Why Adam Was First (It’s Not What You Think)

anatomy-high-techMuch ado has been made about the fact that Genesis 2 tells us the man was created before the woman.[1] Some say this Adam-before-Eve-ness, along with his role in naming her and her status as his helper, means that Adam was created to be in authority over Eve. Others note that Eve is Adam’s bone-of-bone, flesh-of-flesh, in-his-face help,[2] so the point of the Genesis 2 narrative must not be hierarchy but equality.

Then there are a few, not as many for sure, who think Eve’s comparison to God (who is so often called our helper in Scripture) in the context of Adam’s forsaking of his parents to cleave to his sweetie (something no proper Israelite would approve of), means that she is supposed to be the leader of the family.[3]

While each of these perspectives brings up interesting points, I’m not convinced that any of them gets to the heart of the matter, to the beauty of it all. The unstated messages in this plotline are mixed and a definitive, explicit statement of intent seems to have gone missing. Maybe God wasn’t trying to settle our debate.

And perhaps verse 24 offers a clue to what he might have been getting at instead.

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Gen. 2:24, NIV)

Oh, so the Genesis 2 account explains why we have marriage: it’s not good for the he-human to be alone and the animals just aren’t going to meet his existential needs but the she-human fits the bill perfectly. That makes sense. Fine. But all of this becoming-one-flesh sounds an awful lot like an equal partnership, which leaves us with the question we started with: Why was Adam first? And what are we to make of the fact that he was?

We lose this in our English renderings, but the words translated “leave” and “unite” here are the Hebrew words that are used over and over in the Old Testament of Israel’s responsibility to “forsake” those things that would separate them from the Lord and instead “cleave” or “cling” to Yahweh. A native speaker would have picked up on this right away and made the connection between human marriage and the divine-human “marriage” God has always longed to have with his own “bride.”

That’s how language works: the meaning of a word may be neutral, but its most common associations come to mind nonetheless. Like when we know “enable” means “empower,” but what pops into our head is “make it possible for someone to continue in their dysfunction.” It just arises unbidden in our cranium.

Something along these lines would have gone through those ancient minds as they listened: Oh, so this relationship between a man and a woman is a picture, a foreshadowing, a lesser drama of the relationship God desires to have with us. It is to be permanent, exclusive, passionate and worth abandoning everything else to obtain.

From eternity past, or at least some point in the past, God in his heart desired a “bride,” a someone or some ones enough like him that his connection with them would be deep and meaningful and powerful. We know this not only from Genesis, but also from the numerous places throughout Scripture where God describes himself as husband and bridegroom and his people as wife and bride.

God also knew that the beauty, the riches of what he longs to experience with us would be hard for us to comprehend. So he hard-wired into our very essence our own experience of longing and pursuit and oneness, that we might sense and yearn for that which is so very much greater.

So Adam was first not because he’s better or deserves more respect or is just a little more human, but because in this eternal representation he reflects who God is to humanity. Which means that Eve reflects who humanity is to God. Neither represents the more important reality since, in this case, they are naught but reflections. In the real world, where all of us pass our everyday lives, Adam is no more godlike than Eve and Eve is no more human than Adam. Genesis 1, which we were supposed to read before we got to Genesis 2, makes that clear. (For my understanding of Genesis 1, see my post The Importance of Being Human .)

Yet so that we might comprehend who the Lord of the universe desires to become in our own small lives, God gave to the one who would reflect that side of the equation the opportunity to take the lead in providing, protecting and pursuing. That is why it is Adam who forsakes his parents and cleaves to his wife, for he demonstrates the way God takes the initiative with us, pursuing and wooing and winning our devotion. We should never think we started our love affair with God, for he is the one who desired it, planned it, made it happen.

Pursuit is not all that Adam represents. Before Eve came on the scene Adam was given two things: responsibility for the garden and the prohibition against eating from a certain tree. Working the garden is an act of provision and communication of the command is an act of protection. Adam’s activity reminds us of the way God provides for our needs and protects us from harm.

Then there’s Eve, who as the object of Adam’s devotion and culmination of his desire reflects humanity, the object of God’s desire, the beauty of his beloved. Who also by her designation as helper calls to mind the way human beings are to help God by stewarding the earth for his glory. Of course God doesn’t truly need our help; for reasons of his own he determined to involve us in this endeavor.

It is also Eve who bears the children, who nurtures them within her body, whom Adam calls “life-giver” because she would become the mother of all the living. Why did God give to humans the responsibility to provide him with children? Only when human beings bear and nurture children, both physically and spiritually, does God’s family expand. He could have managed things another way, but he chose not to. And to Eve God granted the honor of reflecting this human role of multiplying life.

Yet none of this was given as command or rule, as the way male and female humans must always interact. Nowhere does Genesis state that only men must pursue and provide and protect, although it may very well be in their nature to do so. Neither does it say women must wait to be pursued, provided for and protected. Nor does it state that because they are the helper, women get to do all the dirty work. Helper is a noun, not a verb.

The story of Adam’s firstness is a love story, a human love story that was intentionally crafted to point us toward a more perfect, more beautiful, more satisfying love. It was never intended to be a cudgel forcing women and men alike into impossible roles and unreasonable expectations.

Let’s not lose sight of the beauty of it all.

 

[1] I do not accept the interpretation that views the first ādām as an androgynous being that is later divided into two beings, male and female, for several reasons including: the pronoun shift from singular to plural in Gen. 1:27; the process of creating the male and female is not described as division; the self-understanding of the ādām, who implies the being who named the animals in Gen. 2:19 is the same person who speaks in 2:23; the description of the iššā (woman) as being taken out of the iš (man) not the ādām.

[2]  A literal translation of ēzer kenegdō  is “help-as-in-front-of-him.” See Umberto Cassuto’s A Commentary on Genesis Part 1, p. 127.

[3] In a patriarchal society it is the woman who leaves her family when she gets married.

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6 thoughts on “Why Adam Was First (It’s Not What You Think)

  1. My own view is somewhat different, because I don’t actually see males as being created first. Genesis 1:27 has both males AND females being created in God’s image together; it’s only later, in Genesis 2:8 that a story begins with a male being alone, in a “not good” way, in the garden. I see these as different events, because, in my view, Genesis 2:5ff takes place AFTER the events in Genesis 1:1-2:3– the two different stories are editorially connected by a deliberate Hebrew chiasm functioning as a “toledoth”–signaling the end of the first story, and the beginning of the second. That makes Genesis 2:5ff sequential to Genesis 1:1-2:3, not recapitulative, and means that everything in it occurs during “day seven,” which is left open and unconcluded at the end of the first story in the text. This means that our primary reference to humanity as God intended it to be is found in Genesis 1:27ff. The statement about man being “formed of dust” is more an idiomatic reminder of his mortality, than it is the “first ingredient in his recipe.” Later, when Adam is born to a widowed human mother, possibly whose clan has accidentally migrated onwards (Genesis1:27ff) without her, perhaps as she is hampered by a difficult pregnancy, she gives birth to Adam, and though she is able to nurture him as a young boy, she perishes before he has conscious recall of her– Adam ends up being placed in the garden and cared for and nurtured by the Presence of God, who “walks with him in the cool of the evenings.” Genesis 2:5ff doesn’t even use the Hebrew verb ‘bara’ with reference to Adam; it is NOT about the “creation” of Adam first. Later, when he starts feeling increasingly alone– even in a world with untainted daily fellowship with the Presence of God, God puts Adam into a deep sleep, and Adam has a profound vision of God literally fashioning a woman from his side, only to awake to find a real woman God has brought to him. You might find this whole Genesis 2:5ff scenario too imaginative a reconstruction, but nothing in the original Hebrew disallows it; in fact, my view is that it’s exactly what the Hebrew implies, while using theologically-oriented language to describe what’s happening in brief. In the first story, we have the creation of humanity,  “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Genesis 1:27. By the second story, we have the account in which the first moral law is given, a “thou shalt not” which Adam and Eve both disobey, even in a perfect, edenic atmosphere– and thus become the archetype for the rest of humanity, who have resisted or outright disobeyed God’s commands ever since, having fallen for the notion that God’s character and intentions towards us can’t be trusted– the “knowledge of good and evil” –so we go looking for our primary intimacy in all the wrong places, only to have every one of those other things fail until we get it right with Him, first. Roles are not biologically rigid things; fathers can be nurturing; mothers can be tough; but only in a mutually supportive atmosphere can a household emerge which honors God.

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    • Thank you for your interesting thoughts. But yes, my explanation of things assumes that the most straightforward and natural reading of the text indicates that Adam was created before Eve, and I have written primarily for those who accept this premise. To me it would seem odd for the author to describe Adam as “formed from dust” if that were not what is meant. I realize “create” (bara) is not utilized, but I’m not convinced that necessarily indicates he is not created. Eve is described as “built” yet that account seems to indicate her creation as well. And verse 2:5 notes that before the formation of Adam “there was no man [human] to work the ground.” Also, why is death apparently introduced in 3:19 if death has already come on the scene (i.e. your reference to Adam’s mother as a widow)? In your view is death no longer a result of sin? I do think Gen. 2 is a separate account, but I think it is an elaboration on Gen. 1 rather than about an entirely different event. Thanks so much for reading and for taking the time to articulate your views. I appreciate it.

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  2. Of course, the whole thing comes down to what the Hebrew communicates. “Formed from dust” as a counterpoint to how a pagan mind could misconstrue the notion of having been “created in the image of God,” is a reminder that we are but mortal, and definitely belongs here in this account in Genesis 2. The Hebrew verb ‘yatsar,’ more often than not refers to the forming of something not strictly using material, “The LORD, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the human spirit within a person” Zechariah 12:1

    “In the forty-two occurrences of the verb in the Hebrew Bible, it is used in a variety of nonmaterial ways: God speaks of events that are taking place as having been formed long ago (2 Kings 19:25, Isaiah 37:26; c.f. Isaiah 22:11; 46:11; Jeremiah 18:11); when God forms the heart, the statement is not referring to the blood pump but to thoughts and inclinations (Ps 33:15); God formed summer and winter (Ps 74:17); a corrupt administration forms misery for the people through its decrees (Ps. 94:20); our days are formed by God (Ps 139:16); Israel is formed by God (Is 43:1, 21; 44:2, 21, 24; 45:11; Jer 10:16; 51:19) as a people, therefore it is not a material act here; God forms light and creates darkness (Is 45:7); a servant (having been identified as Cyrus) is formed by God in the womb (Is. 49:5; c.f. Jer 1:5) though he is born through a normal human process; God forms a swarm of locusts (Amos 7:1).” (Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, p.p 71-72).

    It is what is meant by “formed from dust” that is the crux of the matter; these verses show that it doesn’t rule out a normal birth. Think of the obvious analogy of the virgin birth of Jesus, for example– that a miracle does not preclude normal birth processes is undeniable, here.

    That there was “no man to work the ground” YET is not surprising, as God had not particularly commissioned any human to learn how to do so. Instead, His mandate to “be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth” was a warrant for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, not that of a sedentary farmer. Now, He takes a particular man, and places him in a setting where he can learn, by simple observation, how irrigation agriculture works, and thus cultivate fields of crops, while staying in one place. Such a step is necessary to the making of a food surplus, which could then launch the building of cities, as not all labor had to be dedicated to simply gathering food to survive.

    That Eve’s “building” is associated with a visionary sleep state is hardly evidence of a material process. The ancient Hebrews would not have heard “deep sleep” and concluded, “Aha! Anaesthetically-induced sleep to facilitate surgery.” Instead, God makes plain to Adam through a visionary dream what he could only wistfully long for, then brings him the woman, Eve. The text indicates far more than an appreciation that she was formed from his “rib.”

    The death in 3:19 is much more profound than simply physical death. It is a severing of one’s trusting relationship with his or her Creator. That death, simply as the cessation of physical life, is not any kind of real tragedy, by comparison, overlooks God’s ability to mercifully redeem, and to bring back to life. But, life on earth, without physical death in the animal and plant kingdoms, at least, would have too quickly overwhelmed the planet’s resources to support life. Physical death, viewed long-term, is a gift; spiritual death is the evil. That is the death that Adam and Eve introduced, by transgressing the first “thou shalt not” moral law, given in the garden, by doubting God’s character as being inclined towards their best interests.

    Sin exists wherever humans are; but Romans 5 says there was a time during which, given that there was no explicit moral law yet, that sin was not charged to those early humans, who did not sin in the likeness of Adam. It’s the willful violation of a direct commandment from God that made Adam the type for all the rest of us. Seriously, read Romans 5:12ff, and check it out for yourself! Paul is inexplicably roundabout if he’s not covering such a scenario.

    The most straightforward reading of Genesis 2:5ff is that, yes, Adam is brought into the narrative first, and enjoys the longer relationship with God’s Presence in the garden, but not that he was the first human ever created– the verb doesn’t even appear with reference to him. Which makes his betrayal doubly wrong; Eve is deceived by virtue of being less familiar with God’s word on the matter, and with His abiding Presence in the garden, over a long period of time– but Adam deliberately chose to follow her into sin, and to reject God.

    I offer this for your benefit, for thoughtful consideration as yet another way to refute the central premise in the Complementarian argument. It is not a completely novel idea; it has been held by theologians before and also currently, and has more to commend it among Hebrew scholars than you might expect. Walton is the most vocal example, but I try to distance myself from him somewhat, as I find his argument an overreach and methodologically flawed.

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  3. By the way, I ought to mention that I find your exposition of why God may have decided to record Genesis 2:5ff with the male, Adam, as coming first, is not just a matter of historical accuracy, but very well may be what you present here– beautifully done! Your presentation, however, need not hinge itself on “why Adam is presented as having been created first, in contradistinction to Genesis 1:27, where God makes humanity in His image, male and female at the same time together.”

    The first description sets the paradigm for everything else.

    Narratives, especially those which are inspired by God Himself, need never be construed as working on one level only; the phenomenon of “semantic polyvalence” can be employed deliberately by any competent author. In my view, for example, I find the story of Mowgli in “The Jungle Book” as a potentially instructive parable about what was actually going on in the garden. Too many Christians bring a stilted imagination to their Biblical explorations.

    Thanks again for a well-done exploration!

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    • Wow! Thanks for taking the time to respond in so much detail. I will admit, however, that most of the ideas you present here are too much for me to embrace as my go-to interpretation. I do, however, acknowledge differences of understanding and appreciate hearing yours.

      But I’m glad that what I’ve written seems plausible to you at least on some level, whether we agree or not on certain specifics of interpretation. What I hoped to accomplish was to get at the heart of why this narrative reads as it does, potentially moving the discussion outside the manner in which it is normally debated.

      I do agree with you that Gen. 1:26-28 contains the fundamental, limiting idea by which we must understand everything else that is said in Scripture about male and female. If you want my take on that it is summarized in my post “The Importance of Being Human,” although I admit that breaking a 140-page thesis into manageable parts causes a certain loss of continuity and the bigger picture.

      Thanks again for reading.

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  4. Pingback: Paul’s Theology of Gender: A Dual Reality | Sarah J. O'Connor

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