Yesterday, I offered a little linky to David Williams’s thoughts on the necessity (or lack thereof) of a historical Adam for the historicity and efficacy of Jesus’ work. Today, I’m presenting one of the more common approaches to Adam that does not require that he be a real historical figure.
Some scholars believe that the text of Genesis 2-3 was written not by Moses in the 15th century BC, but by exilic or post-exilic Jews in the 6th or 5th century BC. (I don’t know all the arguments for this, but consider that in other Hebrew literature Adam is not referenced until 1 Chronicles 1:1, a text certainly written after the exile.)
If indeed Genesis 2-3 (and perhaps the entire proto-history of Genesis 1-11) was written during or after the exile, then the Adam and Eve story take on a different shape and fresh meaning for the people of Israel. Many of us have approached Adam’s story as a story expressing universal origins, that all people everywhere can trace their roots to one man: Adam. But it may be that Adam and Eve’s story was written not to reflect universal humanity, but to reflect specifically on the story of Israel.
Think of it this way. A theologically minded Jew has been reflecting on his people’s predicament in Babylon. How is it that the people of God ended up here in pagan Babylon? How is that the Temple has been destroyed? What of the promises to our ancestors? What of God’s faithfulness? Slowly, he begins to come to the conclusion (as every other biblical writer did) that the blame rested on Israel’s unfaithfulness – their sin – against the Creator.
To help instruct his people and advise them against moving this direction again in the future, this theologically minded Jew begins to lay out a story. The Creator places a man in an idyllic setting, a garden in which all he needs is close at hand. The man is given instructions to cultivate and to protect that unique plot of soil. Alas, the man is deceived and chooses a direction contrary to the covenantal agreement between him and the Creator. The sad result, inevitably, is that the man is banished, exiled, from this land flowing with abundance.
There it is: Adam is Israel’s story in miniature. As Peter Enns writes in his recent book The Evolution of Adam, “Adam in primordial times plays out Israel’s national life. He is proto-Israel – a preview of coming attractions. … Israel’s drama – its struggles over the land and failure to follow God’s law – is placed into primordial time” (66).
And there it sits, rather ideally, right at the front of this vast collection of books detailing Israel’s history with God. It’s as if those compiling the Hebrew Bible knew what they were doing, letting readers know in advance the kind of story they were about to begin reading.