Human origins: Hubble telescope or van Gogh?

What kind of picture is Genesis 1-3? Is it a Hubble telescope photo or van Gogh’s Starry Night?

In his newest book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate, John Walton explains his approach to the origins debate in this way: “[T]he Bible is not a scientific textbook. That is, God’s intention is not to teach science or to reveal science. He does reveal his work in the world, but he doesn’t reveal how the world works” (page 17 italics original). Walton claims that the origins account in Genesis is a home story not a house story. A house story tells us what kind of plywood, drywall, and roofing shingles were used in the formation of the home. But a home story tells us when a family moved in, assigned each room a function, and how that house became a home. Walton spends the first five chapters summarizing much of his argument from his book The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Through biblical theology, lexical semantics, and comparative study with the ancient Near East, Walton concludes that the seven-day creation account is a temple story (page 49). It is the story of how the cosmos came to function as sacred space.

Starting in chapter six, he moves on human origins account of Genesis 2-3 and slaughters a few sacred cows on his quest to look at Genesis through ancient Near Eastern eyes. The top three would probably be  –

  1. Adam and Eve were not the first humans.
  2. Adam and Eve were not created immortal.
  3. Death existed before the Fall.

Walton affirms that Adam and Eve are historical humans, but he says they are not the prototypical (first) humans, rather they are the archetypal (representative) humans. He bases this argument on his exegesis of Genesis 1:27, in which God creates humanity in His image. He concludes that just as Jesus is called the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), not because he is the last human being but because he is the last representative for the human race, so also Adam was the first representative for the human race, not necessarily the first human. (Chapters 9-11)

Walton argues that humanity was not created immortal, rather Adam and Eve were given access to antidote for their mortality – the tree of life. By putting themselves at the center of God’s order instead of God himself, they were exiled from the sacred space of Eden that contained the antidote to their mortal condition. Thus, through Adam all died, because through his sin humanity has no access to the tree of life. (Chapter 5)

Walton also argues that there was death before the Fall. Death is part of non-order, God with his human vice-regents were establishing order out of non-order. Therefore, the goodness of original creation is found in the establishment of order not in the absence of death. What Adam and Eve’s original sin did, like Pandora’s box, was release disorder into the world. (Chapter 17)


In conclusion, The Lost World of Adam and Eve is a great book in which John Walton patiently and systematically lays out his approach to the origins debate putting forth a strong argument that allows Genesis to speak truth on its own terms and in its own form without capitulating to presiding origins accounts. As Walton says, “[I]f scientific evidence suggests that human beings were not created de novo, we could not necessarily claim that the Bible contested that evidence. That does not mean that we could necessarily accept the current scientific explanation. It would only mean that we would have to judge the science on its own merits rather than dismiss it based on a biblical claim” (page 81).

What John Walton has done with Genesis in immersing the reader in the thought world of the ancient Near East is akin to what N.T. Wright has done with Paul in immersing his readers in the literature of Second Temple Judaism. For those interested in looking at the important issue of  the Bible and human origins – start with Walton.

Michael Michael (16 Posts)

I am a Ph.D. student at Trinity College Bristol. These blog posts contain some of my incomplete thoughts on political theology featuring less footnotes and more exclamation marks.

3 Comments Human origins: Hubble telescope or van Gogh?

  1. Josh DysonJosh Dyson

    This seems like a pretty interesting read that seeks to address the issue upon the Bible’s own terms, rather than the most prominent presuppositions (6-day literalism or God-less accident). Thanks for pointing us to this read.

    1. MichaelMichael

      Thanks for reading my review. It’s certainly a complex issue, and Walton (for the most part) steers away from the playing scientist and just sticks with what he’s good at, which is biblical studies and ancient Near Eastern culture. I think you’re right that there is a lot that stinks about evolution. But I think that a generous reading of Walton can still be critical of evolutionary theory while also saying that young earth literalism (although Walton would say that he too is reading Genesis “literally”) doesn’t necessarily offer the best way forward either.


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