Models for a historic Adam – 4

With several of us writing now on The Hump, ongoing series like this one are going to be harder to link together. It’s not a problem I’m going to lose sleep about! But here is the third “theory” about Adam named by David L Wilcox, as introduced here.

Tribal Head – Adam was the “head man” of a small tribe put in the garden. The tribe was put to the test, and they all followed Adam’s lead into sin. We are all descended from that tribe (alone?) and have inherited their sinful nature.

To be honest, I’ve not heard of this view before, and so am not quite sure what issues it is intended to address. If anyone has read a fuller account, please feed back. But I can think of a few possible reasons for proposing it.

In the first place, perhaps it is intended to circumvent the genetic bottleneck that seems to preclude a first couple, by converting it into a first tribe. Wilcox in his notes references several estimates of Ne (effective population), thought to be applicable for a significant period of mankind’s existence. All are in the region of 10,000. Perhaps the idea is that this number could have been concentrated in one area – or at least a sufficient number of them to “leverage” the problem of sin throughout the human breeding population, presumably at a time before mass migration. This would help explain the universality of sin.

Or perhaps it’s intended to mitigate the rather undemocratic idea that one man made the whole race accountable, by making their chief’s sin a living example that this supposed tribe emulated, whilst giving a brief nod to Paul’s concept of federal headship.

If either of these interpretations represents the views of the proposers of this model, they seem to leave the really significant problems as badly, or as well, answered as the first “generic head” model, begging the question of how sin spread throughout the race to the present, genetically or otherwise. As I said above, perhaps there are others familiar enough with this model to defend it.

But there is one sense in which it’s well worth considering the implications of the “Tribal Head” model. It’s all too easy from the viewpoint of a universal Christian Church – especially when trying to read Genesis 2-4 as a quasi-scientific anthropological text – to forget that Genesis was written for neither reason, directly.

In Genesis – and even in the Pentateuch as whole – The Adam story serves to show how by God’s grace Adam’s sin did not prevent him being the father of God’s people, Israel. In other words, the focus of Genesis is on Adam as the ancestor of the tribe of Israel, not the first of the people of the whole earth. It was published in the wilderness or in Jerusalem, not in Rome or Geneva.

Now, let me divert an obvious objection immediately – there is an astonishing universalism to the Hebrew Scriptures from the start, and the table of nations in Genesis 10 shows Noah’s line spreading out amongst a wide range of the nations known in the ancient near east, which justifies the apparent New Testament assumption that, in the gospel age, the whole human race is descended from Adam.

But the parallel genealogies of Seth and Cain in ch 4-5 are linear records of closely related tribes – even assuming Cain’s people remained somewhat apart from the “holy” line leading to Noah. So perhaps Adam was, indeed, a representative chosen from one Mesopotamian people as a priest of Yahweh. Through him, both the blessing of election, and the curse of sin, came into his immediate line (however we understand it to have been transmitted), leaders of this Yahwist tribe. This makes the call of Abraham, the giving of the Law and so on all part of one story of the call, and salvation, of the true God’s people, not a global aetiological tale tacked on the front of Israel’s law for encyclopaedic completeness.

Meanwhile, though, the Old Testament often stresses the relatedness of the peoples around Israel, not only through the table of nations, but in the patriarchal narratives, the conquest accounts and so on. When Abram is called in Genesis 12 it is partly to bring ultimate blessing to the nations. One way of seeing this is as a spreading of the knowledge of God from the chosem line to the whole of mankind – Israel were to be a kingdom of priests to the nations. Another way of seeing it is as lifting the curse that Adam brought upon the nations as well as upon his own people when he was intended to bring blessing.

Either way, Adam is a tribal priest-king whose ultimate role was, in God’s planning, to make the whole world God’s people. And so, by a circuitous route involving a new Adam (Jesus Christ), that has still proved to be the case, as the Gospel burst the bounds of the national identity of Israel to become a message for all mankind.

So I don’t think the Tribal Head model gives us much help in reconciling genetic science with the theology of sin. As I suggested in the piece on the Generic Head model, I’m not sure they are necessarily as hard to reconcile as many claim today: we have a large number of universal common ancestors, and Adam, scientifically speaking, might have been any one of them.

Yet the model is useful theologically to remind ourselves that God’s plan of salvation came through one tribal group, and a particukar historical narrative: as Jesus himself said, “Salvation is from the Jews.” And the particular ethnic origin of that salvation may, perhaps, go back raight to chapter 2 in the Bible record, rather than commencing only with Abraham.

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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.
This entry was posted in Adam, Creation, Genealogical Adam, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Models for a historic Adam – 4

  1. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:


    Great series, a truly educational and useful set of posts. And I think your final conclusion here is very important. All the angst about whether Adam was a real person is misplaced. And the conflation of being the biological sole ancestor of all humans (which isn’t even stated anywhere in the text) with being the tribal or federal or spiritual head of his people) is just silly. Adam may very well have been the first man, if we define man as a human being (biologically speaking) with a relationship to God the creator. Thus there is no conflict with science, and no conflict with Paul’s writings, and redemption of Adam’s sin by Christ. So I agree that this is not as tough a nut as many seem to want it to be. Thanks.

  2. Cal says:

    Long time, no see Jon!

    I suppose one thing about emphasizing Adam’s proximity to Israel is the difference in Matthew’s and Luke’s geneologies. Perhaps its an undue conclusion, but I thought Luke’s purpose was to connect Jesus to general humanity, unlike Matthew who showed Jesus’ royal, and Jewish, lineage.

    I’m somewhere on board for Adam as a Federal Head as king and priest of humanity, but I don’t know what that means. I recall Penman once speculated that there might have been some psychic link, an awareness, of Adam’s kingship. That seems going far beyond what the text allowed.

    Jacques Ellul, a favorite of mine, once defined myth as being the fuller dimensional account of history. Thus the Scriptures provide us with the “mythical” account of humanity, with all the theological significance, without providing the “newspaper” account so many of us desire.

    Barth once responded to an incredulous question about Genesis 3 with, “It doesn’t matter if snake existed, but what he said”. I’m not quite on board with that, but it does drive home that the cosmic significance is what is important. The Israelites crossing the Red Sea was not a lesson on what happened to Pharoah X’s army in xyz BC but rather that the Lord saves His people.

    Augustine said that the allegorical and the historical are not opposed but complement eachother, I think that’s a wise place, even if we can’t quite figure where one begins and the other ends.

    Thought for food,

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    Welcome to the new decor.

    My take on the priest-king concept is that Adam was intended to be one who mediates God to his people, but also has the authority to lead them to God. In my mind is the very common ANE motif (as found in the biblical kings) that the king is very strongly representative of his people, who see him as the one to follow. Still happens, for better or worse, in tribal societies – the individual fully autonomous self is a modern invention. Analogously Israel was intended to be (on the face of it) the Top Nation who mediated God to the nations: they still are, but in rather roundabout ways, it seems.

    Regarding allegory, I’d go more with Augustine, and probably Ellul, than Barth. Even now we really need our myths to be true. Take the Galileo affair – totemic of the courageous stand of science against religious ignorance. That’s been shown to be a completely false understanding, but it doesn’t stop Jerry Coyne using it as a shibboleth for spotting “lousy accommodationists”. You don’t get the Gnus saying “Well, of course the story’s not true, any more than our cranky science-v-religion version of history, but it’s still cosmically significant. It only seems to be the religious guys who can live with fictional foundation myths.

  4. Cal says:

    I guess what I meant by not understanding is how Adam is Priest-King to those who’ve never heard his rule. But that remark itself is an assumption, we don’t know what people knew or didn’t know in that age. For all we know, when his reign ended, and sin became master of humanity, the whole endeavor collapsed and memory of Adam, a few generations later, was no more. Adam was a proto-Israel, as the Christ would also be a singular, incarnate Israel. Lots of good stuff to think on.

    I really liked this comment:

    “You don’t get the Gnus saying “Well, of course the story’s not true, any more than our cranky science-v-religion version of history, but it’s still cosmically significant. It only seems to be the religious guys who can live with fictional foundation myths.”

    Very true, and seemingly obvious. History is the stage for Human dealings, if we remove it from something, it loses its actual significance.

    Ellul is a good, but difficult, writer. He takes the Scripture seriously. At some points he seems to say that Genesis has no bearing in history, at others he takes it as an ANE description of the theo-logic history. His example in one work (Meaning of the City) was that considering if archaeologists found scrolls accounting for destruction of Sennacherib’s army. The scrolls speak of the army perishing from plague rats. Does that contradict the Scripture? Do apologists need to read these new facts into Scripture? No because the Scripture provides the full picture: the Angel of the Lord struck down the army.


    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Your last example speaks to what is wrong in some modern Bible scholarship. Peter Enns recently did a piece on his blog mitigating the “problem” of the Canaanite genocide by pointing to indications in the biblical text that the Canaanites were afflicted by God.

      To him, that points to varying traditions, nay, contradictions in the Bible. There’s more a sense of triumph at undermining the text than any satisfaction at solving the moral issue. But that seems such a culture-bound, rationalist approach that one wonders if OT scholars even attempt to “get under the skin” of ancient writers. It doesn’t take a genius to see that (a) in a long historical process, both battle and “acts of God” might be involved and (b) that to an Israelite, for God to give them victory is for him, to afflict their enemies.

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