The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Human Origins?

By: Geoffrey Holsclaw

When it comes to discussing Adam and Eve, conversations often become extremely heated extremely fast. Why is this?

Usually it is because what you believe about Adam and Eve is thought to be an extension of what you believe about much larger issues like 1) the authority/inerrancy of Scripture, 2) the origins of evil, 3) salvation, and 4) science. We could call these the Big Four of Adam and Eve: Scripture, Sin, Salvation, and Science.

John Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve attempts to untangle these four related issues without letting them become disconnected. In the process he shows how a strong commitment to Scripture, a solid understanding of sin, and a robust understanding of salvation are compatible with the science of human origins.

Walton is trying to find space between two options: either 1) a commitment to Scripture requires rejecting the scientific understanding of human origins, or 2) a scientific understanding of human origins requires rejecting the biblical account of Adam and Eve. Walton navigates between these two options through first discussing the question of the “origins of humanity” and then second, the “origin of sin.” We will cover first here and the second in a later post.

The Origins of Humanity

Instead of typical chapters, Walton writes “propositions” and then explains them. Propositions 1-5 cover material that he has discussed in The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Scripture. These argue that we should read the book of Genesis as an ancient document which focused not on the material origins of the world, but the functional purpose of the cosmos as sacred space (or more specifically, as cosmic temple). Within this “good” sacred space God places humanity.

Propositions 6-12 gets to the meat of his argument, engaging with how Genesis 2 might relate to questions of human origins.

To begin with, Walton affirms that Adam is both a literal/historical figure, appearing in the various genealogies, and an archetypal figure who represents humanity in general. While literal, Adam is archetypal in two ways: in the account of his “creation” and by being placed in the Garden for a purpose.

Forming Humanity for a Purpose

Walton looks closely as the Genesis 2 account and shows that it is not primarily about God creating humanity from nothing (as if Gen. 2 was just an expansion on day six of Gen. 1). Rather God is ordaining humanity for a purpose.

The word for “forming” (2:7) in the Hebrew has more do to with preparing or ordaining something (not material formation as we are led to believe in English). The main idea is not of molting or creating from nothing, but of decreeing, preparing or ordaining (p. 72). Many would counter that the context, especially the use of “from dust”, does indicate material creation. But Walton argues that the image of “clay” (which actually holds form) would have been used if material creation were the main idea. Rather “from dust” indicates mortality (Gen. 3:19; Ps. 103:14; 104: 29), which is archetypally true of all humanity. The fact that humanity is mortal (“from dust”) is why God provided the Tree of Life in the first place.

But being “from dust” is not the only thing. Adam is also given the “breath of life” from God (Gen. 2:7; Job 27:3; 32:8; 33:4; 34:12-15; Is. 42:5). But this is also archetypal of humanity and not distinctive of the first human because all live according to the life of God.

For Walton, what we see in Genesis 2 is not a de novo claim to God having created the “first” human, but a description of what is true of all humans already, that humanity is mortal but given life by God. But Walton is clear that no matter what we think of explanation of human origins, that Genesis claims God to be the ultimate cause of human origins.

Placing Humanity in the Garden

So, what does God do with this ‘adam that he ordains?

God places him in a Garden. And this Garden has all the hallmarks of being a Garden-Temple, or a sacred space in which Adam and Eve would tend to God’s presence and would slowly expand this dwelling-presence throughout the entire world. Adam and Eve are called to “serve” and “keep” the Garden, words which are typically used of priests caring for the Temple.

Basically, the best way of understanding Adam and Eve in the Garden is that they are God’s first priests, who have been ordained for this specific purpose.

The way Genesis 2 connects to Genesis 1 is that in Genesis 1 we hear of God’s general creation of humanity in God’s image and likeness (without reference to material means), and that in Genesis 2 we see the specific ordination of a pair of humans for a specific work, the work of tending to God’s own presence as priests.

Conclusion (in Walton’s words)

“I would conclude that the specific point that Genesis 2 contributes to the book [of Genesis] is not in relation to Adam’s unique material origins or to human origins in general, but rather to Adam’s elect role in sacred space” (107-8), and that “rather than understanding Scripture as necessitating the view that Adam and Eve are the first humans, in light of their specific role concerned with access to God in sacred space and relationship with him, we might alternatively consider the possibility that they are the first significant humans” (114).

Evangelical Consequences

Evangelically, what has Walton accomplished?

Walton has presented compelling arguments (that I’ve only summarized) that Genesis 2, when read as the original readers would read it (i.e. not with science as the fundamental question) presents God ordaining and placing Adam and Eve in a specially prepared garden in order to fulfill a specially appointed task. This task was to act as priests before God’s presence, a task not at that time given to all of humanity.

This means we should neither affirm nor reject theories of human origin on biblical grounds because Genesis 2 is not making claims that directly contradict (nor support) the claims of science. Rather, we need to assess the scientific claims on their own merits as scientific claims. But Walton is clear that no matter what one ultimately believes about the science of human origin, Scripture affirms God as the ultimate cause of humanity and intended a purpose for humanity that its material origin cannot account for.

If Walton’s views are plausible, in view of the broader evangelical community, we need to 1) seriously engage with Walton’s views as a continuing search to hear Scripture rightly, and 2) we must stop assuming that those who are open to evolutionary theories of human origin have necessarily abandoned the authority of Scripture.

When it comes to following Scripture, we must never say less than Scripture, nor should we say more than Scripture.   Therefore, as an evangelical community, can we listen to what Genesis 2 is saying, and not make it say more as if it were speaking to our concerns of human origins?

Next Time

So far we have covered issues of Scripture and Science, but not of Sin and Salvation. These will come in the next post.


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(Disclosure: I (Geoff) received a free copy of this book in return for reviewing the book. This book was provided without any requirement that the review be positive.)

June 8, 2015

Geoffrey Holsclaw

Affiliate Professor of Theology

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