In light of today’s scientific knowledge, that human beings evolved from lesser beings, from the australopitecus, for three million years, passed through homo habilis, then to homo erectus and homo sapiens, finally evolving into the human being, what are we to make of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve?
There are not too many of us who think humans are made from clay or from a rib, and there are sound, but not proved reasons, to question whether there was only a pair of human beings or many at the origins of humanity, beginnings marked by the primitive, rather than as beings gifted with wisdom and perfection. Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis (1950), within the scientific debate of his day, found polygenism difficult to reconcile with what has been taught on original sin. This was not a condemnation of multiple sets of parents. The basic tendency towards evil, the basic core of ‘original sin’, a term more Augustinian that biblical, is just as valid if we follow either scientific theory of human origins.
Rather than debating the details, should we not ask why the bible relates the story of the creation of humankind (’adam) in the manner it does? Simply because it deals with a parable, an imaginary story that seeks to impart some sort of religious teaching to the people. At the time of the Yahwist writer, around the 10th century, the theory of evolution had not developed. The purpose of the writer was not to give a scientific explanation to our origin, but a religious one, given through a story. The details of the story contained the religious meaning that was current at that time. Let’s take some of the lessons the author wanted to teach.
An early detail is the formation from clay. Unlike the first story, where there existed watery chaos prior to God’s creative activity, in this story the earth was an immense desert, the Lord God formed ha-’adam (the human) from the ha-’adamah (the humus), and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. To understand this, we need to take note of how the ancients noted that some time after death, our bodies returned to dust, and concluded that what we return to is what we came from. This same idea is found in Babylonian and Egyptian mythology, and was shared by Romans and Greeks.
The Jewish writer added to the story a special spark of life that comes from God; this is what is meant when God breathed into his nostrils. It is how the psalmist describes death: You take away your breath and we return to clay. By the way, the human is instructed to ‘till and keep’ the garden (2:15). So it looks like gardening as pleasant work came before the fall, rather than after it!
The beautiful image of God as a potter, like some cosmic mother shaping the human body, seems alien to us, but was perfect for its time. The most popular profession of those days was a potter. It was so impressive to see how a person could make, out of so little clay, vases, drinking vessels, and the most beautiful objects. How simple and profound the transition: that all human beings are special works of God’s hands, for God personally took a hand in the work of their creating.
The rich symbolism of the potter persists through the bible, as an image of our fragility and total dependence on God: Like the clay in the potter’s hands, so are you in my hand, says the Lord (Jeremiah 18:6).
Following the creation of the human being there are a series of fascinating stories. In the middle of the fertile oasis-garden, with its flowing streams, the earth creature should have been happy in what would have been a paradise for people living in desert areas. But something seems wrong. Even God says “It is not good….” Surrounded with everything that the human needed, there was no one the earth creature could relate to.
God tried to correct the situation with the creation of animals to give company to the human, but none seemed fit to be companion. Was God again wrong? God corrects the situation by causing the ha-’adam to fall into a deep sleep, and, while he sleeps, God takes one of his ribs and puts flesh onto it. Finally, with the creation of the woman (’issa from ’is) God gives Adam complete happiness.
It all seems so childish; God doesn’t get it quite right and seems to have to make a couple of attempts. But some profound lessons are being taught. First, ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’. Autonomy is not sufficient for a creature made to be with others. That is ‘not good’. The first and principal pain of human beings is lack of someone to share life with.
The second lesson from our account is that Adam ‘did not find a helper fit for him,’ emphasising that animals are not of the same level with human beings, hence were not objects of worship, as in some cultures.
The third lesson that resonates is leaving one’s parents to find a partner. The first love song, the first love poem in the bible, is the song of Adam (2:23).
Br Kieran continues with Part Two next month.