Rereading Genesis and the Bible

Several years back Beret, my favorite son-in-law, was studying with John Walton at Wheaton and he bought me his book The Lost World of Genesis One. While I liked the book, I was not convinced of its premise until I did something Walton, as typical of Old Testament scholars, did not (and perhaps could not) do – I began to read Genesis through John. I was teaching the Gospel of John and in preparation for the course it occurred to me that the Gospel writer and the O.T. scholar were treating Genesis 1 in a similar fashion. Both consider the creation account in terms of its theological purpose. John is concerned to show that Christ as Creator (he quotes Genesis – “In the beginning”) is inaugurating re-creation with his incarnation.

Walton describes creation in terms of a temple dedication ceremony in which the cosmos itself is the resting place for God. He gives a reading of the six days of creation interpreted through the lens of the seventh day. As I demonstrate below, this is parallel to what John does in the opening two chapters of his Gospel. Walton maintains that Genesis is based on a functional ontology, and of course the Logos theology of John is developing the understanding that the Universe is preceded by the Word which gives it meaning, contains its direction (its telos), and holds it together. If ever there were a counter to a materialist ontology (the notion that existence is by virtue of material/physical properties) it is the Logos theology of John. I believe linking Walton’s reading to the specifics of the Gospel not only strengthens his argument but it also demonstrates the central role of a theological hermeneutic as the point of departure in reading Scripture.

The central part of Walton’s thesis is that creation is on the order of an ancient temple dedication ceremony. “The temple was made functional in a typically seven-day dedication ceremony” in which “the functions of the temple were initiated, the functionaries installed, and then, on the seventh day, the symbol that represented the deity was brought in and placed in the central room of the temple.” The seventh day is key as, “Only then could the temple begin functioning as it was designed to do.”1 Creation as temple construction is not aimed at describing how but why or for what purpose creation was brought into being. The seventh day as interpretive key for the previous 6 means that Genesis is not so much concerned to provide a history of material origins as it is to provide an understanding of the theological purpose of the cosmos. This fits in a very precise way with the implicit understanding John has of Genesis as read through the interpretive key of Christ.

Christ as Logos (a term used synonymously for Yahweh in the Targums) is also true temple and has come to establish lasting communion between humans and God. Much as in Genesis 1, God was the maker of the world but the point was that He was in the world so as to commune with man (walking in the Garden or in Israel) but man rejected this communion. Or as John puts it in regard to Christ, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:10-11 NASB). Creation (Gen. 1) and recreation (John 1) have the same theme: the world is made for communion between God and man. The Logos theology of John pictures Christ as creator and the incarnation as the inauguration of recreation in which the world would be made a fit habitation for God.

If it is understood that the temple, as in Walton’s description, was representative of the cosmos, the reverse is also the case and can be applied to the Church – creation as temple is completed in the Church. The tabernacle and temple were meant to restore creations purposes which Jesus would bring about through his body – the Church. In 1:14 Jesus is portrayed in terms of the Israelite sanctuary which God in Exodus 25:8 calls on Moses to have Israel construct. There, God says to Moses, “Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell [shakan, literally, “tent”] among them (NASB).” According to John 1:14, “the Word became flesh and dwelt [eskenosen, literally, “tented”] among us, and we saw his glory…full of grace and truth” (NASB). The presence of God’s glory in that tent recalls Exodus 40:34-35, which tells us that when Moses had “finished the work” of building the tent (40:33), “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” In Christ God has returned to his temple of creation never again to abandon it.

The temple/cosmos/church parallel links the 7 days of creation and recreation through the building of the Kingdom in John 1-2: day 1 – establishes that Jesus is the light (John the Baptist explains that he is not the light but only bears witness to it); day 2 – introduces Jesus as Lamb who will bridge the expanse between heaven and earth by taking away the sin of the world; day 3 – Jesus calls his first disciples as he lays the ground for the Church and the first fruits of the Kingdom begin to bud; day 4 – Peter the chief Apostle representative of those who will reflect the Light is called; day 5 – Jesus calls the Apostle Philip who will bring the first fruits of the Gentiles to Jesus. Philip, in turn, calls Nathaniel, the typical Israelite, by repeating to him the same words Jesus used; day 6 – Nathaniel the true Israelite comes to Jesus. As Thomas Barrosse sums it up, “Over these first six days of the inaugural week all the elements of the new creation have been assembled: the Precursor, the Savior Himself, the disciples, the chief apostle, the apostles, and believing Israel.”2 This true Israelite coincides precisely with Paul’s description of the Church as true Israel. “Now that the Church is assembled, life can be breathed into the newly formed body, and this is the work done—or, to preserve the parallelism with Gn 1, the blessing bestowed—on the seventh day.”3

Day 7 – in Walton’s explanation is key as on this day the temple/cosmos was made functional as God came too inhabit it. In the typical reading the seventh day is often pictured as an add on to the more important processes of the first six. If the seventh day is read as the purpose of the first six, then it can be understood that the account in Genesis is all about the purpose or function of the Universe. Day 7 in John is the wedding at Cana at which Jesus glory is first revealed. The “glorification” initiated here points to the final glory of the cross and resurrection (within the 7 days this is numbered by John has having occurred on the 3rd day, symbolic of the resurrection. It is the 3rd day after the last numbered 5th day). Jesus refers to his “hour” which is counted down throughout the Gospel until it arrives at his arrest and passion. The wedding feast at Cana points to the wedding supper of the Lamb in which the heavenly groom receives his bride the Church. Just as the Sabbath in Genesis is the final period in the dedication of the cosmos as God’s dwelling place, the 7th day at Cana points to the final habitation of God with man in the New Jerusalem.

The fact that in John, Jesus goes directly from this wedding to the Temple seems to indicate that, as with the original Sabbath, everything that follows is part of the redemptive activity of the Sabbath. Jesus entry into the Temple is the formal inauguration of the work which commences in the seventh day when the Lord has come to His Temple. In Jesus’ explanation, God did not stop working on the Sabbath, rather he has ceased one form of work (creation) so as to take up the redemptive activity definitive of all history: “My father is working until now, and I myself am working” (John 5:17 NASB). In the Temple, it becomes clear that Jesus is not so much concerned to clean up Herod’s Temple as he is to proclaim that he is the true Temple. The prophetic cleansing has commenced but what is being cleansed is the entire world. As the writer of Hebrews explains, the seventh day of rest encompasses all of human history and is constitutive of everyday thereafter as the day in which we could come into fellowship with God (Hebrews 4:7). John will mark time by Sabbath, Passover, and the approaching “hour” but all of these markers are linked as the Sabbath controversies lead to Jesus arrest and death on Passover which is his hour. “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18 ESV). He is Lord of the Sabbath, he is true Temple, he is the oikos or dwelling place for God’s family. It is precisely his claim to be able to rebuild the Temple in three days that results in his condemnation. The Sabbath controversy is in fact a controversy about the Creator, creation, and its purpose. If we believe that Jesus has won this controversy it may be time to reassess the flat literal, materialistic reading of the Pharisees and their kin.

Genesis and John provide a parallel account then, not of the material origins of the universe, but of the organization and function of the cosmos as it is organized and made functional by God for humankind. Christ as Logos is the interpretive frame for understanding that the beginning and the new beginning have to do with the relationship between God and man in and through the creative redeeming power of his Word.

Walton has drawn significant theological conclusion from his rediscovery of Genesis. He has raised serious questions in regard to 19th century scholarship (which continues to be foundational) but he has also managed to demonstrate the parochial nature of the modernist readings of Genesis. He has established the uniqueness of Genesis in the ancient world (while demonstrating direct resonances with that world) and the simple misunderstanding of the controversies surrounding Genesis. In Walton’s estimate, Genesis has nothing to tell us about the material origins of the universe or the age of the universe. To pit Genesis on any one side in the controversies of creation versus Darwinian evolution, young earth versus old earth, may be to presume that Genesis is functioning with the same ontology as modernists and modern science. Genesis, unlike modernists, does not presume a material ontology (that existence is by virtue of physical properties) but a functional ontology (function and purpose are determinative of existence).

As modernity is passing it is no surprise that science and philosophy of science have also begun to abandon a materialist ontology – with the rise of high energy physics and field theory, the informational nature of DNA, and the recognized sociological nature of science. What is more surprising is that biblical scholarship has tended to resist the primacy of the sort of theological reading Walton has rediscovered and which the New Testament employs throughout – but nowhere more clearly than in the Gospel of John.

The materialism of the modern period not only gave us a materialistic science but a theological controversy which arose due to the shared blindness of the modern paradigm. The origin of the universe and interpretation of Genesis was a flash point of the “battle for the Bible” but it was also only one battle in the larger conflict. All sides would resort to the same historical critical tools to engage the controversy and all unconsciously accepted the modern rationalist (materialist) foundationalism of the argument. The irony of the controversy over Genesis is that the participants in the controversy absorbed the primacy of a materialist ontology which science has mostly abandoned.

Using John as a template, I believe we can begin to employ a theological hermeneutic to displace the flat reading of Scripture which continues to dominate biblical studies. Here are 5 recommendations for an alternative theological approach:

  • Use the Gospels and the New Testament as a tool to teach us to read the Old Testament (the program led by Richard Hays and co.)
  • Abandon studies of the Life of Christ focused on harmonizing the four Gospels. The four Gospels represent four interpretive strategies that are not meant to be harmonized into a singular hermeneutic as they are each geared to perform different theological tasks. To imagine that our goal is primarily to harmonize the Gospels can only end by missing the theological point which each is making.
  • Recognize that how we read Scripture directly pertains to our ability to live it out. A flat literal reading leaves us out of the picture and makes it unclear how we are to take up this word and walk. Tracing the echo of the Old Testament in the New is not simply a reading strategy but it describes a mode of discipleship in which the word is made new as it is taken up. We must re-narrate the story of Jesus in our lives.
  • The starting point in a theological reading is to recognize a uniform and universal problem and a universal answer. There is a uniform structure to sin with an infinite variety of manifestations. John is posing a radical reimagining of the world through Christ. The staid old Gnosticism (that has perhaps not been formalized) is old and staid because it contains the dualistic formula which stands behind every form of sin and it is this root of sin which John directly addresses. Walton touches upon the degree to which an inherent dualism stands behind cosmologies contemporary with Genesis. What Genesis provides is a non-dualistic non-violent cosmology. John systemically sets forth the broadest of dualisms, not to affirm them or the antagonism which they support, but to empty this antagonism, to show how Christ has confronted and defeated darkness, death, and deception by offering an identity and a community that does not define itself through difference (dark versus light, life versus death) but through identifying with Christ (the truth that defeats the lie).
  • Recognize the pervasive nature of the problem. All of scripture addresses a singular problem but this singular problem is world constituting. Sin has come into the world and this sin constitutes a cosmos or a world of darkness unto itself and Christ has come to defeat this sin. To say that the Word has become flesh is itself the refutation of various reading strategies and the inauguration of a singular approach to truth through Christ. Docetism or the Gnostic tendency, dualism, the notion that we cannot know the essence of God or that we only know God through his effects, or that in some way God is not available to us in Christ, all partake of the same tendency which John is writing to overcome. John is a corrective to any theology which would understand who God is on any basis other than in and through Christ. This need not give rise to a Barthian-type Christocentrism, but it indicates the priority of Christ.

As we emerge from modernity it becomes possible to look back on the fundamental errors spawned in this period. The mistake would be to presume that modernity itself was the problem. The significant work being carried out in Radical Orthodoxy is an example of the failure to extrapolate from the failures of modernity the shape of the universal human failure (e.g. Conor Cunningham has given us a wonderful work on the genealogy of nihilism which seems to limit the problem to the modern period). The same thing might be said of the work of John Walton – he has identified a fundamental problem (an ontological error) which spawned several centuries of controversy. The mistake would be to imagine the problem has been isolated with a reading of Genesis. As an Old Testament Scholar trained in the methods of modernity, who has now recognized a significant problem with the ontology of modernity, has he failed to extrapolate from his own work an alternative hermeneutic – a hermeneutic on the order of that utilized by John? It is not just Genesis that demands a theological hermeneutic, it is the entirety of Scripture. The very constitution of the Bible as a singular book demands that we have a theology and reading strategy in which it is bound together.

1 John Walton, “Creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the Ancient Near East: Order out of Disorder after Chaoskampf” in Calvin Theological Journal (CT/43 (2008): 48-63).
2 Thomas Barrosse, “The Seven Days of the New Creation in St. John’s Gospel” (The Catholic Quarterly, v. 21).
3 Ibid

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

One thought on “Rereading Genesis and the Bible”