There ain’t no allegories on the Euphrates

Just a quick one.

How often do you hear people saying that Genesis 2-3 should not be taken historically, but as an allegory of the human condition generally: “Everyman’s Fall”. Adam and Eve, and their fall, should be taken figuratively. These are the same people who remind one that history only really became a genre with the Greeks, that we’re reading an ANE text too literally, and so on.

It suddenly occurs to me that nobody ever seems to ask whether thereĀ  actually was ever an ANE genre of theological allegory of the kindĀ  on which they insist. I can’t find any trace of one in John H Walton’s review of the literature: it would be a genre without any parallels. What allegory there is in the Old Testament (eg Judges 9) is of a completely different, more specific, type. So sorry, guys, it’s just a non-starter.

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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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13 Responses to There ain’t no allegories on the Euphrates

  1. Gregory says:

    Is this claim similar to what some people call ‘standard theological interpretation’ that Abram/Abraham was the first historical human being (mentioned) in the Bible? Of course, Abraham had parents too. The standard interpretation simply draws a line and says Abraham’s parents were ‘pre-historical’ or ‘historically invisible’ or something of that variety because their names were not *written* in the text. So, existence is not the real question here, literalism and the limits of a(n inspired) written text is.

    Sola Scriptura – the most significant challenge or guiding principle of BioLogos; the figurativist challenging the literalist?

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Abraham’s ancestors are, in fact, named – it’s the sketchy and “mythic” nature of the text that makes some people divide Abraham off from them. Though as you know, even he’s not safe from the Bible-not-true-till-humans-can-prove-it crowd.

    All I’m suggesting here is that to make Adam an Everyman (quite a subtle concept, when you think of it) some warrant from the literature of the time seems necessary, and I don’t think its there. So I’m dealing just with that common, and in my view ill-considered, view.

    I’m also unhappy, on literary grounds, with the blanket assumption that you can transport it back into palaeolithic times – as if God really did dictate it to an author who had absolutely no comprehension of modern biological anthropology.

    One still, of course, has to reach a conclusion on what the story does mean: Adam could be fictional, legendary, etc – or as I believe most likely a real figure in the ANE time-space frame, the first covenant-participant with the true God, and therefore in a real sense the first human. And the first sinner.

  3. Gregory says:

    Goodness, yes, I should have just opened the Bible to Genesis 11, which indicates Abram’s father as Terah or Terach. Thanks for the reminder!

    Does it make sense that ‘Adam as Everyman’ can be maintained as ‘prehistorical’ or ‘ahistorical’ (by liberal or conservative or any exegete on the political spectrum) while the notion that Sarah gave birth to Isaac at 90yrs – beyond child-bearing age – is considered within the ‘historical’ account in Genesis 12+? Or is the latter yet another ‘ill-considered view’?

    Adam: “a real figure in the ANE time-space frame, the first covenant-participant with the true God, and therefore in a real sense the first human. And the first sinner.” – Jon

    On this we are agreed.

    One question for Walton then, when does the first instance of ‘theological allegory’ appear in the ANE?

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Do you know, it absolutely is a question for Walton, if only I had an e-mail address for him.

    The questions about Sarah and the other (relatively limited) miraculous events in the patriarchal narratives is a good one, and highlights that, at least, the realisation that “history” in the classical sense is an anachronistic genre description for any of Genesis.

    Two main issues, I think. The first is understanding the text’s use of long ages without any real suggestion of miracle – there could be cultural reasons we can’t recover, textual corruptions or lots of other reasons on which we can only speculate.

    The second is the unequivocal statement that Sarah was beyond childbearing age – and that’s down to whether one accepts the possibility of miracle metaphysically.

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Have to try and reach him when I’ve half a moment…

  6. Cal says:

    What’s also a thing forgotten is that historical events also carry allegorical meaning. I mean, look what Paul does in his letter to the Galatians with the story of Hagar/Ishmael and Sarah/Isaac. This was a historical event but was a display on the efficacy of promise over slavery to the sensory.

    Of course, I’m not given to 6 day creationism but reality and allegory ain’t always so far apart. Truth stranger than fiction?


  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Interesting thought, Cal. But the Ismael/Isaac covenant dichotomy is intrinsic to the story – it’s actually the point of it. Where Paul goes all Midrashic is mainly the allegorical comparison to two cities, and so on. Yet you’re right to say that the story of the two pairs is instructive about the two (different) covenants now. As Jim Packer points out in his book, the New Testament writers regard the Old Testament as written primarily “for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.”

    Regarding Adam and Eve, the situation is different in that it’s not an inspired apostle doing the allegorising, but modern people embarrassed by the idea a personal historic fall.

  8. Cal says:

    My point was rather we have a real event and it has a deep meaning attached to it, rather than (as some say with some things) it must have been an allegory because it teaches a very strong lesson. It’s both!

    We’re agreed on this. Some sort of evolutionary descent does not preclude Adam nor a Fall in which Sin entered our world.

  9. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Yeah, I’ll go with fact + meaning … whether that meaning is “allegorical” as such is another question … “typological”, perhaps, amongst other things?

  10. Avatar photo penman says:

    I think there must be some category other than “allegory” to account for the elements in Gen.2-3 that don’t seem susceptible to a straight prosaic reading. That is, I accept that Gen.2-3 are describing a historical creation & fall of a human being who was the first federal head of the race, but I still find myself wedded to Henri Blocher’s analysis – “an account of a historical fall” rather than “a historical account of the fall”. There’s the fact that “Adam” means “man” or “humanity” (obscured in many translations because they jump back & forth between “Adam” & “man”): this suggests a wider dimension to the account. It is the fall of humanity, not just of an individual. Then there’s “the Talking Snake”, which is all it is in the account: to my mind a symbolic (or something) presentation of Satan.

    So how would one entitle an account that is historical at core but described in a way loaded with trans-historical significance?

    Apologies for sounding pretentious, I’m not long up & trying to stimulate my brain with caffeine.

  11. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    How about “stylised narrative”? “History” would be anachronistic anyway. The question would be (probably unanswerable in detail from our viewpoint), “How did you tell an ancestral story in those days?”

    You’ve only got to look at some classical artistic representations of Eden to realise that, however factually the painters took the story, they never painted it in prosaic photographic form, because it was too important. Indeed, look at paintings of the crucification or resurrection, never doubted to be factually true – yet always painted with rich symbolism.

    The ancient writers were painting with words, not doing case-notes. The fact we’ve largely lost the keys to the genre is a disadvantage, but no distraction from the spiritual message, any more than you miss the important facts of the passion though unschooled in conventions of mediaeval imagery.

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