What follows is a review of The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton.
The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton is an ingenious and innovative take on the first chapter of Genesis. Eschewing technical exposition, Walton presents his interpretive theory of the creation account in a simple, easy to understand manner.
Written from an evangelical perspective, The Lost World of Genesis One offers an interpretive scheme that is both consistent with ancient understandings of creation accounts and the doctrine of biblical infallibility. It is a side benefit, rather than the theory’s main thrust, that it removes Scripture from the toolbox of those opposing scientific discovery.
I highly recommend The Lost World of Genesis One. It is not a mere effort to reconcile Scripture with the theory of evolution. Instead, The Lost World of Genesis One attempts to interpret Scripture on its own terms. Walton seeks to remain faithful to the text without pushing it into some box or jam it into a part of a puzzle where it does not fit.
An Old Approach
The Lost World of Genesis One approaches the text with the view that the Bible was written for us but not to us. Therefore, we must seek to understand what the biblical author of Genesis meant. We must also ask, What would the original audience—without our modern understanding of science—have understood the author to be saying?
That is the starting point for all biblical interpretation. It is particularly apt when dealing with the creation account, and it is, therefore, the foundational question of The Lost World of Genesis One.
Ancient Cosmology Is Function Oriented
In the opening chapters of The Lost World of Genesis One, Walton argues that Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. Ancient cosmology, Walton explains, is function, rather than material, oriented.
The Lost World of Genesis One points to the creation accounts of other cultures that were contemporaries of the ancient Israelites. By comparing the creation account in Genesis 1 with these other accounts—including those from Egypt, Babylon, and Mesopotamia—we can see striking similarities between Genesis 1 and the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors.
This is not to say, of course, that there aren’t significant differences. There are. The Lost World of Genesis One, however, argues that to understand a text we must understand the worldview into which it was written.
Understanding the worldview of Israel’s neighbors will help us better understand the worldview of Israel itself. Even where Israel did not share the view of her neighbors, there would have been an apparent contrast. Even in that contrast, there is much to learn.
At the heart of The Lost World of Genesis One is the argument that ancient creation accounts were function oriented. That is, they conveyed creation in terms of function, not material.
When we think of creation, we think of material origins. That is, how did what we see come into being? This, The Lost World of Genesis One argues, is not how the ancients saw things.
When the ancients thought of creation, they thought of functional origins. That is, how did what we see come to perform their assigned roles?
I discuss this point of The Lost World of Genesis One further below. But, first, we must turn to the cultural presuppositions we often ignore.
Ancient Cultural Presuppositions
The Lost World of Genesis One makes a point that should be obvious but unfortunately is not. Genesis 1 does not teach scientific truths or an understanding of the universe that is inconsistent with the worldview of the audience to whom the Bible was written. Genesis 1 does not displace or contradict the ancients’ general understanding of nature itself.
This is true throughout Scripture. The point of Scripture is not to provide new scientific insight.
This is not a radical, unorthodox statement. Rather, it merely teaches that, in attempting to communicate truth, God spoke in terms that his people could understand.
God did not feel the need to correct ancient misunderstandings of peripheral matters. To do so would have distracted from the primary message of Scripture. New teachings on cosmology would have overshadowed lessons about God’s character and purpose.
So, for example, the Genesis 1 account discusses the firmament. The ancients believed that the sky was solid and that mountains or other physical objects held this solid sky high above the earth. Genesis 1’s depiction of the atmosphere is consistent with this belief.
God did not feel the need to dispel this ancient understanding. (Similarly, he elsewhere does not correct the notion that the sun revolves around the earth.)
The Lost World of Genesis One argues that God allowed his people to maintain their misunderstanding of the world. He accommodated their presuppositions so that they could better understand him.
Understanding this, how are we to view the creation account in Genesis 1? How does The Lost World of Genesis One address this question?
Walton argues that we must avoid the temptation to take the English translation of Scripture at face value. Faithfulness to Scripture does not mean faithfulness to a translation. Indeed, we cannot take Scripture seriously without looking at the original languages.
The Lost World of Genesis One argues forcefully for what should be obvious: words matter.
The words of each language come with their own unique nuances. They are packed with cultural significance. We, therefore, need to remember that the author of Genesis did not write to Americans in twenty-first century American English. He (or they) wrote in ancient Hebrew to ancient Israelites.
So, what significance do the Hebrew words have here? What cultural nuances would they have conveyed to ancient Israelites?
This is where The Lost World of Genesis One really shines.
“Create” (Hebrew bārā’) Concerns Function
Here The Lost World of Genesis One earns its title. Walton argues that in the ancient world, creation accounts concerned installation of function. Giving purpose, rather than bringing something into material existence, is what matters. “[P]eople in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system.”
The Lost World of Genesis One argues that the ancients were concerned about function rather than material creation. Their creation accounts, therefore, addressed the gods providing function and order to things. They (generally) did not discuss the gods’ bringing things into existence in the material sense.
Consequently, in the ancient mind, God could create something that already existed.
The Lost World of Genesis One points out that we often use the word create in the same manner. So, for example, when we say we’re creating a committee to look at an issue, we do not mean that we are bringing a committee into material existence. After all, the members of the committee already exist.
We are, instead, giving human beings who already exist a new purpose. That is what we mean by creation in that sense.
The Lost World of Genesis One also discusses creating a university. When a group of people wants to create a university, they don’t talk about building buildings or facilities. The buildings are not the university.
Instead, they talk about bringing a new purpose into being. They refer to turning buildings or faculty into a functioning, ordered system existing for the education of individuals.
Similarly, given my military background, I think of the term “making soldiers.” When drill sergeants say they are making soldiers, they do not mean they are creating new human beings. Rather, they mean they are taking a human being that already exists and instilling him or her with new purpose.
This is the type of paradigm shift in understanding that The Lost World of Genesis One provides.
The Lost World of Genesis One argues that this is what the ancients meant when they discussed “creation.” When we speak of the origins of man, we mean his material origin. The theory of evolution seeks to answer this creation question. That, however, is not how the ancients thought of creation at all.
The Lost World of Genesis One points out that the ancients were asking a different question than we are attempting to answer. We must understand what question the ancients were asking before trying to determine the answer Genesis 1 seeks to provide.
The Lost World of Genesis One argues, in particular, that we must attempt to understand the original meaning of Genesis 1 before trying to utilize it as an explanation for the origin of species.
The Lost World of Genesis One focuses on the Hebrew word bārā’ (translated “created” in Genesis 1). Walton studies the word and its appearance throughout Scripture. He then concludes that the word generally requires a functional understanding of creation. That is, examples of the word’s use elsewhere in Scripture, “offer support that existence is viewed in functional rather than material terms, as is true throughout the rest of the ancient world.”
In light of this, The Lost World of Genesis One translates Genesis 1:1 as, “In the initial period, God created by assigning functions throughout the heavens and the earth, and this is how he did it.”
The Beginning State in Genesis 1 Is Nonfunctional
In this section of The Lost World of Genesis One, Walton explores the beginning state of the earth. Specifically, Genesis 1:2 describes the earth as tōhû and bōhû. Various versions translate these words to set up a material creation account. (E.g., “formless and void,” (KJV, NASV), “without form and void,” (ESV, NKJV), “formless and empty,” (NIV, NLT), etc.).
Conducting a semantical analysis, however, The Lost World of Genesis One concludes that “unproductive” is a better translation. This is consistent with other Near Eastern creation accounts. In these accounts, creation, while existing in the material sense at the accounts’ beginnings, was unproductive.
So, Walton argues, “in the beginning,” before the initiation of the seven days found in Genesis, the earth existed. God had simply not yet provided it with the purpose that it was to have.
Genesis 1 is the description of God’s instilling Scripture with his purpose for it. The culminating purpose in this account, The Lost World of Genesis One argues, is that of man. The purpose God gives man is of the most significance. Human beings were to serve as God’s viceroys to subdue creation. That was their purpose and consequently the overall purpose of God’s creative work.
The Purpose of the Six-Days
The Lost World of Genesis One argues that we should divide the six-day period of creation into two. Days one through three establish function. The last three days install functionaries.
That is to say, on days one through three, God established the functions of the cosmos.
- Light (day one).
- The place for living things to live and the source of rain (day two).
- Space for food to grow and terrestrial animals and man to live (day three).
In days four through six, God installed the functionaries to carry out the functions he had established in the previous three days.
- Cosmic bodies to ensure the continued separation of day and night established on day one (day four).
- The animals to fill the space provided on day two (day five).
- Animals and man to fill the dry land God established on day three (day six).
The Lost World of Genesis One points out the neat, poetic correspondence between the first three and last three days. (Day one corresponds to day four, day two to day five, etc.) God instilled creation with purpose and then assigned functionaries to carry out those purposes.
The material things and functionaries already existed. The story is of God’s moving to establish order and give material objects purpose.
All of this takes on more significant meaning when The Lost World of Genesis One moves onto day seven.
Why Did God Have to Rest?
As The Lost World of Genesis One points out, to modern readers, day seven seems like an afterthought. It appears to be a tack-on that makes little sense to us.
It also provokes superficial Sunday School questions. (For example, “Why did God have to rest? Was he tired?”)
Further reflection, however, suggests that such questions are not all that superficial. Why would the text say that God rested? Why would that require another day? (And what, as The Lost World of Genesis One asks, did God do on the eighth day?)
The Lost World of Genesis One argues, however, that this would not have confused the ancients. They understood the significance of divine rest. “Without hesitation the ancient reader would conclude that this is a temple text and that day seven is the most important of the seven days.”
First, our understanding of rest is different than that of the ancient readers. We think of it as mere relaxation. “But in the ancient world rest is what results when a crisis has been resolved or when stability has been achieved, when things have ‘settled down.’” After the passing of a crisis, things return to “normal.” That is, regular routines can be established and resumed without the threat of interference from chaotic forces.
“For deity this means that the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken.”
God as Ruler
The Lost World of Genesis One here explains the dynamics of ancient temple theology. The ancients believed that a god rested in his temple. In light of this, day seven of takes on greater significance.
On this day, God, having defeated the chaotic forces and brought order and purpose to the earth, takes up residence on earth as his temple. That is, the God of Israel is not limited to a temple built by man. The whole earth is his temple (see Isa 66:1).
This is a substantial theological point, particularly in the ancient polytheistic world.
Day seven is when God takes up residence in his temple. A god was the ruler of his temple. The point, therefore, is that the earth is God’s temple. In taking up residence in it, God assumes his role as the ruler of the whole earth.
He takes the levers of control of the universe and rules. Now that “creation” is complete, God assumes control as its rightful ruler. Humanity serves as his viceroy.
This is the lost world of The Lost World of Genesis One. And it is this lost world that provides the context for a proper understanding of the creation account.
The Lost World of Genesis One also addresses various other views of creation.
Young Earth Creationism
First, The Lost World of Genesis One discusses young earth creationism. This is the belief that God created the physical universe out of nothing in a literal six-day period. Advocates of this position believe the world to be a mere six thousand to twenty thousand years old.
Proponents of this position like to claim that they are taking the Bible at its word. Walton, however, argues that they are forcing Genesis to say things that it never meant to say.
Instead, they are instilling the ancient Hebrew text with the meaning of its twenty-first century English translation. The English words “create” and “made” as twenty-first century Americans use them do not necessarily correspond to the ancient Hebrew words bārā’ and ‘āśâ.
To take the Bible at face value, Walton argues, we must understand its ancient Hebrew meaning. We cannot merely assume an American English one.
Old Earth Creationism
Next, The Lost World of Genesis One addresses Old Earth Creationism. Walton faults proponents of this theory for attempting to reconcile Scripture with modern scientific understandings of the world.
Science changes. The predominant theories of today may not be the prevailing theories of tomorrow. Attempting to reconcile the events of the six days with various scientific theories instills the text with a meaning that the author never intended.
We must allow Scripture to speak for itself without subjecting it to the ever-changing scientific theories of material origin. Otherwise, the Bible is just another secular book with some religious messages. There is little special about it if we must reconcile it with the theories du jour.
The Lost World of Genesis One next addresses framework hypothesis. Here, Walton argues against those who see Genesis 1 as a mere literary tool meant to teach theological truths. Proponents of this position often view Genesis 1 as allegory, not history.
The Lost World of Genesis One agrees with many of the theological points proponents of this theory make. Walton nonetheless faults them for arguing that that’s all there is. The author of Genesis 1, Walton argues, is saying more than that.
The Lost World of Genesis One seems to advocate some historicity of the creation account, though it is not clear on this point.
Less Popular Views
The Lost World of Genesis One also briefly mentions other less popular views.
For example, there is a theory that the earth functioned and existed before the creation account in Genesis 1. A fallen Satan, however, destroyed the earth before the book’s beginning. Genesis 1 is, therefore, an account of the recreation of a ruined planet. The Scofield Reference Bible helped make this theory famous.
The Lost World of Genesis One, however, argues that the Hebrew does not allow for such a reading. Walton is not the first one to point this out, however. This is why the theory has already fallen out of favor. The Lost World of Genesis One, therefore, does not spend much time addressing it.
Walton then turns to the argument that millions of years separate the accounts of Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25. The Lost World of Genesis One dismisses this argument almost out of hand.
Walton raises brief theological objections to this theory for its failure to account for non-human hominid species and their relationship to God and man. I’m not sure what Walton’s point is here, though. The Lost World of Genesis One does not develop this argument. Rather, it seems to cut it short with little explanation.
The Evolution Debate
The Lost World of Genesis One argues that Genesis 1 is a story of God’s instilling the universe with purpose and function consistent with the divine plan. Purpose, Walton argues, is a metaphysical matter. Genesis 1, therefore, is primarily about the why not the how.
Therefore, as long as believers accept that God is responsible for creation, it does not matter how they believe he accomplished it. The Lost World of Genesis One argues that the theory of evolution does not contradict the story of Genesis because Genesis simply does not comment on the material origins of the universe.
The Lost World of Genesis One, however, argues that both science and religion should understand their unique purpose. Christians should not take the why of Genesis 1 and impose it on science as the how. Conversely, science must not take the how of science and insist it to be the answer to the metaphysical why. That is, science must remain neutral on the matter of purpose.
Science is simply not equipped to answer metaphysical questions. It is, therefore, inappropriate for science to say that, since evolution explains the material origins of creation, there is no God or God was not involved.
It is these inappropriate metaphysical statements made in the name of science that Christians should oppose, rather than science itself. In Walton’s words, “Public Science Education Should be Neutral Regarding Purpose.”
The discussion of intelligent design within The Lost World of Genesis One may be the book’s most controversial section.
Walton concedes that intelligent design is not a scientific theory. He, therefore, argues that it has no place alongside evolution in public schools. The Lost World of Genesis One does not present intelligent design as an alternative scientific theory of creation. Quite the opposite.
Scientists cannot subject the theory of intelligent design to experimentation. Intelligent design is consequently not conducive to the scientific method. Therefore, it is not a scientific theory.
Public schools should only teach scientific theories. The Lost World of Genesis One has no qualms with this conclusion.
I found The Lost World of Genesis One to be a compelling yet accessible read. Walton demonstrates an intense love of Scripture and an evident desire to discover the biblical author’s intent. His arguments are very persuasive. I also found them to be consistent with evangelical presuppositions.
I never got the impression that Walton was attempting to force Scripture into an interpretation that he desired. The Lost World of Genesis One was also lacking in exegetical gymnastics. Walton never appeared to be trying for its own sake to reconcile the creation account with modern scientific theory.
Admittedly, I had never before heard of an interpretation of Genesis 1 like the one The Lost World of Genesis One proposes. I am always skeptical whenever an author offers a novel interpretation of Scripture, particularly one as prominent as the creation account.
I generally find it hard to believe that throughout millennia, no one has proposed an explanation like the one an author suddenly discovers. The Lost World of Genesis One is essentially claiming to find a meaning in the creation account that such greats as Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin all somehow missed.
Novelty of The Lost World of Genesis One
Yet, The Lost World of Genesis One provides a reasonable explanation for the novelty of its position. After delivering a compelling exegetical analysis of the Scripture, Walton explains why no one has proposed a similar interpretation.
He does not argue that he found something heretofore hidden within the text. Instead, he argues that we have only recently discovered the cultural context into which Genesis 1 was written. That is to say, the interpretation is not novel.
Walton argues that the interpretation he proposes would have been the natural understanding of the original audience. That is the whole point of The Lost World of Genesis One. Only recently have archaeological and literary discoveries allowed us to access and begin to understand the original cultural context of the ancient Israelites. This information was lost by the time of Christ. Time, war, and exile have a way of obscuring history.
The Church Fathers, looking at the Hebrew text from their own first century Greco-Roman culture, would not have had the point of reference to interpret the creation account according to its original intent. This remained true throughout the centuries. The great scholars of the Church simply did not understand ancient Hebrew culture.
In short, The Lost World of Genesis One does not argue that its interpretation is new. The author only argues that it had long been forgotten.
Shortcomings of The Lost World of Genesis One
There are some areas, however, where The Lost World of Genesis One leaves much to be desired. For example, Walton fails to address the allegory argument adequately.
He acknowledges that there are those who believe that the creation account is a mere literary work meant to teach us about God and man. Proponents of this theory argue that Genesis 1 demonstrates God’s use of allegory to teach theological truth. (Allegory and parables were, after all, a favorite tool of God incarnate.)
The Lost World of Genesis One seems to dismiss this position out of hand. Walton appears insistent on holding onto the traditional evangelical view that the creation account must be an historical account—at least somewhat in the way modern Westerners understands history.
He fails, however, in my opinion, to argue adequately why this is necessary. He seems to assume that taking the Bible seriously requires understanding the creation account as history. Yet, The Lost World of Genesis One fails to provide much justification for this position.
I tend to agree with Walton that Genesis 1 is more than allegory. Still, I don’t believe he adequately explains why or to what extent it is more.
The Evolution of Man?
In addition, Walton fails to address the origins of man adequately. The Lost World of Genesis One seems to suggest that Genesis 1 provides an account of the actual material creation of man. That is, God does more in Genesis 1 than give man purpose. Walton, however, does not flesh this out. (And The Lost World of Genesis One seems to contradict itself somewhat on this point.)
I was, therefore, left wondering whether Walton rejects the evolution of man from pre-human ancestors. Walton seems to suggest that Genesis 1 has nothing to say about material origins. He then implies that there is something different about man. That is, man could not have evolved in the same way that everything else did.
Again, I’m not sure if this is his position. I simply find some passages of The Lost World of Genesis One ambiguous and confusing.
What Is History?
I am also left wondering if Walton thinks Genesis 1 is an historical account in the modern sense. As I stated above, The Lost World of Genesis One seems to imply that it is. Still, I am not sure.
This confusion leads me to the evitable question The Lost World of Genesis One raises but then fails to answer. How would the ancient audience have understood history?
It is unlikely that the ancients would have understood it the way that we do. Even in the first century, the Gospels appear willing to rearrange stories to prove a point without anyone’s necessarily questioning the reliability of the accounts as a result.
Would it not stand to reason then that the author of Genesis could have told a story in a manner modern historians would find unacceptable but would not have concerned the original audience? If so, would that not be important for interpretation?
A discussion on this point would have been helpful.
The Lost World of Genesis One is an ingenious little work that provides a faithful interpretation of the text. It simultaneously saves Scripture from those who claim to take it seriously but then make it say things it never meant to say.
I highly recommend this work.
The Words of Saint Augustine
Given the controversy surrounding scientific theory within the Christian Church, I think it is appropriate to end this discussion with a quote from Saint Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430).
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world…Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn…
If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?…
For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7]
 It is always difficult to decide which word to use to describe the evangelical understanding of Scripture. So much debate has swirled around the Bible and its reliability in a variety of different fields that words such as “inerrancy” and “infallibility” have become loaded terms. In attempting to avoid the nuances of an unrelated debated, I use the word “infallibility” to mean the Bible’s complete reliability in the matters of faith and practice.
 Walton divides The Lost World of Genesis One into several propositions, which double as chapter titles. I borrow these propositions as subheadings in this review. I do so to focus on various aspects of Walton’s theory. “Ancient Cosmology is Function Oriented” is proposition two in The Lost World of Genesis One.
 Regardless of what the King James only folks—or their intellectual predecessors within the Catholic Church who insisted on the Vulgate only—may say.
 This is the third proposition in The Lost World of Genesis One.
 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 24.
 Ibid, 41.
 Ibid, 44-45.
 This is proposition 4 in The Lost World of Genesis One.
 Propositions 5 and 6 in The Lost World of Genesis One.
 Walton, 71.
 Ibid, 72.
 My link to the applicable South Park episode is not an endorsement of the show, which can be quite crass.
 Proposition 18 in The Lost World of Genesis One.
 Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim), trans. J. H. Taylor, in Ancient Christian Writers, volume 41 (Newman Press: 1982), https://www.pibburns.com/augustin.htm.