Genesis 1 Is Ancient Cosmology

gneI was with my wife this morning attending to some matters when I came across my friend’s, Father Dale Brown, Facebook status in regards to his reading “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” by N.T. Wright. His status caught me attention: 

The problem with N.T. Wright’s new book is that he throws out about 1000 different minute things that make you wish that you had a whole book on that bit as well and he spends only a paragraph or two on it. Like how Genesis 1 could have been understood in the ANE world as the construction of a ‘temple.’ How the Temple in Jerusalem was seen as the beginning of that restoration, for in Jewish theology the Temple was a microcosm of all Creation. Consequently, in Christ the Temple, his body, resurrection and those constituted by us through baptism is the realization of the renewed Creation which was lost in the garden but restored when Christ was resurrected in the Garden tomb.”

This caught my attention for many reasons. I’m a fan of N.T. Wright. I’m a theology nerd. I’m Eastern Orthodox. This view held by Wright in regards to Genesis 1 is in fact a deeply Orthodox belief as well! Hence my browsing the status and its comments. While going through the comments someone recommend John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate“. The book looks amazing, and is already on my wish list. I may in fact get a used copy tonight! We’ll see, but I digress. 

I found a blog online with some thoughts directly from the book that I wish to share here today. Many Orthodox theologians would be or are critical of the historical methods of interpretation, but in regards to Genesis I think it is both a serious mistake to disregard the cultural context as well as contradictory to the Fathers, who wouldn’t take issue with it. This isn’t to say that reading in through the lens of Christ is wrong either. It certainly isn’t! In fact, I think both understandings bring Genesis to a brighter, fuller picture. What Father Dale says above hints at that as well. This historical reading of Genesis doesn’t neglect a theological reading of Genesis by any means, so far as I can tell with what I have read in the book and heard from Kurt Willems in his review of Walton’s book

What stands out to me about Walton’s right on reading is that it gets to the heart of what Father Alexander Schmemann writes about in “For the Life of the World“. Father Alexander, as well as the Orthodox, believe that man was created primarily as priest. I believe in Walton’s reading of Genesis 1 in regards to “Cosmic Temple” that it blends perfectly with the Orthodox understanding of man as priest. The Orthodox would agree with the cosmic temple notions, but that also solidifies our position, as well as Fr. Alex’s, that man’s true fall was “living non-eucharistic lives in a non-eucharistic world”. Meaning if God created the cosmos to be His temple then He created man primarily as priests. And as a priest, he is to take that which God has created and offer it back to God in thanksgiving to God.

I believe the themes run beautifully together here! And it carries through the entire Scripture and is embedded even in St. Paul and the New Testament’s theology, especially their soteriology. I can’t speak to all the book being in agreement with the Orthodox faith having not read it all, but what I have read and heard so far there is a lot of agreement! 

So without further comment enjoy the short excepts from Walton’s book. Hope it makes ya think! 


Genesis 1 is Ancient Cosmology

By John H. Walton
Professor of Old Testament
Wheaton College
March 2010


The Bible was written for everyone, but specifically to Israel. As a result we have to read all biblical texts, including (and maybe especially) Genesis 1 in its cultural context—as a text that is likely to have a lot more in common with ancient literature than with modern science. This does not result in claims of borrowing or suggestions that Genesis should also be read as “mythology” (however defined), but that ancient perspectives on the world and its origins need to be understood.

Ancient Cosmology is Function-oriented

In the ancient world and in the Bible, something existed not when it had physical properties, but when it had been separated from other things, given a name and a role within an ordered system. This is a functional ontology rather than a material ontology. In this view, when something does not exist, it is lacking role, not lacking matter. Consequently, to create something (cause it to exist) means to give it a function, not material properties.

“Create” (Hebrew Bara’ ) Concerns Functions

The Hebrew word translated “create” should be understood within a functional ontology—i.e., it means to assign a role or function. This is evident through a word study of the usage of the biblical term itself where the direct object of the verb is always a functional entity not a material object. Theologians of the past have concluded that since materials were never mentioned that it must mean manufacture of objects out of nothing. Alternatively, and preferably, it does not mention materials because it does not refer to manufacturing. Bara’ deals with functional origins, not material origins.

Beginning State in Genesis 1 is Non-functional

In Genesis 1:2 the “before” picture, as throughout the ancient Near East, is portrayed in non-functional, non-productive terms (tohu and bohu) in which matter already exists. If this were an account of material origins, it would start with no matter. As an account of functional origins, it starts with no functions.

Days 1-3 in Genesis 1 Establish Functions

In the ancient world, light was not an object, and day 1 does not recount the manufacture of an object. Verses 4-5 do not make sense unless we understand “light” as referring to “a period of light.” If that is what it means in vv. 4-5, then it logically must mean the same in v.3. Thus on day 1 God created a period of light to alternate with a period of darkness, i.e., God created time—a function. On day two, God created weather (described in accordance with their cosmic geography) and on day three he created fecundity/fertility/agriculture. These three functions are referred to again in Gen. 8:22 and are the principle functions that figure in ancient Near Eastern cosmological texts.

Days 4-6 in Genesis 1 Install Functionaries

Days 4-6 involve installing the functionaries that will operate within the spheres of the three functions described in days 1-3. The description continues to be functional (notice on day 4: signs, festivals, days and years—all functional in relation to people). This incidentally solves the age old problem regarding how “light” can be created on day 1 and the sun not until day four. The contradiction only exists if this is an account of material origins. In a functional perspective, time is much more significant than the sun; the former is a function, the latter simply a functionary. Everything is designated “good” indicating that it functions properly in the system (notice later, it is NOT good for man to be alone: functional). The description of people is also in functional terms from the image of God through the blessing. And God created (bara’ ) them MALE AND FEMALE—functional categories.

Divine Rest is in a Temple

In the ancient world, as soon as “rest” is mentioned everyone would have known exactly what sort of text this was: gods rest in temples and temples are built so that gods can rest in them. Rest is not a term of disengagement but a term of engagement, i.e., everything is in place now so the deity can take up his place at the helm in the control room of the cosmos and begin operations. Rest throughout the Bible indicates that everything is stable and secure and life and the cosmos may proceed as they were intended.

The Cosmos Is a Temple

In the ancient world and in the Bible, the cosmos was understood to be a gigantic temple (Isa. 66:1), and temples were designed to be a micro-cosmos (see description of the Garden of Eden and the Temple vision of Ezekiel; there is symbolism in the tabernacle/temple furniture and décor). Genesis 1 is portraying cosmic origins in terms that would be recognized as a temple building account.

The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Relate to the Cosmic Temple Inauguration

If cosmic origins are described here in functional terms and follow the pattern of temple building texts, then the point is made that the cosmic temple is here being made functional. When a temple was built, it became functional not when all of the physical work had been done (building, furniture, priests’ garments) but in an inauguration ceremony that in a variety of texts throughout the ancient world lasted seven days. During those seven days, the functions of the temple were identified, the functionaries installed, the priests commissioned and most importantly that which represented the deity was brought into the center of the sacred space where he took up his rest. Then the temple was functional—it existed. If this is the paradigm in Genesis 1, then the seven days can easily be understood as regular days and the account can be understood as an inauguration of the cosmic temple that initiates the functions by which it operates.

The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Do Not Concern Material Origins

If the seven days refer to the seven days of cosmic temple inauguration, days that concern origins of functions not material, then the seven days and Genesis 1 as a whole have nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth. This is not to say that God was uninvolved in material origins—it only contends that Genesis 1 is not the story of material origins.

“Functional Cosmic Temple” Offers Face Value Exegesis

The hermeneutical commitment to read the text at face value elevates this interpretation since it makes an attempt to understand the text as the author and audience would have understood it. It does not reduce the text to a symbolic, figurative, theological or literary reading, as is often done in the attempt to correlate the text to modern science. Concordism applies scientific meanings to words and phrases in the text that are modern—that the ancient readers would never have had. Day-age seeks to make room for an old earth. Both of these approaches struggle because they are still trying to get Genesis to operate as an account of material origins for an audience that has a material ontology and cannot think in any other way.

Other Theories of Genesis 1 Either Go Too Far or Not Far Enough

The Framework Hypothesis recognizes a literary structuring that is evident in the text, and the theory here proposed does not deny it. But the theory here goes much further than the framework hypothesis to suggest that our understanding need not be limited to simply a literary structuring. The functions of days 1-3 correlate to the functionaries of days 4-6. Someone who has embraced the Framework Hypothesis would have no problem going the next step and embracing this functional perspective. Many YEC and OEC proponents have built their theories assuming that Genesis 1 is an account of material origins.

The Difference Between Origin Accounts in Science and Scripture is Metaphysical in Nature

The principle factor that differentiates a biblical view of origins from modern scientific view of origins is that the biblical view is characterized by a pervasive teleology: God is the one responsible for creation in every respect. He has a purpose and a goal as he creates with intentionality. The mechanisms that he used to bring the cosmos into material existence are of little consequence as long as they are seen as the tools in his hands. The teleology is evident in and supported by the functional orientation.

God’s Roles as Creator and Sustainer Are Less Different Than We Have Thought

Modern Christianity, trying to survive in a material and naturalistic world, has often adopted a practical deism. When origins are seen only in material terms, creation is a job that is carried out and completed in the distant past and consequently, describing God as Creator becomes only a historical statement characterized by almost total discontinuity with the present. At the other end of the spectrum, process theology runs the risk of getting bogged down in a philosophical and theological morass by positing such a high level of continuity that there is no beginning or end to the narrative of the cosmos. The view presented here sees enough discontinuity that there was a beginning and will be an end, but retains a much stronger sense of continuity through the understanding that as God initially set up the functional cosmos, he is still at the helm and is actively engaged in maintaining order against the threat of disorder (whether the disorder is cosmic, environmental, or human).

Current Debate About Intelligent Design Ultimately Concerns Purpose

Since the proposed model is thoroughly teleological, God’s involvement is absolute and pervasive since his role as Creator is ongoing. Consequently every aspect of creation is the result of intelligent design whether it is irreducibly complex or not, and whether it can be explained in terms of a recognizable process of cause and effect or not. Natural selection could never be viewed as entirely natural, and random mutation is not random. ID protagonists may be able to identify areas where the inadequacies of the reigning paradigm are more clear than others and offer illustrations where no current explanations suffice, but these examples should merely be seen as existing on a spectrum. Perhaps such observations may help identify continuing weaknesses in the reigning Neo-Darwinian paradigm but Intelligent Design protagonists do not at present have an alternative description of material origins to offer.

Scientific Explanations of Origins Can Be Viewed in Light of Purpose, and If So, Are Unobjectionable

If the proposed theory is on target, Genesis 1 does not offer a descriptive model for material origins. In the absence of such a model, Christians would be free to believe whatever descriptive model for origins makes the most sense. The major limitation is that any view eventually has to give God full control of the mechanisms if it claims to be biblical. A biblical view of God’s role as Creator in the world does not require a mutually exclusive dichotomy between “natural” and “supernatural” though the reigning paradigms are built on that dichotomy. In the ancient world (in a functional ontology), the dichotomy was static vs. dynamic. Some aspects of the cosmos were viewed as static and others dynamic, and deity was active (determinatively so) in that which was dynamic. Consequently, it does not matter that there may be perfectly acceptable and definable empirical descriptions and explanations for observed phenomena and aspects of origins. Such would not exclude divine activity because without the natural/supernatural dichotomy, divine activity is not ruled out by empirical explanation. We can affirm with the Psalmist that God “knit me together in my mother’s womb” without denying the premises of embryology. Likewise, those aspects of evolutionary mechanisms that hold up under scrutiny could be theoretically adopted as God’s mechanisms.

What scientific ideas or conclusions is the believer who wants to take the Genesis account seriously obliged to reject? Is there science that is unacceptable in biblical/theological terms? Or is it only the metaphysical implications of some scientists? Is it the Genesis account that serious scientists are compelled to reject? Or only the implications of some traditional interpretations? I propose that it is our misguided interpretations that have brought about a conflict that does not in fact exist.

Resulting Theology in this View of Genesis 1 Is Stronger Not Weaker

The resulting theology, beyond what has been mentioned above, allows a more focused dialogue with our contemporary world. The theology behind a teleological, functionally-oriented cosmological ontology argues precisely the point that must be argued. Evolutionary mechanisms are not the problem; metaphysical naturalism is.

Public Science Education Should Be Neutral Regarding Purpose

While it is true that science cannot help but have metaphysical underpinnings, we can teach empirical science without presuming to dictate metaphysical conclusions. Public education should be free to teach empirical methods without comment on teleology or dysteleology. If Intelligent Design offers legitimate critique of some aspects of the reigning empirical paradigm, it ought to be taken into account at that level. But it should not be used to introduce teleological metaphysics into the science classroom any more than evolutionary theory should be used to introduce dysteleological metaphysics or metaphysical naturalism. Neither is acceptable or necessary in the science classroom focused on empirical methods. But somewhere students should be taught about metaphysical systems and the alternatives that are out there, and how a variety of metaphysical systems could integrate with science. This is not an issue of faith, or of a particular religion, or of biblical teaching; it is simply an issue of a well-rounded education.


Public education should be interested in teaching evolution with all of its warts and problems, and science should be committed to refining and even overhauling or overthrowing any reigning paradigms that are showing weaknesses. This is the nature of scientific inquiry. Having said that, whatever aspects of evolution that continue to provide the best explanation for what we observe should not be objectionable for Christians. Being believers in the Bible does not require us to reject the findings of biological evolution, though neither does it give us reason to promote biological evolution. Biological evolution is not the enemy of the Bible and theology: it is superfluous to the Bible and theology.


How the Pseudoscience of Social Darwinism Nearly Destroyed Humanity

How the Pseudoscience of Social Darwinism Nearly Destroyed Humanity 


Following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1860, many political theorists and opportunistic politicians applied his findings to human society. In the 20th century, these ideas were put into practice — and it nearly destroyed us. Here’s why Social Darwinism was one of the worst ideas ever.

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection was unlike any that had preceded it, the shockwaves of which are still being felt today. Even Copernicus’s terribly upsetting notion — that the Earth revolves around the Sun — only mildly perturbed our sense of the universe and our place within it. The same could be said about Newton’s clockwork physics and Einstein’s relativistic interpretation of the cosmos. These axiomatic shifts certainly changed the way Western society looked at itself, but not to the degree that Darwinian natural selection did.

God is Dead

Indeed, Darwin’s dangerous idea penetrated deeply into a hypersensitive realm that had stubbornly languished beyond human understanding: The origin of life.

How the pseudoscience of Social Darwinism nearly destroyed humanity

Darwin’s theory served not merely as an explainer for life on Earth — it was also a veritable God killer. What’s more, it “reduced” humanity to the level of animals, forever disrupting the Judeo-Christian notion that humanity existed in an exalted place between God and the natural world. Humanity, it was suddenly realized, was not privy to the whims of God, but rather to the laws of nature. Moreover, the human species wasn’t static.

For the 19th Century intelligentsia, this further reinforced burgeoning notions of materialism, the sense of social change and progress, and the inexorable struggle for survival. Feeding off earlier notions posited by the likes of Thomas Hobbes (who argued that the original state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short), Thomas Malthus (whose theories on human population growth served as a kind of proto-sociobiology) Auguste Comte (a positivist), and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (who presented an earlier, but inaccurate, theory of evolution), many thinkers began to apply Darwinian notions to human individuals, society, and races. In the absence of God, went the argument, humanity needed to act to ensure its fitness and ongoing survival. Darwin’s thesis seemed to provide a blueprint on how this could be done.

And thus began the transference of Darwinian theories from animal species to social groups and races — a development that would lead to catastrophic results.

The Right Idea At The Wrong Time

As a term, “Social Darwinism” was used sparingly in the 19th Century; it was only popularized in the United States in 1944 by historian Richard Hofstadter. And indeed, it’s a term that casts a wide net, encompassing several different areas as it pertains to the extension of Darwinism to the social realm.

Indeed, its wide interpretation led thinkers to a number of different conclusions, including the reinforcement of individualism and minimalist government, theories about racial and societal “hygiene” and eugenics, notions of racial superiority and the justified use of force, and the idea that the human species could be moulded by the state.

Part of the problem is that Darwin’s theory arrived at a dangerous time — a time when Western cultural and scientific sensibilities were not entirely ready for it; it was an idea ahead of its time, and by consequence, was misappropriated to realms into which it didn’t belong. The acceptance of Social Darwinism was not only a symptom of an emerging and overly enthusiastic scientism, but also the result of poorly developed conceptions surrounding race, ethnicity, and biological diversity. It appeared during a time of deeply embedded and unquestioned racism, where the conditions of under-developed nations and poverty-stricken visible minorities were attributed to racial inferiority.

It was also driven by a fallacy that exists to this very day, namely the Naturalistic Fallacy. Social Darwinism was often justified on account of evolution being a “natural” process — a very dangerous proposition, to be sure.

During the latter half of the 19th century, Darwin’s biological ideas began to influence not just political theorists, but politicians as well. His theory — which described the process of variation and selection, the struggle for existence, and the need for adaptation and improvement — were applied to human society, primarily to reinforce and rationalize aspects of competition and struggle. It was also used to justify political control by a minority (e.g. imperialism and colonialism) and the capitalistic system itself. What’s more, because Darwinism was (and still is) often misunderstood to imply an evolutionary trajectory, evolution was also equated with social progress.

An Individualist Order

The chief advocates of Social Darwinism during the 19th century included Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. Interestingly, Spencer’s highly influential work, Progress: Its Law and Cause, was released three years before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, while his First Principles was printed in 1860. So while Spencer was not immediately influenced by Charles Darwin, the subsequent popularization and legitimization of his ideas were most certainly a direct consequence.

Both Spencer and Sumner asserted the value of the struggle for life which resulted in improvement, a natural consequence of the “survival of the fittest” doctrine. This early form of Social Darwinism had a distinctive laissez-faire character to it, whose supporters advocated for an individualist order of society.

Herbert Spencer in particular was an ardent individualist. He firmly believed that the functions of the state should be limited to protection, and that no restrictions should be placed on commerce, and no provision made for social welfare or education. This individualism was a clear consequence of his application of evolutionary biology to social relationships.

All existence, Spencer argued, grew through a series of transformations from the simple to the complex by successive variations. He saw civilization as an ongoing process in which humans adjusted to an increasingly complex world. This evolutionary process, in the absence of interference, led inevitably to social improvement — an idea that now resonates with modern libertarians.

He also saw the poor as being biologically “unfit.” Public efforts to help them, be it through legislation, charity, and social reconstruction, were undesirable because it might allow them to mature and pass on their weakness. He suggested that the whole thrust of nature was to get rid of the inefficient in order to make room for the superior. The way he looked at it, if they weren’t fit enough to live, they would die — and it was probably for the better.

Spencer wrote:

Other evils, no less serious, are entailed by legislative actions and by actions of individuals, single and combined, which overlook or disregard a kindred biological truth. Beside an habitual neglect of the fact that the quality of a society is physically lowered by the artificial preservation of its feeblest members, there is an habitual neglect of the fact that the quality of a society is lowered morally and intellectually, by the artificial preservation of those who are least able to take care of themselves.”

Similarly, Cesare Lombroso, an Italian physician, argued in 1876 that born criminals were essentially proto-humans — a throw-back in evolution. Similar sentiments were also used to justify slavery in the United States.

These ideas would go on to influence the eugenics movement, an early 20th century initiative designed to prevent those deemed too unworthy to pass their deleterious genes to the next generation, lest the overall health of human society be compromised.

Additionally, the burgeoning Social Darwinism of the time would go on to influence such politicians as Otto von Bismarck, Joseph Chamberlain, and Theodore Roosevelt. It was often used in the political arena to justify eugenic or racial differences, imperialist expansion, colonialism, and war. These politicians, whether they did so opportunistically or sincerely, used these sentiments to stress competitive relationships and struggles between nations and groups in order to ensure the survival of the physically and mentally worthiest people.

And to further the cause of their nation.

The Totalitarian Tragedies

Without question, the most infamous application of Social Darwinism was in Nazi Germany. By the early 20th century, the pseudoscientific generalities of Social Darwinism remained popular in Europe — and it spoke to those advocating for racial purity.

Indeed, Social Darwinism served to heighten race consciousness to a greater degree; anti-semitism during this time was justified on biological grounds.

Historian Alan Cassels writes:

Above above all, German Volkish cultists excoriated Jews as “a pestilence and a cholera” which threatened to pollute the race. To accomplish this corruption, Jewish males were supposed to lust perpetually after Aryan women. A logical recommendation to be drawn from this view was the destruction of German Jewry in order to preserve the purity of the German race — a proposal made by some fanatics before 1914 and ultimately implemented by the Nazis.

Using such thinking, Jews could then be persecuted not for their actions or beliefs, but simply for who they were.

Adolf Hitler further articulated these beliefs in the first volume of Mein Kampf. He essentially saw the world as one gigantic struggle among the races — a struggle that would ultimately be won by the strongest.

And therein lay one of the most nefarious ideas to take root in modern politics — the notion that force could always be justified in this context, with no room for ethics, law, or humanitarian scruples. The acceptance of Social Darwinism by the Nazis goes a long way in explaining the intense brutality meted out during the Second World War. It not only motivated them to unite the Teutonic peoples, but to decimate races altogether, and to claim other lands as the conquerors of more primitive races — including the Slavs who Hitler described as being subhuman, a race suitable for both colonization and, eventually, annihilation (Hitler’s Hunger Plan, which was never put into practice on account of stubborn Soviet resistance, called for the deliberate starvation of tens of millions of Slavs in preparation for the colonization of Ukraine and parts of Russia).

So severe, was Naziism, that its political opponents deemed it an existential risk. It had to be wiped out lest its tentacles spread to all corners of the Earth, spawning a culture-crushing and science-stifling Dark Age. The resulting war — the first to feature apocalyptic weapons — was the greatest human-instigated disaster to befall our civilization.

But fascists weren’t the only totalitarians to be influenced by Darwin. The misapplication of biology to politics was also committed by the communists. Karl Marx read On the Origin of Species and absolutely loved it. Not only did it speak to his materialist sensibilities, it also affirmed his theory of class struggle — an agenda that was put into full force by Joseph Stalin during the Great Terror period, a time when millions of people were murdered by the Soviet apparatus as a means of self-colonization.

Marx wrote:

Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle…Despite all shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, ‘teleology’ in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained.

Sadly, Darwin never intended for this to happen. For the most part, he limited the theory to the biological realm (though he did delve into speculative sociology in his later work, The Descent of Man).

But like so many things in life, it takes only a few people to ruin it for everybody else. To this day, Darwinism has its detractors, including Creationists who wrongly blame Darwin and his theory for the travesties committed last century. Quite obviously, equating natural selection — a remarkably potent theory that’s accepted wholeheartedly by any serious biologist — with the ills of Social Darwinism is a tragic mistake. The science is still science, while Social Darwinism, with its gratuitous generalizations and misreadings of how natural selection works (e.g. it completely fails to account for group selection theories and the rise of such characteristics as empathy) will forever remain in the realm of pseudoscience.

What’s more, the application of Darwinian processes to human morality is about as facile an exercise as it gets. As a moral maxim, “survival of the fittest” is as unenlightened as it gets. If anything, the general tendency of human society is remove itself as far away from possible to this process. If anything, Social Darwinism is anathema to civilized society.

And the fact that it nearly destroyed us should serve as a potent lesson.

[Other sources: Alan Cassels: Fascism; Michael Curtis: The Great Political Theories]