I have finally got round to reading John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, and I have to say, I don’t see it.
Walton’s central contention is that what we have in Genesis 1 is an account not of the creation of the material cosmos but of the inauguration of the world as a temple for the creator God. He does not deny that the world is God’s material creation as a matter of theology, only that this is not the message that the author of the passage was trying to get across. In the context of the debate about origins there is an immediate benefit: we no longer need to map the chronology of Genesis 1 against scientific accounts of the formation of the universe and the emergence of life:
In summary, we have suggested that the seven days are not given as the period of time over which the material cosmos came into existence, but the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple…. (91)
This idea that the cosmos is depicted as a temple seems to me to have become quite commonplace, particularly for narrative theologians. J Richard Middleton, for example, has a section on “Mediating God’s Presence in the Cosmic Temple” in his book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (46-49).
I have always been wary of it because I suspect it is part of a broader strategy to shift the emphasis away from the story of YHWH and Israel to a larger and more modern story about God and creation. Still, having read Walton’s book, I am surprised at how flimsy the argument is.
Walton claims that in the ancient world everyone knew that when a deity rests, he rests in a temple. So when it says that God finished the work of creation on the seventh day and “rested”, we are to understand this as a reference to the cosmos as a temple. This “rest” is not God putting his feet up after six days of hard work. It is a “settling down” after a crisis has been resolved; it is a return to the “normal operations of the cosmos” (72). The word for this new state, according to Walton, is měnûḥâ, the verbal form of which is found in Exodus 20:11: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested (wayyānaḥ) on the seventh day” (Ex. 20:11).
Now, to start with, I don’t see how “rested” in this context means “returned to normal operations”.
In Exodus 31:17 Moses is told that “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested (šāḇaṯ) and was refreshed”. Likewise, the people of Israel are told: “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest (tišbōṯ); that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed” (Ex. 23:12). Surely here rest on the seventh day is just that—rest and refreshment after a period of work. The detour by way of Exodus 20:11 gets us no further. In Genesis 2:2 we are only told that God “ceased” (šāḇaṯ) from his work.
A more substantive argument is drawn from the account of the founding of the temple in Psalm 132, where the temple is described as the “resting-place” (měnûḥâ) of the Lord. So Walton concludes:
After creation, God takes up his rest and rules from his residence. This is not new theology for the ancient world—it is what all peoples understood about their gods and their temples. (73)
But the argument is flawed. What the Psalm describes is not the rest of God after a period of creation but the rest of God after a period of wandering or homelessness. David says that he will not rest until he has found a “dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob” (Ps. 132:5), a resting place not for God only but also for “the ark of your might” (132:8). God has finally chosen Zion as his “resting-place for ever” (132:14). The language reflects the journeys and insecurities of the period of the tabernacle and the vulnerability of the ark of the covenant. There is no reason to impose this quite different narrative about the Mighty One of Jacob on the creation account.
Walton claims to have found further support for his argument in the story of Israel’s coming to rest in land:
But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safety. (Deut. 12:10)
But it can hardly be said that this rest “allows life to resume its normal routines” (73). There were no “normal routines” to resume, only nomadic life in the wilderness, harried by enemies. The final inheritance of the promised land constituted not a return to normality but an end to the hardships of the exodus. As with Psalm 132, it is rest at the end of an arduous journey, not cessation of work at the end of creation.
The other major type of evidence that Walton cites in support of his thesis is the supposed close association of temple and cosmos in ancient thought. Again, the argument is suspect.
To be sure, the construction of a temple for the gods is anticipated in the creation stories, but this does not mean that the cosmos was conceived as a temple. It may have been the case that ancient temples were “considered symbols of the cosmos” (78) or as the world in microcosm, but that doesn’t make the cosmos a representation of the temple or a temple in macrocosm.
Walton says: “From the idea that the temple was considered a mini cosmos, it is easy to move to the idea that the cosmos could be viewed as a temple.” But whether or not the move was easy, he provides no evidence that the ancients actually made it.
In fact, it rather appears that temples were needed precisely because the cosmos was not itself a temple. Walton quotes from a prayer about the founding of Eridu, noting that “the absence of a temple was sometimes part of the description of the precosmic condition” (77). But the line “No holy house, no house of the gods, no dwelling for them had been created” suggests that the world did not itself provide a house for the gods. If a temple for the gods was planned from the start of creation, it was because heaven and earth in themselves did not constitute an appropriate dwelling place. If the temple of Etemenanki was the “House of the Foundation Platform Between Heaven and Earth”, it was because heaven and earth were felt to be remote from each other rather than an integrated cosmic temple.
Perhaps, as Josephus suggests, the three-part structure of the tabernacle was intended to serve as an “imitation and representation of the universe”:
When Moses distinguished the tabernacle into three parts, and allowed two of them to the priests, as a place accessible and common, he denoted the land and the sea, these being of general access to all; but he set apart the third division for God, because heaven is inaccessible to men. (Jos. Antiq. 3:180-81)
But to find pointers to the cosmos in the description of the tabernacle or temple is not the same as finding pointers to the temple in the account of the creation of the cosmos. If the temple is “cosmic” in its design, it is because it is the dwelling place of the creator God in the midst of his people. But the Jerusalem temple is the cosmos in microcosm, not the cosmic temple in microcosm.
As far as I can see, Walton provides no direct evidence from Genesis 1 that the creation story was written with the structure or purpose of the temple in mind. The cosmos is not described as a holy dwelling place for the creator. Humanity is created in the image of God with a view to subjugation and rule, not as a priesthood. The earth is a place for procreation and industry, not for worship. The heavens are not said to be the throne of God, the earth is not his footstool.
Walton regards Isaiah 66:1-2 as the clearest example of the association of cosmos and temple in the Old Testament:
Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD.”
He thinks that we can see here “the elements of a cosmos-sized temple, a connection between temple and rest, and a connection between creation and temple” (82-83). But the passage is part of a polemic against Jewish complacency and the corruption of the sacrificial system: “He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man…” (Is. 66:3). We cannot draw broad conclusions about Jewish cosmology from such a rhetorically loaded text.
YHWH asserts his transcendent sovereignty and power as creator, but there is no reference back to Genesis 1. The questions “what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?” evoke the other narrative of Psalm 132—David’s quest for a permanent resting-place for the ark. At issue is simply the question of whether the Jerusalem temple is fulfilling its purpose.
It seems to me, therefore, that there is a one-way flow to the biblical argument about the relation between cosmos and temple. The temple is, in certain respects, like the cosmos; it represents or symbolises the cosmos—for the simple reason, presumably, that it is the place where the creator God dwells in the midst of his people. So we find the temple described in creational terms.
But the statement cannot be reversed. The Old Testament does not say that the cosmos is or is like a temple. We do not find creation described in temple terms.