Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology - Part 1

“For too long we have read scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first century questions.” – N.T. Wright (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision p. 21)

In order to properly understand Genesis 1, we need to read it through ancient Near Eastern eyes, rather than see it as some kind of pre-realised rebuttal of evolution. Down that path lies the lunacy of YEC and loss of faith. One of the best guides to reading Genesis 1 as the ancient Hebrews would have seen it is OT scholar John Walton's "Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology". For those who as yet do not own the book, here's a summary of the cosmological cognitive environment of the ancient Near East. This is the world we need to enter in order to understand what Genesis 1 would have meant. Only then can we contextualise it and ask 21st century questions. 

From Walton's book comes this summary of the ANE cognitive environment:
  • The precosmic world was understood not as a world absent of matter but a world absent of function, order, diversity, and identity.
  • Depictions of the state of things before and after creation, between which the acts of creation serve as transition, focus on origins of function and order, and the verbs used to describe creation operate in the same semantic realm.
  • The things created in the related realms of cosmos and culture are functions, not objects.
  • In the context of creation, causes are entirely in the realm of the gods and are characterized by a teleological perspective that transcends and virtually ignores the material, physical, natural world.
  • Reality and existence in the ancient cognitive environment are best described as comprising function and order, not matter and objects.
  • The acts of creation were naming, separating, and temple building.
  • In the ancient world, something was created when it was given a function.
  • The functions of the cosmos and culture are all relative to people.
  • The functions of the ordered cosmos were defined first and foremost by the MEs, which, unlike the cosmic waters, did not exist prior to the gods’ creative activity; on the other hand, these functions were not instituted by the gods.
  • The operational dichotomy was static (the MEs) versus dynamic (the destinies).
  • Decreeing destinies was both functional in nature and at the same time an act of creation and rule.
  • Exercise of control over the destinies and the rule of the world, including both the gods and eventually humans, originates in the temple, which is ordained as the control room of the cosmos.
  • The MEs that most frequently describe the functional cosmos—time, weather, and fertility—are generally portrayed as being organized and delegated by the gods.
  • The gods were inside the cosmos, not outside it.
  • Gods are involved in cosmic origins in relation to the functions of the cosmos both in the cosmogonic/theogonic model and in the political/bureaucratic model.
  • Theomachy is ancillary to cosmogony and appears only idiosyncratically in ancient Near Eastern texts.
  • Accounts of human origins focus on their role in the cosmos, whether in terms of their status or their function.
  • Physical materials mentioned in the creation of humans have archetypal, not material significance.
  • The image of a god is related to the deity’s role and is mostly found in the royal ideology of the political/bureaucratic model, where it confirms the king as having divine functions.
  • People and gods work together to ensure the preservation of the order and smooth operation of the cosmos (Great Symbiosis).
  • Cosmic geography is concerned with physical arrangement, architectural design, and jurisdiction over the various areas.
  • The description of the origins of the architecture of the cosmos focuses on separating heaven from earth (not manufacturing either of them) and on earth’s emerging from the cosmic waters.
  • Individual temples are designed to be models of the cosmos.
  • The temple is viewed as the hub of the cosmos.
  • The temple is built in conjunction with and parallel to the creation of the cosmos.
  • Gods take up their rest in the temple for a variety of reasons, one of which is to permit the rule of the cosmos as they continue to maintain the order that has been established and continue to exercise control of the destinies.

Source: Walton J "Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology" (2011: Eisenbrauns)  p119–121.

The following posts will look at Genesis through ancient eyes, in order to see how this can correctly inform our 21st century questions.