I just finished the new cultural history of Adam and Eve written by Harvard scholar Stephen Greenblatt. The book, titled The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, explores the history of the Genesis account of human origins from the perspective of an enlightened modern who is baffled by the superstitious dogmas of his forebears. Greenblatt frequently wonders aloud how anyone could have taken as literal truth a story which includes magical trees and a talking snake. “The Enlightenment has done its work,” Greenblatt triumphantly states, “and our understanding of human origins has been freed from the grip of a once-potent delusion” (284). Then, as if suddenly reconsidering his own conclusion, he backpedals:
Our existence would be diminished without [Adam and Eve]. They remain a powerful, even indispensable, way to think about innocence, temptation, and moral choice, about cleaving to a beloved partner, about work and sex and death. (284)
The book’s epilogue takes us to Uganda, where Greenblatt joins evolutionary biologists observing chimpanzee behavior. Chimpanzees, although they are our closest ancestors, have nothing close to the moral compass that distinguishes humanity from other creatures. Studying them can offer fascinating insights into human evolution, but as Greenblatt realizes, it cannot give any insight into why infanticide and gang rape—common chimp practices—are wrong for humans to do.
To fill this gap, Greenblatt wants to call on the “magical reality” of the story of Adam and Eve (284). But it’s unclear how a story that he views as a “once-potent delusion” is supposed to anchor our understanding of what it means to be human. Greenblatt admires the story from a safe scholarly distance, but he cannot conceive of how Genesis can survive the assault of modern scientific and historical scholarship with its truth value intact.
As often happens, I went home from work one day with these questions buzzing in my head. Greenblatt’s challenges turned over in my mind as I bathed my daughters and selected books to read to them before bed. My oldest daughter, who recently turned four, is currently obsessed with the Berenstain Bear series. These familiar stories feature a family of anthropomorphic bears who live in a tree, whose names—Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Sister Bear, and Brother Bear—are archetypes of a modern nuclear family.
The genius of the Berenstain Bear series, like all great works of children’s literature, is its deep understanding of the vast differences between the ways that children and adults see the world. From my adult perspective, the stories are riddled with plot holes and logical inconsistencies. Why do the bears retain some bear-like traits but are otherwise human in their behavior? How does an entire suburban home fit inside a tree? Why do the main characters have archetypal, relational names, but everyone else around them has names like Fred and Lizzy and Bob?
I have no evidence that any of these questions have ever crossed the mind of my daughter. She seems to instinctively understand that the names of the main characters are an invitation for her to connect her own life experiences with those in the story. Children have a much higher need for order and structure than adults. Names and roles are interchangeable; my daughter has not yet asked if “Daddy” is my real name. The archetypal names of the Berenstain Bears encourage my daughter to see their family as a mirror of hers. As their conflicts and disagreements are resolved, she sees a model for how her own conflicts could be similarly handled. She approaches the stories with a very different set of expectations, and guessing by her imploring demands to read these books every night for weeks and weeks, her expectations are being met.
The Berenstain Bear books highlight an essential feature of all stories: they are written with a specific audience in mind. And readers outside of that audience are likely to ask the wrong questions and have the wrong expectations. I wonder if this is the key to answering Greenblatt’s challenge about Adam and Eve. We are introduced in the second chapter of Genesis to a man and woman whose names are literally “Human” and “Life” (that’s what Adam and Eve mean in Hebrew).1 Modern translations fail us here. The original Hebrew practically shouts at us that these characters are meant, first and foremost, to be understood as archetypes of humanity. And the story of Human and Life is extremely selective in the details it reveals. The psychology of the first sin (and the first sinners) is given to us in great detail, but the story is strangely silent on other points. From the unexplained appearance of the talking snake, to the life-altering consequences of eating a fruit, to the whiplash-inducing transition from garden nursery to agriculture and city-building, the story has a confounding and mysterious brevity.
Greenblatt’s book records a long history of efforts by Jews and Christians to fill in the “holes” in the Genesis story. Elaborate speculative backstories of Adam and Eve are plentiful. While we might laugh at some of those efforts in retrospect, I think modern Christians are guilty of similarly misguided efforts to understand Adam and Eve. Conservatives have tried to iron out the kinks in the story until nothing remains but a sequential narration of historical fact. Liberals have taken the opposite approach, atomizing Genesis into a cacophony of ancient “sources” and agendas. In both cases, Genesis is approached as a problem to fix, rather than a story to live inside. Whatever the actual process of composition and redaction that led to the final text, the carefully crafted and divinely inspired stories of Genesis are meant to be received as written.
Instead of endlessly trying to parse and deconstruct and label and color-code the story of Adam and Eve, maybe we should learn from the way my daughter reads the Berenstain Bear stories. Maybe we should see ourselves reflected in that story of the first family, and feel the weight of God’s call to rule the earth, the weakness of our pride and self-centeredness, the loss and longing that come from separation from God and our true home, and the joy of the promise that the wreckage we have brought on ourselves won’t last forever. We should let the truth of the story convict us, call us out of our shame and hiding, and inspire us. That’s what God’s true stories do.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not trying to reduce Holy Scripture to the level of a made-up children’s book about talking bears. The Berenstain Bears stories never claim to be writing about historical realities, and Genesis certainly makes that claim. But there are many ways for a historical account to be true. Bringing modern expectations to ancient historiography is a mistake. God revealed himself uniquely and powerfully to the Hebrew people, but there is no evidence that he gave them advanced knowledge of the scientific chronology of natural history. The story of Adam and Eve is told from the perspective of a people whose knowledge of natural history was minimal, but whose understanding of the relationship between God and humanity was deep and vast.
Just as the Berenstain Bears stories are written to be understood from the point of view of a child living in the modern Western world, the stories of Genesis were meant to be understood by Hebrews in a very specific ancient Near East context. There is plentiful evidence that the early chapters of Genesis were written with the story of Israel in mind. They were monotheists in the midst of polytheists, a weak people surrounded by powerful and violent empires, a people struggling to reconcile their suffering with their faith. This is why biblical scholars are such an important part of our modern effort to read ancient texts. If we misunderstand what the stories meant to the original audiences, we are likely to misapply the stories to our own context.
As Greenblatt details, the story of Adam and Eve has resonated thousands of years beyond when it was first told and heard, making a dramatic and inescapable impact on our understanding of what it means to be human. This is the true measure of a story: whether it moves the reader towards a truer and better understanding of themselves and the world around them. And no story can accomplish this unless the storytellers themselves understand what is true and good. On those grounds alone, Christians should believe in Genesis as truth, because it is inspired by the God of truth whom we worship. However, we should not approach Genesis with a preconceived standard of what it is supposed to say (or not say) in order for it to be true. Instead, because we believe that Genesis reflects divine inspiration, we should be careful and humble readers, eager to hear God’s voice through the text, but acutely aware of how easy it is to ask the wrong questions and have the wrong expectations.
Genesis and modern science cannot be pitted against each other like rival wrestlers in a cage match. Evolutionary scientists deal with hypotheses and mechanisms and evidences and data points. They are incapable of giving us a full explanation of what it means to be human beings, much less explain what it means to be sinful beings in need of a savior. To paraphrase biblical scholar John Walton, we are more than what we are made of. Modern science can tell us how we are, and what we are made of, but it cannot tell us who we are, or why we are. For that, we need a true story.