Humanity beyond Adam’s line in Genesis

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. “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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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?
  12. 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!
  13. 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.

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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11 Responses to Humanity beyond Adam’s line in Genesis

  1. Jay313 says:

    Hi, Jon! Interesting post. I’m with you most of the way, but have to take issue with this:

    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.

    Your point #10 grants that the great ages of the patriarchs may be inflated or generations conflated, so I don’t think you can simply add up the figures between Noah and Abraham and come up with precisely 390 years. Or, are you simply granting the literalist’s position for the sake of argument?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Or, are you simply granting the literalist’s position for the sake of argument?

      That’s it, Jay. If the literalist uses the great ages of thpatriarchs to make the history realistically long and populous, he has to accept the lower ages too, and the particular point about that specific list is that, for a change, the numbers are mainly “biologically” low, that is the next named child is born for the most part around age 30. So that rules out one common explanation, the conflation of generations – but of course, missed generations are still a possibility.

      Archbishop Ussher’s “scientific literalist” chronology has the Flood about 2350, and Abram’s call around 1900, agreeing with my quoted figures. Some mental arithmetic whilst walking the dog yesterday suggested that this dating, accepting a middle-range of estimation for the total world population in 1900BC, requires a population doubling every 16 years from the time of the Flood, which is clearly impossible.

      More realistically, taking the Flood as that apparently indicated in the other ANE literature, c2900, and Abraham as c1800, the doubling time comes out at around forty years. That means each and every couple must have produced 4 children who survived to to the same by the time they were 40, which is nearly as incredible: no infant mortality, no unmarried, no infertility, etc, would be possible.

      Now, of course, taking the whole thing as fictional cuts the knot, but that defeats the object of this exercise. All one has to do instead is to remove the need to account for the whole world population, and we’re left with a meaningful, though perhaps stylised and abbreviated, genealogy from an ANE Adam, through the flood, to Abram. And the Table of Nations, as a record of genealogical diffusion by significant people movement, also works: even more so if we date the Table to the writing of Genesis rather than the time of the Patriarchs.

      Did the writer know anything about this? Impossible to say, though it can be argued (as per previous post) that at that time his area of concern would almost inevitably be restricted to “his own people”. If so, telling him about Australian aborigines long established on the other side of the world would not have modified his account.

  2. Robert Byers says:

    Many details.
    Cain was about 130 years old when abel was murdered. So Cains wife was not a sister but some great, great, niece etc.
    From 70 Hebrews etc , within 400 years came 3 million hebrews who left Egypt. the bible says.

    The “writer’ of genesis meant the reader to believe the lists were real accurate facxts for real peoples lives. in fact actual ages. what more would they have to say?
    Its not just lieral but truthful.
    The denier of biblical truth MUST say the writer(s) were making it up.

    About rising poulations.
    If people lived longer, then women would breed for more years.
    A average woman might have 200 -800 children =even after the flood.

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Robert – I count 4 things your reply claims that aren’t in the Bible, but are conclusions from interpreting it in a modern and superficial way:

    (1) The Bible says nothing about Adam’s age at Abel’s birth: only that Seth was born when Adam was 130 years old, and it mentions neither Abel’s age nor (2) any offspring between Abel and Seth.
    (3) 3 million in the Exodus is an estimate for total population produced from taking the “thousand” in “600 thousand men” as a numerical figure, rather than in any of its other Hebrew uses, which match credible human fertility, the militaristic genre of the census-text and the archaeological evidence for the settlement in Canaan better than suggesting a doubling of population every 27 years (think about it – that requires each couple to have 4 children by age 27, that reach maturity and themselves are equally fertile).
    (4) There is no hint in Genesis of women bearing hundreds of children – there are never more mentioned than one would find in a normal family, and usually only one. I’d be interested if you could find a gynaecologist who believed the average female body is even theoretically capable of giving birth to 200, let alone 800, babies (given the complication rate in primitive cultures or even the west), and then feeding and rearing them.

    And I doubt whether the average bronze age male descendant of Noah (in all those many nations he “begat” in the Table of Nations) had the economic wherewithal to raise such huge numbers from subsistence farming.

    Pre-maturity mortality in Israel in late antiquity was probably around 30% : maternal death in childbirth was probably around 1-3% per birth – ie if women averaged five pregnancies, 10% would die in childbirth. Remember we have much knowledge of the world of Abraham’s people in Mesopotamia and well before his time.

    “The denier of biblical truth MUST say the writer(s) were making it up.” Possibly. But the interpreter of biblical truth must try to enter the world of the writer, not start from his modern understanding and make the text fit it by guesswork and miraculous events not warranted by the text.

  4. Jay313 says:

    Talking about infant mortality rates and such reminds me of an interesting fact that applies not only to ancient Israel, but to just about every human culture before the 20th century.

    In antiquity, an average woman who gave birth to six children would see one of them die in infancy, another die before the age of 13, and another die before the age of 19. Essentially, only half of live births managed to live to maturity. Add to that the fact that one (or both) parents were likely to die before the age of 40, and it is easy to understand the Bible’s emphasis on caring for orphans and widows. Society was full of them.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Jay – Yes: one, of course, could argue that things were different in the first generations after Adam (though it’s hard to imagine why, with the curse on Eve coming into force to increase – from what level?- the rigours of childbearing!), but by the time one gets to Abraham there is something like a millennium of written history to consult. A people group with families of 200+ would be hard to conceal!

      Abraham is the last of that genealogy, and was said to live 175 years, yet by his two wives and his maidservant he had only 8 children. 175 is unusual and begs some explanation – but 8 children would be abnormal if the explanation were literal, but otherwise plausible, even if daughters were omitted.

      The infant mortality figures are obviously more accurate for recent Europe than the ancient ANE. I erred on the conservative side in my comment, since given the squalid conditions of European cities since early modern times they may have been even worse than an agricultural peasant economy.

      My own 19th century ancestors were iron-workers in the Black Country, and my great great grandfather lost 3 of his 12 children in 2 months: the generation before was luckier, losing only 2 out of 10 in childhood, a third at twenty, and another at 22 by manslaughter. But my maternal great grandmother, living in the slums of Salford, had 16 children before 1911, of whom only six were still living then. Pretty routine numbers, I believe.

  5. Robert Byers says:

    Seth was born at 130 and eve said he was a direct replacement for Abel. So its persuasive abel was 130.
    I understand the 3 million /from the male nimber indeed is stated clearly. indeed they segregate the numbers by tribes.
    The reason women would have hundreds of children is for the reason everybody lived hundreds of years. they lived great lengths of life.
    so in health it would always be understood the girls were breeding quite well.
    it is a option.
    they were ordered to multiply, a real objective, and fill the earth.
    I see no problem with the math making 70 into 3 million. Remember when you reach 1 million its easy to double that etc.

    Noah lived 500 years after the flood.
    the world population easily would explode if they all kept breeding.

  6. Noah White says:

    The discussion of infant mortality is interesting vis-a-vis eschatology (here I am bringing my existential worries into every discussion!).

    On the one hand, it seems apparent that ancient peoples were less sentimental about children/childhood than we are now, due to said high infant mortality rates. This makes sense, but I think it makes questions of eschatology and ethics a little more difficult to decipher biblically.

    There is (to my knowledge) no mention of the resurrection status of infants who died before or shortly after childbirth. If our eschatology were like the later Platonized ones we see in Church history, this wouldn’t make too much of a difference–a soul is a soul, so an infant soul is preserved just the same as someone who dies full of years.

    Yet if we’re resurrected to new bodies, what does that look like for the infant? Our knowledge, personhood, maturity, etc. are so tied to our biological development that it would be weird to have someone perpetually an infant in the age to come (I guess the same question can be said for those with severe mental disabilities). While the bible is silent on these issues, it had to have been something the early church thought about, no? Are there any patristic sources that address this?

    With regards to ethics, at first glance it makes it a bit trickier, but only I think in terms of situations where carrying the baby to term would prove fatal to the mother. In any other situation (disability, emotional trauma related to the conception) I’d say the question remains answered by appealing to the general sanctity of human life, etc.

    Don’t get me started on the people who are disturbed by discussions of “non-Adamites/non-souled” humans yet are quick to defend abortion on grounds of not being able to determine when a fetus becomes a person!

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Noah

      It seems as though high mortality didn’t lessen the pain of losing a child (that’s reputed to be the reason Charles Darwin lost his faith). I’d have to research patristic sources on the fate of newborns in the eschaton, but their salvation was at the heart of the practice of infant baptism: they expected them to be saved, and clearly not as eternal babes but as full-blown members of the kingdom.

      But the unanswered questions about the formation of character, etc, probably have to remain unanswered – but it’s probably only quantatively different from the fact that our adult characters will be perfected at the resurrection, despite our various life experiences.

      I guess I’ll be more concerned about ancient discrimination against non-Adamites when people have bottomed out the situation of whatever hominids they decide not to be quite human, to which exactly the same cavills could be raised!

  7. Ron S says:

    Hi Jon,

    Just curious, what do you make of Gen 3:20? I’ve been thinking about it lately.

    The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. (ESV)

    Do you see it as physical, spiritual or other? What perspective works?

    Granted, the writer may be taking a post-deluge perspective making everyone related to Noah in some way.

    Thanks for the thoughts,
    Ron

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Ron

      That was a verse I sidelined in the newest Adam post (and another on its way) because I had enough to cram in already! Chabarek (the Aquinas guy) says Thomas takes it as evidence that she was the first created woman. That of course also works on a genealogical Adam model – where “All living” would refer to “all people” meaning “all the children of Adam”. Clearly it’s not intended to mean she’s the mother of all gerbils, daisies and amoebae!

      I tend to think it unlikely that the writer of Genesis made a sharp distinction between spiritual life/death and physical life/death, if indeed he’s recalling a time when our first parents enjoyed life of both kinds with God, and lost both by their sin. For man created specifically for relationship with God, estrangement from God entails death at every level. Even in the New Testament our hope consists both of dwelling in the presence of God, and the resurrection of the body. Can they be separated?

      Tim Keller (I think, in a post I’ll be using next post – or was it Derek Kidner quoted by him?) takes it in the spiritual sense of the prophetic word in Gen 3 about the defeat of the penalty of death by her seed. That works too.

      Either way, from Adam’s point of view in naming her (at that point in the narrative) it was a sign of hope, either that the curse of death would be mitigated by future offspring, or because he remembered the hopeful promise about the defeat of the serpent’s seed.

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