What Role Does ANE Literature Have on Interpreting Genesis?

In Reading Genesis 1-2 Todd Beall argues for a literal interpretation of these first two chapters. In his discussion of the role of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought he asks this question: “Why would God have used ANE myths to reveal his truth to Moses concerning this unique event?” (52) The “unique event” he refers to is creation. John Walton, a prominent advocate of reading the Bible in light of ANE literature, offers the following as a response to Beall’s question:

“I do not claim that God used ANE myths to reveal truth, and I do not know many who would make such a claim. My position is that all ANE literature (not just myths) gives us access to the way that people typically thought in the ancient world and that Israel often would have thought the same way. God does not use myths to reveal himself; he reveals himself in terms of the ancient cognitive environment of which Israel is a part.

Of course, in the process God shows himself to be different from the gods of the nations around Israel, and he offers many revisions about the ways they should think. As a result there are both similarities and differences, but God’s effective communication is going to be rooted in the similarities even when he is providing alternative ways of thinking. I would there consider it an extreme reaction to suggest that the uniqueness of the Bible somehow demands total isolation from an ancient worldview, as Beall does when he says, ‘To argue that Moses or whoever wrote Gen 1-11 was so immersed in the ANE world that it caused him to write in the way of other ANE literature is to deny the uniqueness of the biblical record.’ The uniqueness of the Bible is in the God of the Bible, not in the world of Israel or the literary genres of the Bible.” (71)

Reading Genesis

John Walton and Mark Strauss Introduce the “Teach the Text” Commentary Series

While John Walton was here I asked him about the new commentary series he and Mark Strauss were working on. He is very excited about it. He explained that many pastors have very limited time. He didn’t need to tell me this but he elaborated. In one week a pastor may have to do multiple funerals, offer counseling sessions, take care of things around the church, and any number of other things that larger churches can delegate to other individuals. He said, “I told the commentary contributors to imagine a pastor calling them on the phone and saying, ‘I need to prepare a message for this Sunday. In a half hour give me something I can use for my preparation.'” In other words, time is at a premium but I have to have something–help me. The Teach the Text Commentary Series fills this very need. In the clip below both he and Mark Strauss explain in more detail the features and benefits of this new commentary series. Do we really need another series? Listen and find out why “yes” is the right answer.



Did Death Occur Before the Fall? An Answer from John Walton

In honor of John Walton’s visit tonight I thought I would give a selection from his book The Lost World of Genesis One. The issue is this: Did death occur before the Fall? Walton answers yes. Here’s why:

Some might object that if the material phase had been carried out for long ages prior to the seven days of Genesis, there would be a problem about death. Romans 5:12 states unequivocally, ‘Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.’ Interpreters have inferred from this verse that there was no death at any level prior to the Fall, the entrance of sin. But we should notice that the verse does not say that. Paul is talking about how death came to people—why all of humanity is subject to death. Just because death came to us because of sin, does not mean that death did not exist at any level prior to the Fall.

Not only does the verse not make a claim for death in general, everything we know logically repudiates the absence of death at any level prior to the Fall. Day three describes the process by which plants grow. The cycle of sprouting leaves, flowers, fruit and seeds is one that involves death as part of it. Likewise with animals: we need not even broach the topic of predatory meat eaters to see that the food chain involves death. A caterpillar eating a leaf brings death. A bird eating the caterpillar brings death. Fish eating insects brings death. If animals and insects did not die, they would overwhelm their environment and the ecology would suffer. Furthermore, if we move to the cellular level death is inevitable. Human skin has an outer layer of epidermis—dead cells—and we know that Adam had skin (Gen 2:23).

All of this indicates clearly that death did exist in the pre-Fall world—even though humans were not subject to it. But there is more. Human resistance to death was not the result of immortal bodies. The text indicates that we are formed from the dust of the earth, a statement of our mortality (for dust we are and to dust we shall return, cf. Gen 3:19). No, the reason we were not subject to death was because an antidote had been provided to our natural mortality through the mechanism of the tree of life in the garden. When God specified the punishment for disobedience, he said that when they ate, they would be doomed to death (the meaning of the Hebrew phrase in Gen 2:17). That punishment was carried out by banishing them from the garden and blocking access to the tree of life (Gen 3:23-24). Without access to the tree of life, humans were doomed to the natural mortality of their bodies and were therefore doomed to die. And so it was that death came through sin. (99-101)

Lost World of Genesis One

John Walton is Coming to Baker Book House

I’m pleased to announce that Dr. John Walton will be in our store on Monday, March 18th at 7:00 pm. John will be speaking on “Genesis Through Ancient Eyes.” Last time John was in our store he spoke on Genesis One so we’ve asked him to address chapter two this time around. John will speak for about an hour and then we will have time for Q&A. He will sign books after the lecture. Mark you calendars now. You won’t be disappointed.

John Walton is Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College.

John Walton

The Book of Nehemiah is Not Teaching Lessons in Leadership

In yesterday’s post we saw that Michael Horton said the Bible was not a catalog of moral advice. John Walton has been saying this for years. In his book The Bible Story Handbook he notes “The problem with teaching about the ‘heroes and heroines of the Bible’ is that the hero of the Bible is God. All people have flaws, even at their best. We dare not obscure the view of God to elevate human heroes.” (21)  I’ve heard more than one sermon on “leadership lessons” from the book of Nehemiah. After hearing more than one sermon from more than one source (and reading about it in several books) you can begin to think it is a consensus of scholarship that leadership is the theme of the book. Nothing could be further from the truth. Walton corrects this notion.

“For example, we can learn much about leadership by studying Nehemiah. In the end, however, there is no indication that the author of Nehemiah was preserving and presenting his material so that readers could be instructed in leadership. Because of this, the authority of Scripture is not being tapped when leadership is taught from the book and life of Nehemiah.”

“Leadership is an important quality, one worth learning about, but one may just as well learn about it from the lives of Abraham Lincoln or John Calvin. There is no special merit in learning it from Nehemiah simply because his story is in the Bible whereas others are not. The Bible is unique because it teaches with the authority of God; in the case of Nehemiah, we learn, among other things, that God fulfills his promises of restoring the city of Jerusalem and that he sovereignly carries out his plan through Nehemiah’s submission. God used Nehemiah’s leadership, but that does not mean that Nehemiah’s was the best possible leadership, approved by God in every way. Nehemiah’s success does not authorize his example as a biblical model for leadership. The model itself has no authority. If, above anything else, we tell Bible stories to convey the Bible’s authoritative teaching to students, then our focus should not be on Nehemiah’s leadership.” (16)

Bible Story Handbook