Is There a Historical Adam?
In my previous post, I indicated that there is a lot of figurative language in Genesis 1. The same may be said for Genesis 2, the second creation account in which there is a focus on Adam and Eve. Also, as we saw in Genesis 1, there is an implicit polemic against ancient Near Eastern mythological ideas. Listen to the description of human beings in the Babylonian Atrahasis. The background to this passage is a strike on the part of the lesser gods who are tired of doing heavy labor on behalf of the major gods. They insist that they be replaced. Belet-ili, the mother god, takes clay and mixes it with the blood of the instigator of the strike, then the text says:
After she had mixed the clay,
She summoned the Anunna, the great gods,
The Igigi, the great gods, spat upon the clay.
From this mixture of clay from the earth and the spit of the gods Belit-ili creates human beings in order to do the heavy labor of the gods.
We should read the description of the creation of Adam with this as a background because the original audience certainly did. Adam too is created from the ground (dust) and a divine component (God’s breath). Is this a literal description of how God actually created the first human being? Hardly. Even without recourse to knowledge of ancient Near Eastern literature, this description is clearly not literal. God does not have a body with lungs so that he would literally breathe into dust. God is a spiritual being. The description has other purposes than telling us how God created human beings. It is, in the first place, saying God, and not any other god, created human beings. Second, it is, in contrast to the Atrahasis, presenting a picture of humanity’s creation which indicates that we are creatures with great dignity (created from God’s breath, not the spit of the gods).
Again, the point is that Genesis 1 and 2 are not interested in the question of how God ordered creation and human beings in particular. It is proclaiming that God is the creator of both.
The description of how Adam was created is certainly figurative. The question is open as to whether there was an actual person named Adam who was the first human being or not. Perhaps there was a first man, Adam, and a first woman, Eve, designated as such by God at the right time in his development of human beings. Or perhaps Adam, whose name after all means “Human,” is himself figurative of humanity in general. I have not resolved this issue in my own mind except to say that there is nothing that insists on a literal understanding of Adam in a passage so filled with obvious figurative description. The New Testament’s use of Adam (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) does not resolve the issue as some suggest because it is possible, even natural, to make an analogy between a literary figure and a historical one.
This issue is an important one. It is wrong to challenge people to choose between the Bible and the science of evolution as if you can only believe that one or the other is true. They are not in conflict. It is particularly damaging to insist that our young people make this kind of false choice as they are studying biology in secondary school or college. If we do so, we will force some to choose against the Bible and others to check their intelligence at the classroom door. This is a false dilemma created by a misuse of the biblical text.
Tremper Longman is the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, as well as Visiting Professor of Old Testament at Mars Hill Graduate School and adjunct of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of over twenty books, including the upcoming Science, Creation and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins with physicist Richard F. Carlson.