Who was Adam?
This simple question has become the great controversy of the day in not only the Christian Reformed community but in Evangelical Christianity as a whole. New scientific advances in investigating the human genome have raised some serious questions concerning the origins of man. The latest claim is that recent genome studies of our species tell us that humanity had arisen from a pre-existent humanoid community of non-homo sapiens origins. In other words, humanity, they claim, didn’t come into existence through one individual, but through many individuals.
So what does this mean to us as Christians?
Some have argued, and I believe rightly so, that if we say there was no historic Adam, the individual, then the very core of the Apostle Paul’s teaching on redemption is perilously at risk. (Read Romans 5:12-20)
In the end, it all seems to fall down to the question of how do we read the book of Genesis in the face of these latest scientific discoveries? For me, the question can only be answered by trying to understand the literary character of this first book of the Hebrew Bible itself.
As a way to explain this, I’d like to relate an experience I had concerning the book of Genesis. When I was studying Hebrew in Israel one of the ways I use to practice my language studies was by comparing my English Bible with my Hebrew Bible. One day I was deep in my studies when a native Israeli friend popped in my room and asked what I was doing. I showed her. She was bi-lingual and spoke and read fluently both Hebrew and English. She mentioned to me she had never read Genesis chapter one in English before. It just happened to be what I was reading at the time. So, she picked up my English Bible, read through the verses and immediately threw it down and yelled, “That’s awful!”
I knew exactly what she meant. There was no way that an English translation of Genesis chapter one could ever capture the full poetic depth and flavor of the original Hebrew words. I told her that she had to understand, to try to do full justice to all of the linguistic value of the original Hebrew words into English would mean writing a commentary rather than a translation. When we translate one language to another, especially Hebrew to English, one has to make a commitment, one way or another, that will always fall short of the prosaic and nuanced meanings of the words of the text found in the original Semitic language.
With that said it is clear that the Hebrew language of the book of Genesis is purposely metaphoric as well as poetic. It was after all written by tribal nomads. The very name of Adam itself, in the Hebrew language, seems to argue for this. In Hebrew, Adam can mean both the individual and all of humanity. The Hebrew Bible often uses it both ways. A good example of this can be found in Genesis 1:26;”Then God said, “Let us make mankind (Adam) in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” In this passage the word that is translated as Mankind is the Hebrew word “Adam” and it is conjugated in the plural.
Then in the next chapter, Genesis 2:15-17, we have the same Hebrew word, Adam, being conjugated in the singular.”The LORD God took the man (Adam) and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man (Adam), “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
As a Reformed Christian I think the best way to understand or interpret this Adam of Genesis is with a covenant point of view? It seems to me this individual Adam should be seen as having a unique covenantal relationship with God that is distinctively different from what God had with the rest of creation, including possibly other humanoids? In a theological way, what I’m suggesting is that we see the individual Adam of Genesis 2:15 as being the unique covenantal head of what becomes known as Adam who eventually becomes the whole of the rest of humanity. This would make biblical sense since throughout the Hebrew Bible both people and communities are always named after a founding individual. (Ishmael and the Ishmalites, Eber and the Hebrews, Nahor and the Nahorim, Moab and the Moabites, Ammon and the Ammonites, ect.) This way of seeing Adam would seem to best accord with the Apostle Paul’s view of Adam in Romans 5:12-20 as well.
I don’t have a problem with there being other humanoids or peoples in the world at the time of Adam’s appearance, or even that he may have descended from them. This actually would make biblical sense since we have references in this same Genesis story of both Cain and Seth marrying women and it is highly doubtful that they could, according to the Law of God, have been allowed to marry their own sisters or even close relatives. (Leviticus 18) Also there are other instances of people being mentioned, other than Adam’s family, who were around at the time of this Genesis story. An example of this is Cain fleeing to an already established community called “Nod”. (Genesis 4:16) And the statement of Cain to God about being killed by other people because they’ll know he had killed his brother Abel. (Genesis 4:13-15)
Some have argued that Adam had to be the first distinctively made human. I suggest a slight alternative to this. I suggest that this biblical idea of Adam being the Covenantal head of humanity would fit this idea of Adam being the first human who was made in the image of God. What I mean to say is that Adam’s image bearing of God is what made him distinct from other people at this time and made him the first true human being.
So, the question must be asked: What is this image of God that Adam was made in that made him so unique from the rest of the people on the earth?
Again, Genesis says that first Adam was put to rule over creation, to work it and to guard or protect it (Hebrew word “Shomar”). Second, Adam also seems to be the first of creation to have had an active relationship with God other than a passive relationship that the rest of creation had in merely reflecting his “invisible qualities” as mentioned in Romans 1:20.
It is this actively engaging first person relationship between God and Adam that defines their unique covenant relationship and I believe makes Adam’s humanity unique. It is this first person communication between God and Adam that is key here to explaining Adam’s being uniquely made in image of God. Part of this first person conversation between God and Adam has to do with a single command found in Genesis 2:16-17; “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
So why is this one command such an important one to this unique covenant made between Adam and God?
One of the greatest theologians of the early church, Augustine of Hippo, in the early fifth century A.D. argued that the breaking of this command represented Adam’s break from acknowledging God as God by putting himself in the place of God in his own heart and mind. Genesis 3:4-5 explains this. It says; “the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” In other words when Adam choose to eat the fruit, he no longer had God’s opinion ruling his life but instead he replaced God’s opinion with his own. By doing this he became a god in his own opinion. Consequently he both lost the opinion and mind of God and severely damaged his bearing the image of God. In other words, this unique quality of Adam’s interpersonal relationship with God was nearly destroyed by his single act of disobedience to God’s command.
Hosea 6:7; “Like Adam, they have broken the covenant; they were unfaithful to me there.”
Here Adam broke the single command that made up the covenant between himself and God. And as the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:45-49, it will take a second Adam, a new covenant head of humanity to restore us to the obedience of being image bearers of God once again. “45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.”
The New Testament goes even further into the meaning our being “Image bearers of God”. Romans 8:28 is a good example of this. “29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” Another is Colossians 3:9-10; “9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”
This metaphoric language of the Hebrew book of Genesis is typical of all nomadic tribal societies throughout history. The language of the Hebrew book of Genesis is not precise and neat. It speaks primarily through pictures rather than exacting grammar. The name of Adam, himself, shows this.
As much as the name of Adam can mean both an individual as well as all of mankind, the name itself comes from the Hebrew word for red, adome and also from the Hebrew word for ground or dirt, adamah. Why? Because, as Genesis 2:7 says: “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground (adamah) and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” And, by the way, the “ground” or dirt of the near east is mostly red.
Although there are many other issues that could be brought up concerning the language of the Hebrew Bible as a whole the most important point here to make is that all of the Old Testament image bearers of God had something in common with us-it is the unique covenantal faith relationship between themselves and our God. We are all brothers and sisters in the Lord going all the way back to Adam. Hebrews 11:1-2 & 39-40 tells us concerning them and us: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.” ”39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
Christianity and science haven’t always had a cozy relationship. There was a Christian scientist named Galileo (1562-1642), who claimed that the earth orbited around the sun and not the other way around. Well, many Christians in his day said this could not be so because, as they read their Bibles, the scriptures seemed to very definitely say that the earth is in a stationary place in the universe and everything else moves passed it. Psalm 93:1, 96:10, and 1 Chronicles 16:30 say that "the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved." Also, Psalm 104:5 says, "The Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved." And Ecclesiastes 1:5 says that "And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place". Yet, how many today would claim that the sun orbits the earth or claim that the earth is stationary in the heavens. Nonetheless, many well-intended Christians in Galileo’s time felt the scriptures told them this was so.
But we know that the Bible often speaks figuratively about the natural world and wasn’t written to be an exacting book on science. Instead the Bible is fundamentally a book on how to be an “Image bearer of God”! The Bible is a Spirit inspired book focused on the faith relationship between humanity and God.
I feel the church is now facing its Galileo moment over the issue of “Who was Adam?” How do we handle what the newest scientific discoveries say about us and our origins? Do we deny the science? (Would that be honest?) Or do we see how the science actually harmonizes with what the Scriptures maybe telling us? No matter how we feel about this subject, one way or another, this is something we will need to come to terms with because the world around us will expect us to give them answers. And biblically speaking, isn’t that our job as Christians? Are we prepared to give an answer?
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15-16).