Reading Walton’s Views on Genesis, Part 3: The Strange Case of Adam and Eve

In the previous post of this series, I talked about John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One (LWGO), where he argues for a new, innovative reading of Genesis christened the “cosmic temple inauguration” view. In this interpretation, the creation account of Genesis 1 is read as an account of functional creation rather than material creation, where God brings order and purpose in a chaotic (but materially existing) world. In this post, I shall continue on with my personal recap of the next book in his trilogy, The Lost World of Adam and Eve  (LWAE), where Walton further expands his views on an even more controversial point: the origins of humanity.

Like LWGO, Walton orders LWAE as a series of propositions that gradually builds up his case. Instead of tediously going through them one by one, I shall touch upon the major points that clumps of the propositions establish, discuss how the whole picture makes sense (or doesn’t).

A Priestly Interpretation of the Human Creation Account

In parallel with his interpretation of Genesis 1 as depicting God bringing order to the material cosmos, Walton’s interpretation of Genesis 2 views it as an account of how God brought order to the material Earth by setting up the Garden of Eden as the center of the sacred space of the cosmos and Adam as his priest of the newly ordered cosmos. As this setting up is fundamentally not a material process, but an archetypal one (see the parallel with functional creation), the passage does not place strong limits on what a material account of human origins (which science is concerned with) would be. This position is interesting because while some parts of it don’t seem radical (e.g., his interpretation of the function of the Garden), others are very bold to the point of being speculative. But similar to the arguments in LWGO, Walton uses both textual evidence and consideration of other Ancient Near East literature.

Using evidence from other myths about human origins in the region and time, Walton argues that ancient peoples, including Israelites, would have viewed the account in Genesis as an explanation for the archetypal, not material origins of humanity. For example, a Neo-Babylonian account tells the story of how the goddess Beletili creates an ordinary man and a kingly man from clay. As the man is meant to do labor for the gods, it is obvious that the particular human created was only an archetype for all other humans (as surely more than one man was needed to labor for the gods).

Having established this general background, however, the more crucial part of Walton’s case is making sense of the description of God’s creation acts of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, where it plainly says:

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being…

(Genesis 2:7, NIV)

 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

(Genesis 2:21-22, NIV)

Walton argues that in both cases, the main concern of the text is of archetypal origins. For the creation of Adam, the first point is that the Hebrew word for “form” is used in other contexts in the Old Testament as not to refer to material forming, but “ordain”, “plan”, “prepare”, and forming thoughts and inclinations. The second point is that there are difficulties fraught with understanding what forming from “dust” is supposed to signify. Clearly, it doesn’t make sense to say that it is a statement about the chemical composition of humans. Nor is it a statement about God physically forming and crafting humans – because the obvious material of choice would be clay. Instead, the most reasonable explanation is that the dust is to indicate the mortality of humans. I think this is a strong and fairly uncontroversial argument, given that after the fall, God refers to the dust to describe their mortality.

By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.

(Genesis 3:19, NIV)

Walton’s explanation of Eve’s creation account is less convincing. He first points out that the more accurate translation would be that she was made from Adam’s “side”, not rib – the entire half of his body, divided along a line running from his head downwards. This is a reasonable point. But then Walton argues that the Hebrew word for “deep sleep” that God puts Adam in is commonly used to show preparation for a significant spiritual vision, not anesthetic for a surgical procedure. From this, he argues that the whole account of creation of Eve is not something that physically happened in the real world, but a vision showed to Adam in order to convince him of the status of Eve as his perfect companion. Walton does make a good argument of the purpose of God using the illustration of Eve being created from Adam’s side to craft such a vision. Still, the reasoning from “deep sleep = vision” to the conclusion that whole account is only a vision seems like a large logical leap to me that is not strongly supported by purely textual evidence (despite it making sense in Walton’s overall interpretation). No matter how you spin it, Genesis 2:21-22 seems to portray God as “sneaking up” on Adam to do something after rendering him unconscious, instead of operating in a non-physical realm. The fact that “deep sleep” can refer to a special kind of spiritual sleep is only circumstantial evidence for this conclusion.

This forced reasoning is similar to some bits of Walton’s argument in LWGO, such as concerning the second day of creation, where he is hard-pressed to explain why it seems that the passage could only work if the sky is believed to be made out of solid material (which is indeed what the Israelites believed). But almost any interpretation of Genesis has one or two points of difficulty, and Walton’s explanation here seems to less forced than many difficult points in YEC interpretations, for example.

The next element needed to complete the priestly interpretation of Genesis 2 is the Garden of Eden and the fall of mankind. Again, ANE literary knowledge is invoked: gardens are commonly associated sacred spaces, and the trees of life and knowledge of good and evil is also a common motif in ancient creation accounts. Adam is set up as a priest of the sacred space with duty to care for the space rather than just literal gardening. This is based on the fact that the words are used more to refer to priestly/sacred duties rather than agricultural activities. Walton admits that one of the words, ‘bd, is also sometimes used for agricultural activity, but then insists that based on the frequent use of the other word (smr) in sacred contexts and other surrounding evidence in the text, it should be read here in its sacred meaning. This is another example of using circumstantial evidence to bolster an uncertain point. But even if you allow that Adam also had a physical duty to care for the garden, this does not undermine the more important spiritual aspect of the role.

The interpretation of the Fall is more interesting. Walton points out that there are three categories of elements of matter in the ancient cosmos: order, disorder, and non-order. Disorder is what we think of as active, malicious evil, but non-order is simply chaos that is able to result in order or disorder – it is the state of the cosmos before Genesis 1. The serpent of Genesis 2 is not Satan (as is commonly taught in Sunday schools in evangelical Christianity), but an element of non-order promoting disorder, and ancient peoples would have recognized it as so. Once more, Walton cites the use of the serpent symbol in other literature, which was really eye-opening for me. Another common belief in some circles is that when God curses the serpent to “crawl on your belly…and eat dust all the days of your life” (Genesis 2:14), this implies that the serpent previously had legs. But this is never the case in other literature. Instead, there are exhortations in Egyptian literature that call on the snake to be reduced from an erect, attacking stance (like a typical depiction of a cobra) to a docile state on the ground. Of course, this by itself is far from enough to restrict what Genesis is going to say. Walton then examines the actual text itself and advances the view that the serpent is best thought of as a chaos creature like Leviathan in Job or the Dragon in Revelation. Such a creature were typically “composite creatures that belonged to the sphere of the divine yet were not deified” (p. 132). This explains how the serpent was able to speak, but it also means that the serpent did not have a clear, thought-out agenda when tempting Adam and Eve – it was simply engaging in chaotic mischief. While this might seem shocking to people accustomed to thinking of the serpent as Satan, it does make sense because the Bible does not use the serpent again as a special symbol for Satan. The animal plays no special role after this account.

Of course, this does not take of other implications and objections fully. The most obvious is that assuming the serpent is Satan, many pastors have taught Genesis 3:15 as a prophecy of redemption, or even foreshadowing the saving work of Christ in the New Testament:

“And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

(Genesis 3:15, NIV)

The contrast between crushing the head and striking the heel is commonly taught as referring to the fact that Satan might be able to damage humanity (especially in terms of their relationship with God), but will never be fully victorious, but ultimately defeated through the saving work of Jesus. But Walton points out that “striking the heel” in ancient culture is usually understood as a potentially fatal blow, because aggressive snakes were assumed to be poisonous. In Walton’s reading, this passage refers to the continuing struggle between humanity and the evil resulting from the Fall. He points out crucially that the verbs for “crush” and “strike” are actually the same word in Hebrew. (Checking the King James Version, both verbs are indeed translated as “bruise.”) Therefore, this passage does not indicate who will ultimately be the victor in the struggle between humanity and evil. While this maybe disappointing to some, it was never essential for a foreshadowing of eventual redemption in the first place, as Genesis is primarily a story about origins and the Fall. Additionally, there are still other passages (such as God clothing humans after expelling them out from the Garden) that introduce an element of hope into the story – not to mention the rest of the book of Genesis itself.

Lastly, an interesting problem (that I’ve never realized) is also neatly solved by Walton’s interpretation: why was the snake ever allowed in the garden of Eden? Obviously, one could argue that God let it enter, similar to how he gave free will to Adam and Eve. But Walton brings up the possibility that the tempting of the serpent could have occurred outside the garden. This is again, quite shocking as the common idea is that Adam and Eve lived 24 hours in the Garden before the Fall. But if the Garden is a center of sacred space like the Holy of Holies, then a priest is not required to remain in it at all times, and it is plausible that they regularly ventured out the garden to do other activities.

In short, Walton has brought all the major elements of Genesis 2 and made sense of them within his priestly interpretation of the account: the creation of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, Adam’s role in the Garden, and the Fall. His use of ANE literature to help understand the literary significance of various symbols is enriching and eye-opening for a layman reader like me. But these elements are happily used only to help the actual interpretation, not directly force it onto Genesis: Walton still stays within “conservative” interpretive practices in focusing on the text itself, invoking copious arguments based on Hebrew semantics in the rest of the Old Testament. This highlights to me the importance of being able to read the text in Hebrew if one is to properly appreciate its full literary range and power. There are some uncertain and weak points in the argument which are shoe-horned into the overall interpretation using circumstantial evidence, but I think that these difficulties are not particularly egregious, especially when compared to some other difficulties encountered by more common interpretations of Genesis. Like in the interpretation of Genesis 1, overall strength of Walton’s framework helps to strengthen the plausibility of these uncertain points.

Biological or Spiritual Progenitors?

One of the cornerstones of Darwinian evolutionary theory is the common descent of all living organisms, including humans. This is Darwinism’s most radical implication, way more radical than the evolutionary histories of dogs or dinosaurs or dingoes – it’s why many Christians are willing to allow for an old earth and most of the general findings of modern astronomy, but refuse to affirm evolution. There are good reasons for not wanting to discard the traditional view that humans were directly created by God. The first major reason is the idea that humans are created in the image of God. There are varying interpretations of what this means precisely, but I have been in Sunday school classes where it was taught that even the physical shape of humans (for example, having two arms and two legs, and walking upright) is a direct reflection of some characteristic of God, a view that I find incredible. However, the initial creation of humans in the image of God is crucial for the Fall to have any significance: due to the Fall, the image is now distorted and broken, but there is a way to redeem ourselves by accepting Jesus’ sacrifice. The second major reason is the concept of original sin of Adam and its subsequent transmission to the rest of humanity, which ties directly into the theology of redemption and salvation found in Paul’s epistles. This is the very heart of Christianity. Yet there are passages in the epistles that uncomfortably mention Adam directly, giving seemingly little room for advocates of common descent. The most famous is in Romans, where Paul is drawing attention to the complementary relationship between Adam’s initial sin and Jesus Christ’s work of redemption:

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…

Romans 5:12 (NIV)

 

Because virtually all evangelicals affirm the inerrancy and/or infallibility of the Bible, one can’t simply dismiss statements like this as a “reflection of the times.” Is there a way out of these conundrums? Walton is aware of these important issues and addresses both head on. In fact, perhaps in recognition of the weight of the task, he has N.T. Wright, a leading New Testament scholar (often quoted and admired in evangelical circles, especially for his eloquent defenses of the resurrection of Jesus), write an entire chapter on the subject of Paul’s use of Adam. Overall, the arguments he develops for handling these issues completes the carefully constructed, grand theory of interpretation of Genesis that is ripe for further work and advocacy by even conservative Christians.

The issue of original sin is simple to state. Adam and Eve sinned, but how does that result in the rest of humanity “inheriting” the guilt for this sin and being in need of redemption? Why is it impossible for any normal human to be sinless for his or her own life? Concerning this, Walton first points out the reason why so many seem to be tied to the idea of Adam and Eve as biological progenitors of all humanity: it is due to Augustine’s view that original sin was transmitted biologically from the first pair to their children, all the way to the present. But such a view does not make much sense in the light of modern genetics (which is separate from evolutionary theory). Is original sin then a certain permanent mutation in human DNA? How would this not apply to Jesus, who was sinless despite being fully human? The traditional answer is that Jesus was sinless because did not have a human father, but this is difficult and awkward to translate into the language of genetics. (Even if one doesn’t believe in the Augustinian view, it is an interesting question to wonder about what kind of DNA Jesus had that would’ve normally come from the biological father.) It goes without saying that the Augustinian view does not mesh well with the findings of historical genetics and human evolutionary biology, either: analysis of the human genome has shown that modern humans descended from a small population of never fewer than a few thousand individuals.

In response to the difficulties in the Augustinian view, Walton brings up a different view originating before Augustine’s time: a Pandora’s box theory where sin is a form of contagion or plague spreading to all humanity. This was the view held by Irenaeus, another prominent church father. The contagion spreads from interaction between humans – an explanation that gels naturally with the fact that a lot of sin, perhaps the majority, is committed against other people. There is no need for Adam and Eve to be progenitors of all humanity As put by Walton,

We are all subject to the disorder that has been introduced into the system since that first moment when our representatives decided that they desired to be the center of order. Its manifestation is corporate and cumulative.

(LWAE, p. 158)

In this view, Jesus was not subject to sin because Jesus was the center of order: God cannot sin by “wanting to be God” since he is really God.

The question then becomes, is this view compatible with the rest of the Bible? First we have to deal with the verse by Paul in Romans quoted above. N.T. Wright’s essay focuses on this question. His main point is that Paul is mainly concerned with Adam’s vocation, not existence. For Wright, the correct way to read Romans is not merely describing the mechanism of how humans are saved, but as pointing towards the renewed state of the world, which is now the kingdom of God, ready for renewal and restoration. This renewal is a restoration to what should have been before the Fall: a restoration back to Adam’s original vocation as master of the Garden and all creation. Thanks to Jesus, the original mission can get back on track:

In his true image-bearer, Jesus the Messiah, [God] has rescued humans from their sin and death in order to reinscribe his original purposes, which include the extension of sacred space into all creation, until the earth is indeed full of God’s knowledge and glory as the waters cover the sea.

LWAE, p. 176

In this view, then, the existence of Adam as the first human is not essential. In fact, it makes more sense if Adam was actually the first human-like creature to be separated from the others and given a special mission or vocation by God. Wright points out the direct parallel between this and Israel’s vocation as a nation having a special covenant with God. Wright’s essay is philosophically coherent and strong, but one weakness (probably due to the constraints of space) is that he spends very little time delving into the actual text like Walton does in order to argue his interpretation of Scripture. However, his drawing of parallels between Adam and Israel is another wisp of fresh air of theological thought, as is the case with the rest of Walton’s points so far. Amazingly, Wright’s new insight does not seem forced or artificially progressive, as is the case with many liberal interpretations: it actually sounds orthodox and faithful to Scripture, raising the question of “Why haven’t we ever thought of this before?” This points to the immense potential for Walton’s new theological and hermeneutical framework to result in similarly exciting new insights if others were to keep developing it.

Walton then addresses two other passages used often to argue for the biological progenitorship of Adam and Eve: Acts 17:26 (which he interprets as referring to the organizational, not material, creation of the nations in the table of nations in Genesis 10) and Genesis 3:20 (the phrase “mother of all living” – he points out that Genesis uses the word “father” in non-literal ways, like Jubal as the father of all musicians). Finally, in the last proposition of LWAE, he launches into discussion of what the image of God constitutes. Walton’s understanding is naturally in the vein of his function-oriented ideas that he has elaborated upon. There are four aspects of the image of God: function, identity, substitution, and relationship. In short: humanity has the assigned function of acting as God’s vice regents (his representatives or substitutes on Earth). This becomes an integral part of humanity’s identity, and all of this is only possible due to the fact that humans have a special, filial relationship with God. None of these aspects demand anything strictly physical or biological about humans, and thus mesh nicely with any theory of human evolution. I would say that it is difficult to find anything objectionable in this understanding.

Conclusion: Walton’s Epic Framework

We can see that Walton has anticipated all the possible objections that could be advanced against his interpretation of Genesis. Some of the same general issues that were present in LWGO are still present: most notably that while it may be true that Israelites primarily read Genesis as a functional account of humans, surely they must have also believed that was a material account, too. Walton doesn’t elaborate much on this objection, since it is true that ancient peoples held very different ideas about the material origins of humanity compared to us. But the question of whether such belief is essential to orthodox Christian doctrine has been conclusively answered by Walton: there are different but more compelling ways of interpreting the relevant passages of Scripture, and these interpretations are well-motivated and well-supported by the text itself. I think that even a strong belief in Biblical inerrancy does not require modern day Christians to believe in the same cosmological and biological beliefs as the Israelites and/or New Testament Christians did: if the correct meaning of Genesis is to give a functional account of cosmological and human origins, then drawing material conclusions about it is a theological error – perhaps a harmless one, but certainly one that does not compel subsequent generations of Christians to commit the same error, because God’s purpose for the text would then be to give an account of functional origins, and this is the only “inerrant” part that Christians are compelled to believe.

The other weakness that I brought up in the last post, that Walton does not have a very rigorous and detailed exposition of what functional creation is and what kinds of material limits it can impose on objects (if there are any at all), is still present. Walton does not elaborate more on function in LWAE. However, in discussions about humans (in this case, Adam and Eve), we refer to the functions of humans much more than their material parts, so Walton’s use of the term in this book is not confusing at all.

At the end of the book, Walton takes care to emphasize that he is not specifically trying to find just any interpretation of Genesis that squares with modern science – instead, he is merely examining Genesis closer and coming to exegetical and theological conclusions that do turn out to not contradict with science at all. I think the most admirable part of Walton’s endeavor is that he has kept his argument squarely focused on the traditional tools of Old Testament scholarship: arguments from semantics and arguments from contemporary Ancient Near East literature. Using these tools he develops an overall framework for Genesis 2-3 that is elegant, coherent, handles all the major difficult points well, and fits perfectly with the Cosmic-Temple Inauguration interpretation of Genesis One that is laid out in LWGO.  

Do I personally believe in every bit of Walton’s interpretation? It is indeed dangerous to surrender blindly and completely to the thought of any single person, and my constant pointing out of what I perceive to be weak points in his arguments is a conscious effort to prevent this. But Walton’s interpretation is indeed justifiably tempting, as it allows us to both keep an orthodox faith and believe in mainstream findings of science, which are well-attested with empirical evidence. I would say that I am on board with the general theological and philosophical thrust of the interpretation, while at the same time more work can be done, both on elaborating on the theory itself as well as more specifically comparing this interpretation to all the other major alternatives. But I think that I am not in a position to proclaim a definite judgement as I am not trained in Old Testament or even general Biblical scholarship, exegesis and analysis.

I think at the end of the day, there is no reason why Christians can’t be constantly skeptical and open to alternative views of interpretations of Genesis, as long as they affirm the core, indispensable truths that Genesis clearly tries to put across, no matter whether the age of the earth or the progenitorship of Adam and Eve is considered essential premises for the propositions to work. One day, I hope to be able to make a stronger commitment to a position that I can defend on my own without relying almost fully on Walton’s help, but for now, I do not need to let my uncertainty ruin my spiritual growth and walk with God. I believe all other Christians should have the same attitude.

Stay tuned for the last part, concerning Walton’s third book!

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