Adam and Eve—Just My Archetype (A Review)

The work of Old Testament scholar John Walton has been on my radar at least since 2012, when I read his book The Lost World of Genesis One (I reviewed it on the blog here). The central insight of that book—that the creation account of Genesis 1 has to do with functional origins, not material origins—made sense of the text in its ancient context.  At about the same time, I went up to Regent College in Vancouver to see Walton deliver a talk called “Genesis Through Ancient Eyes.” In this talk, he presented much of the same material that he had presented in The Lost World of Genesis One, as well as indicated some of his thoughts on Genesis 2 and 3 that had not yet been published. A version of the talk that he gave elsewhere is embedded below (if for some reason the embedded video doesn’t work, just search for “Genesis Through Ancient Eyes” and you should be able to find it somewhere online).

Last year, my small group at church went through Walton’s class “Origins of Genesis 1–3” from Logos Mobile Ed. Again, he presented much of the material that was in his book about Genesis 1 and indicated some of the arguments he would be making in a forthcoming book about Genesis 2 and 3.

That book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, came out in March of this year. It is laid out in much the same way as The Lost World of Genesis One was: each chapter title is a proposition that he argues in that chapter, and so a bird’s-eye view of his argument can be gained by looking at the table of contents. The first five chapters recap the argument from the earlier book, and he begins breaking new ground with proposition 6. Not surprisingly, he argues that Genesis 2 and 3 likewise deal with functional rather than material origins. Adam and Eve are presented as archetypes: “they embody all people, and the affirmations of the forming accounts are affirmations made of everyone, not uniquely of them” (199). While Walton believes that Adam and Eve are historical persons, he argues that their significance for the biblical text is found in their status as archetypes, not necessarily in their being the first humans or the ancestors of all humans.

This is where things get tricky, since some New Testament passages appear to treat Adam and Eve as historical persons—forebears who sinned and passed on their propensity to sin to their offspring (e.g., Rom 5:12–21 and 1 Cor 15:21–22, 45–49). When addressing these passages, Walton writes that “our status as being ‘in Adam’ treats Adam as an archetype, though still a historical figure” (93). Again, he writes later that “the historicity of Adam finds its primary significance in the discussion of the origins of sin rather than in the origins of humanity” (203, italics original).

I appreciate Walton’s respect for the biblical text and desire to base his arguments on exegesis. I think it is very likely that Genesis 2 and 3, like Genesis 1, have to do with functional origins rather than material origins, and I can see how Adam and Eve can be understood as archetypes. I think Walton is on the right track; nevertheless, I think there is more work to do, particularly with regard to the treatment of Adam and Eve in the New Testament and with regard to the theological understanding of sin. Some of that work has been done with regard to the New Testament by N. T. Wright’s contribution to this book; theologically, Walton briefly speaks about the difference between Augustine’s and Irenaeus’s conceptions of sin.  I would like to see fuller treatments of both of those angles in light of Walton’s arguments. Maybe Walton, as an Old Testament scholar, has done all he can do, and this work should be taken up and continued by New Testament scholars and theologians. (The only existing theological treatment that I can think of that reminds me of Walton’s is the chapter on the fall of man in C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, though I’m sure Lewis would hesitate to call himself a theologian).

But even if some of the propositions in this book that touch on the New Testament and theology end up being revised in the future, I applaud Walton for what he has done: take an honest, irenic look at Genesis 2–3 in the light of what we now know about the ancient world and attempt to discern what it might mean for us today.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

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