For a guy who died so long ago, Adam has been making a lot of headlines lately! Recent advances in human genetics have raised fresh questions about Adam’s historicity and have heightened interest in his story.
According to the popular interpretation of the Genesis account, Adam was the first human being, created by God along with the first woman Eve, and together Adam and Eve became the original parents of all other humans. However, recent discoveries in human genetics have increased scrutiny on the idea that there was just one, original human couple. Instead, markers in the human genome seem to indicate that the human race emerged from a population of earlier hominids around 10,000 in number.
Regardless of what one thinks about the genetic evidence (which is tough for those of us outside the field to get our heads around), the resulting impetus to look more closely at the Genesis narrative should be welcomed. I had a professor in seminary who repeatedly urged us students, “The truth is tough!” Christians should never be afraid of hard questions that drive us back to examine the Scriptures.
In this case, we are urged to ask whether Genesis does, in fact, teach that Adam and Eve were the first humans. Is the emerging critique against an “original couple” really an attack on the teaching of Genesis? (If so, the prudent course would be to stand with Scripture and wait for science to correct itself and catch up.) Or is the emerging evidence helping us refocus on what Genesis actually says about Adam, which has less to do with human origins than commonly thought? I believe that the latter is indeed the case.
When we examine the Adam narrative (Genesis 2:4-4:26) more closely, we find it has less to do with biological questions of human origins and more to do with the biblical theme of kingship. Genesis lays the foundation for that theme of kingship in the First Adam, preparing for the culmination of that theme in the revelation of Jesus as the Second Adam. It is Adam as “first king,” rather than “first human,” which is the burden of his story in Genesis.
The Overlooked “Others”
There are several features of the Adam narrative that readers tend to overlook or to dismiss too quickly when reading it through the “original couple” paradigm. For example, one important clue that this is not an “original couple” story is the fact that it makes several references to other human populations already sharing the world with Adam!
All through church history, Christians have wrestled with childish questions (which are often the best kinds of questions!) like, “Who was Cain afraid of when he was sent east of Eden?” (Genesis 4:14-15), and “Where did Cain get his wife?” (4:17a), and “Who inhabited the city Cain founded?” (4:17b). Such questions have typically been explained in ways tailored to fit the “original couple” thesis. However, Genesis itself offers no explanation for the origins of those populations. Indeed, there is no indication that the narrative expects us to be surprised by their presence, nor is there any effort in the narrative to connect those groups with Adam.
It was Augustine who first proposed the explanation which has since become mainstream. Augustine suggested that Adam’s “other sons and daughters” mentioned in a later pericope (Genesis 5:4) might account for the populations met by Cain in this account (Genesis 4:14-17)1. Genesis 5:4 does ascribe more sons and daughters to Adam and Eve after Cain, Abel, and Seth. But nowhere does the writer identify those offspring with the populations whom Cain initially feared, and later settled among. Augustine’s proposal is just that: it is a proposal from Augustine, not an explanation by Moses.
Even if Augustine’s hunch is correct and those other people groups were Cain’s siblings, it remains profoundly telling that the author of Genesis never bothered to draw out that connection. Telling us where all humans came from is not the burden of the text. Unless we presuppose that Adam is the father of all humans and interpolate Augustine’s proposal into the text, the most natural reading of those people groups east of Eden is to regard them as genuine “others”—unrelated to Cain and unknown to him.
Rather than introducing Adam as the father of all humans, the emphasis of the narrative is on something else. The focus of the text is on Adam as humanity’s first (and until Jesus, only) universal king.
The Nature of Adam’s Primacy
That Adam was given headship over the creation is no new insight. The church has traditionally recognized two aspects of Adam’s primacy: his primacy both as progenitor of humankind and as the head of the creation order. That latter doctrine is the truly important one. As the head of humankind (what theologians call his “federal headship”), Adam’s personal righteousness or sin would determine the standing of the whole creation under him.
It is this role of universal kingship that the Apostle Paul speaks about as analogous to the role of Christ, the “Second Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45). In fact, Jesus is unlike Adam in terms of progeny, since Jesus never fathered physical offspring. It is strictly the office of Adam as king that is essential to his comparison with Jesus. Thus, the federal headship of Adam has long been recognized as the most important facet of his introduction in Genesis.
Traditionally, Adam’s kingship has been viewed as the consequence of his being the first human. Just as a father (like Abraham) becomes the patriarch of his growing household, it is often assumed that Adam’s role as progenitor of all humankind was connected to his role as king. But those two facets of primacy are not necessarily tied together. (Even Abraham was head of a household much larger than just his offspring; cf., Genesis 14:14.)
In fact, the parallel between Adam and Jesus is arguably stronger when the universality of each one’s authority is tied to divine appointment rather than natural progeny. And the fact that Genesis introduces populations east of Eden without relating them to Adam indicates that his fatherhood is not the text’s burden. Kingship is.
Adam as Cultivator
Rather than reading the text with the presupposition of universal progeny, it is prudent to engage the text on its own terms. How does a passage like this introduce itself? The opening verses of the narrative spell out the theme of the subsequent story. The text’s own presenting concern is the need for a steward who can foster the land’s agricultural development as a place for settlement. The land needs a cultivator to settle it and steward its fruits.
The narrative begins by stating this problem: “No bush of the field was yet in the land, and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up” (Genesis 2:5). The Hebrew phrases “bush of the field” and “plant of the field” refer to cultivated growth, like crops and animal pasturage. There was plenty of wild growth, but the land needed cultivation to support a settled society.
God’s solution to this need is introduced in the very next verse. He caused “a mist (perhaps better translated as ‘a raincloud’) … [to water] the whole face of the ground,” and “God formed the man … and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:6-15). The burden of the text is not a concern for biological origins but for human settlement and stewardship of the land in cooperation with heaven’s blessing of rain.
It is important, at this point, to appreciate something about ancient kingship. In the modern West, we tend to think of kings as political figures whose primary occupations are warfare and taxation. Such stereotypes may reflect something about the worst examples of monarchy; but historically, the proper role of a king is to oversee the good order of his domain, quite literally from the ground up. He is responsible to maintain the fruitfulness of the land in every respect: agriculturally, economically, industrially, artistically, socially, and religiously. In the words of Israel’s wisest king, Solomon, “This is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields” (Ecclesiastes 5:9).
Genesis introduces Adam as one called to establish the cornerstone of a settled society: agriculture. Of course, not all farmers are kings. But the particularly royal nature of this cultivator’s calling is further indicated by the residence which God prepared for him.
Adam as King
“The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food… The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:8-15). God put Adam in a garden paradise, from which to oversee the fields of Eden he would cultivate.
Often, readers mistakenly equate “Eden” with the “Garden of Eden.” But the two are not identical. The garden was an orchard located within the broader region called “Eden.” Note especially Genesis 2:10, where the text describes a river flowing “out of Eden to water the garden.” Eden was the larger territory of Adam’s rule and labor, in which the garden was a place for his residence. This insight is significant, since placement in a paradisiacal garden overlooking ones larger domain is a standard trope of kingship—including in Israel (Ecclesiastes 2:4-5; Jeremiah 39:4 & 52:7; Nehemiah 3:15).
It was also typical of kings to populate their royal gardens with exotic trees and animals. Describing the comparable Assyrian practice, Leo Oppenheim explains, “Wild animals were kept in the [royal parks] for hunting, and it was also planted with fruit trees of all kinds, imported olive trees, and foreign spice plants.”2 Adam’s garden (Genesis 2:9, 19-20) elicits this royal paradigm.
Many scholars have recognized the presence of temple imagery in the Garden of Eden. Temples were also typically located in gardens in the ancient world. This is because temples were palaces for the gods. It is correct to recognize temple imagery in the Garden of Eden, and to recognize Adam as having a priestly role. However, the priestly role of Adam is only half the picture. Priests went in and out of garden temples, but sacral kings lived in garden palaces adjacent to the temple. By this arrangement, the heavenly king (the god) and his earthly king (the deity’s “son”) dwelt together in the same garden.
This is exemplified in the later architecture of Jerusalem, where the palace of Solomon was built adjacent to the temple of Yahweh on Mount Zion. The king’s palace was literally “at the right hand” (Psalm 110:1) of Yahweh’s palace. This is the arrangement depicted in Adam’s residence adjacent to Yahweh’s dwelling in the garden overlooking the territory of Eden. G. K. Beale observes, “God places Adam into a royal temple to begin to reign as his priestly vice-regent. In fact, Adam should always be referred to as a ‘priest-king,’… [just as] Israel’s eschatological expectation is of a messianic priest-king.”3
Adam’s Fall and Successor
Sadly, Adam failed his calling by disobeying God’s law. His sin had devastating consequences for the entire creation order. Not only Adam’s direct progeny, but the entire world shared in his defeat (Romans 8:22). Paul tells us that “sin came into the world” and “death reigned” because of Adam’s fall (Romans 5:12-14).
These expressions are sometimes read to indicate that neither sin nor death existed prior to Adam. This might be Paul’s intention, but his focus is on the “reign” of sin and death over the world because of Adam, not necessarily sin and death’s first appearance. In fact, elsewhere Paul specifically tells of at least one human sin that preceded that of Adam. Eve’s transgression occurred before Adam’s, so that, of those two, “the woman … became a transgressor” first (1 Timothy 2:14). In Paul’s view, it was not the chronological “firstness” of Adam’s sin that made it so impactful. It was his federal headship which made his fall the basis for the “reign” of sin and death.
Because of Adam’s sin, God pronounced a curse upon the world (Genesis 3:14-19). But God also granted mankind the continued privilege to farm the soil, and he granted womankind the continued privilege of childbearing—albeit both with multiplied pains. God further promised that, through the woman’s offspring, he would raise up another Man to crush the deceiver’s head (Genesis 3:15). It is that Victor whom the New Testament identifies as Jesus, the Second Adam. Ultimately, it is Jesus who is the priest-king foreshadowed by the appointment of Adam.
It is my conclusion, therefore, that the Adam narrative is not the story of human biological origins, but the starting point of the much more important story of human mediation with heaven. Questions about biological origins are fascinating, but are not what the Garden of Eden events are recorded to answer.
It is, nevertheless, understandable that the Adam narrative has long been read as the beginning of human ancestry. Before modern tools and methods were developed for exploring biological origins scientifically, curiosity had few other places to turn for evidence than the Bible. If one has no other place to turn with such questions, it makes sense to assume that the first humans named in the Bible were the first humans altogether. But to draw that conclusion required discounting or adding speculations about the populations Cain encountered east of Eden.
It is, therefore, a great benefit to our reading of Scripture that we have received from the critiques of modern genetics. The challenges raised against the “original couple” thesis are not a challenge to the reliability of Genesis. Instead, these challenges help us refocus on the actual burden of the text, and its foundation for the theme of mediatorial kingship which resolves in Jesus.
Adam may not be the first human, just as Jesus is certainly not the second! But Adam was the first universal king. And more importantly, Jesus is the second and eternally abiding universal king, in whose reign the mediation of righteousness and order between heaven and earth is restored.