Adam and Eve Reframed: a book review

I first became aware of John Walton  my first year in seminary. My Old Testament prof gave a lecture on creation, setting the Genesis 1 account within the context of other Ancient Near East (ANE) literature. The lecture was indebted to Walton and the professor highly recommended Walton’s Genesis commentary (in the NIVAC series). When our class break hit, I sprinted the bookstore and bought the commentary before anyone else had a chance. It remains a favorite. I also gobbled up other books from Walton on Ancient Near East cosmology, including The Lost World of Genesis One. 

The Lost World of Adam and Eve picks up where that volume left off (the first five chapters are a bit of review). As with his earlier book, the chapters are propositions on how to read Genesis sensitively to its ANE context, so a glance at the table of contents gives a detailed summary of the ground that Walton covers here. Walton focuses especially on Genesis 2-3, but also pays attention to the wider context of Genesis 1-5 (and how the hebrew ‘adam functions and the text). He also shows how his reading of the text functions within the rest of the canon of scripture. N.T. Wright provides a brief excursus in relationship to Proposition 19 (“Paul’s Use of Adam Is More Interested in the Effects of Sin on the Cosmos Than in the Effect of Sin on Humanity and Has Nothing to Say About Human Origins”).

If you are familiar with Walton’s work, you will not be surprised by many of his claims here. Walton’s project is to get us to read Genesis without expecting it to answer our modern questions. For example, the question of the material origins of the universe are not of particular interest to the Ancient world. Instead Genesis 1 is about the ordering of the world (i.e. the Spirit hovering over the chaos in Genesis 1:2) rather than creating ex nihilo. The text has more to do with functionality than materiality.

Walton claims that Adam and Eve’s story casts them in the role of archetypes and federal representatives instead of untangling the riddle of human origins (see propositions 6, 8. 9). However this is not meant to imply that Adam and Eve were not also real, historical people. Walton eschews the term myth or mythological because the popular use of the term implies this unreality. He prefers the term imagistic (137) and sees the Hebrew writers using the ‘shared symbolic vocabulary’ and questions that other Ancient Near East people did (139).

In Walton’s view, humans were created as male and female with mortal bodies (not ones that became mortal later because of ‘the fall’),  were provided for by God and given a role of serving in God’s sacred space (200).Because ‘creation in Genesis’ is about bringing order to world, the serpent is a ‘chaos creature’ who promoted disorder by convincing Adam and Eve to place themselves at the center of the order. Sin and Death now affects all humanity because of disorder in the cosmos. Jesus is God’s plan to restore order to the dis-ordered world (Romans 5).

Walton is not a theological liberal (he teaches at Wheaton). He is an evangelical who seeks to read the Bible well. His reading of Genesis is not at enmity with scientific explanations for global and human origins. He reads the text well while trying to unravel the questions and conceptual world of its author and original audience. Where evangelical/secular discussions often devolve into creation versus evolution debates, it is refreshing to have an approach to the text that is more interested in what the Bible communicated to the people it was originally written for. This gives space for some variety within the church on questions of cosmology and removes a potential stumbling block for those who find difficulty reconciling their reading of scripture with science (different sorts of texts, asking different questions).

There are implications in Walton’s account which will be challenging to those of us with a traditional theological bent (i.e. Walton provides no grounding for creation ex nihilo in Genesis, pre-fall death in humans and nature, etc). Walton gives a careful, biblically sensitive and ANE aware case for his reading. He rolls out N.T. Wright, the world’s foremost Pauline scholar, to prove that his reading makes sense of the New Testament usage of Adam and Eve as well. Still there is a significant challenge here for us to work through if we are to remain biblical rooted.

Regardless of your stance on the mode of creation (which is not the point), this book will challenge you and get you to dig into the text of Genesis. Walton is a good teacher and brings his readers into the realm of Ancient Near Eastern thought. I give this five stars and recommend it for anyone who wants to go back to Genesis. 

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.

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