This article is from Dr. John Walton's The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate. Dr John H. Walton is an Old Testament scholar and Professor at Wheaton College. If you would like to read more about Dr. John Walton's interpretation, I would strongly urge you to buy his book The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate.
It would not have been difficult for a reader from anywhere in the ancient Near East to take one quick look at the seven-day account and draw the conclusion that it was a temple story. That is because they knew something about the temples in the ancient world that is foreign to us. Divine rest in ancient temples was not a matter of simply residence. As we noted in Psalm 132, the temple was the center of God’s rule. In the ancient world, the temple was the command center of the cosmos—it was the control room from where the god maintained order, made decrees and exercised sovereignty. Temple-building accounts often accompanied cosmologies because after the god had established order (the focus of cosmologies in the ancient world), he took control of that ordered system. This is the element that we are sadly missing when we read the Genesis account. God has ordered the cosmos with the purpose of taking up his residence in it and ruling over it. Day seven is the reason for days one through six. It is the fulfillment of God’s purpose.
In the ancient world, a god’s place in his temple is established so that people can relate to him by meeting his needs (ritually). That is not the case in Israel, where God has no needs. He wants to relate to his people in an entirely different way. Despite this difference, it is the temple that remains the focus of this relationship as elsewhere in the ancient world. When God entered the temple, he established sacred space. Sacred space is the result of divine presence and serves as the center and source of order in the cosmos. In this “home story,” God is not only making a home for people; he is making a home for himself, though he has no need of a home for himself. If God does not rest in this ordered space, the six days are without their guiding purpose. The cosmos is not just a house; it is a home.
These ideas are supported not only by biblical theology, by lexical semantics and by comparative study with the ancient Near East; they are supported by the connection to a seven-day period. If this cosmic origins story has to do with the initiation of the cosmos as sacred space, then we should inquire as to how sacred space is typically initiated in the Bible and the ancient world when a temple is involved.
Solomon spent seven years building the house to be used as the temple of God in Jerusalem. When the house was complete, however, all that existed was a structure, not a temple. It was ready to be a temple, but it was not yet functioning like a temple, and God was not dwelling in it. Consequently the temple did not exist even though the structure did. What constituted the transition from a structure that was ready to be a temple to an actual functioning temple? How did the house become a home? This is an important question because there is a comparison to be drawn if Genesis 1 is indeed a temple text.
We find that in both the Bible and the ancient Near East there is an inauguration ceremony that formally and ceremonially marks the transition from physical structure to functioning temple, from house to home. In that inauguration ceremony, the functions of the temple are proclaimed, the functionaries are installed and rituals are begun as God comes down to inhabit the place that has been prepared by his instruction. It is thus no surprise that in Genesis 1 we find the proclamation of functions and the installation of functionaries. More importantly, we should note that in the Bible and the ancient world, the number seven figures prominently in the inauguration of sacred space.
If we therefore ask about the significance of seven days in the account, the biblical and ancient Near Eastern background provides the key. It is not that God decided to build the house in six days and added a Sabbath to make a theological point. We must remember that the audience of this account is Israel, not Adam and Eve. We might imagine a scenario in which Moses communicates to the Israelites in the wilderness (hypothetically, realizing that the book makes no such claims). This shift in our perspective is extremely important. Expanding on that idea, we can imagine not only a setting (Moses communicating to Israelites); we can imagine an event. As a thought experiment, let’s consider the scenario of Moses sitting down with the elders of the people on the eve of the tabernacle dedication at the foot of Sinai.
He is trying to help the Israelites understand the gravity of what is about to happen. They are ready to establish sacred space defined by the indwelling presence of God for the first time since Eden. So he explains to them that God had planned for the cosmos to be sacred space with him dwelling in the midst of his people—he had set up the cosmos and ordered it for that very purpose. He was preparing a place for them (cf. Jn 14:3). Sadly, people chose their own way, and sacred space was lost. Now, after all this time, they were going to reestablish God’s presence in their midst. In the same way, God had built the cosmos to be sacred space and then put people in that sacred space as a place where he could be in relationship with them. So, the inauguration of the tabernacle over the next seven days was going to accomplish the same thing. It is the story of sacred space established, sacred space lost and sacred space about to be regained. In this way of thinking, the account of Genesis 1–2 is an account of the origins of sacred space rather than an account of the origins of the material cosmos, and Genesis 1–3 forms an inclusio with the last chapters of Exodus.
If the period of seven days is related to the inauguration of the cosmos as sacred space, it represents the period of transition from the material cosmos that has been prepared over the ages to being the place where God is going to relate to his people. It has changed from space to a place. The seven days are related to the home story, not the house story—the ordering and establishing of functions, not the production of material objects.
Many have believed in the past that the seven days related to the age of the earth because they read the chapter as a house story. The age of the earth pertains to that which is material. If this is a home story, however, it has nothing to do with the age of the physical cosmos. A period of seven days does not pertain to how long it took to build the house; it pertains to the process by which the house became a home. This interpretation finds support both in the biblical text and in the ancient Near Eastern background. If accepted, this would mean that the Bible makes no claims concerning the age of the earth.
This concept of sacred space carries across to Genesis 2. In Genesis 1, we find an account of how God had created sacred space to function on behalf of humans. It does not say where sacred space is centered, only that God has ordered a place for people to call home, even though it is ultimately his place. In Genesis 2, the center of sacred space is identified, explanation is given concerning how humans will function on behalf of sacred space, and we see God interacting with people in this sacred space.
Reading the chapters as a home story allows the emergence of rich theology that is obscured by reading the text as a house story. We learn that, even though God has provided for us, it is not about us. The cosmos is not ours to do with as we please but God’s place in which we serve as his co-regents. Our subduing and ruling are carried out in full recognition that we are caretakers. Whatever humanity does, it should be directed toward bringing order out of non-order. Our use of the environment should not impose disorder. This is not just a house that we inhabit; it is our divinely gifted home, and we are accountable for our use of it and work in it.
John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2015), 49–52.