Finding humans origins from biblical theology #2

In the last post I tried to show the overall thematic “plot” inherent in the Pentateuch or Torah, which John Sailhamer calls its “compositional strategy”. This makes the foundation-document of Israel a narrative of linked themes, which I will list below the fold.

  1. Israel was called, according to the covenant God made with Abraham, to a “face-to-face” faith relationship with God, to start on Mount Sinai (Ex. 3:12).
  2. This would make them into a “kingdom of priests” to bring such blessing to the rest of mankind (Ex. 19:6; cf 9:16; Gen 12:1-3; Deut. 32:43; Isa. 42:6).
  3. They failed from the start by refusing to meet God on the mountain, making Moses their mediator instead and leaving themselves only with an inferior “covenant of law” (Deut 5:1-5).
  4. Their failure to keep this covenant led to their exile and the abrogation of the covenant being foretold and eventually fulfilled (Deut. 4:25-31; 29:22-28; 31:15-22; 32:1-38; cf 2 Chr. 36:15-23 – the close of Hebrew Bible or Tanach).
  5. Eventual salvation, and their fulfillment of their mission to the world, would come by transformation of their hearts through a coming prophet/king (Deut:18:15-19; 17:14-20; 30:1-10) “in the last days”.

Seth Postell agrees with this overall “authorial intent”, and makes an excellent case for subordinating the accounts in Genesis 1:1-2:4 and 2:5-ch.3 to it. Thus Adam becomes an archetype of this whole “tragedy with hope” narrative – he is represented as an ancestral “proto-Israel” whose failure both prefigures Israel’s, and to some extent also explains it by his being the fountainhead of sin and rebellion against Yahweh. In a similar way, the cosmos in Genesis 1 is presented as a sacred space subdivided and gradated in holiness, typological of the promised land of Israel, or of its temple.

Postell, with Sailhamer, sees Genesis 1 as describing (in keeping with its genre, of course) the creation of Israel itself, rather than of the whole cosmos. From the “origins” point of view this text-based conclusion has the advantage of circumventing entirely arguments about the age of the earth, evolution and so on. In this view one supposes “creation” to be used in the way that John H Walton suggests it is, ie functionally: all the elements in creation are “created” by being designated for the use of his special people Israel.

But for reasons I sketched here, and will now try to develop, I think the creation account has in mind a wider context than the land of Canaan alone. And it’s the overview of the text that leads me to that conclusion (and thus demands rather more work in matching it to the world!). For in that overview, underlying the failure of Israel, and its most profound consequence in God’s purpose, is its failure to minister to the nations as priests – and so I would expect those non-Israelite nations to be represented in the typology of the first chapters of Genesis.

My general thinking here is this: both Sailhamer’s and Postell’s work is relatively recent, and provides an almost entirely new lens with which to interpret the Old Testament as a theological work. But it’s also a new lens with which to consider the “origins texts” in Genesis in relation to “physical reality”. Little, if any, work has been done in approaching the origins discussion that way, so it’s virgin territory. Maybe we’ll find the text itself has some definite things to say on the matter that are helpful to the science-faith discussion, and superior to the existing views because derived from the intended meaning of the text, rather than being grafted on to an under-determined “assemblage of ancient sources” merely as “possible” accommodations between science and Christian doctrine.


Let’s start with Adam, then, and the significant distinction I drew in this post between the “tabernacle” imagery of Genesis 1 and the “open access” imagery of the garden of Genesis ch.2.

Adam is created in the former – a “very good” world in its Creator’s estimation, but one in which heaven and earth are as separated by cosmic barriers as the worshippers’ courtyard of the tabernacle and the Holy of holies were by physical ones. But the text tells us that he is taken from there and placed in a divinely-planted, closed, garden within it, where he is in free relationship to God, and even has access to eternal life. There is only one stipulation, not to eat of the tree of knowledge, in the “covenant relationship” he has with God.

Postell cites a good number of sources supporting the conclusion that the garden of Eden did involve a true covenant relationship, and the parallelism between Adam and Israel demands it. But if nothing else the transition from “the created earth” to “special relationship with God” is shown by the change in God’s name from the generic “Elohim” to the covenant name “Yahweh” between chapter 1 and chapter 2 – which the source critics for over a century took as a sure sign of contradictory sources, but which is now increasingly seen as deliberate compositional strategy.

This change in the nature of relationship is exactly the same as that given to Moses, to whom God revealed his covenant name as he called Israel out of the profane land of Egypt, and into open relationship with himself, initially on the holy mountain of Horeb. In Egypt, as in Genesis 1, he was “God Almighty”, but on Sinai, like Eden, he is to be “Yahweh”.

This covenant, of course, is to be expected – and is virtually a necessity – if Adam is to be regarded in the context of the Pentateuch as the archetype of Israel. What is more, if Sailhamer’s reading of the kind of covenant Israel had originally been offered by God, discussed in the last post, is correct, Adam in Eden was in a covenant of trusting faith, like Abraham’s, and not one of works (as has been the understanding in Reformed covenant theology over the centuries).

A few things follow from this. It implies, to begin with, that the contrast between the land outside the garden, where Adam had been formed from the dust of the earth, and the garden, is equivalent typologically to Israel’s coming out of land of Egypt and into the land of Canaan, just as Abraham too came out of Ur in order to begin to receive the promise in Canaan (though in his case, of course, the fulfilment had to wait 400 years for the Exodus). I’ll explore that “outside world” in another post.

But if we are fairly strict with the Adam/Israel parallelism, Adam might well have been seen by the author as, like Israel, the representative of a wider population who was called for special blessing, rather than the emphasis being on his primogeniture of all mankind. He would be of the same stock as that human race created in ch 1 (Heb. adam), but we have less reason, under “Adam as Israel”, to assume that the author intended us to see him and Eve as identical with the “male and female” created in ch. 1.

I did a post not long ago enumerating the various hints in Genesis that other people existed outside the garden. If Adam in Genesis is, according to the “Sailhamer overview”, being shown principally as the forerunner of Israel, then it is that much more likely that other people are not specifically mentioned simply because they were irrelevant to the story, rather than because they didn’t exist.

After all, the same “isolation” is largely the case in the Sinai account. Once the Amalekites are beaten, and Moses’s father-in-law Jethro has gone home, it is as if the only people in the world are the Israelites, in the brooding presence of their God. The covenant is described in terms of their forefathers the Patriarchs, even though Exodus itself has already informed us that a “mixed multitude” of non-Israelites had accompanied the physical descendants of Israel out of Egypt. They had presumably somehow been incorporated into the population – but the account is focused on essentials, not such exhaustive details.

Israel has its dealings with God in a desert, of course – but equally, Adam had his dealings in a sacred garden closed off, in either a natural or supernatural way, from other people. We may also see parallels in this with the life-changing encounters of Abraham or Jacob with Yahweh, which were also entirely private. In any case, both Adam and Israel have been singled out for a relationship with Yahweh which is, in the first instance, to be a unique spiritual calling: it would be inappropriate to be cluttering up either story with those excluded from the events.

Now, if we run with these arguments, then the spiritual relationship of Adam to his world, like that of Israel to theirs, becomes important afterwards rather than before. Of course, according to our storyline, in both cases that relationship did not achieve (until Jesus came) all that it was intended to.

But there is no doubt that in the Christian narrative, Adam, again like the nation of Israel, is of pivotal importance. So the narrative of Genesis 4-11, as the spread of Adam’s knowledge of Yahweh as the true God (Gen 4:26), and also the spread of sin and the Adamic line across the world (chs. 6-11), may be taken as theologians have always taken it. But we need not assume that the author is unaware of men ignorant of Yahweh, and so not yet embroiled in the results of Adam’s sin (which was, it can never be too often stressed, that of rejecting relationship with Yahweh, not that of disobedience to a moral law that came only millennia later).

In this scenario, since it was only Adam and Eve who had been offered eternal life in the garden, it was only their spiritual progeny to whom death was a penalty for disobedience. Once again applying our “measuring stick” of the Pentateuchal author’s “compositional strategy”, that is parallel to Israel on Sinai – failing to realise the promised intimate relationship with God left them, apparently, in the same situation as the gentiles across the world whom Paul describes as “without God and without hope in the world.”

The difference is that the latter had never been offered such a special relationship – it had been intended that Israel would teach it to the rest of mankind. For the Israelites to be in an impaired relationship, rather than no relationship, however, brought its own problems: the exile arising from their worship of Baal made them a byword among the nations, in a way that the identical idolatry of the surrounding nations did not. On the other hand, in the grand scheme of things even that was an advantage over the ignorance of the gentiles (as Paul stresses in Rom 3:1-8; 9:1-6).

Likewise, in some way or another, death became a penalty for man only because he had been offered, in relationship to Yahweh represented as access to the tree of life, an alternative to his intrinsic mortality. 1 Corinthians 15 is relevant here, for in discussing eternal life, we should notice how Paul contrasts the spiritual resurrection body with Adam’s natural body, and not with his fallen state (vv.42-49). From this passage it is clear that being made from “the dust of the earth” rendered Adam mortal; ergo the avoidance of death was something over and above the initial creation, that is, it was the fruit of the special covenant relationship with Yahweh in the garden. Hence I have to disagree with Aquinas that rationality entails intrinsic immortality, for Paul appears to deny it here. That has implications for our exploration of “non-adamic” man next time.

So heavy theological lifting still needs to be done to account for the link between Adam’s sin and that of the rest of us. We cannot ignore it , just as trying to understand Christianity apart from Israel, and her story, is doomed to misunderstanding, for “salvation is from the Jews”, and Christ had to be of the line not only of Judah, but of David. Salvation arises in history, not philosophy or psychology. Not only Romans 5, but 1 Corinthians 15, and Matthew 19:8, also suggest that, in some way, Adam stands at the head of our gentile family tree too, and that that has a bearing on why we are in need of salvation.

To my mind, the genealogical Adam hypothesis is a strong, recent, explanatory contender for how that kind of “common descent” might be true. That’s so even given the neolithic (or perhaps better chalcolithic) Adam that Genesis describes, and whose chronology the genealogies and the literary sources broadly match. There are, of course, still many loose ends, such as the how of the transmission of Adam’s sin, whether by genealogy, socialisation, federal headship or something else.

But note that what needs to be accounted for by this, according to the text, is accountability before the covenant God Yahweh (for it was that personal knowledge which Adam lost, condemning his offspring, all of us, to the penalty of death), and the consequent escalation of human evil. Nothing in Genesis suggests the individual Adam to be the source of all human abilities, or the power of thought or speech, or culture or even religion. For those we need to look elsewhere, and I think it likely not only that they are to be found in Genesis 1, but that the author of the Pentateuch intended to place them there.

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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8 Responses to Finding humans origins from biblical theology #2

  1. drnmud says:

    “My general thinking here is this: both Sailhamer’s and Postell’s work is relatively recent, and provides an almost entirely new lens with which to interpret the Old Testament as a theological work.”

    Yeah. That’s kind of what I was thinking, too.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Glad you agree – it’s amazing how a slight shift in focus changes what you see.

      Or to quote Albert Einstein, “It’s the theory that determines what you can observe.” I tend to use that quote in the negative sense of how theories can blind you, but of course (as in Einstein’s own case) they can also open up new horizons.

      In this case I’m increasingly persuaded that the theory is strong.

      • swamidass says:

        How do they deal with the catalogue of nations at the end of Gen 1-11? It seems Adam is father of everyone in their world, not just Israel. You also mentioned this strengthens the genealogical Adam hypothesis. How?

        • drnmud says:

          Today I read a book review of Adam Rutherford’s “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived” that contained the following:

          “What “Brief History” is about is challenging popular ideas about the import of genetics, especially the genetics of race. One beginning is the fact—first shown mathematically in 2003 by a Yale statistician, then demonstrated in the laboratory in 2013 by two California researchers—that everyone on Earth, no matter where they live, what languages they speak, or what skin color they have, is related by descent from a small pool of ancestors just a few thousand years ago.”

          • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

            Joshua

            I did some speculatin’ on this in a previous post. There are a couple of assumptions made, usually: the first is that the Table of Nations is intended to cover the whole world, which it doesn’t actually state – it merely lists the territories of the descendants of Noah. The wide scatter demonstrates dispersal of the line, but not necessarily exclusiveness.

            Secondly, it assumes that the text implies founder-populations arising from Noah in these places. However, we now know more of the origin of nations than a generation ago (for example, how “Saxon English” are still largely genetically “Celtic”, because infiltration was the way the Saxon culture came in).

            But apart from that there are many other instances where infiltration may be read or inferred from the Bible, such as Lot’s Moabites, Esau’s Edomites and Israel itself, not only accompanied in the Exodus by that “mixed multitude”, but intermarrying with the Canaanites when they arrived (and in turn joined over the centuries by many immigrants – Uriah the Hittite, Ruth, etc etc).

            Perhaps within the Table of Nations is the idea that wherever Seth’s line went, they became the leaders of their communities: they were the Saxons, not just refugees or immigrants. In that would be the sociological spin-off from knowledge of God, equivalent to the blessing of the nations through Abraham (or, in our times, the disproportionate influence of the Jewish diaspora).

            I’ll address genealogical Adam below, as the column is wider!

          • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

            drnmud

            Interesting how the idea is getting about. This refers the very work by Rohde et al that inspired David Opderbeck to suggest the genealogical Adam hypothesis around 2010, and which has been picked up by me and, most publicly, by Joshua.

            As I mentioned in some post a while back, I actually read Steve Olson’s 2003 book, and failed to make the connection with origins studies.

            The thing to distinguish in ones mind is that the sentence you quote does not refer to “a small pool of sole ancestors”, but to the idea that arises from the old joke that “Everyone in Europe is descended from Charlemagne”, ie that if you leave enough descendants, you will eventually become an ancestor of everyone even if the population is never smaller than millions.

  2. swamidass says:

    Also, I’m really intrigued by your comment this makes the genealogical Adam hypothesis more plausible. I hope you do a final post on that.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Joshua

      Whether it’ll take up an entire post I’m not sure. My reasoning is pretty basic.

      My main point is that for those who accept the truthfulness of Scripture, in the sense of a literal Adam, the objection to genealogical Adam is that the biblical authors “really” saw Adam as the sole ancestor of mankind in 4004 BC (or whatever – I always quote the Ussher date because he’s a kind of relative!). And hence the Table of Nations = the whole world, and hence the genealogical view appears an artifical construct to try to accommodate to modern science, pushing its boundaries in the process if Adam lived as recently as he seems to have done from the Genesis account.

      But if, as I argue in these posts, the author of the Pentateuch from the start saw Adam as a representative of an existing and widespread humanity, yet still wants to talk about his descendants and their dispersion, clearly he’s not thinking about progenititure simpliciter, and any ideas based on genetics are completely unknown to his worldview anyway.

      So what’s left? That in some way the exclusive knowledge of Yahweh that came through Adam’s encounter in the garden, and began to spread when “in those days men began to call on the name of Yahweh”, reached even in the experience of the author of the Pentateuch to all the nations within reach. This is related by the text to the spread of the Adamic bloodline, and so has at least some relationship to genealogy.

      That spread could only become more universal over the centuries, and must be assumed (in some way at least) by the New Testament writers who knew of civilisations as far apart as India, Northwest Africa and Britain, far beyond the scope of the Table of Nations. Thus they could assume that the gospel was for all men everywhere, which assumption also included the idea that “all men are in Adam”.

      Reverting to my previous comment, the Israelites approaching the promised land recognised in the Edomites and Moabites (and some others) genealogical links that made Moses call them “brothers”, and yet he must have known their heterogeneous origins, if only because it was only holy Israel that set much store on tribal purity, for religious reasons. Even mixed blood, it seems, was thicker than water – and that seems to imply an interest in genealogy in practice, which therefore makes the same mindset more likely to apply to thinking about “Old Man Adam and His Chillun”.

      Make any sense?

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