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Good Morning, John-Boy

July 1, 2010

So as I begin commenting on my reading of Dr. John Walton’s, The Lost World of Genesis One, I just would get it all started by referring to this eminent Hebrew professor by a joke on his name that he must have cringed at since he was knee-high to Nehemiah.

Be that as it may, this book was recommended to me for his views on the creation account in Genesis chapter one. Full disclosure requires me to admit that I am not able to read it objectively, since I already know that I disagree with him. However, I intend to attempt to read him fairly. Otherwise why waste my time?

And it is not a waste of time. The man writes exceedingly clearly and presents his case succinctly and in logical fashion. Moreover, he does point out a number of misconceptions that are abroad about the creation account. Trouble is, it seems to me his solution is to say: “This is what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my misconceptions and build bigger misconceptions.”

His underlying thesis as far as I can tell at this point (I am through all of chapter 4) is that in the ANE existence and creation are understood in functional terms, rather than material terms. In fact he repeats this notion so often I am beginning to get the idea part of the book’s effectiveness may lie in its sheer relentlessness. I half expect him to pop up with “Yeah, but that TruCoat!”

Here is my first problem though: he lays out two and only two options: material and functional. And faster than you can say “excluded middle” he is off and running, building on the foundation I am not quite sure he has actually laid. In fact, I found myself saying “What about form?” Indeed his cited examples suggested form to me rather than function. Still, I say, well, form follows function, right? So let’s keep reading.

However, it seems he folds form in with material, not with function. This became clear this morning, in chapter 4, where he delves into a study of the word tohu from Gen. 1:2, which has typically been translated “formless.” He concludes it is more like “nonproductive,” which takes him back to “functional.”

Here’s a taste of it. He furnishes a flyover of the eighteen other instances of tohu, with a brief note on each. He then tells us what we’ve seen: “Studying this list one can see that nothing in these contexts that would lead us to believe that tohu has anything to do with material form.” (p. 49)

Now, wait a minute! Nothing? Look again. The one example in the list that is directly parallel to Gen. 1:2, indeed a direct allusion to it, Is. 45:18, reads–and this is directly from Walton’s book:

“God did not bring it into existence tohu, but in contrast formed it for habitation.” (Emphasis in bold mine.)

 

This verse in fact comes as close as anything to explicitly defining tohu as unformed. Anyway, when we look at the immediate context of the word in Gen. 1:2, after the text describes the earth as tohu and bohu, what does God do but proceed to mold and shape it, separating light from dark, wet from dry and so on? He constructs a habitat for humanity; he doesn’t just issue an occupancy permit.

This is why I think his treatment is overly facile. He then ponders:

Why then has the term been so consistently translated as a reference to the absence of material form? One can only surmise that the translation tradition has been driven by the predominant material focus of the cultures that produced the translations.

 

No, one can surmise other options than that.The LXX, which was written by translators who arguably knew their Hebrew, renders the word aoratos, “unseen.” This is distinctly an issue of its material or formal nature, not its function. Yes, this is much later, but Walton himself a few pages earlier gives us an example “from well into the Hellenistic period” where he asserts “the functional orientation is obvious.” (p. 33)

More likely the ranges of meaning of both tohu and bohu are not easy to pin down, but in light of the activity God undertakes to solve the problem, we may safely conclude that the original condition had something to do with its need to be shaped as well as filled.

I plan to post further updates as I progress through the book, but I can already see that he is likely to be more persuaded of his premise than I am by examining his supporting materials.

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