In an age when genetic comparisons have show our closest relative are chimpanzees and bonobos, how are Christians to understand Adam?
A real Adam but created by God through evolution
Many Christians who accept evolution still see Adam and Eve as real historical people who God made through evolution and called in to a priestly covenantal role as representatives of the whole human race. When Adam and Eve sinned and broke God covenant with the human race, it affected the whole human race, the human race fell too. This isn’t a new idea thought up in response to evolution. Understanding Adam as Federal or Covenantal Head of the human race has been part of Christian theology since long before Darwin.
What do we make of the story of God taking the dust of the ground watering it with a mist and forming Adam from clay like a potter? It is not the only time the bible talks of God forming people from clay. Isaiah 64:8 But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. In fact the word ‘formed’ in Genesis yatsar, is same word as potter. The bible is full of metaphors of God forming people from clay and people being dust. Job 10:9 Remember that you have made me like clay; and will you return me to the dust?
It isn’t how God made Adam that matters to them, it what happened after he was created, disobeying God who created him that lead to the fall and Original Sin. You just need these two historical individuals created and called by God. Unfortunately, people are never content just to leave it at that.
Adam as a metaphor
If God the potter making Adam from clay is a metaphor, we need to ask ourselves how metaporical? It is simply a metaphorical description of God creating an real individual called Adam, or is it the metaphorical picture of God creating the human race. After all, that is what Adam means, Man. The early Israelites were no strangers to metaphor and parable, According to his dad, Benjamin is a ravenous wolf… Gen 49:27. You can read the parable of the Talking Trees in Judges 9:8-15 The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’... Meanwhile in Deuteronomy 32 & 33 we find the story of Jeshurun where the nation of Israel is personified as an infant God found abandoned in the wilderness.
Genesis 2&3 doesn’t tell us it is a parable, but then again, neither do the metaphors and parable I have mentioned. People back then didn’t seem to feel the need to. Genesis 2&3 does have some indications in the story it is not to be taken literally, a talking snake we discover in Revelation 12:9 was really Satan. That is a better fit with Jesus’ parable of the Sower where we are told the birds that ate up the seed were the devil. Then we have Adam being made check out all the animals to look for a suitable life partner. And how could a real tree give everlasting life? Jesus told us that food that perishes is not the food gives eternal life John 6:26. There are real theological problems with a literal tree of life, it would mean there is another source of everlasting life other than Jesus. But the tree of life is a beautiful picture of the cross Jesus died on. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree 1Peter 2:24. Jesus’ death on the cross for us was always God’s plan and purpose, from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4, 1Pet 1:20, Rev 13:8 & 17:8).
Adam treated as a metaphor in Genesis
How many is Adam?
Adam is hardly mentioned outside Genesis, the word adm comes up often enough, but it nearly always means ‘man’, ‘a man’ ‘Man’ or ‘mankind’. But if you look in the rest of Genesis we can see indications that Adam and the story of Adam was understood as a metaphorical picture of God creating the human race.
Genesis 5:1 (JPS) This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made He him; 2 male and female created He them, and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.
Now you may not see this in your bible because most versions translate the Hebrew adm as Man instead of the name Adam. But this is the one verse in the bible that that tells us adm is a name, Adam. Look at what it tells us about the name Adam. It say ‘their name Adam’, not that Adam was God’s name for the person he formed from dust, but that Adam was God’s name for people male and female. We see the same thing in Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man (Hebrew adm) in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion… Not as clearly the name Adam as in Genesis 5 but it is still talking about God creating adm, and adm being them.
You will find plenty of variations in different bible translations when to translate adm in Genesis as ‘Adam’ or ‘man’. In Genesis 2&3 you would expect to see adm translated as Adam, and older translations like the Authorised Version did. However modern versions translate most of the occurrences in Genesis 2&3 as ‘the man’. That is what the Hebrew seem to say. It puts the definite article ‘the’ in front of adm, and says h’adm or ‘the man’. It is only in verses like Genesis 2:20 …but for Adam there was not found a help meet for him, and Genesis 3:17 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree… that adm is used without the article
But look at Genesis 6 where God is talking about bringing the flood. Genesis 6:5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” Now you would expect the writer to simply have used adm meaning mankind, but instead he uses h’adm, the man, not just the man but the man God created. This isn’t saying God would wipe out mankind from the land, but that God was going to wipe out the man he created, Adam. But if you take Adam literally and take the genealogies literally (which is a whole other blog.) Adam died long before the flood. This isn’t God saying he was going to drown Adam, not literally. The passage is interpreting Adam being formed from dust in Genesis 2 as God creating mankind and describes the flood God reversing the creation of mankind animals and birds we read about there.
There is an interesting little editorial comment at the end of Genesis 2, it is not part of the story of Adam and Eve, but steps outside the story to comment on the meaning. We had just seen Even being made from Adam’s rib and Adam saying Eve was “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh Genesis” 2:23 Then the writer or editor steps in and comments v. 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. What does that have to do with Eve being made from Adam’s rib? The commentary is reading the rib and Eve being Adam’s flesh as a picture of every marriage, every husband and wife and the deep unity and bond between them that was God’s plan from the beginning. It isn’t about how the first ever women was made unlike any other women, it is an allegorical interpretation of the rib symbolising every marriage and it is what Jesus took from the story of Adam and Eve (Matthew 19:4-6, Mark 10:5-9).
Of course that leaves the questions how we understand the references to Adam in the New Testament, and how we fit a metaphorical Adam and Eve into our theology of the fall and Original Sin, but those are questions for another day.