People

Adam by Dexter Callender

Who is the person “Adam”?

Adam is conventionally thought of simply as the male half of the first human couple. But what if we understand the statement “Let us make adam” (Gen 1:26) to include the notion of general human personhood? In this sense, the adam of Gen 1:26 denotes the archetypal human person, a complex expression of the relational potentialities of class, plurality, and individuality. Later on, Gen 5 presents Adam as an archetype with a history by genealogically connecting the first human(s) with subsequent generations (Gen 5, Gen 10:1-32, Gen 11:10-32; compare 1Chr 1). Collectivity (Gen 5:1), plurality (Gen 5:2), and individuality (Gen 5:3-5) are brought together in Adam, the human progenitor (Gen 5:1).

The Hebrew text of the creation and Eden narratives of Genesis 2-4 tends to avoid explicit use of adam as a personal name and does so by prefixing it with the definite article (ha-adam). Interestingly, the Septuagint frequently refers to (ho) Adamthe Adam,” in addition to anthropos (“human”); though the name Adam alone without the article does appear in its pages. Using the literary framework of Gen 1-5, we can consider the two members of the couple as representing aspects of the single archetypal adam —composed of earth (Hebrew, adamah; Gen 2:7), containing male and female potentialities (Gen 2:21-23; compare Gen 1:26-27, Gen 5:1-2), endowed like God with certain capacities (Gen 2:19-20, Gen 4:1, Gen 4:25; compare Gen 1:26-27), and fatefully inclined to acquire others (Gen 3:6, Gen 3:22).

Other texts in the Hebrew Bible describe an archetypal human individual in terms that reflect the Genesis narratives, in particular the problem of desiring, acquiring, and then misusing great wisdom (see, for example, Job 15:7-8 and Ezek 28:11-19). We also encounter a similar figure outside the Bible, in the Mesopotamian myth of Adapa. This name is equated with the word “human” and may be etymologically related to adam. In the myth, Adapa is called the “seed of humankind,” is endowed with great wisdom, and loses eternal life over instructions concerning food and drink in a manner that resembles Gen 2-3. Thus the genealogy of Gen 5 suggests that Adam, the human person, is the embodiment of all “humans” (Hebrew bene adam, literally “children of adam,” Deut 32:8, Ps 8:5-6).

Was Adam originally androgynous?

Many early interpreters of the Bible believed that Adam was androgynous. This idea is also found in Plato (Symposium 189c-193e) and was discussed in rabbinic circles (Gen. Rab. 8:1; b. Meg 9a). Recent studies of gender across the sciences and humanities reveal its formidable complexity, so we should not be surprised by the complexity and ambiguity of the biblical presentation of adam. Some texts seem to be deliberately ambiguous on this point. The sudden shift to the first person plural that accompanies God’s announcement of the creation of humankind in Gen 1:26 (“Let us make adam in our image, according to our likeness,” italics added) could certainly be associated with an emphasis on male and female. Some biblical scholars view this as a reflection of the divine council scene, a stock image in the ancient Near East. But it was common in ancient Near Eastern traditions to express origin stories in terms of male-female complementarity (for example, Enki and Ninmah, Enki and Ninhursaga; Atrahasis [Assyrian version]; compare Tiamat and Apsu in Enuma Elish and other myths featuring theogonic pairs). The principle of complementarity may also be behind the formula that follows: “In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27, italics added, RSV; compare Gen 5:1-2). In Gen 2, the woman (Hebrew, ishshah) and man (Hebrew, ish) are two sides of the human whole. The play on words also keeps with the notion of complementarity. The first-century commentator Philo thought that Gen 1 described the androgyny of the initial generic human figure, while Gen 2 focused on the physical differentiation of male and female from a single physical entity. Ultimately, to restrict the person Adam to a particular male, or to a notion of “maleness,” is to miss the complexity built into the first human person.

Dexter Callender, "Adam", n.p. [cited 17 Nov 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/adam

Contributors

Dexter Callender

Dexter Callender
Associate Professor, University of Miami

Dexter Callender is associate professor of religion at the University of Miami, Florida. He is the author of Adam in Myth and History (Eisenbrauns, 2001). He specializes in myth theory and ancient Near Eastern literature and history.

Adam may be thought of as a unique collective individual who embodies the complexity and potential that characterizes the human experience.

Did you know…?

  • Variant traditions of Adam may be found in other biblical texts.
  • Adam’s counterpart in the Mesopotamian tradition is named Adapa.
  • Some early biblical commentators, as well as some contemporary scholars, have understood Adam to be androgynous.

In Mesopotamian myth, the first of the ancient sages, a human-fish hybrid who bypassed a chance at immortality.

A typical or representative model; the essence or embodiment of a standard or type.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Gen 1:26

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Gen 1:26

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Gen 5

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Gen 5

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Gen 10:1-32

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1Chr 1

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Genesis 2-4

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Gen 1-5

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Gen 2:21-23

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Gen 1:26-27

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Gen 1:26-27

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Job 15:7-8

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Ezek 28:11-19

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Gen 2-3

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Gen 5

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Deut 32:8

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Ps 8:5-6

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A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

An ancient Mesopotamian text which includes stories of creation and flood that parallel Biblical accounts.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

The Mesopotamian god of water and wisdom.

A Babylonian creation myth that describes how the god Marduk triumphed over chaos, paralleling the Creation story of Genesis 1.

Not specific; not connected to a particular version.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

One of the many names of the mother goddess.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

Gen 1:26

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Gen 2

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