October 22, 2020

Blogging through The Lost World of Adam and Eve (2)

61Y4wiWbWOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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)


Adam & Eve, Baldung Grien

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.


  1. What kind of representative role is Adam playing in these stories? That answer ultimately is given by Paul in Romans 5:14, to wit: “Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.” Adam is the pattern of the one to come. What was that pattern to be: ” For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!”

  2. I wonder on what grounds Walton thinks that Adam and Eve are historical personages. Does he think that there are historically accurate details in the Genesis account? If so, on what grounds does he believe that?

    And if there are, how would the people who wrote Genesis have come by this knowledge?

    • We’ll deal with this in subsequent posts.

    • Technically, it is impossible for the creation account to be historical, although one could argue that the Eden narrative could count as history. Probably not important to most readers here, but essential to any historian.

      • Yes, they are the opposite of historical.

        Imthink Walton shoots himself in the foot when he gets into the “Hebrew didn’t exist, so they could not have called eachmother by those names.” This assumes that we know when the spoken language began, as well as assuming a lost Edenic language. Both things go nowhere in a hurry.

        • He does take a lot for granted. However, the development of Hebrew is pretty well documented, and it stands to reason that if the account were historical, then this is a re-telling in a common tongue that was not available at the time the events occurred. It doesn’t address whether Adam was a proper name or not, however. I think this is his attempt to persuade those who lean toward a “literal historical” paradigm that there isn’t any relevant difference between that position and the “myth/allegory” position (all of that being hopelessly simplified to fit in a com-box). I think this point stands on its own merit, but with the language argument we are rapidly getting out into the lack-of-information weeds.

          • The language argument is all fantasy; he cannot know for sure, nor can anyone else on this planet. I don’t think it’s important, and wonder why he brought it in.

          • It does seem that with this language argument he’s doing his best to avoid making enemies in the evangelical camp. I don’t want to be cynical, but if I were being cynical I might suspect that his averring that he believes Adam and Eve were “historical personages” is merely a sop thrown to conservatives evangelicals in the slim hope of staying on their good side. But I’ll do my best to try not to be cynical.

  3. Well great. And while we’re spinning tall tales, it was believed in Egypt that the god Atum at Heliopolis had masturbated the universe into existence. Yes, really. Look it up.

    • Interestingly, your point unwittingly underscores how some ancient cultures’ origin myths don’t exactly seem to have made a lasting impression outside of their native lands in the way that Genesis has. “Look it up” is indeed necessary for most of us. Perhaps Genesis really does have a more epic sweep that what we encounter in Atum’s hormones.

      My myth can beat up Atum’s myth, in other words.

      • That Other Jean says

        The Kingdom of Egypt was around for a very long time, and that’s only one of their creation myths. There’s also the goose and the cosmic egg, the ben-ben mound, the tears of the young god on the lotus blossom, along with a bunch of variations, and my favorite, which may have influenced the Hebrews, of the god Ptah arising from the waters of Nun (the pool of potential but uncreated matter), conceiving the world in his mind, and speaking it into being. Your myth may be able to beat up Atum’s myth, but may itself be a retelling of Ptah’s. Good stuff, mythology.

        • OK, best 2 out of 3 then.

          For what it’s worth, I’ve just started Joseph Campbell’s standard series. Good stuff, indeed!

      • Oh really? How about the fact that the Dives/Lazarus story in Luke is pretty much *verbatim* the Chronicles of Setne Khaemwaset (an actual man whose mummy we might actually have) from 2,000 years earlier? Almost as if the bible were kind of a pastiche of other stuff ‘in the air’ from centuries past . . .

        • I don’t know about you, but I don’t have anybody’s mummy.

          As Christians, we receive these texts as witnesses that either testify to, or throw light on, the person and life and work of Jesus Christ. They don’t need to be unique or inerrant or historically accurate in every detail to do that. God does not need perfect texts, in whatever way perfection might be defined, to reveal Jesus to us; he has chosen to use adequate texts instead.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Oh, J, don’t forget citing the Flying Spaghetti Monster and/or Invisible Pink Unicorn. And a crack about “Imaginary Friend in the Sky” or “Imaginary Sky Fairy”. And insinuations about how Religionists are just afraid to face the reality of Death…

    • Before I forget, I’d always been told it was spittle rather than semen. (Christian school gate-keepers at work?….)

      • That depends on the version. In some texts, Atum masturbates the twins into existence. In others, he swallows his semen then spits to form the twins. In others, he spits and/or sneezes. If I remember correctly, in one papyrus, he masturbates into his mouth then spits it out to form the twins. What his has to do with today’s post is lost on me, but there you have it.

  4. Huh. I’d always just assumed that the name came first, then the Hebrews incorporated it into their language – using the name of the first man as the word for all men. Like using “Coke” as the default word for any soft drink, because Coke came first and us the most popular. Is there any chance that’s how it happened?

    • If you ask Jewish Kabbalahists, they’ll say something more or less along the lines that you suggest. In fact, in these streams of medieval Jewish mysticism, the very Hebrew alphabet itself, in which words such as “adam” came to be written, are fundamental to the cosmos. Such mystics would disagree strongly with the post’s assertion that Hebrew wasn’t already around in some form from the beginning of time, as odd as that seems to me.

    • This is a good point, Kate. I don’t see what logical reason there could be that it wouldn’t have happened that way. It would undermine Walton’s point.

    • This was also my first thought.

    • That actually makes a lot of sense. Never heard that before, but I like it as a “possibility.” That’s a good concept to have in our bag of “how things potentially happened.”

    • But one of his points is that it is not a name. It is the Hebrew word for human being: “one from the ground.”

      • Yes, I caught that, too. In other words, Kate’s comment reflects some of Walton appears to be saying. I just liked the analogy with “Coke” becoming representative of all soda drinks.

    • Among the things we can learn from the many genealogical passages in the bible – and especially the Old Testament – is that the text is the product of a culture that cared about ancestry and descent. These days, unless you are a genealogist or family historian, people probably don’t know their great-great-grandparents names, and might well be fuzzy on their great grandparents. (I’m a genealogist and don’t remember all sixteen names at that generation without looking at my records.) Their culture is much more likely to have remembered the name of an ancestor than ours is.

      Theirs was also a culture that made a note of it when God changed someone’s name (e.g. Abram to Abraham). The story, in our translations, starts using “Adam” as a name by verse 2:19, before Eve’s creation. So who was using the name “Adam”? God was. Eve is created in 2:22 but only called “woman” or “wife” until after God makes known the consequences of the fall – “Eve” is used as a name beginning with verse 3:20.

      • “Adam” need not be a name in any of those references. Nor “Eve.” That’s the problem with translations. The only place where it probably is a name is wherever Adam is mentioned in a genealogy.

        • But both Adam and Eve (Chava in Hebrew) *became* proper names a long, long time ago, before anyone dreamed up ideas resembling “literalism” and contemporary YEC.

          Since Walton also posits a lost Edenic language, ISTM that he’s already on shaky ground. His asserrtion about Hebrew bein X number of years old based on *written* documents is yet another serious flaw/problem.

          I think he would be much better off explicating the varios meanings of “adam” and leaving things there.

          • He doesn’t posit a lost Edenic language, he just says we don’t have any evidence of Hebrew having been spoken until long after the time frame indicated in the Bible.

          • He says that they did not address one another by the proper names Adam and Eve, which presupposes their use of proper names in another language, don’t you think? That language must predate Hebrew, and so on.

            His problem, i think, is tied to the view of them as actual historical figures, as opposed to both the garden and the 1st msn and woman being ideas that wrre already in existence, reimagined through a Jewish lens. I am puzzled by whst you quoted – does he also think that Eden was an actual place in ancient Mesapotamia?

          • You quote Walton as saying “…whatever they spoke, it was not Hebrew.”

            Why go there? He does seem to posit some kind of loet language, or something that isn’t proto-Hebrew, or… whatever.

          • CM, i am not meaning to be argumentative. But in reading the quoted passages, i cannot help seeing many problems with his arguments, including his use of the terms historic/historical.

            That “adam” has the meaningshe says it uas is not, for me, at issue. His intetpretation of certain things is, though, since he begins to build an ahistorical framework regarding the original proper nsmes of these two people, etc.

          • Dana Ames says

            It doesn’t matter “which language” it was that the first humans were speaking.

            “Charles” comes from Anglo-Saxon for “man”. “Zoe” means “life” in Greek. The words can be used as names, as well as designations for generalities. That in itself doesn’t mean anything.

            We have to work with the text we have, and try to understand why and how the words there are used. That’s what Walton is doing, ISTM.


          • Richard Hershberger says

            “Charles” comes from Anglo-Saxon for “man”.”

            Going pedantic on you, this isn’t quite right. It comes from the Germanic word *karlaz. Many Germanic names survive in Romance languages, as vestiges of the post-Roman Germanic kingdoms. In French it morphed into “Charles” and was imported into English from there. We also have the forms “Carl” and “Karl” more directly, and “Carlo” and “Carlos” from Italian and Spanish respectively.

          • Dana, i agree on his main points re. the use of “adam” in these texts, but i think it better to leave the rest out of it (historicity and all of that).

          • The fact is that we have to start with Hebrew – of course. Which is one reason that going off on a tangent about the 1st humans *not* speaking Hebrew muddies the waters.

            It seems that Walton might need to focus less on details like that, but what do i know? I haven’t read the book, only very brief excerpts. I’ll leave it to CM to clarify.

            But i do wish that more evangelicals would read writers like Peter Enns… or, evrn better, add nnon-evangelicals to the mix. Insisting on historical veracity for Gen. 1 and 2 is, imo, pretty much the same as using said texts as a science textbook.

  5. Well I haven’t read the book so it’ll be interesting to see what ultimate conclusions Walton draws from all this. I must say though that much of this is scholarly commonplace. The creation stories in Genesis are variations on myths endemic to the Near East some of which go back millennia before they were written down. The version in chapter two is the oldest and differs from the version in chapter one (which is quite late actually) in many details.

    The view of the cosmos behind Genesis is venerable and primeval. No one knows how far back it goes. The flat earth supported by pillars and covered by the firmament holding back the waters of chaos is shared among most of the cultures in the Ancient Near East. And it lasted quite late. It’s clearly behind the New Testament. How else could the Devil take Jesus up on a high mountain to see all the kingdoms of the earth if they didn’t have some idea the earth was flat? How could they have Jesus ascend into the clouds if they didn’t have some idea of Heaven being beyond the sky?

    The main issue though is to get folks to realize that the ancients didn’t think like we do. For them figurative/literal wasn’t either/or. It was both/and. Actually they would have found such a distinction meaningless. Nothing testifies more clearly to our heritage from the Enlightenment than our ability to make just such a distinction. And that includes Young Earth creationists, as ludicrous and irrational as their beliefs are.

    Let’s face it. None of us would be having this discussion except for the implications it has for later Christian ideas. How much interest is there in ancient Near Eastern mythology otherwise? The serpent is Satan only through the prism of Christian hindsight. And what need of the second Adam without the first?

    But we have to be honest about this. No matter how we interpret Genesis it in no way bears resemblance to the view of cosmology revealed by modern science. We cannot squeeze our minds back into that little box of ancient belief nor should we try.

    • The reason Walton’s books are significant is that he is an evangelical scholar at a respected evangelical institution.

      As I will say in future posts, I don’t think he goes nearly far enough but I also understand that he has a tricky line to walk. I am just encouraged that, as an evangelical, he has had the courage to follow the evidence as far as he has.

      • I think hd isvery limited in insisting on the historicity of the stories and people in them. Which, imo, makes his argumdnts more or less stop before he really gets started with them. I wonder why it is important for him that Adam and Eve were actual, historic persons? (Though clearly not *quite* historic, since they existed prior to the actual beginnings of recorded history.)

        • Didn’t we just have a comment thread on this? The whole “Ermegersh, if Adam isn’t real the whole thing comes crashing down!!!” Or maybe that was on another site.

          • Re: “the whole thing comes crashing down!!”

            I’m not really bothered as much by the “slippery slope” argument as I used to be (particularly with the early chapters of Genesis), but it still flares up occasionally. I do recognize how hard it is to escape that house of cards mentality – it shouldn’t be minimized.

            And comment threads don’t usually say WHY the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down. They usually just state matter of factly that it doesn’t.

  6. With these simple observations, John Walton has, in my opinion, changed the entire debate about Adam and Eve.

    The observations are that (1) the Hebrew language didn’t exist until later and therefore (2)the names are (can be) representative?

    Those are good observations, but I’m just not seeing this as a silver bullet that will reframe the whole discussion – that is, I’m not sure that these two propositions are sufficient in and of themselves to convince anyone who holds to a historical/”literal” meaning to let go of that to shift to a “representative” one. Is the idea that Adam and Eve are merely “assigned names” and can be representative really a game changer unless a person is already convinced?

    Will be interested to see where it goes, particularly as Walton writes using a series of very precise propositions that build upon one another.

  7. Using The Lost World of Genesis One (LWOGO) as a baseline, Walton’s starting point seems to be to establish genre which is all fine and good. He seems to be doing the same thing here. He’s very technical in the way that he dissects and analyzes words under a microscope, etc. and puts together his arguments with great precision. (LWOGO) at times felt to me like overanalysis – comparable to reading parables and analyzing every little thing in them. He deconstructs the literal/scientific approach in order to contextualize Genesis as ancient Near Eastern literature, but what he built up in it’s place also felt oddly technical/scientific. It felt too forced at times – comparable to overanalyzing parables.

    In his defense though, there’s a lot that needs to be deconstructed if his propositions are going to move forward in the circles that really care about his arguments. That seems to be the context for the whole discussion.

    I recently read “The Biblical Cosmos” by Robin Parry and he references some of Walton’s ideas. He also, however, goes a lot farther than Walton in certain areas. Not everything can be written off as metaphor for a spiritual “cosmic temple”. They really did believe things about the physical cosmos that just aren’t accurate – and in more ways than I initially thought. Recognizing how their these ancient beliefs about the nature of the cosmos are interwoven throughout the Hebrew scriptures and their liturgical practice actually adds to their meaning IMO – the symbolism, meanings and connections really start to pop.

    • Dana Ames says

      Mike H,

      Looking at Parry’s book on the See Inside feature at amazon, it seems he wrote a very thorough introduction for the general reader. If you would like to read a more scholarly treatment of the symbology of Jewish worship, esp as it relates to Christian liturgical worship, Margaret Barker’s works are the place to go. She has her own web site – just add the dot com to her first & last names shoved together as one. Also, a friend of mine has excerpted some of her articles that have not been published elsewhere on the ‘net: http://jbburnett.com/theology/theol-ltg-ot-roots.html


    • I tend to like reading Jewish commentary on these passages, on the whole.