how the coffee table was built, but rather how it came to function as a coffee table within the closed system of my living room. In other words, the coffee table did not exist until I bought it, placed it in my living room, and then put my feet up on it. It served no purpose in the showroom (and therefore had no significance and no existence), but in my living room it has a great purpose and functions within the closed system of my living room décor.

When we extrapolate this out to the cosmos, we find that the ancients didn’t write mythologies and hymns about the material creation of the earth, but rather of how the earth (and humanity along with the rest of creation) came to function for the purposes of the gods. In this way, Genesis 1 is no different from the creation myths of Egypt, Babylon, or any other ancient Near Eastern culture. Genesis 1 is a hymn about the functional origins, and not the material origins, of the cosmos.

This may be difficult to understand, which is why you should read Walton’s book. I’m only summarizing here. But I’m looking forward to exploring these themes and their implications more this week.

One of the best parts of my job is that, from time to time, I get to buy some new books. Last Thursday I order eight books from and they arrived today. I’m a little excited. Okay, I’m a lot excited! I know, I know. I’m a total nerd. But, because the odds are good that you are also a nerd, here are the books that arrived today.

The Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament by John Walton, et. al. 

The Bible Background Commentary: New Testament by Craig Keener. I really wanted to get the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentaries for both the Old & New Testaments, but I settled on these instead. These should be excellent resources, particularly as I prepare for the text track of e4 this fall.
Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga. I’ll consider myself brilliant if I a) finish this book and b) understand ten percent of it. Woohoo!
Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told by Bradley Wright. I saw this over at Scot McKnight’s blog, the Jesus Creed, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. What a provocative title!

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament by John Walton. Yep, I’m a nerd.
God is Great, God is Good by William Lane Craig, et. al. I’ve never read anything by Craig, who does a lot of apologetics, but this caught my eye. I’m looking forward to hearing from the various authors, most of whom I’ve not read anything else.
The Bible Among the Myths by John Oswalt. Yep! I’m still a nerd!
The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton. This is the one I’m most looking forward to. I saw it reviewed by James-Michael Smith at the Discipleship Dojo and immediately wanted to read it, but haven’t had the opportunity to get it until now. I think if there’s one chapter in the Bible we’ve gotten wrong it’s Genesis 1. (Actually, you could probably say Genesis 1 and 2 and Revelation 21 and 22 are the most misunderstood chapters in the Bible. Funny how we’ve gotten a lot of the stuff in the middle but missed the stuff at the beginning and the end.) This will be my next book review, but don’t expect it this Friday. My schedule has picked up a bit so I don’t have as much time to read, more’s the pity.

I preached a sermon at dia•spora last Sunday night. It’s a reflection of a lot of what I’ve been thinking about church leadership and Ephesians 4:11-16. You can find it at the top of the sermon player on the right side.

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