I’m inclined these days to almost avoid labeling [Genesis 1 and 2] as “origin stories” because in our cultural river, our modern world, we immediately think of science when we think of origins. So I think it’s more on track to talk about Genesis 1 as an account of cosmic identity and the Eden story as an account of human identity. It’s trying to say who we are in relationship to God, in relationship to one another, in relationship to the animals, in relationship to everything around us. Who are we? We’re dust! And that’s an important statement. … It’s really all about identity. And that gives you a different perspective because even today identity’s a very important topic of discussion.
—Dr. John Walton
In part one (0-14:30), Tim and Jon commence their interview with Dr. John Walton, professor at Wheaton College and Old Testament scholar specializing in ancient Near Eastern culture and cosmology.
Up first is the topic of accountability to the biblical text. If we really consider the Bible to be authoritative (carrying the authority of God as inspired by him), then we must hold ourselves accountable to it as God’s chosen instrument of communication. That’s why it’s essential to read the Bible in the context of its original language, culture, and context.
In part two (14:30-25:00), the team further explores the necessity of reading the Bible according to its original context.
John makes the point that although the Spirit of God can speak to us any time we read our Bibles, that is not the same as accurately interpreting Scripture. In interpretation, context becomes critical because communication is always contextualized. Even God, when communicating to humans, had to pick a language those people would understand and speak to them in their specific cultural context.
Since all humans share some fundamental things in common, readers of the Bible can grasp certain timeless truths no matter what knowledge they have of the authors’ culture. To go beyond that basic understanding, however, reading only the Bible is not enough—more study is necessary.
In part three (25:00-35:20), Tim, Jon, and John compare some of the cornerstone ideas of ancient Near Eastern cosmology with contemporary Western cosmology.
For example, different cultures have different understandings of what it means to be or to exist, which is inextricably connected to a culture’s understanding of creation (since creation means to bring something into existence).
Ancient Israelites, as well as most ancient Near Eastern peoples, believed something existed when it had order as part of a larger system. Ancient peoples didn’t think of existence and nothingness like we do in a modern Western context––they thought of reality in terms of order/purpose and disorder/meaninglessness. The difference lies in what is helpful or relevant to a given culture.
In part four (35:20-48:20), Tim asks John to explore the idea of indebtedness or embeddedness of ancient Near Eastern creation narratives in the Bible. Are the biblical authors trying to make comparisons to other ancient cosmologies?
In fact, both the similarities and the differences of the biblical authors’ cosmology to that of their ancient neighbors are intentional and important. Biblical authors frequently employ the use of imagery familiar to other ancient cultures, but with distinct differences designed to make a contrast.
The biblical authors use this same technique with parallel narratives within the Hebrew Bible itself. For instance, the differences between the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 cause many contemporary mainstream scholars to consider them two competing narratives. In this view, Genesis 2 is a restatement of Genesis 1’s sixth day, and the glaring differences in the two undermine the Bible’s accuracy. However the two narratives are actually complementary: Genesis 1 establishes order at the cosmic level, while Genesis 2 establishes order at the terrestrial level.
Put another way, Genesis 1 and 2 are less about “origins” in the way we would think of it and more about identity––cosmic identity (Genesis 1) and human identity (Genesis 2). Instead of “What are we?”, the author of Genesis answers the question “Who are we?” by exploring our relationship to plants, animals, and spiritual beings.
In part five (48:20-end), the team explores a common contemporary argument against reading the Bible through an ancient Near Eastern cosmological lens: that this method of interpretation is merely a means to justify less classically conservative theological traditions (such as theistic evolution).
John points out that this argument reads our contemporary debates back into the text and, in doing so, starts from the wrong place. When we try to understand the Bible as its original readers would have, we realize Genesis 1 and 2 are not making scientific claims at all and are therefore compatible with a wide range of scientific views. Science is looking to answer questions of how life began, but the Bible addresses why life began, for what purpose, and what agent is behind it (Yahweh).
Show produced by Dan Gummel, Zack McKinley, and Cooper Peltz. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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