Do the Connections Between Adam and Israel call into Question the Historicity of Adam?

A while back I noted that a couple of prominent Old Testament scholars have called into question whether or not Adam was a real person. Christianity Today has documented the controversy quite well here. In that post I raised the issue of whether rejecting the historicity of Adam allows the Bible to determine the beliefs of the church. This is still a concern of mine. But here I’d like to raise 2 more concerns.

My first objection is more “big picture”: The type of hermeneutic (i.e. the way the Bible is being interpreted) employed by these theologians and biblical commentators, appears to violate everything we otherwise hold dear about the grammatical-historical method of interpretation. Would Moses, David, and Paul have believed that Adam was a historical figure? Yes, of course…and even Peter Enns, Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies at the Biologos Institute, has recognized this in relation to the apostle Paul (the relevant section begins at 0:29 here). The question of Adam’s historicity is raised only when a foreign standard of truth is imposed upon the Bible. In this case “scientific consensus” is that standard.

My second concern is more specific.  Once we call Genesis 1-3 non-historical where do we draw the line? What criterion renders Gen. 2-3 allegory that wouldn’t also rule out Genesis 4? The narrative style doesn’t change…

Enns has argued that the commonalities between the creation/fall narrative and the conquest/exile narrative of the Old Testament can reasonably be marshaled to argue that the author’s intention was not to teach history per se, but to present models for Israel to understand her own experience in the Promised land. This I find is an interesting point, and it depends on biblical-theological connections that are often overlooked by those arguing for the traditional interpretation of the Adam narratives. In his article, “Adam is Israel,” Enns comments:

There are two ways of looking at th[ese] parallel[s]. You could say that the Adam story came first and then the Israelites just followed that pattern. But there is another way. Maybe Israel’s history happened first, and the Adam story was written to reflect that history. In other words, the Adam story is really an Israel story placed in primeval time. It is not a story of human origins but of Israel’s origins. [Emphasis in original]

Here I think Enns is completely right. The parallels between Adam and Israel both undeniable and obviously…and they should be. Both were placed in an ideal place, a “land flowing with milk and honey;” for both continued existence in that land depended upon their obedience to the word of God. When they failed, both experienced exile. In fact, William Dumbrell states the parallels better than I can:

Adam’s role in Eden raises the question of Israel’s relationship to Adam… Israel, like Adam – in Genesis 2:8, the force of the Hebrew tense is that of an English pluperfect (cf. “had planted” NIV) – is created outside the space to be occupied by the divine. Adam, like Israel, is put into sacred space to exercise a kingly/priestly role (cf. Exod. 19:4-6). Israel, like Adam is given along by which the divine space is to be retained; Israel, like Adam, transgresses the law; and Israel, like Adam is expelled from the divine space… The placement of Adam and Israel in divine space was conditional. Both parties had to obey the divine mandate to retain the sacred space. Adam possessed immortality that was limited, Israel possessed a covenant that could be revoked for national disobedience. The creation account further indicates to Israel the nature and purpose of her special status, of exercising dominion in her world that Adam at once occupied. It will not seem strange, therefore, that Exodus 19:5-6 presents the nation Israel in a corporate, royal priestly role. ~William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament

We should recognize these parallels and rejoice over the literary artistry in the composition of the Pentateuch. But these are no mere examples of literary foreshadowing.  There is a typological relationship between Adam and Israel because the former was designed to anticipate the latter. When you lose the historical grounding for the first event, the significance of the second event is diminished.

Enns continues by saying:

Everyone has to decide for themselves which of these readings of Genesis has more “explanatory power.” I (and other biblical scholars) come down on the second option for a number of reasons, some having to do with Genesis itself while others concern other issues in the Bible.

He then lists a few more reasons for believing that the Adam account is non-historical. For the purposes of our discussion here, I’ll stick to the link between Adam and Israel. Enns argues that Adam is an individualized Israel, whereas I’m arguing that Israel functioned as a corporate Adam.

More can be said that, I believe, demonstrates that I am not merely engaging in slippery slope thinking or special pleading. The typological relationship between Adam and Israel isn’t unique in the Old Testament. If we exclude imposing contemporary evolutionary biology onto Scripture, the theological and literary evidence against an historical Adam loses much of its steam. Was the Adam narrative of Genesis crafted in such a way so as to make clear parallels between his life and the life of national Israel? Yes, without a doubt. But then again, so was the life of Moses. Stephen Dempster, in his work Dominion and Dynasty, argues that Moses’ life is likewise crafted so as to tie it intimately with the experience of Israel:

Moses, who narrowly escaped disaster by being placed in a ark in the River Nile (Exod. 2:1-10). Moses’s salvation from the water echoes backward and forward in the text backward towards salvation of humanity from the judgment of the flood by Noah (Gen. 6-8), and forwards to the Israelites future escape from the waters of the Red Sea (Exod. 14)… The figure of Moses, this child born as a type of savior figure, not only saves Israel but also embodies Israel at times. His rescue from the water prefigures the nation’s salvation from the water; his escape after the death of an Egyptian (Exod. 2:11-15) is a prelude for the Israelites flight after the death of many Egyptians (Exod. 12:29-39); his experience of being in the desert for 40 years (Exod. 2:21-25) foreshadows the same for Israel (Num. 14:33); his divine in counter before the burning bush (Exod. 3) anticipates Israel before the fire at Sinai (Exod. 19-24). Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, 94

In fact, Peter Leithart, in his Old Testament Survey A House for My Name, finds a number of other typological connections in the Old Testament (between Noah and Moses, Jeremiah and Moses, and  Jeremiah and the prophet Samuel). So, if we acknowledge that Moses himself was a historical figure (and I have no reason to believe that Enns questions that) we’re in a good place to see that a typological relationship is not mutually exclusive with real-life historicity.

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Posted on September 29, 2011, in Adam, Typology. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Reading this made me think of a Star Trek episode I saw not too long ago. In the two-part episode “Birthright” Worf is telling a story from ancient Klingon history (mythology?) to Klingons not familar with the tales. While I was watching I realized the dialogue was similar to what we have heard in the past regarding the biblical stories. I found a web site that has the script available:

    WORF: Kahless held his father’s
    lifeless body in his arms. He
    could not believe what his brother
    had done. Then his brother threw
    their father’s sword into the sea,
    saying that if he could not
    possess it, neither would Kahless.
    That was the last time the
    brothers would speak.

    Kahless looked into the ocean and
    wept, for the sword was all he had
    left of his father… and the sea
    filled with his tears and flooded
    beyond the shore.

    The people begged Kahless to stop
    his weeping, and he did… and
    walked into the water to find the
    lost sword.

    He searched and searched the murky
    ocean bottom, holding his breath
    for three days and three nights…

    [Toq interjecting] That is impossible!

    Worf fixes him with a look.

    WORF: For you, perhaps. Not for
    Kahless. He was a great warrior.

    TOQ: You’re making it up.

    WORF: These are our stories. They tell us who we are.

    [Later] BA’EL: Did Kahless find his father’s sword?

    WORF: Yes. He found it.

    BA’EL: The stories you tell… are they true?

    WORF: I have studied them all my life…and find new truths in them every time.

    If you look at the dialogue you can get the worldview of Star Trek. The stories we tell do not have to be historically true (which obviously can only be verified scientifically), including those from the Bible, but are simply there to tell us who we are and that we can “find new truths in them every time.”

    What used to be the arena of modern theology has crept into Evangelicalism. What is the historical cutoff for the biblical characters? Are Adam, Noah, or even Abraham simply there to tell Israel of its origins? Would that include Moses as well? It seems to me that “Israel function[ing] as a corporate Adam” makes more sense covenantally than Enns’/Biologos’ argument.

    Just to show that I’m not crazy with referencing all this Star Trek stuff, on the Wikipedia page for the “Birthright” episode is this footnote:

    Jeffrey Scott Lamp reads Worf’s scenes in which he talks about the Klingon faith as “a narrative approach to sacred texts that is frequently employed in several literary approaches to modern biblical interpretation” in which “it is not important in terms of religious value that the accounts [given in sacred texts] be accurate in referring to actual historical events; it is important that the stories communicate a message that brings meaning to life.”

    [“Biblical interpretation in the Star Trek universe,” Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion, and American Culture]

    By the way, Joe, if you want to get me that book, I’d be forever grateful. 🙂

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