What’s the Point of Adam and Eve?

A long while back, when the internets seemed to be all aflutter regarding human origins, I posted just a couple exploratory remarks about the historicity of the first couple.

In some personal reading, I’m revisiting some of those themes, so I picked up John H. Walton‘s Lost World of Genesis One.  (Actually, I ordered this book because I wanted to explore the concept of creation as a cosmic temple for the Creator.  I haven’t gotten there yet, though.)

But there I was in chapter 6 of Walton’s very concise, well written assessment of the biblical creation narratives, when I encounter this stunning bit that wandered away from Genesis 1 into the realm of Genesis 2.  You’ll have to excuse me for quoting at length.

The bulk of Walton’s argument is based on parallels between the biblical text and other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) origins texts.  It is not that Genesis had to be saying the same things as Egyptian or Mesopotamian texts, but the basic approach to the cosmos would have been similar.  It therefore makes more sense to approach the biblical text from an ANE perspective than a 21st century Western perspective.  It should be noted, then, that ANE texts concerning origins emphasized the proper functions that creation and creatures were to have, not necessarily how that creation or those creatures came to be.

So with regards to the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, Walton writes,

The materials or ingredients that are attested [in the creation of humans] in the ancient Near East are tears of a god (Egypt), blood of a god (Atrahasis), and the most common, clay (both Egypt and Mesopotamia).  These ingredients are offered as common to all humanity since the ancient Near Eastern texts only deal with the mass of humanity being created rather than an individual or a couple as in Genesis.  This is an important difference as Adam and Eve are treated as individuals in chapters 4 and 5.  This individual identity, however, does not change the significance of the reference to the materials in Genesis 2.  The fact that the ancient Near East uses the same sorts of materials to describe all of humanity indicates that the materials have archetypal significance.  Unlike a prototype (which is an original item that serves as a model for later production), an archetype serves as a representative for all others in the class and defines the class.  So when the ancient Near Eastern texts speak of people being created from clay or the blood of a slain deity, they are not talking about just one individual, but are addressing the nature of all humanity.

This archetypal understanding applies also the Genesis 2.  An individual named Adam is not the only human being made of the dust of the earth, for as Genesis 3:19 indicates, “Dust you are and to dust you will return.”  This is true of all humans, men and women.  It is an archetypal feature that describes us all.  It is not a statement of chemical composition nor is it describing a material process by which each and every human being is made.  The dust is an archetypal feature and therefore cannot be viewed as a material ingredient.  It is indicative of human destiny and mortality, and therefore is a functional comment, not a material one.

The situation is no different with the creation of woman.  Being drawn from the side of man has an archetypal significance, not an anatomical one.  This is the very aspect that the text draws out when it identifies the significance of the detail: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).  This is true of all mankind and all womankind.  Womankind is archetypally made from the side of mankind.  Again we can see that this is a functional discussion, not a material one.  After chapter five of Genesis, Adam and Eve are never again mentioned in the Old Testament except in the opening genealogy in Chronicles.  In the New Testament, the authors regularly treat Adam and Eve in archetypal terms.

Given these observations, we might conclude that Genesis does not have the same level of interest in the material origins of the first humans as we do.  It focuses its attention on the archetypal origins of humanity, mankind and womankind.  This interest is part of functional origins.  Humankind is connected to the ground from which we are drawn.  Womankind is connected to the mankind from who she is drawn.  In both male and female forms, humankind is connected to God in whose image all are made.  As such they have the privilege of procreation, the role of subduing and ruling, and a status in the garden serving sacred space (Gen 2:15).  All of these, even the last, were designed to be true of all human beings.  Neither the materials nor the roles are descriptive only of the first individuals.  This creation account gives people their identity and specifies their connectivity to everything around them. [68-70]

If Walton is correct, then many of us Evangelicals need to revisit the way we view Adam and Eve and just what Genesis is trying to say about them.  Could it be that the original author’s intent in putting Genesis 1 together was not to say, “This is how creation came to be in existence,” but rather to say, “This is how God established the purpose of various aspects of creation?”  And, regarding Adam and Eve, could it be that the text was written to illustrate to the community the important role of humanity within the creation?

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2 thoughts on “What’s the Point of Adam and Eve?

  1. This is exciting material! (no pun intended). I’m looking forward to reading more of your reflections. Thanks for posting.

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