At many Bible colleges and seminaries today, students are told to understand the book of Genesis as typical ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature, sharing many features in common with them. Representative of scholars teaching this view is John H. Walton of Wheaton College. He proposes that, following a pattern scholars detect in ANE literature, Genesis 1 presents a cosmology that bypasses entirely the creation of the initial raw materials of the universe. Instead, it, regards them as preexistent, with their origin never addressed.
This concept is probably most accurately reflected in his 2009 work, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. He asserts that things—by which he apparently means material “stuff”—are not the focus of Genesis 1 at all. Rather, he declares, “Genesis one is about God bringing order (functionality) out of disorder (nonfunctionality).” In his book he elaborates on this:
analysts of the ancient Near Eastern creation literature often observe that nothing material is actually made in these accounts...Scholars who have assumed that true acts of creation must by definition involve production of material objects are apparently baffled that all of these so-called creation texts have nothing of what these scholars would consider to be creation activities. I propose that the solution is to modify what we consider creation activities based on what we find in the literature. If we follow the senses of the literature and its ideas of creation, we find that people in the ancient Near East did not think of creation in terms of making, material things—instead, everything is function oriented (2009: 35, emphasis added).
The emphasized phrases show Walton is primarily concerned with understanding Genesis 1 in the light of ANE literature. This is confirmed in a blog comment by Walton himself: “I am attempting to understand the text of Genesis as an ancient Near Eastern text—wherever that leads” (2008). This marks a departure from the time-tested principle of using Scripture to interpret Scripture. It forces him to view the ancient Israelites as a typical ancient Near Eastern people, including embracing common cosmological ideas. He apparently does this because the Israelites’ overlapped in time and geography with other ANE cultures.
Walton further holds that, since ANE cosmologies assume preexisting matter, this also underlies the ancient Hebrew cosmology in Genesis 1:
The evidence in this chapter from the Old Testament as well as from the ancient Near East suggests that both defined the pre-creation state in similar terms and as featuring an absence of functions rather than an absence of material. Such information supports the idea that their concept of existence was linked to functionality and that creation was an activity of bringing functionality to a nonfunctional condition rather than bringing material substance to a situation in which matter was absent (2009: 53, emphasis added).
He thus views Genesis 1:1, following a typical ANE pattern, as referring not to the beginning of all things in this universe, but only to the onset of a specific, metaphoric seven-day “creation” period. He sees the “days” of Genesis not as a literal sequence of events, but as a literary structure in which functions are assigned to preexisting raw material of unspecified age.
The Hebrews 11:3 Problem
By contending God does not address the initial creation of the material universe in Genesis 1, however, Walton runs into a major problem posed by Hebrews 11:3: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (NIV). The straightforward meaning of this verse is that God created all that is seen from what is not visible; for all intents and purposes, from nothing. If this concept was not derived from Genesis 1:1, from whence did the writer of Hebrews get it? Walton insists that God has chosen to be silent on this important matter. But the writer of Hebrews tells us that “by faith,” we understand that God “commanded” the visible universe to come into existence from no visible precursors. For us to know that God had issued such a command and to place faith in it, that command must have been recorded somewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. Where? Genesis 1 is the obvious choice.
A strong grammatical case can be made that all of the statements that declare, “And God said, ‘Let there be,’” are commands that are summarized as a whole by Genesis 1:1. Stephen C. Meyers correctly observed:
The Masoretic punctuation of בראשת [bereshith] with a tipha [an accent mark] favors verse one as an independent clause. Ancient translations like the LXX imply that verse one is an independent clause. The New Testament in John 1:1 also understands verse one as an independent clause (2008).
Walton also appreciates this fact, and wrote:
If the “beginning” refers to the seven-day period rather than to a point in time before the seven-day period, then we would conclude that the first verse [Gn 1:1] does not record a separate act of creation that occurred prior to the seven days—but that in fact the creation that it refers to is recounted in the seven days. This suggests that verse 1 serves as a literary introduction to the rest of the chapter (2009: 45, emphasis added).
For such reasons based on the text itself, we should be satisfied Genesis 1:1 is an independent clause summarizing the end result of all of the individual creative commands that follow it in Genesis 1. It does not describe a separate creative step or a temporal dependent clause. If the various “Let there be” commands are not aspects of an overall event summarized by Genesis 1:1, there exists no reasonable antecedent to which Hebrews 11:3 refers. Thus, the Bible teaches Genesis 1:1 includes creation of the visible matter of the universe, notwithstanding that ANE literature does not.
Striking a Biblical Balance
The biblical concept of inspiration should be fresh in our minds before we continue. Perhaps the single most important verse is 2 Timothy 3:16, “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” In the KJV, the last five words are an English rendering of a single Greek word, theopneustos. Of this Scripture Erich D. Schwartz observed:
Breath is the sign and substance of animal life (i.e., life that animates, vitality powered by the spirit). As God breathed into Adam and he became a living soul (Gn 2:7), as Jesus breathed on the disciples for them to receive the Holy Ghost (Jn 20:22), so the LORD breathed upon holy men, and they wrote the Holy Scripture (2 Pt 1:21). The breath of God, His Spirit, was in those writers and continues in His Holy Word today, so that inspiration imparted a quality to Scripture that has acquired no tarnish over the millennia separating Yahweh’s original expression and our modern reading (2010: 18).
This understanding of theopneustos is confirmed by the way the ancient Greek writers similarly used the term:
[theopneustos] occurs in Ps[eudo].-Phocylides and some of the Sybilline oracles and some other obscure Greek inscriptions. In the NT it only occurs in 2 Tim. Whether we like it or not, I think that the word is used by the author to denote his idea that God “breathes” into his writer that which he wishes to have said—just as in Greek thought the Muse breathes the idea into the mind of the poet or writer...(West 1999).
Understanding that Scripture is “God-breathed” in this manner leads inevitably to a critically important conclusion: it makes God the ultimate Author of the Bible. God did not merely prompt men of so-called “religious genius” to take an interest in a biblical subject and then apply their own imperfect knowledge and skills to writing about it, with the potential of introducing errors. Rather, He actually had the very words of His own choosing—words nevertheless consistent with each writer’s personal style—present themselves to the writers’ minds as they wrote. In some cases (e.g., the Ten Commandments), God even appears to have dictated the specific words used. So we must conclude that, although He utilized many individuals with individual writing styles, at different times and places, the Bible nonetheless is truly His book. It is not without reason we call the Scriptures “the Word of God.”
This definition of inspiration has a crucial implication when one considers the question of how ANE literature might have influenced the writing of Genesis. Since the human writers of the Bible were merely tools to record the divine Author’s choice of words, and it is inconceivable that He would be influenced by deluded humanistic cosmologies, we must categorically deny that the human writers of Scripture were influenced by the false worldviews or religious beliefs of the pagans around them while writing the inspired text. This is why we not only assert the inspiration of Scripture, but also its inerrancy. If as Christians we are not willing to question the inspiration of 2 Timothy 3:16 itself, we must wholeheartedly embrace the idea that God is the ultimate Author who superintended the writing and preservation of Scripture—all of it, not some of it—and He was not obliged to accommodate human error in its writing.
The Reinterpretation of Inspiration
By taking a “wherever that leads” approach in applying ANE standards to Genesis, however, Walton and those with similar views effectively discard the biblical definition of inspiration in favor of a looser one allowing for the expression of erroneous ideas. By insisting Genesis reflects an ANE cosmology, they necessarily assume that
the Bible cannot be inerrant in everything, especially in those details of history, geography or science, etc., which were only “incidental” to its spiritual message...So even when producing the Bible, the authors, not being perfect, would of necessity include something of their own fallible ideas in the text (Wright 1999).
If we say Genesis reflects false views of cosmology in common with ANE literature, it cannot be without error. The scriptural definition of inspiration has effectively been set aside. Those who give hermeneutical preeminence to the ANE cultural milieu justify this by saying that to not do so opens one to the accusation of cleaving to an outmoded theology the modern world holds up to scorn.1 Supposedly, dropping this “anti-scientific” viewpoint will give the Church fresh relevance in today’s culture. This is highly doubtful, however, so long as the stumbling block of the Cross exists (1 Cor 1:23), regarded as foolishness by worldly people.
Lest it be misunderstood, it is not as if conservative Christian theology does not recognize any ANE influence on the biblical writers. As R.K. Harrison has observed,
the essential message of the Old Testament cannot be fully comprehended without a knowledge of the cultural, religious, historical, and social background of the people to whom the revelation of God was given. Archaeological investigation has brought to light many new facets of Israelite life that had been lost with the passing of the ages and has helped to set Hebrew culture in proper perspective in relation to the trends and currents of ancient Near Eastern life generally (1969: 93).
We can certainly affirm some measure of influence upon the biblical writers of the times in which they lived. It would be irresponsible not to. But—and this is crucial!—we cannot allow this recognition to go against the straightforward testimony of Scripture about its own inspiration. At stake is not the correctness of any particular theological tradition, but the integrity of the Bible’s own witness about itself.
And this is, I fear, exactly what the ANE scholars have done. In their quest to make Christianity more “relevant” to modern skeptics, they have redefined the foundational doctrine of inspiration so it no longer resembles what the Bible teaches. In this redefinition the doctrine of inerrancy becomes an indefensible concept, and no eternal truths can be known with certainty. Why ostensibly Christian scholars would want this state of affairs makes little sense. After all, in the final analysis we aim to lay hold of life-changing, inspired, inerrant truth from and about God, not some kind of ephemeral respect from scholarly but unbelieving peers.
In Search of Relevance
Viewing Genesis as typical ANE literature appears largely driven by a wish for “relevance” to the secular world, a reason also underlying other approaches.2 It sets up an authority outside of Scripture to serve as a reference point for analyzing the text, presumably because the skeptical scholarly world will not address substantive issues of the biblical text on any other basis. This seems to be the reason why Walton does not develop his theology of Genesis 1 on the basis of systematic theology; secular scholars attach little credibility to such efforts, dismissing them as so much special pleading. He instead tries to meet them in a venue in which they will interact with him, that of critical literature studies. And it order to speak to those steeped in secular science, he must also at least appear to allow for the long ages required by evolution. Since everybody “knows” evolution is true and man is the pinnacle of apehood, to not do this means being held in disdain by academic elites.
Yet, would this be so bad? The Apostle Paul gave us God’s own opinion of the wisdom of men: “If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become foolish that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God” (1 Cor 3:18–19). One who fears looking foolish in the eyes of cultural elites today is in danger of becoming a fool in the eyes of the Lord. Paul set an example that we should not be ashamed to be fools for Christ. When he preached at Mars Hill, his sophisticated, educated Greek hearers called him a “babbler.” The Greek word thus translated, spermologos, literally means “a picker of seeds,” and refers to scavenging birds hunting for whatever they could find. Applied figuratively, these sophisticates were calling Paul a lowly scrounger of random information and ideas—a fool. But this shame was one Paul did not shrink from embracing, and neither should we. The Gospel went on to fill the Earth and change the lives of countless men and women not because the “wise” were convinced, but because the power of God imbued simple words:
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength (1 Cor 1:20–25, NIV).
The Fallacy of a Monolithic ANE Worldview
Let us now consider a different way of viewing the influence of ANE literature on the biblical writers, one not requiring us to jettison the biblical definition of inspiration and the doctrine of inerrancy.
We noted above the comments of Harrison, that without doubt the ANE cultures surrounding the ancient Israelites impacted them and had some effect on their knowledge of their world. This we affirm. But it is one thing to be aware of what others around you think, and quite another to adopt their views as your own—especially if you have a heritage that indicates those views are wrong.
The ANE scholars take it as a given that whatever cosmology the surrounding cultures held, the ancient Israelites did likewise. Moreover, they further assume that the writer(s) of Genesis bought into it. But we need only contemplate the vast philosophical divide within just our own country today between atheists, Moslems and Christians to see this assumption is unjustified. There is a similar great split in the political world between liberals and conservatives, between those who think government should take care of people and those who think individuals must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The point is simply this: we cannot generalize from some imagined monolithic “ANE worldview” and extrapolate that to the ancient Hebrews, either at the group level or on the level of individual writers. To do so is psychologically unrealistic, and it is extremely doubtful that human nature has changed since Moses’ day.
Are there any common features of the ANE cultural environment we can confidently apply to the ancient Israelites, and more specifically, to the writer(s) of Genesis? Yes...but the most likely candidates deal with reporting historical facts and using current literary norms to do so, not contentious matters like worldview or religion. For common ground between ANE literature and Genesis we must look for what I call value-neutral conventions, far more likely to be shared among diverse peoples living in the same general cultural milieu than those tied to religious concepts like cosmology. Value-neutral conventions are simply “the way things are done.” They can be likened to the conventions today of printing books on paper with pages of a typical size range, with a cover featuring a title and the name of the author, an inside cover page with the publisher’s name and printing information, perhaps a table of contents, page numbers, and individual chapters that start with a chapter heading. These are uncontroversial, common practices nearly everyone follows with no concern whether they are right or wrong.
The Implications of the Toledoths
A literary convention characterizing both the ANE cultural milieu and Genesis, without conflicting with the Scriptures’ clearly taught doctrine of inspiration, is seen in the repeated use of the Hebrew word toledoth, “generations.” It has important implications regarding ANE influence—or, equally possible, of an independent influence impacting both the pagan ANE cultures and the ancient Israelites—on the source materials underlying Genesis.
The significance of the toledoth lines was first discerned by British Air Commodore P.J. Wiseman, who was stationed in Mesopotamia and took a deep interest in the archaeology there, particularly the many ancient clay tablets dated long before Abraham’s time. In studying them he observed one uniform characteristic:
He found that most of the old clay tablets had “colophon phrases” at the end; these named the writer or owner of the tablet; they had words to identify the subject, and often some sort of dating phrase. If multiple tablets were involved, there were also “catch-lines” to connect a tablet to its next in sequence. Many of these old records related to family histories and origins, which were evidently highly important to those ancient people. Wiseman noticed the similarity of many of these to the sections of the book of Genesis. Many scholars have noticed that Genesis is divided into sections, separated by phrases that are translated “These are the generations of...” The Hebrew word used for “generation” is toledoth, which means “history, especially family history...the story of their origin” (Sewell 1994: 25).
Wiseman’s insight makes it eminently reasonable that the toledoth lines in Genesis mark divisions separating different source materials composed at different times, beginning with the section from Genesis 1:1 through 2:4a. Those who accept the Bible as the Word of God understand that the Observer doing the reporting in this section was God Himself. Since no human being was there to record it, the Lord would have had to reveal what had been done at Creation, and either engrave it on tablets like the first set of the Ten Commandments, or else instruct Adam to record it for posterity. Therefore, this material originated long before the rise of ANE culture. The only thing which might be chalked up to ANE influence is how the material was later compiled by Moses in an editorial role, not the content itself.
The above consideration must equally apply to every toledoth section reflecting a date of original composition antedating the rise of ANE culture, properly speaking. These include, at a minimum, the sections from 2:4b through 5:1a, the “book” (NASB) or “written account” (NIV) of Adam (not merely oral tradition, but an original written record); 5:1b through 6:9a, the record of Noah; 6:9b through 10:1a, the record of Noah's three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth; and the record of Shem, from 10:1b through 11:10a. Arising before there existed any distinct nations in the ancient Near East, the source material of these sections predated whatever content influence the later ANE cultural milieu could have exerted upon it. Thus, the overall document structure of Genesis may have reflected prevalent ANE value-neutral conventions, but not the content of its earliest sections.
Since the toledoth divisions indicate that the source materials of the earliest chapters of Genesis long preceded the rise of ANE culture, any perceived polemical emphasis against ANE beliefs must be ascribed not to the Israelites attacking falsehood in their day, but to God’s truth challenging men’s errors in all ages—even those of our own.
Embracing the Earliest Heritage
We have seen the toledoths disconnect the content of much of the source materials of Genesis from potential ANE influences. But additionally, they also disconnect in time those sources from cosmological errors that arose later. Those ancient sources point to an original theology and associated cosmology that included a correct, if incomplete, knowledge of the One True God and His creation known to Noah and his immediate descendants from the earliest days after the Flood. This knowledge, embraced most strongly by Shem and his descendents (“Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem,” Gn 9:26 NASB), predated all subsequent corruptions. But despite being first on the scene, the revelation preserved in Scripture was overshadowed by the alternative cosmology that arose later amongst the ambitious, rebellious, polytheistic progeny of Ham (the Sumerians and Egyptians, and to some degree the Babylonians—Gn 10–11). This alternative came to dominate ANE conceptions of the universe, just as the original monotheism gave place to polytheism. Yet, notwithstanding its culturally minor role, the monotheism and cosmology preserved in the biblical records never entirely vanished. The true knowledge of God and His creation based on divine revelation was still known among the Semites into the time of Abraham, and because he acted on it, he became known as the friend of God (2 Chr 20:7, Isa 41:8, Jas 2:23).
Thus, assuming the ancient Israelites embraced the cosmology of their ANE neighbors is just that: an undemonstrated assumption. Secular scholars assume the Israelites adopted ANE cosmology because it serves their larger purpose of disconnecting biblical interpretation from a Scripture-centric approach, not because the known data requires it. This assumption conflicts not only with what we know about human nature, but ignores the fact that the early Israelites were a nation of shepherds in a largely agrarian society, so different from the typical Egyptian that they needed an area of their own to live in, the land of Goshen (Gn 45:10, 47:3), rather than mingling among the people of the land. They were insular. We might regard the Israelites as the Amish of the ANE world—in their world but not of it. In many ways this is still true of Israel today.
Finally, recall what Sewell wrote: “Many of these old records related to family histories and origins, which were evidently highly important to those ancient people.” The custom of keeping such records, and in this particular way, had to have begun somewhere. It is our contention that it did not begin with the Babylonians, but the Babylonians adopted this value-neutral convention which had already been in use for many generations, going back to the antediluvian age. The records were important because it was a connection to “the world that then was” (2 Pt 3:6). The toledoths of the Genesis records were the original manifestation of what became common custom, leading later to the colophons found in the Babylonian tablets studied by Wiseman. In the same way, cosmological tales such as the Enuma Elish and Atra-Hasis did not come first, but the true cosmology retained by the ancient Semites preceded these corruptions.
For this reason, it is presumptuous to assume a cosmology reflected in predominantly Hamite ANE literature had to have been adopted by the ancient Israelites. As with their theology, they already had an older, better tradition long preserved by their Semite forebears, and no need to set it aside for a different one they had good reason to believe was false.
There are exceedingly serious theological problems involved when Genesis 1 is approached as typical ANE literature. Those doing so say it was written by men whose writing reflects common cosmological misunderstandings of their day, requiring them to discard the concepts of inspiration and inerrancy as Scripture defines them. This perspective is driven by the scholars’ desire to remain “relevant” to contemporary culture, requiring them to find a place for ANE literature as an interpretive tool and for the long ages required by evolutionary theory, while yet holding onto some unclear involvement by God in the process.
But as we have seen, Hebrews 11:3 demonstrates that Genesis 1:1 encompasses the initial creation of the visible matter of the universe, thereby breaking its supposed dependence on ANE literature. Furthermore, the toledoths demonstrate that the book of Genesis is comprised of multiple source documents, several of which preceded the rise of any distinctive ANE influences, cosmological or otherwise, on their content. The only legitimate connection we may make between ANE literature and Genesis has to do with shared value-neutral conventions affecting the overall document structure of the book, not the content of its individual sources. Taking this view allows us to do justice to ANE literature, and more importantly, to affirm that Scripture interprets Scripture, as the doctrine of inspiration demands.
In closing, this must be said: interpreting the book of Genesis as ANE literature cannot be done without sacrificing the biblical doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy. If we give these up in an effort to be more “relevant” to unbelievers of our day, we undermine whatever rational basis sinful human beings might have to heed its saving message: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Since the data does not require the biblical records to be viewed as typical ANE literature, doing so is too great a price to pay for the privilege of engaging skeptical scholars on their own terms.
- For example, see the comments by Bruce Waltke at http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2010/03/confronting-the-data-rjs.html
- Another is reinterpreting the “days” of Genesis 1 as something other than literal 24-hour days, despite Exodus 20:11— “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (NASB). This verse offers explicit “Scripture interprets Scripture” warrant for precisely defining the Hebrew word yom, “day,” as used in Genesis 1, as a literal 24-hour period, and allows no room for the vast ages required by evolution. It thus militates against any attempt to view the “days” of Genesis 1 as metaphorical.
Harrison, Roland K.
1969 Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans.
2008 “Does Genesis 1 describe the creation of things or the assignment of functions to things? A Response to John Walton.” Ancient Hebrew Poetry, http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2008/05/does-genesis-1.html/ , May 2 (accessed September 28, 2010).
Meyers, Stephen C.
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Schwartz, Erich D.
2009 Inspiration: The Oracles of God. Bible and Spade 23(1): 18–23.
1994 Documents, Tablets and the Historicity of Genesis. Bible and Spade 7(1): 23–26.
Walton, John H.
2009 The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity.
2008 “The Goal and Purpose of Genesis 1: John Walton Responds.” Ancient Hebrew Poetry, http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2008/05/the-goal-and-pu.html/, May 5, 2008 (accessed September 28, 2010).
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