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Three Things We Never Noticed About Adam and Eve

In light of my previous post about the church’s interpretive exploitation of Adam throughout history, I want to briefly propose a more helpful and authentic approach to reading the material in question. By paying closer attention to a) what the text actually says and b) anticipated things that are actually not there, we might get closer to understanding something true about the strange, ancient stories we call Genesis. In the case of chapters 2-4 and the tales of the first humans, I’ll collect my observations under three subheadings.

1. Adam and Eve Are Israel

This aspect of Genesis 2-3 in particular seems so obvious, so explicit, and yet I had not even considered it back when I researched and recorded a podcast on the subject. The proposal is a simple one: the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a mythical encapsulation of the story of Israel in the Promised Land.

In the text, Adam and Eve inhabit an agricultural wonderland prepared for them by God, who dwells there with them and provides for all of their needs by the natural goodness of creation (not by magic or sorcery). There is a decree, a covenant by which Adam and Eve must abide in order to enjoy the full benefits of life in the good land. When they are tempted by pagan evil and break the covenant with God, they must leave the land. The abandoned land is guarded by cherubim (ancient symbols of divine authority), a sign that they cannot re-enter until God issues a new decree. This is the story of Israel and Exile.

Israel’s storytellers crafted this story, perhaps from ancient sources and elements, at the time of exile to explain and illuminate the defining crisis of their time. This does not mean that it cannot have more to say beyond its immediate context, but it does appear to be the primary setting of the story, a fact that should figure heavily in its interpretation.

2. Adam and Eve Are Exemplars of the Human Condition

The divine elements in the Garden story generate endless questions. Why would God make it possible for Adam and Eve to become more like Him, only to forbid it? How does God physically walk around in the world He created? Why does He promise them they will die “on the day” they eat the fruit, yet when they eat it they do not die? Why does God need to search around to find the humans? We’ll look a little closer at the portrayal of God in Genesis in the next section. For now, these questions appear to be unanswerable, and stand as major distractions from what these stories do offer with great clarity and insight: a distillation of the human condition. So much interpretive energy has been spent mining these stories for theology and cosmology while their rich anthropology has been largely ignored.

Before Adam and Eve eat the fruit, their life is defined by three realities: breath (a relationship with God), agriculture (a relationship with the earth), and sex (a relationship with each other). After they eat the fruit and begin to discern “good and evil,” the three beautiful relationships that shaped their idyllic existence turn out to be dangers and limitations. Life with God becomes contentious and complicated. Animals bite and thorns prick. Adam and Eve stand naked and vulnerable. In other words, Adam and Eve discover that they are human, they are just like us.

Christian interpretations, obsessed with cosmic notions of legal guilt (“original sin”) or Greek style dualism (“the fall of man”), can only imagine this condition as a divine punishment. But what if, as the text suggests, nothing changed for Adam and Eve but their perception of their own condition (“their eyes were opened”)? What is God’s “curse” (which targets animal and soil, not humans) after all but an adept description of what life is like on planet earth? What if this story is not about the crime that landed all of humanity in sin jail, but a frank and creative pageant of mortality, a song about the bittersweet realities of breath, food, and sex?

3. God Is a Friend and Protector, Not a Cosmic Judge

Finally, one of my favorite things whenever I revisit these texts is the fresh, strange, and fascinating implications of what they say and don’t say about God. I outlined some of the problematic oddities above, and now I’d like to highlight the unexpected goodies. In short, the God of Genesis 2-4 is a far cry from the angry cosmic punisher envisioned by Augustinian or Calvinist Christianities, for example. While the basic themes of disobedience and consequence are present here, God’s character and behavior are surprising at every turn.

In the Garden, when Adam and Eve breach their covenant with God, He is technically the offended party. But while most of Christian theology has focused on God’s offense and His just anger and retribution, that is not the focus of these early Genesis stories. This God does not damn Adam and Eve to eternal hellfire, nor does He demand that they appease Him with blood sacrifices. No, this God comes alongside them as a friend and guardian, explaining the natural consequences of their human fallibility. This is not the God of strict religion or fire and brimstone, it is the God of farms and families, the God of hard work and childbirth.

Likewise with Cain in Genesis 4, God’s role is not what we would expect. It is Abel’s blood which accuses Cain, not God. It is Cain who convicts himself and announces his own guilt, not God. And it is other humans who threaten Cain with retributive harm, not God. In fact, God only steps in to warn and protect the murderer. In Genesis, the greatest dangers faced by humans come from nature, society, and within themselves. God is a companion and provider who resembles the “Heavenly Father” of Jesus’ teaching more than the space tyrant imagined so often by our religion.

I’m not suggesting that these stories aren’t terribly strange and difficult to interpret, I simply want to suggest that there is more here than we have been willing to see. I want us all to feel free to revisit them again and again with our eyes, hearts, and minds open a little wider than they have been before.

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A “Historical Adam” For Every Occasion

Yet another new book explores the history of Christian belief in America, though this one begins its survey in the ancient Near East and tracks one very narrow (if surprisingly versatile) strand of theology. It concerns the first man Adam, the nature of his existence, and his many creative interpreters.

In Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World, Karl W. Giberson tells two connected stories: the sordid history of the interpretation of a few short chapters from the Bible (Genesis 2-4),  and the story of the author’s expulsion from the halls of evangelical academia. Giberson’s own evolving views cost him his job and saw him branded a heretic and worse – a “liberal.” At times palpably bitter but always in command of his impressive research, his contention is that Adam has been a sort of blank slate onto which Christians have projected their ideological interests. To put it another way, Adam is the lump of clay we have fashioned into our own image.

Giberson’s history of Adam as a moral and theological mascot is often outrageous, as he traces it across centuries and continents, right up to our own cultural moment. It is amazing what Christian thinkers and gatekeepers have done with these few ambiguous Bible passages, and how insistent they have been that their views are not only obvious and true, but necessary to one’s spiritual well-being.

The Historical Adams

The Apostle Paul may be to blame for Adam’s eventual role as a theological gun-for-hire, though it’s unfair to hold him accountable for how future writers may have blown his work out of proportion. Paul appealed to Adam in new and innovative ways, taking a far greater interest in the first man than previous Jewish interpreters had done. The apostle imagined Adam as a sort of prototype of Christ, the one who inaugurated sin and death instead of faithfulness and life. By taking this creative juxtaposition as a literal, legal reality, later thinkers took Paul’s innovation to further extremes. What was meant rhetorically to exalt and draw eyes to Christ engendered an unhealthy and unhelpful obsession with Adam and the precise nature of his life and malefaction.

Giberson’s book accuses St. Augustine of crafting this sort of Adam-obsessed theology and foisting it upon later generations as a burdensome appendix to the gospel. Augustine took Paul’s Adam analogy off-road, galvanizing a doctrine of “original sin” that made the first man more than a type or an example. It made him a key player, and belief in him (and his literal, historical existence) became a prerequisite of divine salvation. In a phrase that echoes throughout the history of Adam interpretation, “no historical Adam, no gospel.” Suddenly the “good news” of Jesus came with some fine print.

From there, Giberson traces the history of the church, which at every turn finds Adam useful for new and creative reasons, but always emphasizes his literal role as the first sinner and father of all humans. There is the superhuman Adam, anywhere from seven to a hundred feet tall, immortal and gifted with superpowers, all lost in “the fall” (another interpretive golden goose not actually found in scripture). There is the racially ideal Adam, genetically perfect, displaying only the most “desirable” traits before his offspring are “marked” or made otherwise imperfect through the consequences of sin, resulting in a “hierarchy” of world races. There is also “traditional marriage” Adam, and “deceived by a temptress” Adam, and today’s model, “young earth creationist” Adam. In each case, argues Giberson, the configuration and re-mythologizing of Adam reflects the cultural and social concerns of the Christian gatekeepers of that time and place. In western civilization, we observe, racism, sexism, classism, and all manner of imposed human division have as their foundation or rationalization some interpretation of the early Genesis stories.

The Absurdity of Doctrinally Mandated Belief

The implications of the book’s thesis are many, and could generate many responses. For my purposes on this blog, the most relevant takeaway is the absurdity of what I’d call “doctrinally mandated belief.” That is, believing something, regardless of evidence, because we “need to” believe it in light of some preexisting belief or assumption. And so: Adam lived six thousand years ago and passed his sin-tainted genetic material on to every other human being, implanting them with a legal stain of sin. Why are we told we must believe this? Not because it is likely or evident or even taught by the Bible, but because our other doctrines (depravity, original sin, penal substitution, young earth, etc.) demand it.

Believing something dutifully out of obligation to other unexamined beliefs is dishonest, backward, and fruitless. It is also harmful to people who refuse to play along, as many like Giberson have discovered. This is what “biblical inerrancy” and “historical Adam” have in common: neither is evident and both are affirmed out of responsibility to some other pre-established theological construct. We must affirm inerrancy or the technical trustworthiness of the Bible (and thus our own credibility) will collapse. We must affirm a historical Adam or original sin, young earth creationism, and/or the gospel itself will collapse. None of this noise has anything to do with the real gospel and legacy of Jesus, in fact it only serves to obscure and damage it. If belief and trust in Jesus cannot be proffered without burdensome technical baggage, it is not worth the confusion and harm it causes. But as long as there have been Christians, Giberson’s book demonstrates, there have been Christian gatekeepers, eager to commandeer the gospel for their own small purposes.

In a follow-up post I will lay out my own thoughts on the value and meaning of the Adam and Eve narratives in Genesis.