Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Cain’s Birth, Part 1

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January 25, 2011 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Cain’s Birth, Part 1

After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, they have two children: Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-2). The birth of these two figures, especially of Cain, raised some questions in the minds of early interpreters—just as they continue to for contemporary readers of Genesis.

This week we will look at one of those questions: were Adam and Eve celibate in the Garden? This question may seem a bit strange for modern readers, but it was quite important for some ancient interpreters.

More importantly for us, the interpretive principle by which one ancient interpreter handled this specific issue is a very common one in contemporary Christian interpretation: using other parts of the Bible to inform our interpretation of Genesis. The question, then, is: how our application of this principle differs from this one example below, if at all?

Were Adam and Eve Celibate in the Garden?

The fact that Adam and Eve had no children in the Garden suggested to some interpreters that perhaps Adam and Eve were celibate until they were expelled. On the surface, this is unlikely, since Adam is in the Garden in Genesis 2:9 and is given Eve as his mate in 2:21-23.

Also relevant for some interpreters is a nuance we see in Genesis 2:23, when Adam says “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Some interpreters understood this to imply that Adam had been watching the other animals cavorting (Genesis 2:20) and longed for a suitable partner for himself. For example, Jubilees 3:3-4 and Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1:35 both imply that Adam was looking longingly at the animals with their mates.

This longing led to the creation of the woman out of Adam’s side in 2:21-22. This is why Adam said “at last.” It was upon seeing the woman that Adam said he now (finally) had a partner just like the animals did. This implied for many early interpreters that Eve had been given to Adam for the purpose of sexual intimacy, and so it can be assumed they consummated their relationship in the Garden. In fact, they were brought together to be “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

Although it is not explicit, the biblical story seems to suggest pretty strongly that Adam and Eve were not celibate in the Garden. However, as with virtually every single verse in Genesis, interpretation is rarely a simple matter, for there is much more at work than what a verse says.

An issue that occupied early interpreters—and many others since—is whether sex is inherently sinful. If sexual activity is only something introduced after the Fall, then is it part of the Fall? If, however, it is part of the nature of things while in the Garden, then sexual activity becomes part of God’s plan for humans.

Again, one would think this should not be a problem: the woman was given to Adam for the purpose of becoming “one flesh,” and so we presume sexual relations between Adam and Eve commenced in the Garden and so were not the result of sin.

But what complicated the matter considerably for some interpreters was their understanding of Eden as a temple. Adam was a priest-like figure who worked and tended the Garden as priests would later tend to affairs in the temple. That being the case, an observant Jew could hardly allow Adam to know Eve while on his priestly duties.

The book of Jubliees has a big concern for priestly matters and maneuvered around this. In 3:6-9, this author argues that Adam and Eve were created outside of the Garden, consummated their marriage there, and then were put into the Garden where they remained celibate until they were exiled after the Fall. This differs from the account in Genesis 2:9, which places Adam in Eden and then is given a mate in vv. 22-23.

Jubilees has a real issue with sexual relations in the Garden, and the author handles Genesis accordingly. But perhaps we can have a bit of sympathy for this ancient author. His reading of the Genesis story was informed by what he read elsewhere in the Bible.

His respect for Eden as “holy ground” in the presence of God himself is so profound that he has reservations about the first couple sharing physical intimacy in God’s presence. This is all the more so because sexual abstinence when in God’s presence or going about his work (as Adam was doing as a “priest” in Eden) is found elsewhere in the Old Testament.

In Exodus 19:15, in preparing to receive the commandments from Moses on Mt. Sinai, the men are not to “go near a woman.” It is very common in Jewish theology to think of Mt. Sinai as a temple of sorts. According to Exodus 19, only Moses could go to the very top of Sinai, which corresponds to the high priest alone entering the Holy of Holies. Others could go part way up the mountain, which corresponds to the portion of the temple on the other side of the curtain. The rest could only stay at the foot of the mountain, which corresponds to the outer court of the temple.

So, as at Sinai, so too in Eden: refraining from sexual contact is required. The fact that the Garden story does not say this is unfortunate but hardly important for these early interpreters, since Scripture as a whole dictates what any one passage may or may not say. The theology of priesthood and temple observance determines what Genesis can mean. Adam and Eve were celibate in the Garden.

So What?

For those who have been reading this series of posts on Genesis and ancient interpreters, you can probably anticipate my next point. However tempting it might be to look down upon and even dismiss this particular piece of interpretation (and for the record, I do think sexual intimacy in Eden is clearly assumed in the text), what do we make of their interpretive principle?

It has always been common for Christians to read parts of Scripture in light of the whole, which is what the author of Jubilees is doing from his particular perspective. But how does one know if one is violating the text or just augmenting it properly? Are there rules to follow for reading all of Scripture in harmony? Or, conversely, is this even a good principle to begin with?

This is an important issue for Christian readers of the Bible and of the Garden story specifically. To what extent should Christian theology determine how the Garden story should be read? Or maybe I can put that a bit differently: how do we know if we are doing a good job of reading the Bible in light of the whole canon?


Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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James Goetz - #49987

February 3rd 2011

@Jon Garvey - #49280

Population genetics disproves that a couple of anatomically modern human are the ancestors of all other humans, but this doesn’t disprove that there were first specimens of anatomically modern humans. Also, we don’t need to find scientific evidence that the first humans were monotheists if that were the case.


Jon Garvey - #50002

February 3rd 2011

@James Goetz - #49987

“Population genetics disproves that a couple of anatomically modern human are the ancestors of all other humans”

Not so, actually - it only disproves they were the SOLE ancestors of modern humans. It is probable that every living human had a common ancestor within the last couple of thousand years, and that they are descended from every human who left descendents from a few K years before that. We therefore have many common ancestral couples within the history of the species, of which any one might have started the spiritual history of mankind..

What genetics does show is that there was never a single human couple even 60K years ago, the population never dropping below a thousand or more. Neither does evolution provide a horizon for saying “this generation were the first anatomically modern humans” - there’s always a continuum, and there’s always variation across the breeding population.

An either/or effect such as sin/innocence, or God’s image/not God’s image, needs an explanation outside the evolutionary process. Unless, of course, one removes them from the theological category to the “emergent biological features” category, which removes God entirely.


Jeff - #50469

February 8th 2011

Hugely important interpretive question and principles, Pete. Great stuff. I get this all the time with the gospels - so many want to read them as “one story” (“harmony studies” or a “life of Christ” study) and the assumption is, “It’s from One Spirit so it must all be saying the same thing.” This is simply not the case. The gospels clearly each have entirely different agendas and each often stand in tension (sometimes severe tension) with the others.


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