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Adam and Eve: real persons

This is a follow-on to the author’s earlier work, The Lost World of Genesis 1. It is The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate by John H. Walton (IVP Academic, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-8308-2461-8).

As with his earlier book (with which there is some overlap), he sets it out as a series of propositions, which makes his arguments easy to follow. He tackles all the thorny issues to do with Adam, Eve and human origins, including Adam as an ‘archetype’ rather than as a biological progenitor, the ‘garden’ as an Ancient Near Eastern motif for ‘sacred space’ and the serpent as a ‘chaos creature’.

Inevitably, he has to examine the New Testament’s treatment of Adam, and part of that is a brilliant excursus on the subject by N.T. Wright. The conclusion is that Paul is more interested in Adam as shedding light on the effect of sin on the cosmos than on its effect on humanity, and that Paul has nothing to say in this connection about human origins.

He concludes, too, that Adam and Eve can be viewed as real individuals, with a unique mandate from God, without our having to believe that they were the first individuals from whom all others were descended. Along the way, he looks at several related issues, like the presence of death before the Fall and the nature of original sin.

Walton writes with a deep respect for Scripture as God’s Word and his work, while crisply academic, somehow manages to convey warmth as well as integrity.

Since the beginning of the massive archaeological undertakings in Iraq in the middle of the nineteenth century, more than one million cuneiform texts have been excavated that expose the ancient literature by which we can gain important new insight into the ancient world. (p23)

For Israel, creation resolves the absence of order and not the absence of material. (p28)

If Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins, then ex nihilo would not apply. Please note, however, that when God created the material cosmos (and he is the one who did), he did it ex nihilo. Ex nihilo doctrine comes from John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16, not Genesis 1. (p33)

In the ancient world people were far more interested in the origins of the home than in the origins of the house. It is a question of which story to tell. They were not interested in how the material objects of the house came into being—God did it and that was enough for them. Of much more interest to them was how this house (the cosmos) had become a home for humans but even more importantly how God had made it his own home. (p45)

Interpreters have often concluded that in order for that world to be “good,” there must have been no pain, no suffering, no death and no predation; everything was pristine and perfect…  As popular as this view is, in reality the word never carries this sense of unadulterated, pristine perfection…  “Good” refers to a condition in which something is functioning optimally as it was designed to do in an ordered system—it is working the way God intended. (p54)

…the designation tôb mĕʾōd (“very good”)…   the same description is given to the Promised Land (Num 14:7), though it is filled with enemies and wicked inhabitants, not to mention wild animals who are predators. (p57)

Job 10:9 ‘Remember that you molded me like clay. Will you now turn me to dust again?’ Here Job sees himself as molded by God, which is not a claim that he was not born of woman like everyone else. When the text reports Adam being formed from dust, it is not expressing something by which we can identify how Adam is different from all the rest of us. Rather, it conveys how we can identify that he is the same as all of us. (p76)

From these data it is easy to conclude that Adam’s sleep has prepared him for a visionary experience rather than for a surgical procedure. The description of himself being cut in half and the woman being built from the other half (Gen 2:21-22) would refer not to something he physically experienced but to something that he saw in a vision. It would therefore not describe a material event but would give him an understanding of an important reality, which he expresses eloquently in Genesis 2:23. Consequently, we would then be able to conclude that the text does not describe the material origin of Eve. The vision would concern her identity as ontologically related to the man. The text would therefore have no claim to make about the material origin of woman. (p80)

To contend that some treatment of Adam (in Genesis or anywhere else) is archetypal is not to suggest that he is not historical. Jesus is also treated archetypally by Paul, yet he is historical. (p96)

By putting Adam in ancestor lists, the authors of Scripture are treating him as a historical person. (p102)

Sacred space existed because of the manifest presence of God. Adam was given access to this sacred space as a priest in order to be involved in preserving its sanctity and mediating its benefits. Sacred space was also the center of order, because order emanates from God. (p108)

When we consider the Garden of Eden in its ancient context, we find that it is more sacred space than green space. It is the center of order, not perfection, and its significance has more to do with divine presence than human paradise. (p116)

The Old Testament never refers to the event of Genesis 3 as “the fall” and does not talk about people or the world as “fallen.” (p142)

If humans are to work alongside of God in extending order (“subdue” and “rule” [Gen 1:28]), they need to attain wisdom, but as endowment from God, not by seizing it for autonomous use. Given this interpretation, I would disagree with those who see the fall as disobedience to an arbitrarily chosen test case. I refer to the view that the trees had no inherent properties but just served to provide an opportunity for obedience (knowledge of good) or disobedience (knowledge of evil). In this view God could just as easily have said that they shouldn’t walk on the beach. Instead, I maintain that what was taken (wisdom) is not arbitrary and that it is more important than that it was taken (failed a test). (p144)

Genesis 3 is more about the encroachment of disorder (brought about by sin) into a world in the process of being ordered than it is about the first sin. It is about how humanity lost access to the presence of God when its representatives tragically declared their independence from their Creator. It is more focused literarily and theologically on how corporate humanity is therefore distanced from God—alienation—than on the sinful state of each human being (with no intention of diminishing the latter fact). (p147)

The virgin birth distinguishes Jesus as God. The sin of wanting to be like God (as we have defined the nature of the fall) cannot be pollution to one who is God. (p157)

Here is the problem to which Romans is the answer: not simply that we are sinful and need saving but that our sinfulness has meant that God’s project for the whole creation (that it should be run by obedient humans) was aborted, put on hold. And when we are saved, as Paul spells out, that is in order that the whole-creation project can at last get back on track. (p173)

The temple was where heaven and earth met; when Paul says in Ephesians 1:10 that God’s purpose was to sum up everything in heaven and on earth in the Messiah, we shouldn’t be surprised that much of the rest of the letter is then about Jesus and the church as the true temple. But here is the problem: that we have seen the goal of it all as “humans being rescued so that they could have fellowship with God,” but the Bible sees the goal of it all as “humans being rescued so that they could sum up the praises of all creation and look after that creation as God’s wise stewards.” (p175)

…my proposal: that just as God chose Israel from the rest of humankind for a special, strange, demanding vocation, so perhaps what Genesis is telling us is that God chose one pair from the rest of early hominids for a special, strange, demanding vocation. This pair (call them Adam and Eve if you like) were to be the representatives of the whole human race, the ones in whom God’s purposes to make the whole world a place of delight and joy and order, eventually colonizing the whole creation, were to be taken forward. (p177)

They were supposed to be the life-bringers, and if they failed in their task, the death that was already endemic in the world as it was would engulf them as well. This, perhaps, is a way of reading the warning of Genesis 2: in the day you eat of it you, too, will die. Not that death, the decay and dissolution of plants, animals and hominids, wasn’t a reality already; but you, Adam and Eve, are chosen to be the people through whom God’s life-giving reflection will be imaged into the world, and if you choose to worship and serve the creation rather than the Creator, you will merely reflect death back to death, and will share that death yourself. (p178)

In Acts 17:26, Paul’s rhetoric transitions to a geopolitical, historical and societal focus. He indicates that nations, historical roles and territories are all dependent on God. I would contend that in this verse he is not talking about biology or about human origins. He is discussing national origins. God’s “making” (poieō) of a nation is not a material act but an organizational one. (p186)

To consider change over time, common descent, material continuity or even an evolutionary model is not a decision that automatically rules God out of the picture. (p191)

Adam and Eve are distinguished from any other humans that may have existed in their time by having been designated as priests serving representatively in sacred space. This is presented as a role given to them by God, a role that is spiritual in nature. Note that in similar ways Abraham is not materially distinct from any others of his time, but he is selected by God and assigned a spiritual role. (p192)

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