When looking to the Bible for information on mankind’s purpose, many modern Christians tend to overlook Genesis. On its surface, the articulation of Genesis 1 appears as an account of material ontology, or material creation. However, this understanding of the creation account is superficial and requires no investigation into the text, or more importantly, the sociocultural context of the literature. In fact, I will make the argument that reading Genesis 1 as an account of material ontology is not faithful to the original intention or reception of the passage. In lieu of a material ontological reading, I argue for a functional ontological reading of Genesis 1 that stays true to the text and dispels much of the contemporary debate in Christian cosmogony (belief of universe origins).
The purpose of a functional interpretation of Genesis 1 is not to abolish inconsistencies in Christian cosmogony (though this is accomplished in the process), but rather to give a more insightful and meaningful reading of the text that communicates to the modern reader the same message that it communicated to the ancient Hebrew listener. In order to fully appreciate the intention of the text, the reader must explore the culture of the ancient Hebrew people, understand the divergence between several Hebrew words and their English translations, and be mindful not to cast their post-enlightenment, materialistic perspective of the world into the reading of the text. Taking this approach to the text will not only render a functional ontological interpretation of Genesis 1 probable, but will also disavow a material ontological understanding of the creation account.
Cosmology, or the understanding of the universe, has drastically changed over the span of recorded history. The currently accepted cosmological model is an expanding universe following the implosion of an original singularity – the Big Bang. Though there are still many unanswered questions about the Big Bang, most of which will likely never be fully elucidated, there has been a steady flow of empirical evidence supporting the theory since the 1960’s. This “creation account“ is representative of how cosmology functions in the 21st century Western World – namely, accumulation of empirical evidence supporting a hypothesis. A relic of the 16th century Scientific Revolution, our empirical worldview in the West has lead to astounding advancements in science, medicine, and technology that has propelled humanity forward at a remarkable rate. However, this empirical approach to the world is so infused with the Western worldview that it is often difficult for one to step outside of this perspective.
We in the Western World tend to see any non-empirical approach to knowledge or truth as primitive and often not worthy of pursuit. This naïve approach becomes problematic when studying the writings of ancient societies that had a different cosmology and cosmogony than our own; the Bible, containing a library of ancient Hebrew and Greek writings, is no exception. The cosmology and cosmography (physical arrangement of the cosmos) of the Biblical authors and their contemporaries differed profoundly from modern day ideology. This difference is expressed in the literature of these times, including the books of the Bible. Though perspicuous to its contemporaries, the intentions of Biblical literature, particularly that of the Old Testament, require deliberation from modern day Christians.
No sensible person today would deny that they are sitting on a spherical planet that orbits a star in the center of a solar system. In fact, nearly everyone today would agree with the fact that our solar system is just one of a countless number of solar systems in the Milky Way galaxy, which is, in turn, but a single galaxy among countless others. This belief is not held by a single ethnic group, religion, or country, but rather is held by humanity writ large. This is our modern cosmography, and it’s difficult to rationally deny given our current understanding. Mankind’s cosmography has undergone several paradigmatic shifts since the Biblical (or Babylonian) cosmography of the Old Testament authors.
The name “Genesis” actually derived from a 3rd century Greek transliteration. The Hebrew name for the first book of the Bible, “Bereshit,” means “In the beginning,” alluding to its opening words. These opening words set up the theme of the chapter, namely, the cosmogony of the Hebrew people. This brings up an important point. It must be understood that the Bible was written for all people of all times, but was not written to all people of all times; the Old Testament was written to the ancient Hebrew people. When a work of literature is written, the author employs imagery and ideas that are familiar and relevant to the intended audience. Genesis, being an origins account, includes cosmology in its narrative. The image below is representative of a typical Babylonian cosmology, of which the ancient Mesopotamian people, including the Hebrews, embraced.
It’s evident that ancient cosmography was very different from modern cosmography. To the ancient Mesopotamians, however, this cosmography made sense. This was how they understood their world. When the author of Genesis speaks of the “firmament,” we cannot translate it as sky, as this is not what it meant to the ancient audience. Firmament, to the ancient Israelites, was a solid structure holding back the waters above. This belief in a firmament and waters above was common among all Babylonian cosmography.
So, is the Bible wrong or untruthful for mentioning a firmament that we now clearly know is not there? I don’t think we can make the claim that the Bible is “wrong” about this if we keep in mind that it was written to a specific audience at a specific point in time. A material ontological reading – what many today mean by “literal,” though this is a misnomer – presents a problem: the Bible is supposedly unwaveringly truthful, and it claims that there is a firmament in the sky, above which lies some sort of ocean. Now what? Do we accept that there is a firmament in the sky and stop paying our half a penny per tax dollar for NASA, or do we investigate a little more? If we accept a material ontological reading of Genesis 1 but do not accept the cosmography of Genesis 1, then we have quite the theological conundrum. If the intention of Genesis 1 was to communicate material ontology, then it would need to be written using an understanding common to all people of all times in order to get the message across while also preventing falsehood from arising within the text. Perhaps, then, the message of Genesis 1 is not material ontology.
Function and Existence
The nature of existence is not something people contemplate on a regular basis. In a modern Western World mentality, the nature of existence is intrinsically tied to biological life. However, “alive” and “existence” are communicating two different ideas. A rock exists, but we would not consider it “alive.” So, what does it mean to exist? In ancient Mesopotamia, material properties were not a sufficient condition for existence; an object or being’s existence was contingent upon function. This reality was true for cultures writ large, including the Israelites. This notion of functional existence was also expressed in creation stories in the ancient Near Eastern world. In essence, creation stories, including those of the Israelites, were stories about the gods giving function and order to a system.
When investigating the idea of existence, a hermeneutical approach must be incorporated in the analysis. One example of this is the Hebrew word “bārā’,” which is translated as create. In the Bible, bārā’ is only used in reference to God. Also, there are a number of instances in the Bible where bārā’ must be understood as functional creation; correspondingly, there seem to be no instances where bārā’ mandates material creation. Exegetical work on bārā’ seems to suggest a functional connotation. It might seem odd at first to have more than one word for an action, but this is common among languages. A language belonging to a culture that relies on the phases of the moon might have a dozen or more words for “moon” depending upon the context in which it is used. Language is a tool that is molded based on what is important to the user. The idea of a word for creation, used in the context of function, follows suit with a functional ontological reading of Genesis 1. Functional creation is not only an ancient notion. Even today there are examples of existence that rely on function.
John Walton gives a clear, modern example of modern functional creation in his book “The Lost World of Genesis One.” Imagine a restaurant. When does a restaurant come into existence? Is it a restaurant when the building is constructed (i.e., the material creation)? A building can be or become anything, so this cannot be the case. The most sensible answer seems to that a restaurant becomes a restaurant after a safety inspector deems the restaurant fit to conduct business. A restaurant that is closed, for one reason or another, is not in “existence.” Business, which is the function of the restaurant, is required for existence; thus, its existence is defined by its function. Naming is also related to function. The name Yahweh can be translated as “I am,” which speaks to the Judeo-Christian understanding of God’s function as an eternal and omnipresent being. Of course, material properties must precede function as a necessary condition for existence, but material properties alone may not be a sufficient condition for existence. Restaurants aren’t the only example of functional ontology today. Many things, including corporations, businesses, stocks, the Internet, and governments require, in one-way or another, functional ontology. It is no stretch of the imagination to envision how a culture, void of modern science and empirical based thinking, could have ontology rooted in function. Consequently, this provides support for the functional worldview of the ancient world, specifically with the Israelites.
Can Genesis be Material and Functional Ontology?
Given the evidence, it seems to follow that Genesis was written as functional ontology. However, this does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of also reading it as material ontology. Many Christians argue that a “literal” reading of Genesis 1 is required if we are to take the Bible seriously. This proves problematic, as everything we know and understand about life, the universe, and much of science in general, is not in accordance with a material ontological reading of Genesis. Many arguments exist to reconcile the discrepancies between science and a material ontological reading of Genesis 1, however all of them rely on some sort of ad hoc modification leading to a concordist view of the Bible. Concordism, in this context, is the belief that Genesis 1 can be read as material ontology and still be in concordance with modern science.
Concordist views come in many forms, including young earth arguments and old earth arguments. For an old earth argument, the most common approach is to place long periods of time either between the “days” of creation or between the first and second creation account. One main problem with this kind of approach is that it ignores what we currently understand about the ancient Israelite culture. It is not that the concordist hypotheses are too far-fetched (though I would argue that they tend to stretch science and hermeneutics quite thin), but rather that they are missing the point of the story. I am not making an attempt to disprove the science in their arguments; I am trying to show that the science does not matter. The arguments do not seem to take into account the fact that the Bible was not written to us; it was written to the Israelites. Science as we know it today did not exist when the books of the Bible were written, therefore it does not make sense for the Bible to be written with science in mind. The efforts to reconcile modern knowledge with a material ontological reading cause the reader to lose sight of the intention of Genesis 1.
A young earth creationist (YEC) would tend to agree with many of my critiques to concordist views. They see the Bible as an absolute truth, and man should not invoke into the text his finite understanding of science and theology. If Genesis 1 speaks of 24-hour days (yom, in Hebrew), then the creation account must have taken place in 6 literal days, they argue. Attempts at stretching the meaning of words such as yom do not enrich the authority or veracity of the text by accommodating modern cosmology. They maintain that, because we have a finite understanding of the world and certainly of God, perhaps the text of Genesis 1 should be taken as a literal account of material origins. This YEC argument seems fair, and it does not have the problem of concordism, but there are some major issues.
By affirming Genesis 1 as material ontology, YEC proponents are, by default, reading their culture into the Bible. The creation account only seems to suggest material ontology to a reader who has the cultural bias of empiricism. Those of us born into the 21st century Western World are encultured to see things in a physical and empirical manner. This becomes a problem when we read a work of literature from a culture that did not have this same mentality. A “literal” reading of Genesis 1 means something different for us today than it would have to the ancient Hebrews. The most “literal” reading of the text would be a reading that comprehends the text through the mind of the author. The best way to attain this understanding is to study the culture and recognize the biases that would be present in the author’s writing. In the case of the ancient Hebrew literature, there would be a cultural bias against physical descriptions. We must take into account the cosmological and epistemological views of a culture when we read the literature. Along with eschewing modern scientific understandings of the world, this absence of culture interpretation is perhaps the biggest failure of YEC theology.
The ancient Israelites were not concerned with the physical details of creation, and a Genesis 1 would not be written as material ontology. The Israelites were concerned with who created them and why mankind is on earth. A functional ontological reading of Genesis 1 answers these questions and clears up most of the modern day cosmogony confusion. When viewed as a functional account of origins, the age of the earth, which tends to be at the heart of many concordist beliefs, is not an issue. There is no longer a need for the Judeo-Christian God to be a charlatan, He does not need to hide in the gaps of knowledge, yom can mean a literal 24-hour day, evolution is no longer a threat, and the universe can be 13.7 billion years old. A functional ontological view allows Genesis 1 to succeed in its intention, namely, communicating to the reader (particularly the original audience of ancient Hebrews) who God is and the nature of his relationship to mankind.
We must be careful not to come to Genesis 1 thinking of it as a modern metaphor just because the language or structure is strange to us today. Metaphor and functional origins are qualitatively different characterizations. There are instances of figurative language within the creation story, but this does not mean the story itself is metaphor nor does it say anything about the meaning of Genesis 1. It is important to understand that this style of writing was the method of conveying truth in the ancient world. Today, we use an empirical method to convey truth; Hebrews did not see truth in this way, and used the meaning of the story to convey a truth about the nature of story’s subject. Many Native American tribes convey truth in a similar fashion. Chronological or historical matters are not of significance. Rather, what matters is what the story says about the subject’s character or its relationship to mankind.
Many instances of odd structuring or bizarre language likely occur because of the vast cultural differences. For example, the ordering of events in the creation account stems largely from the Hebrew use of block logic as opposed to the step logic to which we are accustomed. Similarly, early Hebrew writers emphasized theological points and were more concerned with the significance of events than they were with historical linearity. Historicity in Genesis would not have been in issue to the Israelites. Genesis was told as a story of functional ontology, expressing the importance of mankind’s place in relationship with the Creator. These differences in perspective and writing style do not make the story metaphorical or untrue, they simply express perspectives of the ancient Hebrew people.
Given our cultural disposition to seek empiricism, we must take careful deliberation when making assumptions about the meaning of Scripture. The reader must accept that the text was not written with their culture, including notions about the nature of truth, in mind. The text was written in a manner that reflects the culture of the time, thus the culture must be “translated” alongside the text. The ancient Hebrew audience would have understood the message that was being communicated through the creation story. It was written as a testament to their God’s power and glory. It enlightens the reader on who their God is and where mankind is in relation to him; mankind is on earth as the image-bearer of the divine. The mentioning of physical objects in Genesis 1 is to give the story context within the ancient Israelite culture, in much the same way that objects are employed to this end by modern authors. Reading Genesis 1 as an account of material origins is simply missing the point. In turn, it causes the text say something that was never meant to be communicated, and flies in the face of our current understanding of nature and cosmology. Christians today must approach Genesis 1 not as material ontology that their modern sociocultural context has shaped them to see, but as a functional ontology that reflects the views of its original audience.
For more reading on this subject, check out the following from John Walton:
Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible
The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.