In recent years, John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, has been both lauded and criticized for his interpretation of Genesis 1–2. In his 2009 landmark book, The Lost World of Genesis One (InterVarsity Press), he argued that to rightly understand Genesis 1—an ancient document—we need to read it within the context of the ancient world. Read alongside other ancient texts, he says, Genesis 1 is not about how God made the world, but about God assigning functions to every aspect of it. In 2013, Walton contributed a chapter in Four Views on the Historical Adam (Zondervan). There he argued that Adam was a historical person, but also that Adam’s primary function in Scripture is to represent all of humanity. For Walton, Genesis 1–2 is not concerned about human material origins, but rather about our God-given function and purpose: to be in relationship with God and work alongside him, as his image bearers, in bringing continued order to our world.
Walton spoke recently with CT assistant editor Kevin P. Emmert about his newest book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate (IVP Academic).
By arguing that the Genesis creation account is not about material origins, you run against 2,000 years of interpretive history. Does that give you pause?
I respect interpreters and theologians of the past. Many of my ideas can be found in the church fathers, and I try to bring out some of that in my research. But we also have information today that most historical interpreters didn’t have, like ancient Near Eastern documents.
Throughout history, theologians responded to the challenges of their day. Today we have different issues on the table. So it’s no surprise that I talk about things they didn’t address. Even though my exegetical conclusions are different from what many people have heard, I’m not calling into question any basic doctrines. I’m still essentially conservative theologically, and I’m firmly evangelical in my approach. I want to maintain and articulate the authority of Scripture.
Still, I feel that this is such an important discussion that it’s worth stepping out and taking risks.
You interpret Genesis in a way that most Christians don’t grasp using a “plain reading.” How did you come to your conclusions?
I mainly look carefully at what the Bible claims. So I ask: What does Genesis actually say about origins? We have to go beyond a casual reading to ferret that out. That means we need to understand the Hebrew language and the ancient Near Eastern world. So I delve deeply into the meanings of Hebrew words and phrasings, and how the ancients thought about origins.
We’ve bundled together certain things that don’t necessarily need to be. Issues like the image of God, the origin of sin, the historical Adam, and human origins are all important. They clearly overlap, but people have assumed that if you believe in a historical Adam, for example, you believe in a particular view of material human origins [a literal 6-day creation]. Or if you believe in original sin, you believe in a historical Adam. What I’ve found is you can deal with them individually, without jumbling them. You can affirm a historical Adam, but that doesn’t have quite the implications for biological human origins that are often assumed.
Why is it important to read Genesis in light of the ancient Near East?
God’s Word was written for us, but not to us. Bringing the ancient text to modern readers is not just a matter of word rendering; it’s also a matter of understanding the culture in which the text was written. I certainly don’t want the ancient Near East to push something onto the biblical text that it’s not saying. But when I study Genesis, I ask, “How does this mesh with what we find in the ancient Near East?”
For example, is Genesis 1 talking about just two people or people en masse? If I want to know whether Genesis 1 is talking about two individuals or humans as a whole, I look at ancient Near Eastern accounts. Sure enough, they always emphasize people as a whole. That doesn’t mean the Bible has to be that way. But if I find reasons that the Bible is doing things similar to other ancient Near Eastern accounts, then that’s telling.
We dare not ignore ancient Near Eastern documents—or science, for that matter. They can prompt us to think anew about the biblical text without bullying us into affirming certain conclusions. The biblical text is still in the driver’s seat.
How did people at the time of Genesis’ writing differ from us in thinking about origins?
The ancient world, Israel included, was more interested in how the world was ordered than in how the world was manufactured.
Think about the place you live. You could talk about that place as a house or as a home. You could talk about how it was constructed, or how it became your home, how it functions for you, how it’s ordered for your family. Both stories are important, but they’re different stories. They’re interrelated because you need the house to have the home. The ancients, however, were more interested in the home story—how God ordered this world for us.
I see in Genesis the story of God ordering the cosmos to function for people. He’s going to come in, take up his rest here, dwell here, rule here, and relate to us here. “I go and prepare a place for you,” Jesus said. That wasn’t the first time Christ had done that. This world was prepared for us to relate to God, “that you also may be where I am” [John 14:3].
Genesis 2, however, is concerned with how we are to function in this sacred space in relationship with God. So Eden is not just green space; it’s also sacred space. God is there, and that’s what’s most important. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were driven out and lost access to God’s presence. That’s how the Israelites would have thought about it. And that theological issue is far more significant than our questions about origins.
Are you saying origins questions aren’t important?
No, I don’t want to say they are not important. However, those questions reflect our ways of thinking rather than what the ancients thought about. Modern questions are important questions, but we have to recognize that sometimes they are different from ancient questions and perspectives.
In what ways do you believe modern readers misunderstand Genesis?
We are inclined to say, “This Hebrew word means this, and that Hebrew word means that.” It’s just not that simple. For instance, when we read the word make, we tend to think of material activity. But if you look at how the Hebrew verb asah (“make”) is used throughout Hebrew Scripture, many times it’s not a material activity. In some contexts, asah means “provide” or “prepare.”
When we read about Adam being put into a “deep sleep” and Eve being “made,” we automatically think Adam is being put under for surgery. But an ancient audience wouldn’t have thought like that. The Hebrew word for “deep sleep” is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to a visionary experience. That’s the way an Israelite reader would have [read Genesis 2]. So I believe this deep sleep for Adam was visionary, not a surgical operation. In other words, he sees something about Eve.
Isn't the claim that readers cannot properly understand Genesis without knowing Hebrew and the ancient Near Eastern culture just a form of scholarly elitism?
It’s no more scholarly elitism than recognizing someone has to translate the Bible into English. Bringing the ancient text to us is not just a matter of word rendering; it’s a matter of understanding the culture in which it was written. We have to translate not only language but also culture. We all are dependent on the expertise of others. I’m never inclined to think that the exercise of one’s spiritual gifts or talents is elitism. I’m a hand, not an eye. And someone else is an eye and not a hand. That’s how the body of Christ works.
What do you mean when you say Adam serves as an archetype for humanity?
Sometimes we confuse archetype with prototype. A prototype is the first one off the line, a model for the rest. But an archetype is more than that. It embodies and represents something or someone. So when Paul talks about all of us sinning in Adam, he is talking about Adam as an archetype. And, of course, Christ is an archetype too [as the Second Adam].
So to treat Adam as an archetype is to explain how he is being handled in the biblical literature. It’s not an assessment of whether he was a real person. I believe Adam was a real person, but literarily he represents more than just who he was. He represents who we all are. Genesis is talking more about humanity and who we all are because of this guy. Paul does the same thing with Adam, so I think I’m in good company.
The historic church affirms that Adam represented humanity, that we all sinned in him (Rom. 5:12). How, then, is your perspective different from the traditional view?
The traditional view talks about Adam archetypally with regard to sin, which I affirm. But I believe Adam is also being used archetypally in respect to human origins. That is, when the text says Adam was formed from dust, it’s not saying that guy was formed from dust, and the rest of us are born of woman. It’s saying we all are dust. This is what humanity—adam, Hebrew for “humanity”—is. We are mortal, we are frail, we are earthy, we are dust. This is not a unique statement about Adam. It’s true of all of us.
You suggest that God’s declaring creation “good” and “very good” does not mean “perfect.” You also say Adam and Eve were created mortal. How, then, do we understand Romans 5, where Paul implies there was no death before Adam?
When Paul focuses on why humans are subject to death, he’s not concerned about death at the cellular level, but about why we humans are subject to death. The answer is sin. That’s not the same as saying Adam was created immortal. We often jump to that conclusion. But it wouldn’t make sense for immortal people to have a Tree of Life. That suggests to me that people were created mortal and were given a remedy for their condition [to eat from the Tree of Life]. But when Adam and Eve sinned, we lost access to that remedy. That’s why we are subject to death.
Does this mean there was death before Adam and Eve?
I think so. The fact that God provided a Tree of Life suggests to me that there was death before Adam and Eve. Sin is the reason we lost access to the remedy and are therefore subject to death. It’s not like death came into existence when Adam and Eve sinned. I don’t know if we can even talk about death “existing.” And it’s not that animals, plants, and cells did not experience death. Death at the cellular level is required for development. For those who are willing to accept evolutionary theories, death prior to the Fall is not a problem. While Paul is not addressing our modern issues or concerns, he’s not making a statement that rules them out.
Further, when God said, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” [Gen. 2:17, ESV], he didn’t mean they would die within a 24-hour period. In Hebrew, the construction “in that day” is an idiom for “when,” and the construction that is translated “you will surely die” could be better translated “you will be doomed to die, sentenced to death.” That’s an important distinction.
If Genesis 1 talks about collective humanity, who does Genesis 2 talk about?
Genesis 2 focuses on two individuals. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have been among the original group mentioned in Genesis 1, but Genesis 2 focuses only on these two individuals, because they are going to be representatives in sacred space. They are given the task of serving and keeping—which are priestly duties—the Garden. They are chosen as priestly representatives. Again, this is a theological issue, not a scientific origins issue. This is another example of how we need to unbundle things that have been unnecessarily bound together.
Were those two individuals the only ones who had access to the Tree of Life?
Yes, they are the ones given entry to sacred space as representatives, just like priests serve in sacred space. Not just anybody could wander into the temple. Priests serve in sacred space, and they represent the people there. A priest’s role is not reduced to performing rituals. Priests are given access to God’s presence, and they mediate revelation. That’s what I believe Adam and Eve did.
You say that though the first humans were innocent, they weren’t necessarily sinless. What do you mean? Did they err morally before they ate of the Tree of Knowledge?
The distinction between innocence and sinlessness or sinfulness is important, and it’s one that Paul makes. He says in Romans 5, “Sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not [charged] where there is no law.” Sin, in that sense, isn’t so much a matter of behavior as it is being held accountable for certain behavior. When I say the first humans were innocent, I’m basically saying they were not yet being held accountable for what they did. This way of thinking is no stranger to theological discussions. We talk about an age of innocence for babies and children. That doesn’t suggest babies or children cannot err morally, but that they are not being held accountable for doing so.
Regarding the first humans, the question is, At what point does God hold them accountable? I think that comes about in the Garden, when he tells them not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. If we think about the law the way Paul does, then it’s reasonable to draw that conclusion.
So did the Tree of Knowledge function like a law?
I believe that tree represents wisdom. And wisdom is never gained immediately. It has to be learned and gained gradually by experience, through a mentoring relationship. The Bible makes that abundantly clear, and that’s what God wanted for the first humans—who were in process like the rest of creation.
Wisdom and life come from God. If he sets up fruit trees to mediate that, fine. He can do that. After all, he made Samson’s hair the mediation for Samson’s strength. But let’s not miss the main point: Wisdom and life come from God, and they are not something that can be snatched from him. They are things that are given by him.
If humans could err morally before they were held accountable, how is God not to blame for sin?
Theologically we say, “God is not the author of sin.” Sin is a choice made against God. If God gives people a choice, and they choose against him, then they are in such a situation that they are going to be held accountable. It’s not that God created sin. Rather, God created the possibility that people could make a different choice than what he intended.
What implications does your reading of Genesis 1–3 have for our modern scientific understanding of origins?
The view I offer says the Bible doesn’t make claims that are necessarily at odds with science. I don’t see a chasm between the Bible and science that either keeps people from coming to faith or leads people away from faith. That doesn’t mean we have everything resolved. But concerning biological human origins, we’ve sometimes made the Bible say things that it was never saying. When we discover both what the Bible claims and what it doesn’t claim, then that helps guide our approach to thinking about science. If I believed the Bible ruled out a particular scientific theory, then that would shape my thinking. If I felt the Bible didn’t address a particular theory, I would therefore feel free to examine the science to see whether it seems plausible.
Does the Bible, in your opinion, rule out evolutionary theory?
I don’t believe the Bible makes a claim that would inherently contradict some sort of common descent or evolutionary model. But that doesn’t mean I therefore embrace those theories. My point is this: I don’t believe the Bible would interfere with someone who felt that those theories were persuasive.
When it comes to integrating the Bible with science, we run into a big problem, because the Bible doesn’t address issues like the development of Homo sapiens, the Neolithic revolution, or the genetic bottleneck. And science doesn’t have any way of addressing who Adam and Eve were or where they fit into dominant scientific theories.
As a result, when we try to figure out how Adam and Eve fit into scientific theories, we get little information from the Bible and science. And that leads me to be cautious. Some people feel comfortable trying to place Adam and Eve in one stage or another. I’m more cautious because neither science nor the Bible addresses that. Some information I feel like I don’t need to know.
How do we tell the story of Genesis 1–3 to non-Christians or children?
I would simply say God made a home for us, one that gives us what we need, one where he can be with us and relate with us. I’d talk about humans being made in God’s image, but that he also made us frail, and so we depend on him. He has made us to be man and woman in the way that humanity is. These are all the wonderful things that God has done. This is the foundation. When people start to raise scientific concerns, I’d deal with those as they come.
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