The Book of Genesis
One of the things we learn in biblical exegesis is that although the book of Genesis reads as history it also implements a wide array of literary elements of myth, allegory, metaphor, and symbolism. It is also unclear where to locate these forms. For instance, a reading of Genesis might suggest that Adam and Eve were historical people, that the Garden of Eden was a location, and that God really created the universe via physical forces, and that Cain, should we assume the trustworthiness of the tradition, really mercilessly murdered his brother in the farm fields.
Having studied Old Testament studies myself most scholars don’t actually think that Adam and Eve were actual historical people, or that there ever really was an actual location such as Eden. Rather, many would put down the first 11 or so chapters of Genesis down to mythology, a mythology that was of great significance to the author and for those he penned the account for. Similarly, most academics and experts don’t actually believe Moses penned the book of Genesis, but that it was rather a compilation of documents or traditions compiled by later authors writing within different traditions. As such, navigating Genesis is never going to be easy as its not always easy to demarcate where the likes of history, symbolism, and myth split, hence why biblical studies and interpretation shows much historical discussion and disagreement.
However, one can affirm that the author of Genesis clearly used a wide array of literary devices. Satan, as being represented in the form of a snake (Gen. 3:1-2), is symbolized as a seductive and narcissistic character. The tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17) is a symbol, and few, if any, scholars believe that there was an actual literal tree of good and evil. Eve being created from the rib of Adam (Gen. 2:22) is probably symbolic of some wider meaning, such as a woman being made for man and man being made for woman. In Genesis 2:7 we read of God forming man from the dust, which is not intended to be literal. And as is the case for a number of biblical characters, names denote a specific meaning. In Genesis, the name Eve means “The source of life” or “Mother of All Living”, and Adam simply means “man”. We are told, in an anthropomorphic use of language, that God “walks” in the garden where he placed Adam and Eve.
The point being that the early Genesis creation narrative is rife with literary devices and tools. To this end it is not always so easy to determine what constitutes actual history, what is conveyed as history but denotes something else, what is merely theological, or what is merely creative writing serving some theological purpose.
The Problem of Biblicism
The contentiousness of interpreting Genesis hasn’t been lost on Christians who themselves have interpreted Genesis differently. Such interpretations differ to various degrees. One problematic view is proposed by the camp known as Young Earth Creationists. Typically, these Christians view the Earth as being roughly 6000 to 10 000 years old, and they employ a very problematic methodology referred to as biblicism. Biblicism is an overly rigid interpretative method which fails to do justice to a number of important hermenuetical components.
As a result of this overly rigid method, this Christian finds himself facing a number of challenges when it comes to the story of Adam and Eve, of whom they believe were the progenitors of the human race. They believe, for instance, that Adam and Eve’s descendants married their brothers and sisters since this was their only choice. Ultimately this is how humanity begun, and because no-one else existed for Adam and Eve’s descendants to choose from, they must have committed incest. The general response hoping to account for this is that Adam and Eve, and their early descendants, were genetically pure as God made them that way. Therefore, any imperfections or harmful genetic mutations manifested only later.
But this is one of many flaws inherent in biblicism. Sure, it’s possible that God could have somehow made the first humans genetically pure, but by saying so one essentially speaks for the Bible as opposed to letting it speak for itself. Usually this is the result of attempting to make the biblical narrative conform to some preconceived framework one brings to the texts. A fundamental principle to engaging in exegesis is to avoid reading what they already believe into the text, rather one needs to let the text speak for itself.
Now, let’s turn to the text of Genesis itself, and see what it says. I contend that the text provides several clues that Adam and Even were not the only people alive at the time.
According to Genesis 4:1-15, Eve give birth to Cain and Abel. This, according to some Christians, implies that there were only four family members on Earth at that time. Now, after Cain had killed Abel there were only three people. But after Cain had slain his brother, God appears to him and kicks him out of the Garden of Eden as punishment. Cain then moves to the land of Nod, which is East of Eden, but what Cain then says to God is quite revealing. He tells God that he was worried of being killed by other people who would find him (4:15). Then God replies, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold” (4:15). In this text, God and Cain both imply that there are other humans besides Adam and Eve. If there were no other people, God would not have had to give him a mark in the first place, and Cain would not have had anything to fear.
Cain goes out from God’s presence and finds a wife, and impregnates her:
“Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch” (4:16)
The text implies that Cain had to find his wife, an act that could only happen if there were people to choose from. Assuming that we can trust this tradition, it is more likely that Cain came upon a village, a town, or some settlement which already existed. Otherwise, where did he find his wife? We then read that Cain was himself “building a city,” which, given the times, would have probably been a small settlement of sorts. But then why would Cain build a settlement if it was only him, his wife, and son? The text itself implies that many people inhabited the area. Thus, Cain’s narrative suggests that Adam and Eve were not the only humans alive at the time.
In Genesis 1:28 God tells Adam and Eve to: “Be fruitful and multiply, and Replenish the earth.” The word replenish means “to fill”, and one cannot replenish something, in this case the Earth (which would have likely meant the local area according to an ancient perspective), if it was not plenished (filled) to some degree before God’s command was issued. If Adam and Eve were the only two humans then this would make God’s instruction arbitrary and out of place. Instead God could have said, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the whole earth.”
Paul on the first man
Paul writes in Romans 5:12:
“Therefore, even as through one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed on all men inasmuch as all sinned”
Biblical exegetes have generally noted that ‘death,’ as its used here by Paul, refers to spiritual death, not to physical death. On this view, Adam, being the first man to be made in the image of God, would have been the first human to break God’s trust.
Paul’s literal view of Adam being the first man:
“But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.” (2 Timothy 2:11-14) And: “For indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.” (1 Corinthians 11:9)
Paul clearly implies that mankind came from a single pair of humans, Adam and Eve, and this would pose challenges not to the position stipulated above (that Adam and Eve weren’t the first humans created by God), but to the internal consistency of the Bible. Regarding questions of consistency, inerrancy, and inspiration, theologians hold to a number of different views. One scholar, Peter Enns, holding to a non-inerrant view of the biblical texts, argues that Paul assumed that mankind came from Adam and Eve. In this way, Paul was expressing his own view, as he did throughout his letters,
“Paul certainly assumed that Adam was a person and the progenitor of the human race, and I would expect nothing less from Paul being a 1st Century man. And again, God speaks in ways and uses categories that are available to human beings at that time. I don’t expect Paul to have had a conversation with Francis Collins (a leading geneticist, and biologist) about the Genome Project, and how common descent is essential. Technically I don’t expect him to understand that… How Paul handles Adam does not determine modern scientific discoveries about the origin of humanity.”
However, Enns’ view is not the only one out there and many Christian scholars would strongly counter his view. Some Christians would argue that to claim that Paul assumed that Adam and Eve were literal historical people is to undermine the very basis upon which he argues and constructs his theological views.
But for the intent and purposes here, Paul’s view is largely irrelevant when we look to Genesis. It is Genesis which gives clues that Adam and Eve weren’t the first human beings, and a such it doesn’t really matter what Paul thought. Genesis thus implies that God did create other people alongside and before Adam and Eve.