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.