John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015, pp. 256. £12.99. Pbk. ISBN: 978-0-8308-2461-8
A slightly shorter form of this book review first appeared in Reviews in Science and Religion 66 (Nov 2015) 37-44.
First of all, it is important to recognise that this book has been written for a very specific target audience; conservative evangelicals who are troubled by claims that science contradicts Genesis 2-3. The context is firmly that of the science-creationist debate in the US. For readers outside the States, I would recommend that they read Walton’s impassioned and, at times, touching appeals towards the end (pp.207-208 and 209-210) as this will help to make sense of his rather eccentric emphases and omissions – as well as the idiosyncratic methodology and conclusions.
The premise of this book is rather than to attempt a synthesis of scientific theory with biblical text (and/or theology) – something the author readily concedes is beyond his expertise (p.181) – but to ask, does science conflict with the accounts of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3 (pp.12-13)? If there is conflict, the reader is expected ‘to take a stand against [the] emerging scientific consensus’ (p.183) in favour of the authority of the inspired biblical text. However, if there is no conflict, the reader is free to accept or reject the scientific claims of evolution on their own merits (pp.13; 81; 183). Walton clearly thinks that no such conflict exists.
It is therefore surprising that despite so much apparent clarity that the end result is rather confused and contradictory.
In fact, clarity is the hallmark of Walton’s work and he appears to go to great lengths to present his arguments unambiguously. He writes extremely well, expressing ideas with simplicity, energy and colour. He draws on a very wide range of sources which are introduced with clarity and confidence. Walton’s argument is meticulously constructed taking the reader through each step of his reasoning with carefully explained propositional statements that build towards his particular reading of Genesis 2-3. He knows exactly the argument that he wishes to present and sets clearly defined parameters for his investigation. He also understands his readership and patiently addresses possible arguments that they might raise. It is therefore surprising that despite so much apparent clarity that the end result is rather confused and contradictory.
Simply stated, Walton argues that, rather than being a description of the material origins of the cosmos, the Genesis creation accounts relate to the establishment of (divine) order and humankind’s role in its expansion and maintenance. Consequently, he suggests that there is nothing within this reading that can conflict with science; one describes function and the other material origins.
Walton incrementally builds his argument step by step by establishing twenty one propositions. Each of these acts as a short chapter in which they are explained and possible problems are countered.
Walton’s 21 propositions are:
- Genesis is an ancient document
- In the ancient world and the Old Testament, creating focuses on establishing order by assigning roles and functions
- Genesis 1 is an account of functional origins not material origins
- Genesis 1, God orders the cosmos as sacred space
- When God establishes functional order, it is “good”
- ʾādām is used in Genesis 1-5 in a variety of ways
- The second creation account (Gen 2:4-24) can be viewed as a sequel rather than a recapitulation of day six in the first account (Gen 1:1-2:3)
- “Forming the dust” and “building from rib” are archetypal claims not claims of material origins
- Forming of humans in ancient Near Eastern accounts is archetypal, so it would not be unusual for Israelites to think in those terms
- The New Testament is more interested in Adam and Eve as archetypes than as biological progenitors
- Though some of the biblical interest in Adam and Eve is archetypal, they are real people who existed in a real past
- Adam is assigned as priest in sacred space with Eve to help
- The garden is an ancient Near eastern motif for sacred space, and the trees are related to God as the source of life and wisdom
- The serpent would have been viewed as a chaos creature from the non-ordered realm, promoting disorder
- Adam and Eve chose to make themselves the centre of order and the source of wisdom, thereby admitting disorder into the cosmos
- We currently live in a world with non-order, order and disorder
- All people are subject to sin and death because of the disorder in the world, not because of genetics
- Jesus is the keystone of God’s plan to resolve disorder and perfect order
- Paul’s use of Adam is more interested in the effect of sin on the cosmos than the effect of sin on humanity and has nothing to say about human origins (Includes an excursus on Paul’s use of Adam by NT Wright)
- It is not essential that all people descended from Adam and Eve
- Humans could be viewed as distinct creatures and a special creation of God even if there was material continuity
Walton’s problem: scientific or evangelical thinking?
With the proviso of a couple of points, there is nothing here that would surprise any theology or biblical studies undergraduate. For the most part, Walton’s propositions have been part of European critical biblical studies for over a century; particularly those relating to the archetypal nature of the accounts and their reflection of a very different worldview from that expressed in contemporary literature. This might be the reason why Europe has not experienced the ferocity of the evolution/creationism debate encountered in the US. However, what is striking is the unusual (and some might find questionable) way Walton reaches these conclusions. Ironically, Walton’s problem is not his attempt to balance his reading of Genesis 2-3 with current scientific thinking, but trying to balance it within his own (predefined) parameters of conservative evangelical thought.
Ironically, Walton’s problem is not trying to argue that the creation accounts do not describe the scientific processes of material origins (cosmos and humanity), but how a non-material reading of the texts make sense theologically within the parameters of conservative evangelical thought.
Walton writes for an audience that hold definite views of the Bible as an authoritative, inerrant, infallible and divinely inspired text (a position which he also claims to hold) (pp.13-14; 15-17; 19). The overall tenor of the book is one of finding oneself in the middle of an in-group conversation between people who share a common set of beliefs. Consequently, frames of reference are (generally) left unexamined or are unspecified, but, nevertheless, there is an assumption that the reader will also share them. Hence Walton begins his discussion on sin and death (pp.153-160) by appealing to those shared beliefs without the need for any critical discussion; for example, ‘We all agree that theologically, biblically and experientially, sin is…’ (p.153) (italics added for emphasis).
‘An approachable teacher-pastor’
Walton takes the role of an approachable teacher-pastor who gently but firmly leads his young flock through a subject that each view as being potentially threatening to the Christian faith. The reader is repeatedly assured how a particular reading/proposition upholds the belief in a divinely inspired and inerrant text (for example, p.99). When he offers an alternative to the traditional interpretation of the text, he re-assures the reader of the dynamic nature of interpretation and that we are simply following in the footsteps of the fathers of the Protestant faith (pp.11-12, 23, 202). The reader is also repeatedly reminded that, should science be found to contradict the biblical text, science must be rejected in favour of the revealed truth in the Bible. For example, addressing the argument that evolutionary models make the need for a creator God obsolete, Walton states, ‘Obviously such conclusions cannot be accepted by Christians.’ (p.191). At all times, he is keen to assert that the Bible is the means through which God communicates his revealed truth to the church (Walton’s readings are highly Christocentric) (pp.15-17) and to endorse the figure of a creator God: ‘[W]hen God created the material cosmos (and he is the one who did), he did it ex nihilo.’(p.33).
Walton appears to want to distance himself from critical (particularly liberal) scholarship. There is a total absence of any acknowledgement to pre-1990 European biblical scholarship.
Walton’s problem is not trying to argue that the creation accounts do not describe the scientific processes of material origins (cosmos and humanity), but how a non-material reading of the texts make sense theologically within the parameters of conservative evangelical thought. Walton quickly establishes that the seven days of Genesis 1 concern the divine ordering of an inchoate chaos (pp.67-68). Although this is a fairly standard critical reading, Walton appears to want to distance himself from critical (particularly liberal) scholarship. There is a total absence of any acknowledgement to pre-1990 European biblical scholarship. Walton instead bases his interpretation on his own analysis of the text, which he sets out in his earlier book The Lost World of Genesis One. Consequently, the first few chapters are simply a summary of the main arguments he presents there. While this might be an editorial decision to avoid duplication and putting the reader off with too much technical information, unfortunately, it does mean that the reader is not always able to critically assess the evidence that has been put forward or examine the methodology supporting the conclusions. In this respect, the footnotes relating to these sections are wholly inadequate, generally referring to Walton’s earlier works, and not to his primary sources.
Walton bases his interpretation on his own analysis of the text, which he sets out in his earlier book The Lost World of Genesis One.
Genesis 2 as a continuation rather than recapitulation of Genesis 1
Walton understands the Genesis account(s) as describing the creation of sacred space through the establishment of divine order within a disordered cosmos. He then develops this theme using the ‘temple’ motif (pp.46-52), which is particularly relevant to Yahweh’s siting of the garden (pp.104; 116-118). For Walton, Genesis 1 is the story of the creation of a ‘home’ (non-material) rather than the building of a ‘house’ (material) (p.45).
Eden should not be viewed as being perfect
Rather than reading Genesis 2 as a more detailed recapitulation of Day Six in Genesis 1, Walton views it as a continuation of the narrative, which is set some time after the creation (pp.63-69). He argues that the account is not about material human origins, but the divine commission of humankind to continue God’s work of establishing and maintaining order. Extending his depiction of Eden as a sacred space (temple), Walton then describes how Adam and Eve are assigned roles as priests (pp.104-115) – although it is noted that Walton does have to clarify precisely what he means by ‘priest’ (pp.112-113). Incidentally, emphasising once more Hiebert’s criticism that modern readings of Gen 2 predominantly overlook/reject their role as farmers. For this to work, Walton has to depart from some traditional interpretations. He asserts that the repeated divine declarations of טוֹב (tov – ‘good’) in Genesis 1 do not denote perfection (pp.54-57). This means that not even Eden should be viewed as being perfect; for Walton, a perfect cosmos will only be possible following the new creation (p.150). Walton contends that, although the process of ordering had been started by Yahweh, it was Adam and Eve’s priestly role to continue that work in the ‘temple’ of Eden (p.150). Consequently, according to Walton, the created world of Genesis 1 and 2 should not be viewed as perfect, but contained elements of non-order, disorder (pp.52; 57), and even pain and death (p.150; 159-160). Furthermore, Genesis 2 does not describe a de novo creation of humans (although Walton allows readers to adopt this understanding if they want, p.204), but aetiologically explains the close relationship between men and women (p.81); neatly shoring up another key conservative concern – heterosexual marriage. Adam and Eve are therefore seen as archetypal representatives chosen from a population of humans by Yahweh to work alongside him.
The problem of the snake
Whilst rightly pointing out the anachronism of identifying the snake with Satan… [Walton] makes no attempt to explain how he sees this event in real terms.
Walton is strongly informed by a ‘plain sense’ view of scripture (p.23) whereby, even though some texts may contain multiple meanings, biblical texts also have an unambiguous message that is open to everyone; however, he is careful in his use of ‘literal interpretation’ (p.72). Therefore, alongside this archetypal reading, Walton is also keen to argue that, although written ‘imagistically’ (Walton’s preferred term for ‘myth’; pp.136-139), it does not mean that the events were not historical (pp.96-103). In other words, the events recorded in Genesis 2-3 did, in some form, actually take place. Walton concedes that not everyone will accept his argument and emphasises that such a reading is not theologically contingent and offers it to those who might find it helpful. However, Walton fails to explain the numerous questions that his approach raises. Particularly problematic is his treatment of the snake. Walton examines the snake motif within Ancient Near Eastern (A.N.E.) literature and correctly identifies the highly ambiguous role it played there. The mythic nature of the serpent as a figure of legend, once again, is widely accepted in scholarship. However, Walton insists that the text is also an account of an actual event – albeit ‘imagistically’ presented. Whilst rightly pointing out the anachronism of identifying the snake with Satan (pp.128-129) – Walton views it as a liminal creature of non-order or a chaos creature (pp.133-136) – he makes no attempt to explain how he sees this event in real terms. Even though he addresses the question about possible legs, he makes no reference to the snake’s ability to talk. In other words, how much of the text (or any like it) denote the actual event and how much does he read as poetic/symbolic (and by what criteria)?
Impressive range of ANE texts
Walton is keen to discount any relationship between A.N.E. and biblical texts, treating the former as mythical literature and the latter as inspired revelation.
Throughout the book, Walton draws on an impressively wide range of A.N.E. texts. However, his use of them is undermined by his methodology. From the outset, the theological constraints that he places on it predetermine its outcomes. When, in the introduction, he explains the usefulness of comparing the biblical text with literature from the A.N.E., he then adds that this should only be done in a way that the ‘broad spectrum of core theology is retained: the authority of Scripture’ (pp.13-14). Therefore, Walton is keen to discount any relationship between A.N.E. and biblical texts, treating the former as mythical literature and the latter as inspired revelation. In so doing, Walton seems to overplay the uniqueness of the Israelite depiction of Yahweh (for Walton, the Christian God) and his relationship with humanity in contrast to, what he calls, the ‘Great Symbiosis’ (p.242) of the A.N.E., whereby humans work to meet the needs of their gods (pp.88; 91).
His desire to present the biblical texts as unique also means that he seriously underplays the motif of order and chaos within the A.N.E., particularly the Egyptian cosmologies. It is therefore not surprising that, for Walton, Genesis 3 presents a unique depiction of the creator God because any reading that would offer an alternative portrait has been rejected by his theologically prescribed methodology.
However, there is an even greater methodological problem that stems from Walton’s lack of acknowledgement of source critical readings of Genesis. This severely weakens his comparative and exegetical methodology. Most scholars view the creation account of Genesis 2 as being drawn from a much earlier source than Genesis 1; Genesis 1 is generally viewed as belonging to the Priestly (‘P’) tradition and Genesis 2 as either reflecting the Yahwist (‘J’) source or, more latterly, ‘early non-P’ strata. This means that the creation texts are chronologically layered; reflecting different ages, theologies, literary and historical contexts. Although both relate to the creation of the cosmos and humanity, the accounts are generally understood to be making different (not necessarily contradictory) socio-theological points. However, Walton’s starting point is the text as it appears in the Old Testament today – something that most scholars believe to have been edited into (approximately) its present form during the Post-exilic period (c. 5th century B.C.E. and later). Although he acknowledges that the two creation accounts are separate (p.65) and that the text of Genesis has undergone editorial change (p.164), Walton constantly reads them as a continuous text (pp.41; 55; 64; 89).
Whilst repeatedly referring to ‘the ancient world’ and the ‘A.N.E.’, he is vague about any specific dates. At one point he links Genesis 2 with second millennium B.C.E. (p.121) – much earlier than most scholars would place it. Moreover, Walton is working with a text in its final editorialised form which is centuries later still. This lack of precision problematises Walton’s attempts to draw meaningful data from his comparisons, particularly in light of his highly generalised and unsubstantiated assertions that those in the ancient Near East thought in a particular way or used particular literary conventions.
The question for the exegete is not how [a] word has been used in later texts, but what did it denote at the time of writing?
More seriously, from an exegetical (critical study of the text) point of view, this can be very problematic. Although canonical criticism (using one biblical text to help understand another), has been part of the Jewish (Midrashic) and later Christian interpretive tradition for centuries, it does not help us to understand individual texts within their particular historical and literary contexts. Although Walton recognises that the meanings of words can change over time (p.33), he nevertheless persists in comparing words in Genesis 2 with instances of them in other biblical texts regardless of their chronology. For example, he bases his argument that יָצַר (yṣr – ‘formed’) does not necessarily imply a material act by comparing its use in 2 Kings, Isaiah, Psalms, Zechariah, Amos and Jeremiah (pp.71-72). However, the question for the exegete is not how this word has been used in later texts, but what did it mean at the time of writing? It might be the case (although I remain rather sceptical) that later readers of Genesis 2 understood ‘yṣr ‘ in a non-material way, but that is totally different to asserting that therefore this must have been how it was originally used.
Although Walton is keen to describe his textual analysis as ‘exegesis’, it can be seen that it is exegesis done through a very specific theological lens.
The New Testament also plays an important interpretive role in Walton’s textual analysis. Whilst acknowledging that New Testament and Christocentric readings of the creation accounts are not always appropriate (p.128), his interpretation is essentially driven by Christian soteriology. Consequently, although Walton is keen to describe his textual analysis as ‘exegesis’ (pp.103; 194; 206), it can be seen that it is exegesis done through a very specific theological lens.
the work of salvation through Christ is not simply to save humans, but to once more include humankind in the greater work of bringing ‘salvation’ to the cosmos
Although the flawed methodology and theological bias means that I would be reluctant to recommend this book to my students and that the book’s overall contribution to the science/religion debate is fairly limited, it would be unfair not to acknowledge its merits. Walton asks some serious questions of the text and, while not everyone will agree with him, posits some interesting theological arguments (Adam and Eve not being the first humans, non-order and specifically death being part of the original pre-fall creation). However, its main contribution relates to eco-theology and the environment. Walton uses the creation to resituate Christian soteriology (traditionally, the salvation of humankind) from its essentially anthropocentric focus to the cosmos. This change in direction is also robustly supported by NT Wrights’ excursive chapter (pp.170-180). Wright also argues for a change in focus away from a purely anthropocentric understanding of salvation in his recent Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2013). In other words, the work of salvation through Christ is not simply to save humans, but to once more include humankind in the greater work of bringing ‘salvation’ to the cosmos.