The Role of the Ancient Near East and Modern Science in Interpretation

By John H. Walton

The Cultural River

One of the biggest challenges in the science and faith conversation concerns the roles that the ancient Near East and modern science play in interpretation. To address this issue, I would like to propose that we use the metaphor of a cultural river. Even in our modern world there exists a cultural river that is widely known. Among its currents are various ideas and ways of thinking, such as human rights, freedom, capitalism, democracy, individualism, globalism, post-colonialism, post-modernism, market economy, scientific naturalism, an expanding universe, empiricism, and natural laws, just to name a few. Though the culture of the United States may well be the primary source for the cultural river described above, the currents of this river flow around the globe and affect many other cultures. Some may well wish to float in these currents, while others may struggle to swim upstream against them, but everyone draws from its waters. Though the extent to which each culture immerses itself is widely diverse, we are all in the cultural river.

In the ancient world, the cultural river flowed through all of the diverse cultures: Egyptians, Hittites, Phoenicians, Canaanites, Aramaeans, Assyrians, and Babylonians—and the Israelites. And despite the variations between cultures and across the centuries, certain elements remained static. But the currents common to the ancient cultures are not the currents found in our modern cultural river. In the ancient cultural river we would find currents such as community identity, the comprehensive and ubiquitous control of the gods, the role of kingship, divination, the centrality of the temple, the mediatory role of images, the reality of the spirit world and magic, and the movement of the celestial bodies as the communication of the gods. The Israelites sometimes floated on the currents of that cultural river without resistance, and at other times, the revelation of God encouraged them to wade into the shallows or to swim persistently upstream. But whatever the extent of the Israelites’ interactions with the cultural river, it is important to remember that they were situated in the ancient cultural river, not immersed in modern ideas or mindsets of our cultural river.

This metaphor can help us to formulate our approach to reading the Old Testament. God chose to communicate to the Israelites through Israelite intermediaries, to whom we often designate as the “authors” of Scripture.[1] These intermediaries lived in an ancient cultural river, as did their audiences. God communicated to these intermediaries within the context of their cultural river, and the intermediaries communicated to their audiences within that same framework. God’s message, God’s purposes, and God’s authority were all vested in those communicators and took shape within their language and culture. We cannot be assured of authoritative communication through any other source, and we must therefore find the message of God as communicated through those intermediaries in their ancient cultural river.

This means that if we are to interpret Scripture so as to receive the full impact of God’s authoritative message, we have to leave our cultural river behind and try to understand the cultural river of the ancient intermediaries. The communicators that we encounter in the Old Testament are not aware of our cultural river; they neither address it nor anticipate it. We cannot therefore assume any of the constants or currents of our cultural river in Scripture. The Bible is written for us (i.e. we are supposed to benefit from its divine message), but it is not written to us (not in our language or against our culture). The message transcends culture, but it is given in a form that is fully ensconced in the ancient cultural river of Israel.


Natural and Supernatural

As an example, let us consider a modern way of thinking that draws a distinction between the “natural” and “supernatural.” This way of thinking gradually became part of our cultural river through a long process, but became especially prominent during the Enlightenment and has only become a stronger force in the Post-Enlightenment period (e.g., logical positivism). Today this current is so strong that we have trouble even imagining that anyone could think in different categories.

Consequently, we identify natural cause and effect by explaining what we observe and encounter in categories defined in terms of natural laws. God presumably plays no role in these categories because everything can be explained scientifically. In contrast, those who believe in a reality beyond the material world identify the work of God as “supernatural” and use words such as “miracles” (beyond naturalistic explanation, or violating natural laws) and “intervention” (God stepping into the natural world to do something that cannot be explained scientifically). These are the categories from our cultural river; it is our default way of thinking about our world. Therefore, when we think about science and faith, we automatically adopt these categories. We debate whether origins can be explained naturally or require supernatural intervention. We think of the claims of the Bible in terms of whether it calls for something supernatural or could be satisfied by a natural explanation. We look for moments when the “miraculous” is evident, whether in the beginning of life or in encountered phenomena, whether in the pages of Scripture or in our own lives.

When we think in these categories, however, we betray our location in our own cultural river, for this distinction between “natural” and “supernatural,” as prevalent as it is in our cultural river, is totally absent from the ancient cultural river. In the ancient way of thinking there was nothing like “natural laws” which existed without the gods. They believed that the gods were every bit as much involved in the routine operations of the world as they were in the great manifestations of their power. This is true of the Israelites as well. The Old Testament does not speak of miracles—it speaks of God’s “signs and wonders.” These were manifestations of his power, his care for his people, his superiority to other gods, and his ability to deliver. They are no more to be distinguished as “supernatural” than is the development of each child in the womb (Ps. 139:13). That classification system that makes such distinctions is characteristic of our cultural river, but it would be foreign to the ancient mind.

If the ancient cultural river makes no distinction between the natural and supernatural, then we can interpret nothing in the Bible as a claim that something is “not natural”—there is no “natural.” When God’s role is indicated, we are not surprised; God was involved at some level in all causation. But identifying God’s action does not preclude our decision to consider an act “natural” because the intermediaries could describe anything in terms of God’s involvement. And if perchance we could suggest a process that we describe as “natural,” it would not mean that God was any less involved in the causation.[2]

Furthermore, the ancient cultural river had none of our modern science in it. Cosmic geography, physiology, meteorology, epidemiology, astronomy, etc., as present in our cultural river, had their own unique shapes in the ancient world that show little resemblance to any of our understanding about those disciplines. If we are going to interpret the Bible so that we tap into the power of God’s authoritative message, we have to do so by understanding the message that God gave through the human intermediaries that he chose for the task. Since he communicated to them in terms of their own cultural river, we must then read their words in the context of that river. That means that we cannot interpret the message in light of our cultural context; the Bible cannot make claims in light of our cultural river—it only makes claims with regard to its own cultural river.

In other words, what we have learned about science in our cultural river cannot be factored into the interpretation of biblical communication because, in doing so, we would be imposing something foreign on the text. We would be bringing to the interpretation something that the original Israelite author could not have known and was therefore not communicating. At the same time, we cannot contend that our modern science is communication from God (i.e., the book of God’s world) and read it into the biblical text. That would be according authority to our modern understanding of God’s world. In contrast, reading the Old Testament in light of the ancient cultural river is not imposing something foreign on the text. Israel is in that river, whether they are opposing it or fully immersed in it.

Some people insist that we should just read the Bible as it is—clear and simple. The difficulty with that suggestion is that when most people attempt to read the Bible “as it is,” they are removing any filters and reading the Bible from their own cultural river. This practice will inevitably distort the Bible. Modern ways of thinking, including modern science, are not part of the cultural river in which Israel lived, and those modern ideas cannot, therefore, serve as the lens through which we interpret Scripture. A couple examples will illustrate the application of this methodology.


The Beginning of Life

Contemporary discussions between proponents of pro-life and pro-choice often revolve around the question of when life begins. People who take the Bible seriously often like to enlist the Bible in their cause and use the Bible to resolve their questions. When we read the Bible in its own cultural river, however, we realize that it cannot possibly make the scientific distinctions that we need to consider. We cannot conclude that the Bible claims life begins when the sperm fertilizes the egg, because no one in the ancient world even knew that the woman had an egg to be fertilized or that conception involved such fertilization. Likewise, the implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterine wall or the dividing of the cells cannot be seen as a biblical criterion. They knew nothing of such processes. Our scientific knowledge cannot be the basis from which we derive biblical claims.


Cosmic Origins

In our cultural river we naturally think of cosmic origins in material terms. Big Bang cosmology and an expanding universe are the staples of our understanding. According to modern science, natural laws came into existence in what is called the “Big Bang,” and all the material of the universe resulted. “Existence” is assumed to be a material category. Therefore, any creation account purporting to offer an explanation of how the universe came into existence is considered, without hesitation, to be interested in a material perspective. Such is the nature of our cultural river.

However, in the ancient cultural river, of which we are informed though myriads of ancient Near Eastern texts, existence is less related to materiality and more to function with regards to role and purpose in an ordered system. The ordering of the cosmos is an act of creation (like we would speak of creating a committee or a curriculum), and, in their river, is the most important act of creation. Not only must we refrain from reading the Big Bang into ancient texts (including the Bible), we must also refrain from reading a material definition of existence and creation into ancient texts. In that cultural river, creation was always purposeful, and purpose is expressed in the establishment of order. Our interpretation of the authoritative message of Scripture must derive from the biblical text on the basis of its own cultural river. The Bible, then, cannot make a claim about whatever “natural” causes might be able to be identified or what might have been without “natural” cause. Those categories do not exist in that cultural river. At the same time, the ancient cultural river would universally affirm divine involvement. Nothing in the Bible would allow us to determine what was “natural” or “supernatural,” such that its claims could be considered to be in opposition to what naturalistic explanations offer. The Bible does, however, insist that God is pervasively involved. But science can never prove that God was not involved because it cannot operate outside of the naturalistic currents of its cultural river.

Consequently, we cannot conclude that the Bible has a claim to make about the age of the earth. The discussions about the length of each of the seven “days” in Genesis typically start with the assumption that the cosmic origins account in Genesis is intended to be an account of material origins. I would contend that such a starting point is indicative of a reading located in our cultural river, rather than in the ancient cultural context. When viewed through the ancient cultural river, the seven days can alternatively be understood as the seven days of temple inauguration. In Genesis 1 then, God has ordered the cosmos as sacred space in which he intends to dwell, and that ordering is recounted over seven days, just as we find with other accounts of temple inaugurations in the Bible as well as in the ancient Near East. In this view, the seven days are not focusing on material activities, and they therefore tell us nothing about the age of the material cosmos.[3]


Human origins

Does the account in Genesis 2 claim that human origins came about “supernaturally” rather than “naturally” and that no natural processes could have been involved? If the ancient cultural river makes no distinction between “natural” and “supernatural,” then nothing in the biblical account of human origins could be making a claim one way or another. Furthermore, if the ancient cultural river has no modern science in it and has little interest in material questions, then we should be reticent to conclude that the account in Genesis 2 is about material origins, or that it is concerned with biology. They knew nothing of chemistry, fossils, genetics, etc., so nothing that they say can be read in light of these issues, which spring from our cultural river. If materialism, naturalism, evolution, and the sciences in general are not in their cultural river, we cannot read the texts as if they have claims to make in those areas.

The ancient cultural river talks about human origins in terms of identity, rather than biology. This categorization can be observed throughout the ancient Near East but is also evident in a careful reading of the biblical text. The indication that humankind is formed from dust is a statement about human identity, not about biological origins. We are all from dust and therefore are frail (Ps. 103:14-15; 1 Cor. 15:47-48). Likewise, the building of Eve from the side of Adam is not a statement of material origins, but rather a statement of their shared identity (as Gen. 2:23-24 indicates); it is reflecting on something that is true of all of us, not just of Adam and Eve.[4]

Consequently, when we try to formulate a scientific understanding of biblical texts, we are mixing cultural rivers in impossible ways. We cannot draw scientific conclusions about human origins that reflect the issues that consume us in our cultural river. The Bible cannot make claims using categories that are not in the cultural river of its intermediaries. For example, the Bible does not address biological evolutionary theory,[5] which is nowhere in the ancient cultural river. Likewise, for those who have concluded that Adam and Eve fit somewhere in the schematic of population genetics, we cannot address what relationship they might have had to Neanderthals or anything else in the fossil record. We cannot succeed in identifying how the understanding of the origin of sin fits into the anthropological record without transgressing the boundaries of the respective cultural rivers.


Conclusions about Science and Faith

None of this suggests that we need to consider the Bible and science as being in totally different spheres of existence (as in Stephen J. Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria). We can fully believe that what the Bible claims engages the world around us and that the two “books”[6] are compatible; yet at the same time, we have to realize the limitations that are inherent in how our cultural river can inform the Bible, or how the Bible can make claims about the issues in our cultural river. I am not suggesting that neither has anything to say to the other, but that we cannot assess the claims in one river by the currents in the other river.

None of this analysis is designed to defend or promote scientific approaches or conclusions. The very point is that we cannot do so. My analysis of the ancient cultural river would be the same, even if our own cultural river, with its scientific understandings, were to change dramatically tomorrow. The science and faith conversation will not be able to make any headway until we recognize the phenomenon of the two cultural rivers and accept the resulting limitations regarding their relationship. The Bible cannot mean what it never meant. If modern science was not in the ancient cultural river, then the authoritative humans who were moved to communication by the Holy Spirit cannot be making claims about modern science. If we want to embrace the authoritative claims of the biblical text, we need to interact with the cultural river of the biblical text.

[1] We must recognize that much of the Old Testament was transmitted orally for many ages, and compilers at some point played an important role in its composition. For detailed discussion, see J. Walton and D. B. Sandy, Lost World of Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013).

[2] This does not suggest that everything in the Bible can be described as “natural” phenomena; it only indicates that the biblical authors are never making that distinction—they have no categories to do so.

[3] For a more detailed explanation, see J. Walton, Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).

[4] For discussion of the details, see J. Walton, Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015).

[5] Though insofar as evolutionists claim that there is no God, the Bible has something to say on that count.

[6] The Book of God’s Word and the book of God’s World.

[Editor’s Note:  Science and Faith image from 2014 Hubble WFC3/UVIS Image of M16, by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), found at Wikipedia Commons.]

About the Author
John Walton, PhDJohn Walton, PhD, is a Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. He is the general editor for a five volume series, The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, and the Old Testament General Editor of the NIV Cultural Background Study Bible.  Dr. Walton is the author of numerous books and articles including the Lost World of Genesis One, the Lost World of Adam and Eve, winner of an Award of Merit in Christianity Today’s 2016 Book Awards and Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.