Sunday Quote

Sunday Quote!- The Bible and Ancient Cosmology

ane-waltonEvery Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

The Bible and Ancient Cosmology

Often, people who are discussing the various positions in the Christian origins debate and lining up as young earth, old earth, theistic evolutionist, and the like on a continuum (see my post on different positions on Creation) do not take into account the way that God worked in the Ancient Near East to bring forth God’s revelation. John Walton has some perceptive words on this issue:

Yahweh did not reveal an alternative cosmic geography to Israel in the Old Testament. But there can be no discussion of creation or many other important issues without presupposing some sort of cosmic geography. With no alternative presented and no refutation of the traditional ancient Near Eastern elements, it is no surprise that much of Israel’s cosmic geography is at home in the ancient world rather than in the modern world. (175, cited below)

Of course, Walton does not suggest that this means we reduce all discussion of the OT into discussions of the ANE. There were important distinctions: “The difference was that the natural phenomena were emptied of deity… they were instruments for [God’s] purposes…” (175).

Nevertheless, we should be aware of the ANE cosmology and see how that impacts our reading of the text. Rather than settling for ignoring the context of the text and what it meant to those to whom it was revealed, we should take into account this background. Walton’s book is simply superb for this.

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Microview: “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament” by John Walton– I wrote a brief review of this book, which I consider one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Sunday Quote– If you want to read more Sunday Quotes and join the discussion, check them out! (Scroll down for more)

Source

Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Books; Editiones Scholasticae, 2014).

SDG.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

7 thoughts on “Sunday Quote!- The Bible and Ancient Cosmology

  1. I read Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis One” awhile back. Understanding the cultural context of Genesis (and all books of the bible) is an important part of biblical understanding. In this book, however, Walton does try to explain Genesis 1 completely in ANE terms. He apparently takes this approach avoid the whole discussion on what do “days” mean and to claim that any science found in Genesis is just us reading it into the verses. In this way, Walton is taking the ANE position too far in suggesting Genesis, inspired word, can’t have different layers to it. Sure, it has ANE touchstones, but to say that this is all that it is, is just as extreme as saying it is just a literary construct. It does have ANE, but it also has literary patterns and it also suggests it was inspired by someone who knew how the universe was created long before man did. Cultural context is very important to biblical interpretation, but is not the only thing that defines it. I think Walton knows this, but when it comes to Genesis, he puts artificial limits on his exegesis.

    Posted by Darrick Dean | November 30, 2014, 8:14 AM
    • I do not think that Walton falls into the trap of trying to explain Genesis in completely ANE terms. He has multiple insets in which he explains several significant differences between ANE accounts and Genesis, while never discounting that the author of Genesis had a worldview. I don’t really know what else to say other than I think this comment is mistaken. Walton’s approach is far more nuanced than suggested here.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 30, 2014, 7:31 PM
  2. “there can be no discussion of creation or many other important issues without presupposing some sort of cosmic geography.”

    That seems like an obviously false assertion. Take the following statement: “God is creator of all that exists.” What cosmic geography was I presupposing when I said that? A Babylonian cosmic geography or a modern one?

    “The difference was that the natural phenomena were emptied of deity… they were instruments for [God’s] purposes…”

    Walton thinks no alternative or refutation is given for ANE cosmology. Where is Walton’s argument that an alternative or refutation is presented against other deities? Walton has written elsewhere that “I tend to downplay the polemic aspects of Gen 1 in that true polemic not only would indicate that which was being endorsed as right thinking but also would be characterized by specific argument against points that would be considered wrong in the opponent’s view. Genesis pays no attention to what anyone else believes” (Reading Genesis 1-2, p. 42).

    So it appears Walton has undercut Walton on this point. After all, a simple idea like “God created the sun” does not empty the sun of deity, according to polytheistic concepts of deity (think of the created gods in the Greek pantheon). And if Walton’s modus operandi is that the text reflects whatever ancient near eastern peoples thought in terms of cosmic geography, then it stands to reason that the text also reflects the ancient near eastern peoples thought in terms of cosmic theology, minus the obvious.

    So, for instance, when Genesis says that God commanded (vs. 11-12) “Let the earth sprout vegetation… the earth brought forth…” it is misleading to think in terms of a naturalistic process–the way old earth creationists like Hugh Ross do or the way theistic evolutionists like John Lennox do. Ancient Near Easterners didn’t have evolution or natural processes in their conceptual toolbox. Rather, ANEers had local deities in their conceptual toolbox and to them this would have meant perhaps a vegetation deity or a deity of the wild like Pan bringing forth vegetation.

    And in fact that Genesis is probably at least implicitly affirming the idea of the sun and moon as deities when it talks about “the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night” (vs. 16). The Hebrew word for “rule” here means something like “to have dominion.” And, again, the ANEers didn’t think of the sun as a gaseous ball millions of miles away. They thought it was a deity. And so when the sun is said to have dominion any ANEer would have thought this meant the sun was a god, even if not the ultimate creator god.

    Posted by QED | November 30, 2014, 8:42 AM
  3. “there can be no discussion of creation or many other important issues without presupposing some sort of cosmic geography.”

    That seems like an obviously false assertion. Take the following statement: “God is creator of all that exists.” What cosmic geography was I presupposing when I said that? A Babylonian cosmic geography or a modern one?

    “The difference was that the natural phenomena were emptied of deity… they were instruments for [God’s] purposes…”

    Walton thinks no alternative or refutation is given for ANE cosmology. Where is Walton’s argument that an alternative or refutation is presented against other deities? Walton has written elsewhere that “I tend to downplay the polemic aspects of Gen 1 in that true polemic not only would indicate that which was being endorsed as right thinking but also would be characterized by specific argument against points that would be considered wrong in the opponent’s view. Genesis pays no attention to what anyone else believes” (Reading Genesis 1-2, p. 42).

    So it appears Walton has undercut Walton on this point. After all, a simple idea like “God created the sun” does not empty the sun of deity, according to polytheistic concepts of deity (think of the created gods in the Greek pantheon). And if Walton’s modus operandi is that the text reflects whatever ancient near eastern peoples thought in terms of cosmic geography, then it stands to reason that the text also reflects the ancient near eastern peoples thought in terms of cosmic theology, minus the obvious.

    So, for instance, when Genesis says that God commanded (vs. 11-12) “Let the earth sprout vegetation… the earth brought forth…” it is misleading to think in terms of a naturalistic process–the way old earth creationists like Hugh Ross do or the way theistic evolutionists like John Lennox do. Ancient Near Easterners didn’t have evolution or natural processes in their conceptual toolbox. Rather, ANEers had local deities in their conceptual toolbox and to them this would have meant perhaps a vegetation deity or a deity of the wild like Pan bringing forth vegetation.

    And in fact that Genesis is probably at least implicitly affirming the idea of the sun and moon as deities when it talks about “the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night” (vs. 16). The Hebrew word for “rule” here means something like “to have dominion.” And, again, the ANEers didn’t think of the sun as a gaseous ball millions of miles away. They thought it was a deity. And so when the sun is said to have dominion any ANEer would have thought this meant the sun was a god, even if not the ultimate creator god.

    Posted by qed0ad | November 30, 2014, 8:44 AM
    • The statement “God is the creator of all that exists” clearly does imply a cosmic geography, if a simplistic one. After all, it implies that there 1) is a God who is presumably powerful enough to create; 2) exists something which is not God; 3) things continue to exist; etc. Even that bare statement implies a cosmic geography, if a simplistic one.

      Walton through this book does show how the Bible’s cosmology is different from that of the ANE and he doesn’t commit the seemingly simplistic errors that he is accused of in this comment. To make that clear, however, would be a book length project. I would suggest people interested in the discussion read Walton’s book. I do not think he comes close to making the fallacies that are charged against him here.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 30, 2014, 7:26 PM
      • Even that bare statement implies a cosmic geography, if a simplistic one.

        But such a simplistic “cosmic geography” robs Walton’s statement of any significance. Walton’s observation only has significance insofar as he’s trying make the point that it’s excusable that God used the ANE cosmic geography as the vehicle for his theological cargo because, after all, God *had* to use *some* cosmic geography as a vehicle. But again, *that* is clearly false. Walton thinks he can coherently abstract the theological cargo from it’s ANE vehicle… and if Walton can do it then so could God. God could have communicated the basic theological truths Walton thinks are in Genesis 1 without attaching them to a false cosmology.

        And if you think you can defend that by pointing out that “something exists which isn’t God” then Walton’s point is hardly worth stating, let alone defending.

        Walton through this book does show how the Bible’s cosmology is different from that of the ANE

        That hardly even makes sense since there was no such thing as the ancient near eastern cosmology. What people like Walton have done is patch together different slivers from here and there across different cultures and different times. But as others have pointed out, we can find conflicting “cosmic geographies” even within the same culture in relatively short time periods (e.g., Egypt). That’s probably because descriptions and pictures aren’t even intended to be a cosmic geography in the Walton, Enns, etc. sense.

        he doesn’t commit the seemingly simplistic errors that he is accused of in this comment.

        I didn’t even accuse Walton of any simplistic errors… aside from perhaps undermining his own assertion about Genesis “emptying natural phenomena of deity”. But even if Walton doesn’t undermine his own claim, my point still stands: Genesis 1 doesn’t empty natural phenomena of deity and if we apply the logic of Walton’s approach to other texts in Genesis, it seems obvious that the narrative is perfectly compatible with ANE theological geography (e.g., the sun and moon as personal deities).

        I do not think he comes close to making the fallacies that are charged against him here.

        Again, I didn’t accuse Walton of any fallacies. I simply applied his method of reasoning more consistently. When the text says “the earth brought forth vegetation” how would an ANE thought of that? Through natural processes of evolution or biology? Of course not. They thought in personalistic-pantheistic/polytheistic terms. The ANE would have understood the local earth deity, for instance, to have acted. The ANE wouldn’t have had a modernist concept of impersonal natural forces acting according to natural laws.

        Ironic that disciples of Walton are often guilty of doing exactly what Walton wants to avoid by reading their modernist understanding of nature and impersonal forces into such texts as the sun having dominion.

        Posted by qed0ad | November 30, 2014, 8:32 PM
  4. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

    Posted by vincent | November 30, 2014, 9:32 AM

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