Blogging through “The Lost World of Adam and Eve”, by John Walton
• Post #2: Proposition 6
Now that the groundwork has been laid (see post one in this series), and before he moves into a specific consideration of the text in Genesis 2ff, John Walton takes up an important broader question in his sixth proposition:
How is the word adam used in Genesis 1-5?
The chapter begins with two simple observations (which seem to have escaped many of those who claim to read the text “literally”) that are stunning in their implications for our interpretation of these early stories.
Understanding the varied use of the term adam is essential to sorting our the early chapters of Genesis. But before we even get to that issue, there are two important observations to make. The first is that the word adam is a Hebrew word meaning “human.” Regarding this observation, the fact that it is Hebrew indicates that the category designation (“human”) is imposed by those who spoke Hebrew. Adam and Eve would not have called each other these names because whatever they spoke, it was not Hebrew. Hebrew does not exist as a language until somewhere in the middle of the second millennium B.C. That means that these names are not just a matter of historical reporting as if their names happened to be Adam and Eve like someone else’s name is Bill or Mary. Although I believe that Adam and Eve are historical personages — real people in a real past — these cannot be their historical names. The names are Hebrew, and there is no Hebrew at the point in time when Adam and Eve lived.
If these are not historical names, then they must be assigned names, intended by the Hebrew-speaking users to convey and particular meaning. Such a deduction leads us to the second observation. In English, if we read that someone’s name is “Human” and his partner’s name is “Life,” we quickly develop an impression of what is being communicated (as, for example, in Pilgrim’s Progress, where characters are named Christian, Faithful and Hopeful). These characters, by virtue of their assigned names, are larger than the historical characters to which they refer. They represent something beyond themselves. Consequently, we can see from the start that interpretation may not be straightforward. More is going on than giving some biographical information about two people in history. (p. 58f)
With these simple observations, John Walton has, in my opinion, changed the entire debate about Adam and Eve. The question becomes not so much “Were Adam and Eve real, historical personages?” but rather, “What do these two people (historical or not) represent to the author of Genesis in the context of the story he is telling?”
Also, the fact that their assigned names suggest something beyond their own individual, historical personalities and experiences gives strong evidence that we are reading a genre of literature that is something other than historical reporting.
In his reading of Genesis, Walton finds that the designation adam has three basic uses:
- adam refers to human beings as a species
- adam refers to the male of the species
- adam refers to a particular male of the species, and serves as the equivalent of a name
After discussing these usages and a few of the grammatical irregularities of usage in the text, John Walton offers this conclusion:
Consequently, we can see that the profile of Adam is complex rather than straightforward. These chapters are not just giving biographical information on a man named Adam. Larger statements are being made. (p. 61)
These “larger statements” to which John Walton refers inform our next task. We must try to understand what kind of representative role Adam is playing in these stories, according to the author of Genesis.