The genealogical Adam hypothesis, which I’ve been dusting off again in recent posts because of Joshua Swamidass’s focus on it, has been accused of being an “concordist” position, designed solely to make belief in a literal Adam consistent with modern discoveries in fields from ancient history to genetics. But to some extent any interpretation is concordist, because we have to reconcile any text to what we already know, or believe we know.
So if Genesis taught that the sea is made of ink and the world of paper, we would either have to interpret it figuratively or treat our familiar world as some kind of spiritual illusion. Fortunately it does not. It’s actually, though, quite interesting to see how adapting the text to ones perceived reality usually involves a degree of arbitrary selectiveness.
For example, on the one hand I had a long debate on BioLogos not long ago in which many who assume Genesis teaches “primitive science” insisted that if it says there are windows in a solid heaven which opened to let in the “waters above the firmament” to flood the earth, then that’s what they literally believed then. However, nobody ever notices that God says to Cain that the earth “opened its mouth” to receive Abel’s blood, and I wager nobody has ever suggested to you that the Hebrews believed the earth has a literal mouth.
Conversely, since the assumption through most of church history was that Adam was created on the sixth day as the sole progenitor of humanity (though the text does not say so), the conclusion was drawn that Cain’s wife (in fact, everybody’s wife) was his sister. Yet the text does not say that either, and incest is considered detestable under the law (though a degree of half-sibling marriage is attributed to Abraham and other patriarchs). The conclusion is certainly possible, but is only mandatory given the initial assumption that the Bible says Adam and Eve were alone in the world.
But as I have shown in recent posts, absence of evidence of other people is not evidence of their absence in ANE texts, which we now know, from other examples, frequently concentrate on the central characters and ignore everyone else. Furthermore, I’ve drawn attention to the fact, unknown to previous generations of interpretors from the second temple period onwards, that ancient and primitive peoples tend to use the term “people” or “mankind” only for their own group. Similarly the term for “earth” seldom, if ever, refers to “world” (a concept not really in existence then), but to “land” as opposed to “sky” or “sea” (and, by derivation, to the particular land occupied by the particular people).
Had old interpreters had the Babylonian world map to hand, they may not have read undue cosmological assumptions into Genesis. Once we do know such things, though, we have to take into account their worldview before accommodating it to ours, and we may well find that apparent insurmoutable difficulties turn simply into different ways of seeing the same world. The concord may always have been there.
It’s my view that this is the case for the genealogical Adam view. To provide some food for thought on that, I want to list today the things in the Genesis account that may indicate that the writer was fully aware of other people existing in the world with Adam. He has not tried to teach us otherwise, but has simply assumed (reasonably) that people would read his text with the same outlook. But just as we have to translate from Hebrew to English, we also have to translate the worldview implicit in the genre.
- Gen 5.3, literally understood, says that Seth was born when Adam was 130, as replacement for murdered Abel (4.25). Cain and Abel were adults when the murder took place, yet were seemingly still the only two sons. This scarcely suggests Eve to be a breeding machine, having a child every year or two to populate the world. Instead, the text suggests quite a normal family, and the “other sons and daughters” is consistent with that, and has to be somewhat stretched to imply that Adam had several hundred children by Eve.
- Arising from that, if Seth had many unnamed brothers at the time of his birth, Eve’s “replacement”sentiments hardly make sense: she had a host of replacements already.
- Yet Abel is said to be a keeper of flocks. A clan may shepherd flocks for its own uses, and to sell for wealth. But a family of two sons, mum and dad and, maybe, a few daughters, needs only a couple of sheep or cows. In fact, it’s only population growth that makes pastoralism worthwhile at all. Otherwise, hunting the odd wild goat is more cost-effective.
- Cain feared that, being exiled from the land of Eden, he would be killed by anyone he met. But if he should meet other children of Adam, not only would they recognise him, but we need to account for their exile from Eden too. Did Adam and Eve produce numbers of other murders too, to populate Nod by expulsion from Eden?
- Cain was exiled to “the land of Nod”. Nod means “wandering” in Hebrew, but “Land (erets) + Name” in Genesis always refers to an inhabited territory. It was clearly “Nodites” that Cain feared, and why? Because it’s strangers who are murdered if they stray into foreign territory.
- “Nod” is not mentioned in the table of nations in Gen 10, which suggests that it’s not a territory peopled by Noah’s sons: it was a tribal territory before the flood.
- The most famous case of all – Cain’s wife. Apparently Cain was exiled alone (would God have been just to exile Cain’s sister-wife too, even winking at incest?), and produced all his family in his exile. Assuming the writer was not an idiot, he seems to take it in his stride that Cain marries a woman from outside his family in his new abode.
- Cain builds a city. That word always implies not simply a homestead, but a crowded, enclosed place. Granted, that might be on a smaller scale than today (such as biblical Jericho, comprising just a few acres and a defensive wall), but the templates are cities like Eridu, Uruk or Shuruppak in Mesopotamia, or at least the 10th century BC walled town of Jericho. Cain had become an urban leader, not just father of a nuclear family wandering east of Eden.
- I’ve already mentioned the Mosaic detestation of incest, and the lack of its mention in Genesis 1-11. The circumstances may have been exceptional, but that is purely an assumption. Marriage outside the Adamic line makes perfect sense otherwise, and would render the genealogical view of Adam implicit to the text, rather than simply a modern rationalisation. Cain’s wife, casually mentioned, is in favour of that.
- Whatever the meaning of the great ages of Adam and his descendants, it is not simply a means of explaining rapid population growth, for until the time of Ham and Japheth they are already ancient by the time they have children. Longevity apart, the accounts read like normal families: it says “X had a son named Y, and some other sons and daughters”, rather than “X populated Africa, Y migrated and filled India” and so on. For my own part, I conclude that the patriarchal ages are best accounted for by one of the available explanations (or some other), such as the known inflation of the age of “ancients” in ANE sources, mathematical issues or generations conflated in the genealogies for some good reason.
- The “sons of God, daughters of men” passage of ch 6. Some (not all) second temple Jews interpreted this as angels seducing women to produce the demons of the world. But apart from the bizarre idea that immaterial angels are able to interbreed with flesh and blood, the passage talks about “marriage”: Noah would have had neighbours in the form of fallen angels painting their house, mowing the lawn and working in the community to feed a growing family of… predatory demons. Does the text not make more sense if it suggests some kind of mixing of human populations, ie the breakdown of the Adamic tribal integrity?
- The “Nephilim” are not, according to the text, the product of the mixed marriages. They exist at the time of the mixed marriages, and “afterwards”, but they are “heroes, men (enosh = mortals) of renown. If Adam was the sole original human, how did these “giants” arise within 10 generations? No mutation is described – just the existence of a mighty race, which is also described as existing after the flood, in Numbers 13. There they are said to descend from Anak, who was a Hittite. All this suggests some particularly strong or tall group independent of Adam’s line, but probably related by genealogical diffusion via the Hittites. One could, though, mash the text and go with the demons fathered by angels!
- Finally, this is a more detailed critique based either on the stated ages for Noah’s descendents, and/or the numberof generations, if we assume that the whole population of the world arose from Noah’s three sons.
There are only ten generations from Noah to Abraham, and Gen 11.10ff gives us precise figures making up a total of just 390 years between them. Meanwhile, after the flood the patriarchal ages decrease from around 500 years to around 120. Yet this represents a period within recorded history (Abraham being datable in several ways to somewhere between 2000-1600BC), in which large populations are known not only in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the rest of the Near East, but across the globe. Yet we also know that disease, famine, natural catastrophes and warfare are known to be common, so achieving such a population would be a slow business.
Even if Shem, Ham and Japheth fathered a child every year, it is more than hard to imagine how a population of seven could grow to a world population estimated to be between 27 and 72 million in that 390 years. The Table of Nations gives a far less extensive spread – and perhaps even that is best understood on the same kind of diffusion model which is now understood to underlie population changes such as the transition from “Celtic” to Anglo-Saxon England (influencing, but not replacing, the aboriginal genetic make-up of the land) and, indeed, the formation of Israel itself as it absorbed Canaanite peoples into the nation after the occupation.
The problems largely disappear (apart from explaining the patriarchal ages, as above) if one is not seeking to explain the whole population of the world, but only the genealogical history of the offspring of the one man who came into covenant relationship with the true God, Yahweh, and whose broken relationship brought sin and death to him, and to the offspring who would otherwise have been God’s people under God’s eternal blessing.