If Adam wasn’t alone, then what?

A. Leo Oppenheim, writing in the Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography on Man and Nature in Mesopotamian Civilization, makes an interesting (and usually unnoticed) distinction between the two “creation stories” of Genesis.

The relationship between man and nature in the ancient Near East is nowhere as pointedly formulated as in Genesis 1:26, where it is said that God gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” The parallel version of the Creation story (Genesis 2:19) formulates the same relationship differently, and in a way that is more relevant to the characteristic attitude of those civilizations that relied on writing for the preservation of their intellectual traditions. It says, “God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” While it was thus man’s privilege as the lord of creation to give names to the animals, the knowledge of all their names and their individual features and behavior was considered the privilege of the sage. This is illustrated by the passage (I Kings 4:33) that extols the wisdom of Solomon: “And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes.”

One could consider that, whereas man and woman in Gen 1 are being presented as the creature set over earthly creation by virtue of bearing God’s image, Adam in Gen 2 is presented as a male sage-priest, which is particularly significant given the now widely recognised temple-imagery of Eden itself. Adam is not presented as the first man in the world, but as a designated priest in a sacred space within the world, and it is there that the drama of his innocence, rebellion and subjection to exile and death is played out.

Eden conceived as sacred space

Eden conceived as sacred space

Genesis 2, in its mytho-historical genre, never actually claims Adam specifically as the first man. It just doesn’t mention any other people and majors on the history of his genealogical descendants, and it certainly names Eve as “the mother of all living” – but the same is true now, genetically speaking, of Mito-Eve, and she certainly wasn’t the first woman. Although the natural tendency has been to see the two Genesis accounts as parallel (or in critical circles conflicting) views of the same creation event, some have seen them as dealing with different circumstances, with texts like Gen 5.1-3 intended to bring the two accounts into harmony rather than congruence.

John H Walton, for example, sees Genesis 1 as recounting the creation of the whole human race (as a functional account, of course, with the whole cosmos serving as God’s temple), whereas the Eden account is that of an archetypal human from that race, set in a temple precinct on earth for a specific role. In his interpretation, Eve already naturally existed (like Cain’s wife later on), and he presents a case for her creation from Adam’s side being a didactic vision about the divine nature of marriage, akin to the visionary experience of Abraham in ch15.

As moderns we usually miss the allusions to Adam as a sage-priest, though they may have been self evident to the original readers from the naming of the animals; that is the classification of the world, the specific activity of wise men and priests. But further support for the idea, and greater insights, might come from what has generally been considered a Mesopotamian parallel to the Adam story, the tale of Adapa, dweller in the world’s first city, Eridu. At times Genesis 2-3 has been said to be derived from Adapa, at times the reverse, and at others that there is no connection. But there are sufficient parallels to make it likely that they share some kind of literary heritage, though put to very different uses. It is quite possible that Adam and Adapa even share an etymology, those proposed for both being quite conjectural.

Adapa is the first of seven sages (roughly parallel to the lineage of Adam) who serve the kings of different cities before the Flood (which was probably the major inundation centred on Shuruppak around 2900BC). He is certainly not the first man; in the myths the gods bring an already existing mankind from primitive savagery to service of the gods in the cities, once the kingship descends from heaven. Here’s what is said on the tablets about Adapa’s origin:

He possessed intelligence …,
His command like the command of Anu …
He (Ea) granted him a wide ear to reveal the destiny of the land,
He granted him wisdom, but he did not grant him eternal life.
In those days, in those years the wise man of Eridu,
Ea had created him as chief among men [=”model of men” or archetype (Andreasen)],
A wise man whose command none should oppose,
The prudent, the most wise among the Anunnaki [= offspring of the sky god Anu] was he,
Blameless, of clean hands, anointed, observer of the divine statutes,
With the bakers he made bread
With the bakers of Eridu, he made bread,
The food and the water for Eridu he made daily,
With his clean hands he prepared the table,
And without him the table was not cleared.

Though not the first of men, note that Adapa, like Adam, is created apparently supernaturally, without mention of human parentage. As a sage he is engaged in the service of the Eridu temple (that’s the significance of the bakery business); the story continues to speak about his similar role in catching fish for the temple, and that leads to his adventures, which need not detain us except to say there is a quasi-parallel with Adam in his failing to obtain eternal life.

Note also that, though not even the king of Eridu (that was Alulim, first of the Sumerian antediluvian rulers), his wisdom and blamelessness are intended to make him an archetype for men. It appears that the role of the sages was to teach the wisdom of the gods to men, presumably so that the formerly uncivilized race would be fit for their new divine calling.

Though the details, and the denouement, are very different in the two tales, summarising Adapa in this general way actually casts light on what the story of Eden is already suggesting to some modern scholars, as they pick up on the various allusions to the garden as a sacred space in which man and Yahweh commune but from which Adam and Eve are exiled for disobedience, to the tragic loss of all of their descendants.

The point is that, if we come to Adam as clearly being a priest-sage, in the pentateuchal literary context of the foundation-story of Israel, in which they too are called to be a nation of priests amongst the gentiles (and even of Israel’s potential or actual failure in that role), we’re less likely to jump to the conclusion that he is the original, generic, inhabitant of earth, and less likely to have big issues with the thought of his having dealings with “non-men” outside the garden. Zombies are not in view on either story.

Genesis already gives hints of a mediation between Yahweh and the wider race by suggesting Adam’s priesthood. And in Adapa, too, we have a cultural memory of a supernaturally-wise man bringing knowledge of the divine to an existing human race hitherto in ignorance.

It may be harder to explain how the failed priest of Genesis becomes the father of universally sinful humanity in the New Testament, but it’s by no means completely implausible. On the one hand, if Adam, by his unique appointment to become intimate with and obedient to God, was intended to achieve wisdom and eternal life (the tree of life) for all men, then his failure deprives us all. On the other, if like Adapa he is God’s appointed archetype (“model of men”), then the example he set was disastrous, whether it was followed through generation as in the Irenaean and Augustinian theories, or in some other way.

Some such understanding retains the biblical uniqueness of Adam as the human origin both of knowledge of Yahweh, and of the rebellion against his word which constitutes sin. And it also makes evolutionary criticisms of the Adam story irrelevant, because not only does Adam become an historical (and not a biological) figure, albeit couched in some mythic imagery, but he becomes a plausible figure in a specific historical setting – that of the earliest civilization in Mesopotamia, which even passes on some kind of memory of him in the Adapa story. Genesis is consonant with the geography (particularly as it, perhaps, existed in the third millennium BC), with the culture, with the historical fixed point of a known flood, and with a specific cultural (and in the stories divinely created and appointed) role as a priest-sage for all men.

The main incongruence is that Mesopotamia did not worship Yahweh, but “images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles”. But we already knew that Adam failed in his role, and passed his imperfect knowledge of the true God only down his genealogical line until God called his descendant, Abram, from that very land to the land of promise.


Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to If Adam wasn’t alone, then what?

  1. Bilbo says:

    I’m willing to accept that there were thousands of human beings at the start. But I’ll be darned if I can understand how that is supposed to happen. If I understand it, a new species occurs when one group of animals can no longer breed with the original group. But doesn’t this mean that ultimately the new group formed with just the individuals born with whatever genetic difference that made it impossible for them to breed with the original group? And for mammals,wouldn’t that mean that it couldn’t be more than a handful?

  2. Bilbo says:

    In fact, from good ol’ Wikipedia, on “founder mutation” I found this:

    In genetics, a founder mutation is a mutation that appears in the DNA of one or more individuals who are founders of a distinct population. Founder mutations initiate with changes that occur in the DNA and can get passed down to other generations.[5][6]

    That certainly suggests (to me, at least) that the new species starts with only a few individuals who have the founder mutation.

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    First of all, I should stress that this piece deliberately says nothing about the biological origins of humanity, because its emphasis is biblical and theological: ie it argues that Genesis 2 says (roughly) “There was once a man…”, and Genesis 1 says “God made lots of people”. Both would be compatible with any view of human origins from gradualist Darwinism to a fresh-created palaeolithic couple (but not A & E).

    That said, though pngarrison would be better qualified to speak on the genetics, the “standard” gradualist explanation would be something along the lines that the original human population, for instance a group of 1000 Homo erectus cut off geographically from the rest, gradually acquires a whole series of mutations that spread within, but not outside that population. Stir for thousands of years, and there are so many differences next time they run into their external cousins that they become a non-interbreeding species rather than just a population. Your Wikipedia quote would be about the population and not the new species.

    How much of that I buy I’m not sure. Firstly there seems to be recent evidence of genetic isolation within geographically mixed populations, so something behavioural is separating them first (for example, a family of H. erectus start hunting with dogs rather than ordering in pizza). Effectively, the parents of the eventual new species would be the first that went hunting.

    Then the genetic clock business that estimates primordial population bottlenecks depends, I think, on the assumption of a gradualist trickle of new mutations. However, if the ubiquitous palaeontological pattern of stasis/saltation were found to reflect reality, I’m not sure how much of that would stay standing. Maybe a burst of new mutations in one or a few generations would expain things as well. You’d have to accept, at last, that macroevolution is fundamentally different from microevolution – and who knows if one might find that all, or most, species originate in a single pair.

  4. Bilbo says:

    So here are the options:

    1. Geographical isolation, until so many genetic changes that the new group cannot breed with the original group.

    But then, it seems that there would still be a first family within the new group that had acquired the necessary genetic change that was the threshold to a new species. For example, suppose the new group has acquired and fixed 99 mutations. But they are still able, genetically at least, to breed with the old group. But now one family produces the 100th mutation that no longer allows them to breed with the old group, though they may still be able to breed within the new group. Wouldn’t offspring of this family be the original new species?

    2. Behavioral change by some members within the old group. So there were thousands of H. erectus who all started behaving differently from the old group at the same time? Or only a few? Either way, it suggests that there is something qualitatively different about this new group. Perhaps each member of this new group had been given a soul. If so, then it seems possible that there were two original members who were given souls first, Adam and Eve, who were tested in the Garden. They fell, and the rest of the new group were given fallen souls, also. How would the genetic evidence be able to determine that this wasn’t what had happened?

  5. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    How would the genetic evidence be able to determine that this wasn’t what had happened?

    It wouldn’t, which is one reason why trying to trace spiritual human origins is not well served by studying genetics.

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