On the “Functional view” of Genesis 1

In John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis 1”, he makes the case that the creation account is not a description of material creation, but of assigning “functions” or purposes to things which already existed. At the centre of this stands a vision of the world as a cosmic temple, with the chapter depicting a temple inauguration ceremony. I will be reviewing Walton’s approach and weighing up his central argument.

Functional, Material and Formative

What does Walton mean by a “functional” creation account? What he means by this is that in Genesis 1, God is not creating “birds” (for instance), but assigning a new purpose or function to birds which already existed in a material sense. This purpose is tied up with the notion of the world being designed for humanity and being set apart as a cosmic temple for God to dwell in. He uses the example of a play: everything that happens in the dress rehearsal might look the same as the play itself, but until the announcement happens its just a dress rehearsal.

Straight from the get-go though, we run into a problem. The book never defines exactly what is meant by “functional” or “material” creation. In some places, “material” creation is taken to refer to the creation of material out of nothing (ex nihilo). However, at other times, the usage is looser and also includes things like transforming material from one form into another.

To clarify this distinction, I would instead propose three categories:

Material: Creating something out of nothing
Formative: Transforming something from one material form into another
Functional: Assigning a function or purpose to something

I would argue that Genesis 1 actually fits best within the second category. In the beginning, there are the dark, chaotic waters common to many ancient near eastern creation accounts (Gen 1:2). God first shines light onto these waters, transforming them from complete darkness to a cycle of light and darkness (day 1). Then you have the erecting of an expanse to separate the waters into two sections (day 2). Then land rises up out of the lower waters and produces plants (day 3). And so on. None of these changes are “material” in the strict sense of creating something out of nothing, but “functional” doesn’t really work either. There are real, formative changes to the material objects under consideration.

The Ancient Near East

How about the ancient near eastern sources which Walton cites? Do they lead us to expect a purely functional creation account, devoid of any material change?

Once again, the answer is a resounding no. Let’s examine two prominent examples to demonstrate this.

First of all, we have Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation account. In this account, a war breaks out amongst the gods. The god Marduk kills the goddess Tia-mat and splits her in half, stretching each part of her out to form the heavens and then the earth. He fills both parts with temples and various of his divine children, in addition to establishing seasons and festivals. Another god, Qingu, is killed and humanity is formed from his blood.

Secondly, we have the Egyptian creation account. This begins with Atum, an entity who represents the dark, watery abyss before creation. Then a divine breath gives birth to Ra, the first god. Ra then produces other gods out of himself who will go on to form the parts of the creation (air, humidity, earth and heaven). Later on, human beings are formed from his tears.

Does any of this language look merely functional? Not at all. It’s the re-forming of existing matter (often whatever the gods are made from) into the various parts of the created world. So not even the ancient near eastern language gets us in the direction of a purely functional creation account. On the contrary, everything described fits quite comfortably into the second category I outlined above, namely “formative” creation.

Temple Inauguration was Formative

A final argument that could be considered is the temple inauguration aspect. Walton argues that Genesis 1 is a temple inauguration ceremony culminating in the presence of God entering into the temple and resting (on the seventh day). He distinguishes sharply between the building of the temple, a material activity, and the inauguration of the temple, a purely functional one. In drawing this distinction, he appeals to distinction between the building of the tabernacle in Exodus 25-30 and the inauguration ceremony for the tabernacle in Exodus 40.

But even this doesn’t work. Both the building and the inauguration ceremony involve re-arranging matter, or “formative” creation. The building of the temple involved taking various materials (primarily plundered from Egypt) and transforming them into the various components of the tabernacle. The inauguration ceremony then involved taking these various components and re-arranging them into a working tabernacle. Both of these involved formative changes, not merely functional ones.

Modern Culture and Functional Identity

A supporting argument that Walton makes in favour of the functional view of creation is that the culture we live in today is biased towards material categories and is therefore less inclined towards the kinds of functional categories which were more familiar to ancient cultures.

This, I would argue, couldn’t be further from the truth. Actually, people today are probably more comfortable than ever with purely functional categories of identity which aren’t rooted in material reality. Walton himself uses the analogy of an office worker taking on a new role to describe functional identity. This is exactly the kind of thing which would have been foreign to ancient thinkers, for whom work was less of a fluid individual choice or role that one might take on in a capitalist economy and more of a social reality, with sons following in the trade of their fathers.

One can consider other social issues in a similar light. Think of gender, and how comfortable people are today with defining it in purely functional terms, with no reference to the material body of the person under consideration. Think of marriage, which has become under the law a purely functional union of two persons, with no specified material aspects to it. Far from being uncomfortable with functional categories, modern people are probably more in tune with functional categories than ever.

Conclusion

Given everything we’ve observed then, it seems that a purely functional view of creation fails to get off the ground, so to speak. Far from being a straightforward reading of Genesis 1, it involves an oversimplification of categories and fails to do justice to the language of the text in its ancient context. The “cosmic temple inauguration” aspect itself is worthy of consideration (and I would tend to agree with it), but this doesn’t in itself imply a purely functional creation account.

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