What is Genesis 1-3 actually about?
It’s an important question for theologians, for scientists seeking to reconcile Scripture with scientific accounts of humanity’s origins, and for all of us as we consider our identity as human beings and our place in the world. In his book The Lost World of Adam and Eve, Old Testament scholar John Walton seeks to provide an answer.
Rather than beginning with the scientific consensus and trying to read this into Genesis 1-3, Walton’s approach instead is to start by asking what Genesis would have meant to its first audience, thereby seeking to establish exactly what the Bible does or does not claim about human origins. However, scientific discoveries and the problems they cause for a ‘traditional’ understanding of 7-day creation are clearly the driving motivation behind this fresh look at the Bible’s early chapters.
Walton’s uniquely valuable contribution to the conversation is his extensive knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern culture and texts. As far as is possible in a culture several millennia removed from the original audience of Genesis, Walton transports his readers back to their world to approach the text through ancient eyes. This is a world where gods live in gardens and chaos creatures rule the deep, where the shape of the cosmos is seen very differently and the science of genetics won’t be invented for thousands of years. It’s hard not to get culture shock.
Walton’s main thesis might be summarized like this: the creation stories in Genesis are less about material origins, and more about ordering and giving function to creation.
‘The seven-day origins account in Genesis is a “home story”, it is not a “house story”’, writes Walton. The first audience of Genesis, in this view, ‘were not interested in how the material objects of the house came into being – God did it and that was enough for them. Of much more interest to them was how this house (the cosmos) had become a home for humans, but even more importantly how God had made it his own home.’ (p45)
This proposition is fleshed out with explorations of the garden as an ancient motif for the divine home, and chaos, order, and disorder as frameworks for understanding the pre-creation state, creation and sin. This insight into the ancient worldview is a humbling reminder that our post-Enlightenment Western ways of thinking may be a hindrance rather than a help in interpreting texts such as Genesis.
When it comes to human origins, Walton writes: ‘the forming accounts of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 concern archetypal humanity rather than offering an account of the material origins that are unique to them as individuals’ (p82). That is, the stories of Adam being formed from dust and Eve made from Adam’s side are in fact about the origins of all human beings, who are all mortal (‘formed from dust’) and ontologically equal as men and women (man and woman being two ‘sides’ of one humanity).
New and intriguing to me was Walton’s interpretation of Eve’s creation as a vision given to Adam while he slept, as opposed to the common idea that God removed Adam’s rib under anaesthesia to make Eve (which, the author points out, would have made no sense to an ancient culture where anaesthesia did not exist).
Walton does, however, affirm the existence of a historical Adam and Eve.  While he doesn’t believe the Bible requires Adam and Eve to be sole progenitors of the human race, the New Testament’s insistence on a historical Fall and Adam’s presence in genealogies leads Walton to conclude the necessity of a historical Adam.
As someone who leans towards the ‘evolutionary creation’ side of the origins debate, I found Walton’s analysis of the Bible’s core claims on creation plausible and refreshing. I think it’s fair to say (as one reviewer does) that Walton unnecessarily suggests that Genesis 1 and 2 have nothing to do with material origins.  Ancient readers would have been well aware that in order for a temple or other sacred space to have function, it must also have a physical structure. While the meaning of these chapters may be focused on function, the text clearly wants us to believe that God is creator of the material as well as the functional.
For me, the most challenging issue arising from ‘The Lost World of Adam and Eve’ is the question of what it means for the Bible to affirm something. This is a crucial question for believers in science. The Bible includes all sorts of ancient beliefs about the natural world that we now know to be false – for example that the earth doesn’t move, that the sky is a solid dome, or that we think with our hearts.  But does the Bible affirm these inaccuracies, or is God merely speaking in language that would be understood at the time to make a theological point?
Walton offers some helpful theological tools to help us here, inviting us to consider the author’s intention in writing and God’s intention in accommodating his message to a particular culture, and calling us to reexamine the text in its context to be sure we know what it’s really saying.
This book didn’t answer all my questions on this topic. I suspect that we scientists have a lot more to learn from theologians on how we approach Scripture as a literary, rather than scientific, work.
Walton concludes with why this all matters. If Genesis 1 and 2 are indeed all about material origins, and are to be taken as an authority on scientific matters, an unavoidable conflict emerges with today’s accepted scientific consensus. Among other things, that hurts our witness:
‘Many non-Christians… have heard that to accept Christianity means to abandon their brains. They have heard from both the secular world and the Christian world that to accept Christ means to reject certain scientific conclusions – a step they cannot take. So they remain outside looking in.’ (p208) 
Of course, if the Bible really does rule out certain scientific conclusions, we’d have no choice but to reject them. But what I love about John Walton’s work is that by taking a ‘Bible-first’ approach and examining what Genesis originally meant to its first readers, he clears the way for readers today to understand these passages in ways that complement, rather than contradict, modern science.
You might not agree – but I hope that anyone who picks up a copy will enjoy taking a fresh look at the creation story in its ancient context, and be stretched towards a deeper understanding of God’s revelation in Scripture.
The Lost World of Adam and Eve is available to buy on Amazon.
 Even if their names were probably not the Hebrew ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’, derived from a language that didn’t exist until the mid-second millennium BC.
 Richard Averbeck reviewing the book in the journal Themelios
 See for example Psalm 96:10, Genesis 1:6, 1 Samuel 1:13
 I’ve written more on this topic in the article ‘Yes, you can be a Christian and accept evolution’.
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Start here, but don’t get stuck here: What I learned from spending a term in Genesis 1-3