The necessity of comparing our understanding of how human beings developed with the poetic accounts of Genesis 2-11 became important for me after reading a commentary on Romans 5. While discussing the sin of Adam, the commentary embarks on an excursus into human origins, and dates the emergence of homo divinus, (humans as the image of God), to the Neolithic period of 11,000 years ago (1). My problem with this dating is that I am Australian. We live on an island with the longest living continuous culture, the oldest art forms, the oldest landscape, the oldest untouched flora and fauna in the world. We know that human beings were here long before the Neolithic period and to suggest that hunter gatherers are not also homo divinus, the image of God, but were pre-Adamic hominids, risks implying theological eugenics. [Article]
Michael Flynn – updated September 2021
Where we come from
Every culture, including our own, reaches for stories about the origin of human beings to inform how we shape our understanding of the world and ourselves. We are shaped by these stories, we weave their rationale into our politics, psychology and spirituality because they teach us the reason for us.
Australians are familiar with the variety of Dream Time stories passed on by the first occupants of our island home. The ancient Greeks wrote of the making of human beings by the gods and how we declined from a golden age. Egyptian, Sumerian and Babylonian myths talk of the ancient and long birth of enslaved humanity from chaos and struggle. Our contemporary science tells a story of evolution through competition, cooperation, change and adaptation.
While Genesis 2-11 shares some markers with these stories it is also unique because it joins itself in our history and expresses that history in a poetic form. It also deliberately contradicts other creation stories from the ancient world. These key differences stem from the uniqueness of the Lord God we meet in its pages.
This article aims to compare a little of what we know of the origins of humanity through anthropology and archaeology with Genesis 1-11. My aim is to explore how plausible the description of human development in Genesis 2-11 is but the task is challenging for two reasons.
First, the poetic style of Genesis 1-11 describes the purpose, decline and hope of humanity rather than the detailed process of how we came to be where we are. The poetry of Genesis also makes clear that part of what is described is now beyond our experience but those unreachable things still touch the world we have inherited. Sorting out what is now outside our reach (e.g. Eden) from what is our common experience (e.g. a longing for what Eden represents or, evil being the perversion of good or, the tendency of human corruption to accelerate over generations) is part of the genius of Genesis.
Second, the task is challenging because anthropology and archaeology are challenging sciences. Hardly a month will pass when a new archaeological discovery prompts calls for revisions to the dating of, or example, the bronze age or the emergence of human behaviour. The reason these are challenging sciences is because they are dealing with very cold cases – fragments of human remains and cultures from which scientists draw inferences based on assumptions and contested models of pre-history. Our evidence consists of partial fossil remains, scant DNA records and locations with shifting sediments. Our tools are imprecise and often difficult to calibrate: radioactive isotope dating, luminescence from surrounding sediment and rock, dating by sediment layers, climatic models, changes in magnetic flux or electron spin, other chromatographic data and the fauna or flora associated with the remains. Each method has its limits. Our interpretations depend upon the quality of excavations, dating and the models of pre-history we are trying to sort the evidence into. Anthropolgists also know any living system, especially cognisant ones, have multiple variables affecting them which is why inferring causes from the little that remains of pre-history is full of risk and and in need of constant revision.
For now, the evidence suggests the following human development:
400,000 to 50,000 years ago – Multiple hominin dispersals into Southwest Asia. Evidence from stone tools (reported in Nature, September 2021)
300,000 years ago – The Shoningen spears (Germany) – along with evidence of planned hunting. Wooden spears carefully constructed of spruce or pine along with indications of coordinated hunting techniques (likely Heidelberg Man – a possible common ancestor of Neanderthal and Sapiens)
190,000 – debated evidence for modern human forms in Africa
176,500 years ago – Bruniquel Cave (France) – 336 meters below ground. Two strong circular structures in complete darkness. Cave closed in Pleistoncene and opened in 1990. Evidence of the use of fire. It is likely the work of Neanderthals as they were the only living humans in Europe at this stage.
120,000 years ago – Robust evidence for modern human forms emerging in Africa (according to bone/teeth fragments)
90,000 – 75,000 years ago – Migration of modern humans out of Africa began into the Levant (evidence: distribution of bone/teeth fragments) but appears to have stopped there and even reversed as the modern human population shrunk around 60,000 years ago
80,000 years ago – Modern humans appear to have continued in caves, stone tools develop regional characteristics
77,000 years ago – Blombos Caves in Southern Africa. Engraved ochre and decorated shells (abstract designs) suggesting possible use of symbols
63,000 years ago – First known substantial human remains (South East Asia). Evidence of human habitation of Australia
50-40,000 years ago (Mesolithic – African, Late Paleolithic – Europe) – A rapid increase in innovative human behaviour emerges amongst modern humans while their form remains unaltered (Kline, 2008. Conrad, 2010). International migration accelerates markedly. The population of modern humans dramatically increases from a small base in Africa to eventually become the only surviving form of hominin. Archaeological remains from this period include evidence of huts with other modified and manufactured living spaces, bows, arrows, the continued development of spear technology, skin clothes, wide spread representational art works, jewellery, ceremonial burials, objects used in worship, bone as well as more advanced stone tools, weaving and the domestication of animals. There is evidence of forms of agriculture: for example, in central Europe, gardens and limited harvest areas appear with temporary settlements that allow tribes to move within tribal areas as they follow the seasons, herds and wild food growth. Other examples from Australia are of aquaculture around Lake Mungo (NSW, Australia) and broader evidence of planting, irrigation, harvest, storing of grains and land management. During this time, the races of modern humanity emerged along with local variations.
40,000 years ago – Modern humans begin to appear in Europe
11,000 years ago – Larger scale agriculture begins around Jordan in ancient Palestine owing to the availability of temperate climate and reliable sources of water for the irrigation of crops. Intensive farming requires and produces large permanent settlements. Kiln fired brick, stone and metal work, writing on clay tablets from this period leaves substantial artefacts for archaeologists to find. There is progress in other areas of culture and technology as cities expand. Companion planting and domestic crops emerge in North America. Nomadic lifestyles continue with small agricultural workings in areas that are not hospitable to, or have no need for settled farming or the sustenance of cities. Wars become more systematic as states form out of tribes and as technology brings in advances in weaponry.
5,500 years ago – Bronze age begins in the fertile crescent.
3,500 years ago – Iron age begins (the Hittites smelt iron and keep the process a secret for 400 years!)
3,300 years ago – Systematic warfare spreads as evidenced by the oldest battlefield in Europe (near Berlin).
3,000 years ago – As climate change permits, intensive agriculture is gradually adopted in Europe along with more permanent settlements.
Now we need to ask whether or not the account of Genesis can be placed in this framework.
Where are Genesis 2-4 set?
Genesis 2 locates Eden at the intersection of four rivers, two of which are still known today. One method of locating Eden is simply to look where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of Mesopotamia intersect with two other streams. There are two places where this occurs, one in Iraq (near the gulf, where the waters flow into, rather than “out of” the area) and the other in modern day Iran; however, the two other rivers are not substantial. The other method is to attend to the note in Genesis 2:13,14 that the other rivers flow through or alongside the land of Cush and Ashur. These are ancient names for the wider Ethiopian area of Africa, which suggests that the Pishon and Gihon rivers could have been the Upper and Lower Nile. If so, Genesis suggests that Eden is the land between the great rivers of Mesopotamia and the great rivers of Africa – which is the area God confirms is the land he has promised to Abraham’s descendants in Genesis 15:18 and the area where the drama of the Old Testament is played out. That the rivers do not flow from one river that divides into four headwaters, as Genesis 2:10 describes, can be read as a poetic device to teach us that though Genesis 2 is related to our world, the presence of God it represents is now beyond our grasp (compare Revelation 22:1-14).
This area, between the great rivers of Africa and Asia, is known as the fertile crescent and it is from here that written human history, permanent settlements and many technological advances emerged. This lends credibility to the Genesis account since we know that many important human cultural achievements did arise in the area Genesis says they did.
When did all this happen?
I want to suggest two options.
- A Neolithic emergence. As I mentioned above, some date the emergence of human beings to the Neolithic period and claim that is the time the text of Genesis indicates for the origin of Adam and Eve.
- A late Paleolithic emergence of humanity and covenant with the creator. It is a mistake to read the setting of the text of Genesis 2-4 as the Neolithic period. That Genesis depicts human beings arising before the Neolithic period, in the Paleolithic period when archaeology suggests human behaviour first began to emerge. Though, evidence for modern human behaviour is abundant from around 50,000 years ago.
To choose between these options we first need to look closely at Genesis. In Genesis 2 there are three related scenes, each with a distinct theological purpose. The story opens with the man formed of dust (the same substance as the animals) but made alive by the breath/life of God himself. The point being made is that we are earthbound creatures but we are unique because we share our creator’s life. Second, God makes a covenant with the man and the promise of eternal life is given in the land of Eden to counter the reality of death that exists outside of the garden (more on this idea in a moment). As God is eternal so God’s image is offered the opportunity to share in His life. Third, with the creation of the woman, human beings are defined as a relationship of different persons of the same substance, of equal worth and dignity, co-ruling with different roles. When God makes an image of himself it must be such a relationship (Genesis 1:26,27).
Some suggest that Adam, in the early part of Genesis 2, is a group of human beings or a tribe of humans then later in the chapter, when woman is created, becomes an individual man. Yet there is no evidence in the text for this suggestion. The theological ideas throughout the chapter complement each other as a unity and there are no textual markers to suggest that the identity of Adam changes even if his setting (he is placed in the garden) does.
A related question regarding the identity of Adam in Genesis 2 is how he, who names others, is himself named and what that signifies. For the word ‘Adam’ means Man as in humankind. Sometimes in chapters 2 to 4 of Genesis he is called the man (the Adam), at other points he is simply called Adam. In Genesis 2 to 4 and the rest of the Bible, Adam is an individual man yet the play on his name suggests that he is more than just an individual man, that his name is also his title. As a man, he is also the representative of humankind, the prototype, archetype and leader whose actions will affect the lives of all who come after him.
This is the point the apostle Paul makes in Romans 5 when he compares Adam and Jesus as the two representatives of humanity. Jesus of Nazareth calls himself The Son of Man and he is called, the Son of God and the Christ, indicating that His life and actions are significant and have consequences for all who follow Him. Jesus, the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Christ is the representative who explains and represents all human beings completely to God and God completely to human beings (Colossians 1:15-19). Adam, is The Man. To use the old language, he is the man who represents all Men and in whom all Men are found. Combined with Genesis 3:20, the poetry of Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve were the first human beings and because of this, they represented all human beings. To put that another way, using biological language, in this Man and this Woman Genesis depicts the emergence of homo sapiens, sapiens.
This leaves us needing to address, option one, the possibility that Genesis 2-4 is set in the Neolithic period of 11,000 years ago. Those who support this idea point out that Adam and his offspring seem to live the lives of settled farmers, working the soil (Genesis 3:17-19). However, I suggested an earlier, Paleolithic-Mesolithic dating makes a better sense of the text for the following reasons: We read that the Lord God clothed the rebellious couple in animal skins, the fashion of the Paleolithic, and that Adam was to eat of the plants of the field as well as work the soil, as nomadic peoples still do. His children raised herds and worked soil yet this is not inconsistent with a nomadic lifestyle within a known tribal area as the lifestyle of Abraham and others attest.
Settlements begin to emerge in Genesis 4 starting with the line of Cain, though it is not until after the flood story (Genesis 6-9) that we read of the invention of kiln-fired clay bricks (Genesis 11). It is only at this point that we get to established cities and the necessity of year-round farming in one location in order to sustain large permanently settled populations. These permanent and large populations are then the means that accelerate human cultural achievements and wrongs. They produced the artefacts that have given our archaeologists the unmistakable markers of the late Neolithic and early Bronze age.
Is it plausible that during the Paleolithic period God breathed a new level of information into his creation and formed the Man out of the earth, placing his own life into a creature that was hominid in form but now, as Shakespeare put it: “… in apprehension how like a god.”? The archaeological record suggest that clearly human behaviour develops through this time.(2) The emergence of this behaviour, as with many other significant human achievements, can reasonably be traced to the fertile crescent between Africa and Asia where Genesis locates human origins.(3)
What about subsequent human development?
Another discovery in reading Genesis is that its early chapters cover the same periods of time but from different views. Chapter 4 describes the brilliant but tragic line of Cain, growing in technological and cultural attainment while getting further and further away from the presence of God. Chapter 5 covers the same misty period but follows the line of Seth and the establishment of worship. Chapter 6 summarises the intermingling of the two lines (Cain’s and Seth’s) over the same time to the point that any hope for the future of a cruel, cynical and violent humanity is almost extinguished.
No one knows what the long lifespans of the patriarchs of Seth’s line is based on or what they actually measure. We do know that the Genesis genealogies are fifty times shorter than genealogical lists from other ancient creation accounts. We know that they describe the shortening of human life the further humanity moves from the memory of Eden and the presence of God. We know that Hebrew genealogies, even when written in a less poetic tone (eg. from Genesis 12 onwards), do not record every generation but are conflated to represent significant people in a line of descendants. This means the genealogies in Genesis 4-11 want us to know that no matter how significant these founders of the human race and human achievements were – they died; that they were not gods, as the Sumerian and Egyptian and Greek heroes became.
Are these poetic genealogies a plausible summary of humankind in the ancient near east moving from the Paleolithic to the Mesolithic to the Neolithic and early Bronze ages? Do they touch our history while they are depicting our purpose and our tragedy as human beings? To my mind they cohere well with what we know of human cultural development from other sources. More, it is deeply humbling to hear in Genesis the echo of voices so like our own from the early (deep) history of humanity which archaeology and anthropology can never reclaim for us.
Why is there a focus on this place & time?
The short answer is the promise of God to give humanity life first occurred at this place and time. We know that death has always existed on our planet. Our oil deposits are long dead forests, limestone deposits are there because of shell fish, fossil records teach us about the creatures that dominated the earth long before human beings existed.
Genesis 2 implies that the world outside Eden is the wild earth where death is the norm. The evidence begins in God’s words to the man: ‘…in the day you eat of it you will die.’ In other words, like every child raised in the country, the man knew what death was. The subsequent conversation with the serpent in Chapter 3 confirms death as a known reality in creation. This is why, Adam & Eve, after being barred from Eden in Genesis 3, begin the process of dying. Later, Abel brings an offering of the flock (4:2-4) and Noah distinguishes between clean and unclean animals (7:2), implying animals were killed, sacrificed and eaten after Eden (1:29) but before the permission/acknowledgement given by God in 9:3 after the flood. The ancient middens we uncover in Australia are evidence enough that early humans ate meat even if vegetation was the dominant part of our diet.
Some think that the animal skins the Lord God gives the man and the woman to cover their nakedness at the end of Genesis 3 suggest some kind of animal sacrifice in reaction to their sin. I find this suggestion confusing. Who is offering the sacrifice? When was it done? Why was it done? Why was it ineffective – since Adam and Eve are still barred from Eden and the open presence of God? I think it is easier to suggest that death in the animal world was already a regular and known occurrence. That animal skins were available.
It is striking, in a world where death occurs, that Genesis 2 is the first recorded promise of grace and covenant. The Lord’s command is also a promise of ongoing life. What sets The Man apart is not only that he is the image of God but he is distinguished in the way that later Noah, Abraham, Moses and David are; the Lord God speaks to him offers him and his offspring a covenant to trust and obey. I AM offers them the promise of life.
When did sin and death enter the world?
What I have written so far raises questions about sin and death in the world before Adam and Eve, especially since the apostle Paul later states in Romans 5 concerning Adam: ‘Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.’ But, he then continues: ‘To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.’
To unpack that, it is the commandment of God that defines actions and intentions as sin and sins are only committed by moral beings. My cat praises God by being itself, but I, as a creature capable of moral decision, must learn to honour and obey my creator. It follows that where there is not a commandment or moral beings to disobey it, there is no sin. To put that another way, we may call death and illness before Adam and Eve chance or necessity but we cannot call it futility or wrong.
Before Adam and Eve there was tooth and claw, illness and animal death but no sin. So, what does Paul mean when he says death entered the world through sin? Genesis is clear that death for human beings is not merely physical death but separation from the presence of God (2:17 and 3:22-24). Paul also picks up this theme when he writes: ‘For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.’ (see Romans 7:9-13). Paul is not describing his physical death but describing the process and effect of being enslaved by sin (Romans 7:14-24 compare with Genesis 4:7), a condition that leads to our physical death because it alienates us from God who is life himself.
We are the image of God, intended for relationship with God and thus, unlike animal creation, we are intended for eternity. But, sin has seized the opportunity afforded by the commandment and humanity was separated from the God who would otherwise have held us for eternity. We have become less than what we were created to be.
To reinforce this point, we see that Paul writes in Romans 7: ‘I would not have known what sin was apart from the commandment’ and he goes on to give an example of the experience of coveting: ‘I would not have known what it means to covet unless the law had said: Do not covet.’ (see Romans 7:7-14) In context, Paul is talking about the covenant given to Moses but it is telling how the illustration he chooses lines up with his discussion of Adam from Romans 5, the covenant of Genesis 2 and the coveting depicted in Genesis 3.
The significance and tragedy of humanity in Genesis is that we are the only part of God’s good creation that is offered eternal life as the image of God and we are the only part of God’s good creation that can say ‘no’ to his creative, life giving Word. He gives us a terrifying freedom.
The result of sin is that the possibility of human beings truly being like God, as his faithful and eternal image, has been taken away only to be completely restored to us in Christ (Romans 8:10,11). Sin, defined by the commandment of God in Genesis 2, entered the world through one man, The Man, Adam. Because of this, we are left to our own devices – left to be like God on our own terms, to know our own versions of good and evil, to manufacture our own life. Yet, our freedom is ironic. Despite the god-like brilliance in our best efforts to save ourselves, there is no ongoing life in us, we are still made of dust and subject to death which marks the animal kingdom. Death is now the final destination for all created in God’s image. As Jesus said when he alluded to Genesis 3: “Satan was a murderer from the beginning.” (John 8:44).
This article has to be a humble offering because our knowledge of what the anthropolgists now call ‘deep history’ (pre-history) is changing. However, I am struck again by another glimpse of the glory, necessity and humble grace of the cross of Jesus Christ. That God, the giver of life, in Christ, the second Adam, should take on the cost and cause of human lawlessness in his own death and offer us eternal physical life again. An unspeakable gift.
(1) Some Christian apologists claim we should not attempt to reconcile science and theology but recognise that they occupy two different realms of causality. That the efficient cause explanations belong to the realm of science (how did this happen, what causes it?) and the final cause explanations (why did this happen, what is its purpose?) belong to the realm of theology and philosophy. Apologists are aware of the risks in trying to reconcile Biblical stories, like Genesis 1-11, with scientific explorations, such as biology, archeology and anthropology, where Christian thinkers will be tempted to use God as filler for the gaps in our knowledge. A current example of this might be when considering the jump from matter to life or the sudden appearance of more complex life in the Cambrian period this is where God intervened to ‘inject’ more information into the biological system. The concern of apologists is if science finds a plausible mechanism by which simple forms of organic life can be assembled from matter or conditions in the late pre-Cambrian period that would enable the rapid development of complex life forms, then the idea of God placing more information into his creation is rendered unnecessary. Nature will have explained itself – at least at the level of efficient causes. This is why apologists conclude it is better for Christian belief if we refrane from trying to understand how God could be an effective cause in our world. Their aim is to better bullet-proof Christian apologetics against the continual flux of evidential development.
Nervousness about creating a ‘God of the gaps,’ in my mind, produces two problems. First, it implies that God is more distant from history, sustaining his creation and effective interference in the cosmos than Biblical theology will allow. This, in turn, leads to pressure to minimise the Biblical witness and adopt liberal theological solutions to the tensions between our understanding of the Bible and our explorations in science. However, experience has shown that those liberal theological solutions are not long lasting and have been more disasterous for Christian apologetics and belief than even simplistic God of the gaps arguments. The second problem is avoiding talk of the creator as an efficient cause in our world has led to us creating a ‘science of the gaps’. The common habit in our country is to use science as the gap filler we hope will eventually enhance our understanding of the many things we cannot explain. Of course, we have no guarantee that we will ever understand all we want to and the evidence suggests that the more we learn, the more complex and mysterious our world and universe has shown itself to be. This is why our growth in understanding is slow, tentative and full of fragility. Some examples will help illustrate my point. It is arrogance that assumes all obstacles to our understanding of pre-history, the emergence of life, the development of consciousness, describing all environmental causes or reconcilling general relativity to quantum theory (the macro and micro fires that human life exists between) – to name a few things – will inevitably yield to our frail minds and methods. Further, we tend to find more of God in the details of our knowledge than we expect – another example, as we know more of cosmology and the life sciences, the greater the improbabilty of our lives has become and seeing this has undone many an Atheist’s faith. Finally, according to Biblical theology, it is expected that the God who created, sustains and will judge this world also intervenes in it and deliberately leaves enough marks of his glory for us to see (Psalm 19:1-6).
The approach I have taken in this article is to look for what anthropologists call ‘resonance’. To line up our current understanding of the Biblical text with the little I have gleaned about the origins of humanity and to see where those understandings resonante or reflect each other. My aim in this is see if the Biblical account is plausible or not when set against our current knowledge from other sources. So, for example, if the evidence for the first development of human society pointed to South America that would detract from the plausibility of the Genesis account as having an historic connection to what actually happened. However, at the moment, Genesis and anthropology show a plausible agreement on the question of where human society first developed. That is resonance.
I do not think it is wrong, from the point of view of Christian apologetics, to look for resonance between the Bible and our science – it is only what the Bible and scientific curiosity would ask us to do. If Christianity is true, then we should not fear a run-in with the evidence. We know evidence will develop and be informed by interpretation. We know that discovery is a patient and humbling game. Whether the latest ideas are for or against a resonance with the Bible… so be it, but let’s keep playing the game! I suggest that this is the intellectual adventure that a commitment to the God of truth requires of us. Or, as the Psalmist put it: ‘I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.’ (Psalm 27.13)
(2) Anthropologists Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks described four indicators of human behaviour that have become widely accepted (See “The Revolution That Wasn’t” in Journal of Human Evolution. 2000). They are: 1. Abstract thinking (not limited to time and space); 2. Planning depth (strategies based on past experience and action in a group based on these strategies); 3. Behavioural, economic and technological innovation; 4. Symbolic behaviour (representations of objects, people and concepts with symbols, vocal or visual and to reify such symbols in cultural practice)
The traditional markers for human behaviour in anthropology require less inference but are more limited. They are: Increasing artefact diversity. Standardization of artefact types. Blade technology. Worked bone and other organic materials. Personal ornaments and ‘‘art’’ or images. Structured living spaces. Ritual. Economic intensification, reflected in the exploitation of aquatic or other resources that require specialized technology. Enlarged geographic range. Expanded exchange networks. The illustration below (from McBrearty and Brooks. 2000) depicts the development of these traits according to African archaeology.
Conard, N. J. Cultural modernity: Consensus or conundrum. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107, 7621-7622 (2010).
Klein, R. G. Out of Africa and the evolution of human behavior. Evolutionary Anthropology 17, 267-281(2008)