Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Did matter matter to the ancients?

“...it is typical in English to draw a distinction between the verb ‘to do’, which takes as its direct object activities performed by the subject, while the verb ‘to make’ usually takes material things as its grammatical direct objects. As a result, when we encounter a Hebrew text in which ʿāśâ has cosmic direct objects, and given that our basic modern ontology is material, we assume that material things being made are the objects of ʿāśâ rather than activities being done, and thus we translate ‘make’ rather than ‘do’. But if the creation of the cosmos is an activity of organizing or ordering, the work identified with the word ʿāśâ must have to do with establishing its functions.”— Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, page 136


“If we do not arrive at the text of Genesis 1 with the preconception that the focus is on the bringing into existence of the material world, the context itself would not lead us to think in predominantly material terms. In the initial period, God brought the cosmos into existence (by setting up an ordered system and giving everything its role within that system). In this proposal, the text is making no comment on material origins. It is more interested in indicating how God set up the cosmos to function for human beings in his image. These functions define the idea of existence; the ancients had little interest in the material.” — Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, page 139

<idle musing>
In answer to the question in today's post title: Apparently not. What do you think?
</idle musing>


Peter Kirk said...

Yes, this does explain things better than yesterday's extract, at least on the assumption that the "we" here refers to English speakers.

Most other languages would not make a linguistic distinction between "material things being made" and "activities being done". But I'm sure our western European friends would make the same kind of conceptual distinction as we do between these two. That implies that we have to be careful about using linguistic evidence to argue that the ancients did not make this conceptual distinction. I'm not saying that Walton was not careful, as of course I would need to read the whole book before judging that.

Kirk Lowery said...

If one understands "material" in the modern scientific sense, then I think he's right.

But the creation narrative isn't abstract. It's concrete. The creation narration is about our physical world.

Kirk Lowery