Models for a historic Adam – 7

And so we come to the last model for a historic Adam listed by population geneticist David L Wilcox in his ASA talk this year.

Symbolic Head – Adam was a character in a story told to illustrate the human dilemma – we are sinners for some reason or other. But the story does not represent the origin of that state, only its nature as rebellion against God.

Until he actually studied Genesis 1-11 when we preached through it many years ago, my friend Ron used to assume this kind of view. He was unhappy about teaching from Genesis 2, saying, “We don’t have to see Adam as a blob of protoplasm.” His very phraseology suggests it’s quite an antiquated view – and indeed it probably arose at the very dawn of theological liberalism (when protoplasm was just a blob in the biologist’s eye rather than a thing of galactic complexity), because it’s so intuitively straightforward. It can’t be true, so it must be made up. A few months immersed in Genesis changed Ron’s view radically, incidentally.

This view tells us to strip away all the historical, mythological and historical tangles: the Eden story is just an allegory of Everyman. As it is stated by Wilcox, it’s not even an allegory, actually. It’s just a one-point parable: “Once there was a man who disobeyed God.” It’s up to us, of course, to make the intuitive leap and say, “That man is me! I disobey God too, and so does everyone else, though the story doesn’t say so.”

Is that either a sufficient explanation of the purpose of the story, or even a very useful one? The theory dismisses every detail of the narrative: Adam’s creation by Yahweh, the naming of the creaures, the forming of his wife from his own body, the nature of the garden and the role of the couple in it, the nature of the temptation, the specificity of the curse and the grace of God, the sentence of death, the genealogical detail, the historical consequences…

Does it take into adequate account the placing of the story in Genesis as a book, or in the Pentateuch as Israel’s foundational torah, or in the Bible as the inspired record of God’s salvation? In other words, once one has told the story of how God formed the good world of men, in order to reign over them and through them in fellowship, does the narrative then benefit from attaching a brief note that only says, “By the way, we are all rebels against God for some unknown reason”?

“Why?” We ask. “How did that come about in a good creation?” And like the last model we dealt with, the lack of explanation leads us to invent our own reasons, like the selfishness of the evolutionary process God set up (how parallel to Adam’s implying God was to blame for giving him Eve!). But it could be any number of other explanations, from the Freudian oedipus complex (we only believe we’re sinners because we fear God as we fear our fathers – die true meaninck of Adam ist die superego) to Marxist class warfare (Adam is the model of the landowning classes – he was rightly evicted and condemned to death by revolutionary justice just for being there).

As I said in previous posts, the Adam narrative purports to explain origins – the origin of man in covenant relationship to God, the origin of woman in covenant relationship to man, the origin of sin, the origin of human death – both physical and spiritual. Such an account, however symbolically its details are interpreted, forms the foundation for the whole of God’s dealings with Israel, and especially since Christ, with those he adopts into Israel from all nations.

Eighteen months ago, hearing the Adam story described once again (on BioLogos, naturally) as an “Everyman Allegory” like Pilgrims Progress, it occurred to me to wonder whether such a thing even existed in the ancient near east when Genesis was written. TEs are very keen to criticise YECs for taking Genesis literally and failing to realise its context of ancient cosmology (they normally call it “prescientific” or, more conceitedly, “erroneous.”) But if the writer assumed his culture’s normal view of how the universe was structured, then it’s equally true that he conformed to the literary norms of the time.

I couldn’t think of any such allegories in the Bible, or what little ANE literature I knew. There are certainly instances of real people represented allegorically as something like a tree or a mountain. There are parables fictionalising real events like David’s sin. But Everyman allegories? Eventually I wrote to John H Walton, who not only replied graciously at some length, but sent me a pre-publication draft of an article he was writing for Zygon.

He told me that such Everyman allegories were indeed unknown in the ANE – which really demolishes the model, in my view. What he did say, however, which casts a much more useful light on what Genesis is for, is that another kind of literary device was in common use then – the archetype:

Based on this evidence, I would be inclined to conclude that we would be justified in interpreting the second [Genesis] account as an archetypal account, which by its nature is essentially functional, rather than as a material account of human origins. If that is the case, it is no different than Psalm 139:13 (“You knit me together in my mother’s womb”—not a material account). Throughout the rest of Scripture, Adam and Eve are consistently invoked as archetypes of all humanity. Ancient Near Eastern literature likewise consistently deals with human origins by means of archetypes. This does not address the historicity of Adam and Eve, because, archetypes can often be represented by historical people.
The Akkadian tale of Adapa provides interesting insight into the use of archetypes in ancient literature. The tale includes no account of human origins but demonstrates explicitly the way in which one person (Adapa) serves as an archetypal representative of all humanity who has been given wisdom, but denied immortality (the same two issues represented by the trees of the garden).

For what Walton means by a “functional” account, see here. But the archetype concept is valuable, because (as the model we are examining attempts to do) it does tie Adam’s experience to our own. What he went through, for the first time, is indeed what we repeat (though not exactly, since we do not start our lives in communion with God, nor with access to eternal life, nor free of guilt or shame).

Yet the story binds us to Adam’s experience without sacrificing its explanatory power as a (true) myth about origins, nor its setting as an historical event. I believe all three of these (archetypal narrative, origin myth, historical explanation) need to be taken into account, especially when understanding how the rest of Scripture deals with it – especially St Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. For “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin” is plain speaking, as are “The first man, Adam, became a living soul,” and “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

To summarise the series, then, most of these models give some useful insights, and help us to consider the issues. They also each have some drawbacks, but paradoxically not always where those problems are usually located – that is in the interface with science. Provided one is prepared to wrestle with the text intelligently and faithfully – and to be equally intelligent in critiquing the “insurmountable obstacles” that have been wrongly attributed to science against accepting the account – Adam, Eve and the garden can still be seen to form a significant part of God’s saving truth for us.

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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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