The Cultural Context of Genesis

Just by chance, I stumbled upon a cool insight into the study of the Bible in a secular light. The Genesis narrative is well known to many being in a Judaeo-Christian society and tells how the world came into being. Most people understand the world “creation” to be creating physical things and in this case, physically creating the universe out of nothing. However, one scholar, John Walton in his book  Ancient Near Eastern Thought and The Old Testament, has evidence of a different interpretation of what the ancient Hebrews meant by “creation”:

“The word bara is translated as “created” in English, but the concept it embodied was not the same as the modern term. In the world of the ancient Near East, the gods demonstrated their power over the world not by creating matter but by fixing destinies: so the essence of the bara which God performs in Genesis concerns bringing “heaven and earth” (a set phrase meaning “everything”) into existence by organizing and assigning roles and functions.” (Wikipedia)

In essence, creation has a more nuanced meaning of creating a function or a destiny for something more than physically creating material. This interesting interpretation stems from a cultural difference between our culture and cultures of the ancient
Near East. In our culture, we are more material-oriented, so we tend to focus on the physical aspect of a creation story, but their cultures were more function-oriented and stressed what something does, more than what it is. This also has scholars wondering if the ancient Near Eastern cultures had the concept of “creation out of nothing”. All in all, Walton concluded:

“Did they have a concept of creation out of nothing? Did they believe in the eternal existence of matter? These questions have significance only in a material ontology. Those who posit creation want to know whether “things” were created without using preexistent materials. If creation is not viewed as concerned with the physical making of things, these questions cannot be approached through the texts. The result of this study is the suggestion that in the ancient Near East “to create” meant to assign roles and functions rather than to give substance to the material objects that make up the universe. Something could conceivably exist materially by my definitions, yet in their view of cosmology not be created yet.” (p. 184)

These cultural barriers hinder the interpretation of such ancient texts, which many base their religion on today as the word of God. To truly understand the message that whoever’s God was trying to send need to know the cultural context of the stories and myths. Subtle nuances like this are often missed, literally “lost in translation” or lost due to cultural differences in worldview. There are many more numerous examples throughout the books of the Bible, but that’s for a whole new post!


As I dove deeper into the book, it dawned on me that it could have a religious tone to it, as another source praising the book was a Christian website. They claimed the book was good in helping support biblical interpretation. Reading again, it could be interpreted as an excuse for why Genesis is inconsistent with secular scientific timescales, (that whole “it doesn’t mean physical creation” thing…), but I still believe it could just be an analysis of a cultural misinterpretation at what the ancients were getting at from our end of it. Overall though, the book is secular enough and has no outright religious bias from what I read, so it’s safe to say it’s an insightful secular analysis of the cultural context of the Bible.


About History Is Interesting

I like ancient and medieval history!
This entry was posted in Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Cultural Context of Genesis

  1. Jack says:

    Reblogged this on The Missal.

    Liked by 1 person

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