Book Review: The Lost World of Adam and Eve
Author: John Walton
Publisher: IVP Academic
Reading Level: Moderate-Leisure
“The Bible must retain its autonomy and speak for itself. But that is also true when we hold traditional interpretations up to the Bible. The biblical text must retain autonomy from tradition.” (14)
What does the Bible mean to say? This might seem like a silly question but it is the crux of hermeneutics. Perhaps it should be asked in a different way. What did the original author mean to say? (Or even) What did the original audience understand the text to mean? These types of questions, and the answers provided by those who focus on the historical use of grammar in the Scriptures, can be summarized by saying, “the text cannot mean what it never meant” (19).
Those who disagree with this style of hermeneutic will find John Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve (henceforth, The Lost World) exasperating. In studying Genesis 2-3, Walton asks what the original audience would have heard in the words written and the symbols used. Walton insists that what the original audience heard is vastly different from what the modern audience hears. Walton calls upon the modern study of ancient creation texts to shed light on the conversations and language during the time of Israel (Mosaic authorship seems implied throughout Walton’s work). In the early propositions (each chapter is a single proposition) Walton reads Genesis 1 in light of these ancient texts (chapter 1-5). Walton argues that the audience of Israel would have understood creation stories not as the origin of material but ordering of chaos. Walton assumes the former is a modern fascination and has addressed the issue more thoroughly in The Lost World of Genesis (IVP Academic, 2009) [Mathew Sims has a helpful review]. The speed at which Walton recounts these arguments does not forgive the lack of his addressing important questions against “chaos theory” (e.g. the waw of Genesis 1:2 and bara as a verb used only by God; pg. 27-30). Walton seems over reliant on ancient cosmologies in his rush to discuss the non-material creation paradigm of Genesis 1.
Once Walton passes this foundational point, his writing is superb. With regards to cosmology, he clarifies repeatedly where and how Israel would have differed with other ancient texts (e.g. 68, 138-139). His arguments in Genesis 2 and 3 are significantly more exegetical in nature and more profitable for students of the Scripture on all sides of this discussion (chapters 6-13). Still, Walton’s tendency to define words used in Genesis with different genres is off putting (e.g. poetry and prophetic symbolism, pg. 71-72). Walton stresses that the words means something to the original audience and yet he often argues for definitions by different authors writing in different genres to different audiences. In some cases he has no choice. In other cases he allows the progressive nature of Scripture to act as an interpretive lens that seems to work against the hermeneutical principal laid out in the opening chapters. This does not make his arguments wrong but demands more detailed and thorough discussion.
Using this hermeneutic with a non-material creation, Walton states that Genesis 2 does not address the origin of man (chapter 8) and that it is not essential for all humanity to descend from Adam and Eve (chapter 20). In all this he argues that Adam and Eve were historical people (chapter 11) and all mankind suffers the consequences of sin (chapter 17). More conservative readers will feel the weight of these arguments most effectively given a fuller understanding of Walton’s scientific paradigm. A rather awkward excursus by N.T. Wright (chapter 19) addresses Romans and Paul’s theology demonstrating how many of Walton’s propositions can be affirmed in a robust New Testament theology. Despite Wright’s excellent writing, the excursus fits the The Lost World’s structure poorly and loses focus of Walton’s non-material creation theme. Similarly disjointed, Walton repeatedly addresses how his understanding of Genesis neither requires nor denies modern scientific theories, yet he eventually addresses scientific theories (chapter 20-21). By Walton’s own admission he is no scientist (181) and these sections present the most disjointed and glossary elements of The Lost World.
In conclusion, The Lost World of Adam and Eve presents new ideas to conservative readers. Young-Earth creationists will find themselves confronted by many conflicting elements and arguments. In his conclusion, Walton reveals his concern for those entering higher education with misguided piety and overly protective ideals (209-210). Faithful Christians can share Walton’s convictions and be well served by studying Walton’s arguments. Those who share Walton’s conviction on the modern science will especially appreciate the work to bring the original message, and thus authority, of Genesis into the theological spotlight.
[Editor's Note: Mathew Sim's has also provided a valued review of the book from a slightly more conservative angle. His review expresses even more concerns that may concern some readers]
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.