Adam: Israel’s first king

The Creation, Hans Holbein the Younger
The Creation, Hans Holbein the Younger

Adam is the prototypical king who is called to conquer the Promised Land.

• Seth D. Postell

• • •

Awhile back we did a post called “Fundamental Mistakes in Reading Genesis 1-2.” One of the points of that piece was that, when reading the creation story, people miss clues that show all was not right with the world. I believe that people have misinterpreted God saying “It is good,” making that mean “everything was perfect” at the beginning of the Bible. If you go back and read the article, you will see that I mention several aspects of the creation story which show a good but imperfect world — even a world in which there was enmity toward God and the presence of death. The world which God set in order was “good,” that is, habitable for life (in contrast to the dark, watery wasteland of Gen. 1-2), but it was not a pristine, perfect “paradise.”

One of the most important clues to this is found in Genesis 1:26-28 —

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” [emphasis mine]

In his book Adam as Israel: Genesis 1-3 as the Introduction to the Torah and Tanakh, Seth D. Postell quotes Iain Proven who shows that the term “subdue” and the rest of the “creation mandate” in this text is “both royal and overtly militaristic.”

The second verb (in English “subdue”) is a translation of the Hebrew verb kabash. It is the language of conquest, usually military conquest. It reappears in passages like Numbers 32:22,29 and Joshua 18:1, where we read of the land being “subdued” before God and his people; or 2 Samuel 8:11, where we read of David “subduing” all the nations. Warfare therefore lurks in the background of this verb.

Humankind, then, according to Genesis 1, was introduced into a world that required “subduing.” It was not a paradise humans entered, but a battlefield!

Viewed in universal terms, this indicates that from the beginning God chose humans, those who carry his “image” in the world, to repair the world (the Jewish concept of tikkun olam). The original mandate for humans is that we should represent God in the world and to work with him to overcome evil and its effects on the world.

The story of “Adam and Eve” beginning in Genesis 2:4 shows what happened to this original mandate. Adam and Eve (representatives of all humankind) failed to exercise “dominion” and “subdue the earth” and thus lost access to the Tree of Life, subjecting themselves and the world to the domination of sin, evil, and death.

• • •

Before this is a story about all people, however, it is first a story about Israel.

The first representative couple, Adam and Eve, like Israel, was chosen to dwell in a special land of abundant provision and to keep God’s commandments. They were given access to the Tree of Life, by which they might forever live in God’s blessing. However, they failed to “subdue” the inhabitants of the land (as represented by the serpent — which by the way was a common Canaanite fertility symbol), and were thus cast out into exile to the east of Eden (as Israel was exiled to Babylon).

We are used to thinking of Adam and Eve in terms of being first humans, first to sin. But if we read this in the light of the Hebrew Bible, we see that it is more specific than that.

  • Genesis 1 and following introduces Israel’s story. It shows the beginning of God’s plan to repair the world through a chosen people.
  • Adam represents the first Israelite, and the first “king” of Israel.  Adam is the first in a long line of chosen representatives who are given the opportunity to “subdue” the inhabitants of the land and “exercise dominion,” yet who fail to do so completely. The rest of the Hebrew Bible is one long historical chronicle of those failed efforts.

The Hebrew Bible itself, most of it composed, edited, and put together during and after the Exile, was written to trace this history, to help Israel see why they had gone into exile, to help them see their true identity and calling as God’s chosen people, and to give them hope for the future — particularly by pointing them to a King who would not fail, the Messiah.

In this story, Adam is not so much the first sinner as he is the first failed savior.

By the way, I have an idea (not fully formed in my mind yet), that this understanding of Adam may help us see more clearly what Paul was getting at in passages like Romans 5.

Perhaps Paul is not saying that Adam introduced sin and death into a world in which it was previously absent, but rather that Adam allowed sin and death to begin “exercising dominion”  (see Rom. 5:17) over the world in a greater way when he failed to exercise the dominion God called him to achieve. Jesus, however, did exercise that dominion, and made it possible for humankind to reign in a new creation (see Romans 5:17).

35 thoughts on “Adam: Israel’s first king

  1. I am struggling with the interpretation of “kabash” as a militaristic conquering of creation. This certainly fits the enlightenment/modernistic view, where human optimism was led to believe it could conquer any element of nature. It doesn’t fit the view I gained in college through reading books like “The Transforming Vision” by Walsh Middleton (IVP). That view interpreted “kabash” as to cultivate or care for creation. Perhaps the end result is the same: creation without intervention would revert into chaos.


  2. I see that scientists now believe that there is flowing water on Mars.

    What prevents him from being baptized?


  3. Which raises an important point, separating out the different parts. On one hand, who cares when parts were written, when was what we have currently written? And on the other hand, those parts are very, very important to know who wrote it and when and why…

    context context context


  4. Tikkun Olam is a medieval concept. You may appreciate the suggestion that where Joshua conquered, Jesus healed.


  5. Jesus may have fulfilled and subverted Adam’s prototypical kingship, but it’s still operative in our time, and in our own lives. The narratives and expectations that were established way back then, with the writing of the Old Testament, still have extraordinary power in our lives, still shape us, and still limit our ability to completely see the New Adam. We haven’t escaped the clutches of those narratives that commission us to “subdue”; they determine us in ways we can’t even see, whether we are religious or not. That’s because the narratives themselves spring from a fundamental tendency in human nature, and then imaginatively extend and pronounce that tendency.


  6. This is controversial but I think that the final redaction would have to have been post-Exilic (hence the Iranian motifs), but the Adam and Noah stories have ANE parallels from a millennium or so earlier.


  7. Great comment, Mike H. In addition to what you’ve said, Gnosticism in its many forms, from the beginning of the Church era through people like William Blake and into the present, has felt the need to subvert and reverse Biblical categories for the same reasons, even where it overdid things. To paraphrase David Bentley Hart, it’s easy to sympathize with Gnosticism’s moral revulsion not only for a universe filled with death and suffering, but also for the Old Testament warrior god who is believed to be its creator; Gnosticism is a morally comprehensible response to a world filled with horror.


  8. It’s interesting to have it pointed out how little interest there was among later Jewish scribes and commentators in the story of Adam and Eve. Paul is the one who made this story the linchpin of his interpretation of Jesus and through whom Christianity absorbed it’s endless fascination with our “first parents”.

    But how can we get anything out of Genesis without reading something into it? Perhaps by first trying to figure what it meant for the people most associated with the stories. Allow me to recommend two books I’ve read recently that attempt to do just that.

    THE GOD OF OLD by James Kugel

    Prof Kugel is a Hebrew textual critic and translator. The book examines the way of thought of the earliest Hebrews and the stories they told, some of which found their way into the Bible. The ancients didn’t think the way we do. Even the most hidebound fundamentalist is separated from them by an immense cultural and conceptual abyss. Unless we understand that we’ll never understand anything. The section on the idea of the “Angel of the Lord” is worth the price of the book alone. Kugel believes, among others, that the Angel of the Lord was a literary device used by later pious editors who were uncomfortable with the idea of the ancient mythological conception of Yahweh as an immanent, embodied deity who did things like walk through the garden of Eden or wrestle all night with an impertinent Jewish male. Kugel goes on to discuss the Hebrew ideas of death and the soul and the proscription against graven images or depictions of Yahweh that separated the Hebrews from their Canaanite neighbors. A stimulating book. Revelatory.

    THE GRAMMAR of GOD by Aviya Kushner

    Kushner is a journalist and writer who grew up in a Hebrew speaking household to a family full of scholars in a community where discussions about the Torah and its meaning were the subject of daily dinnertime conversation. When she went away to school as part of her studies she spent a season reading the Bible in English translation. She was astonished how different it was from the Bible she grew up with and thought she knew. This book is part commentary, part memoir and all wonderful. It’s about how we write the Bible as we read it. This is a woman in love with the Bible extolling the virtues of her lover.

    What do I see in the story of Adam and Eve? For one an opportunity to enter a different perhaps more basic consciousness, one we have lost, and from that perspective look back at our world. These kinds of books help us do that. If you think that task worth attempting then please seek out these books.


  9. Is seeing Christ more clearly or better understanding Christ the end result or goal of life?

    Or is it the starting point?

    (I cringe a little when people boil it all down to “so what does it have to do with Christ”…)


  10. The flipside to “the earth is the Lord’s and all that it contains” is that it is also MINE because only I/we serve the Lord and he gave it us. Therefore, gimme what’s mine and owed.

    (In a way, reminds me of all those politically incorrect guide comments I heard mid-2000s about how Islam considers anything once their’s as always their’s. This includes land and people.)

    Pax Romana…thanks for pointing this out, Mike H.


  11. I’m not sure that it helps me see Christ more clearly, but my take is that it helps me “better understand” Christ.


  12. This off-topic, but I thought I should share my thought: If you should ever find yourself banned or in need of a change, I would like to suggest your next handle be “Holy Troller”.


  13. Ok, so question.

    We see this language of “subduing” right at the start. As it’s laid out here, the world ALREADY requires subduing, and Israel is apparently the God-ordained tribe to do it. The language is violent – it speaks to warfare and military conquest. This beginning seems consistent, then, with the violent conquest meta-narratives that we see later on in the story. The foundation is there. These conquest narratives that we see later on don’t seem like a “Plan B” – an unfortunate contingency plan that was only needed after Adam failed. It’s there right from the start – especially towards those Canaanites who are enemies right from the get go.

    So conquest is part of the vocation, no? Is this sort of conquest really the manifestation of “tikkun olam”? Are we forced to harmonize destructive and genocidal conquest with “tikkun olam” – peace thru God-ordained military victory?

    At least at the outset of Israel’s story, I don’t see any sign of “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through you.” I see conquest and military victory. I don’t see tikkun olam – I see pax romana.

    I mean, to me this is huge. It shows how difficult it is to undo narratives and expectations that are fundamental to the identity of a people group – why at times the NT is subverting rather than confirming the OT. It’s why Jesus isn’t just the same type of figure as “Adam” – He’s a “new Adam”. You couldn’t read the type of Messiah Jesus was into the text until after the fact. It’s a completely different type of “conquest” and the Jesus story retells and reforms the story of Israel.


  14. Perhaps a helpful contextual question, but I’ve seen people make the comment that Genesis may have been one of the last OT books to have been written. Do we have any good idea on dates of it’s writing or final composition?


  15. Very different, but not wholly unique. Robert Filmer’s 1680 book Patriarchia used the Adam-as-king concept as a theological basis for the divine right of kings, and John Locke’s first of the Two Treatises on Government was written to rebut Patriarchia point by point. Rejecting the Adam-as-king idea was foundational to the thinking in the American Revolution. Possibly that’s why American theologians seldom teach it.

    But we do go with the Romans 5 idea of Adam as the head of a first order, and Christ Jesus as the head of a replacement order. We just avoid the kingly language for Adam… as we embrace it for Christ.


  16. If I’m not mistaken, this is along the same lines as “recapitulation” of which I first heard reading Robert Webber. If I understand it correctly, Adam was God’s “vice-regent”, created as not only the first human but created to act on behalf of God in being a caretaker for Creation. In a nutshell, he blew it. Christ came to set right not only Adam’s fall, to atone for sin, but also to set right all of Creation. Jesus, as the “second Adam” created a new people, a new humanity, to “fill the earth and subdue it”. a new people to live in God’s kingdom in God’s way. Where Adam failed, Christ succeeded and is teaching us how to live in this kingdom.

    Recapitulation brings a much larger meaning to the Incarnation than we are used to hearing in our highly individualistic Western culture, one not just of personal salvation and personal relationship but the salvation of the entire created order.


  17. Not to just argue but I don’t see how this makes me see Christ more clearly. Maybe if you could explain how you view it I might be able to understand and see the connection.Many things on this blog are way over my head and this may be one of them.


  18. When I read Genesis, I see Christ. I see Christ in the creation and in the fall. I see Christ in the stories Noah, Abraham, and Isaac. I see Christ in Joseph’s life. It is the first book in the story of our fall and our redemption.


  19. representatives who are given the opportunity to “subdue” the inhabitants of the land and “exercise dominion,” yet who fail to do so completely. The rest of the Hebrew Bible is one long historic

    This seems to be the story of all people of all times. The failure to subdue is not an Israel only issue. You can link Adam to the tribe of Israel and all of the history of mankind. I am not sure what this post is trying to tell me. Adam as the first king ? Maybe I am just confused but I don’t get the point and why it matters.


  20. The Adam-and-Eve story is very much a preamble to the later pseudo-histories of Israel and Judah, and you are probably right about the exercising-dominion aspect. Rather than subduing the animals, however, he *named* them (an act which ancient writers saw as full of meaning). I think you read too much into the serpent–serpent symbolism being far too widespread and diverse (there is reason to believe that the seraphim would have been imagined as winged serpents, not as humanoids)–but the conjecture does resonate with the similar Moses story.

    The meaning of “Savior” would be distorted by Christianity, but yes–it too has a primarily military referent. Perhaps it is not for nothing that Jesus is named for the conqueror Joshua.


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