What the Bible Does (And Doesn’t) Say About Human Origins
In our generation, scientific evidence exists which presents a similar sort of challenge to mainstream evangelical readings of the scriptures, as we saw last week. There’s nothing to be afraid of in that; it’s God’s word, and it’s God’s world, so we shouldn’t worry about carefully reflecting on, and if necessary reconsidering, both of them. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. No doubt some Copernicans had a tough time wrestling with their consciences, and their interpretive traditions, when they started championing the heliocentric model.
Some Christians on both sides of the aisle regard the attempt to integrate modern genetics with Scripture as ridiculous. On the conservative side, there are many who see the efforts to accommodate Scripture to the shifting sands of scientific opinion as doomed from the outset; much better, it is argued, to let God be true and every man a liar, even if it means ditching most of what science is currently telling us. On the other hand, there are many more scientifically minded evangelicals who would say the exact opposite: contemporary science cannot be fitted together with an ancient book like Genesis, and we should acknowledge that all manner of things the Bible says, including about human origins, are (in the light of what we know now) factually inaccurate. My conviction is that both of these extremes - the disparagement of science by conservatives (usually using the very technology that experimental science makes possible), and the disparagement of Scripture by progressives (usually including the dismissal of Jesus and Paul as creatures of their time who didn’t know any better, despite being divine in one case and inspired by God in the other) - are unnecessary. As such, I’m with Francis Schaeffer on the principle: when all is fully known, there will be “no final conflict” between Scripture and science.
When it comes to human origins, the apparent conflict between science and Scripture can be expressed in three questions. Firstly, was Adam created from a clod of earth, or from a Neolithic hominin that already existed? Secondly, are all human beings biologically descended from Adam and Eve? And thirdly, if not, were other human beings created from clods of earth, ex nihilo, from Neolithic hominins who already existed, or in some other way?
The answers given in the scriptures are somewhat less prescriptive than we might think. Take the first question, on the origin of Adam. “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen 2:7). What does “dust from the ground” mean, in this context? A literal clod of mud? Physical stuff, as if to make the point that humans are part of God’s physical creation (a very similar phrase is used in 2:19)? Perishable matter (as “dust” is used in Job and the Psalms, and probably Gen 3:19)? “Dust of the ground” could, of course, mean a literal lump of earth. But perhaps it could also be a turn of phrase referring more broadly to “matter”, which is how a number of theistic evolutionists read it (often arguing that the matter from which Adam was made was a Neolithic farmer). Personally, I am unpersuaded that this is the best reading of Genesis 2 - primarily on the basis that I simply don’t believe the original readers would have had any idea it meant that - but I don’t find it as absurd as I used to.
What about human ancestry, then? Does Genesis say that all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve? The simple answer is no: there are no explicit statements that all people are descended from Adam in Genesis, or the Pentateuch, or indeed the Old Testament. (The statement in 3:20 that Eve was “the mother of all living” is probably a way of saying that she was the first woman, as a comparison with Jabal and Jubal in 4:20-21 shows.) That Israel descends from Adam, and therefore every character in Scripture with a full genealogy, is clear; that all humans do is less so. In fact, there are at least four indications in Genesis 4 that there are all sorts of other people around. Firstly, there is Cain’s decision to kill Abel while they were in the open country (4:8), which implies (as subsequently in the Bible) that there are already areas of population where crimes will be witnessed, and remote areas where they will not be. Secondly, there is his fear that “whoever finds me will kill me” (4:14); that these others are not his brothers and sisters cannot be proved, but it is certainly implied by the fact that they are widespread, unaware of Cain’s crime, and outside the presence of the LORD to the east (4:16). Thirdly, we have the notorious question of Cain’s wife (4:17): the narrative simply doesn’t read like it is his sister, and given the original audience of the Pentateuch, and its clear denunciations of incest, it does not seem likely that the author would trace the lineage of all people, including Israel, back to marriages that the Israelites would have regarded as incestuous (bear in mind that Seth, too, would have had to marry his sister), without qualification or explanation. The text assumes the existence of other people, even if it does not specify who they are or where they came from.
And fourthly, the way the story is told does not indicate that any other siblings exist. “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” And again, she bore his brother Abel ... [then follows the story of the offerings, Cain killing Abel, and Cain’s genealogy] ... And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” ... When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters.” Taking the narrative at face value, it looks like Adam and Eve produced Cain, then Abel, then Seth (who replaced Abel), and then other sons and daughters. This, obviously, would mean that the other humans alluded to in chapter four were not descended from Adam and Eve, but created in some other way - and I contend that this is, indeed, the simplest reading of the text.
What do we make of Acts 17:26 then? Literally, Paul says, “and from one he made every nation of mankind, to live over the face of the earth.” For some, this verse is proof that all humans are exclusively descended from Adam and Eve - and it might, of course, mean exactly this. However, in the light of the strong suggestions to the contrary in the Genesis story we have just considered, and the fact that Paul knew this story well, it is worth pointing out that the text may not mean this at all. It might mean that all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, but also from a wide range of other ancestors (think about it: if you go back ten generations, you’re descended from over a thousand different people), including the other people in existence in Genesis 4. It might mean that God took the soul-life he had breathed into Adam and put it into many others (Eve is said to be “of the man”, even though she wasn’t his child). It might mean that Adam, as the first person made in God’s image, was the template, the prototype if you like, for all subsequent people (as we might say that from one Model-T, Henry Ford made thousands of others). Whatever it means - and personally, I find a wide range of ancestors the most likely - it does not necessarily mean that nobody was around in Genesis except Adam and Eve’s children.
How, then, did these other human beings come about? Were they created out of clods of earth, like Adam? Out of nothing? Out of Neolithic hominins? The obvious answer is that the Bible does not tell us. The writer of Genesis shows no interest in this question, because he is interested in the line that runs from Adam through Seth and Noah to Abraham, which means that we need not - in fact, we cannot - be dogmatic either way. We can say with certainty that, as human beings, they all bore God’s image; we can say with certainty that God breathed his life into them and made them living souls (as he has done for all human beings in history); we can say with certainty that they all sinned, and died, “in Adam” (Rom 5:12-14; 1 Cor 15:2-22). But on the mechanism of their creation, assuming they existed, Scripture is silent.
All of which leaves a lot of questions up in the air. But it hopefully draws some boundaries around what the Bible does, and doesn’t, say about human origins. We’ll conclude the series next week.