Reading Genesis in its context

Professor John Walton on the importance of paying attention to the original context when reading Genesis 1.



Genesis 1 and the modern reader


Professor John Walton on the importance of paying attention to the original context when reading Genesis 1.

Simon Smart talks to John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and author of The Lost World of Genesis One, about the importance of reading the first chapter of Genesis in its original context to help us see what it is, and isn’t, teaching us.

This is a short segment from a longer interview. To watch the full interview, click here.


SIMON SMART: I want to talk to you about Genesis 1, the first book of the Bible. I know you’ve done a lot of thinking about this. Sometimes you hear people speak of this material as if it’s so ancient and irrelevant to our current lives; and also that if you were interested in science, you’d have to dismiss the other. Neither of those are true, are they?

JOHN WALTON: No, neither of them really hit it on the head. It’s important that we read the Bible for what it is, so we certainly don’t want to read it as if it’s a modern science book. But at the same time, we don’t want to just read it as something that’s ancient and therefore irrelevant. It is ancient, and I think that we need to read it as an ancient text. So often today when people find it irrelevant it’s because they’re trying to read it as a science text and find that it’s inadequate. That’s not a surprise. It’s an ancient text. Those who take the Bible seriously should still think in terms of this was not written to us. People may well feel that it was written for them as they take it seriously. But it still was not written to us – it’s in an ancient language, in an ancient culture, and that’s very important.

SIMON SMART: There are certainly many Christians who take it as if it’s almost a science textbook, but do you think they’re going wrong when they do that?

JOHN WALTON: Well, I think that they are. We need to read the text for what it is. Otherwise we’re not doing justice to the text. If we make it say things that it never intended to say, then we’re imposing our own viewpoints on it and that’s not a good thing. Some people seem to think that if God was the one who wrote this – and of course lots of people make that connection – then He would write it for me. But it really doesn’t work that way – it’s written to someone else.

SIMON SMART: What happens when you do take the ancient context seriously? What do you find in Genesis 1?

JOHN WALTON: Well we find that they are viewing the world the way that everyone at the time viewed the world. People in those days believed in a flat earth, they believed in a solid dome of the sky that held waters back because waters came down sometimes. They believed that the sun, moon and stars and also the birds were all in that same sphere of operation – they didn’t look up at the moon and think ‘oh, that’s a rock floating in space reflecting the light of the sun’. It was entirely different. So, when communication takes place, it needs to be based on what’s familiar; so when the authors of Scripture wrote, they wrote in those terms that would be familiar to their audience. The Bible isn’t trying to tell people what the shape of their cosmic geography ought to be – flat earth, solid sky, things of that sort. For those who think that the Bible has authority, even the Bible’s authority is not vested in those kinds of details.

SIMON SMART: What was the writer of Genesis 1 trying to convey?

JOHN WALTON: In the ancient world when they thought about creation, I’m convinced that they weren’t thinking about material origins. I mean, that’s what we think about when we think about creation, when we talk about God creating. We very easily think about that in material terms – He made stuff. Objects. Material things that we sense with our senses. But in the ancient world, they weren’t so much interested in the material cosmos. Obviously, they were aware of it, but they weren’t interested in it. They were interested in functions, order, organisation, who’s in charge, who makes this thing work. It’s kind of like when you go to work for a new company – you’re not so much interested in who built the building, you’re interested in where you fit into the corporate plan, who you answer to, who’s your boss, who writes your paycheck, who does your evaluations. It’s how it works, how the company’s organised, how it functions. And in the ancient world they were much more interested in functions than they were in material. And so, when they talk about creation, and origins, they’re interested in that kind of question, not in the material stuff. So, I would contend that Genesis 1 is an account of those functional origins – God setting it up to work under His rule.