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Hommage à Apollinaire
Marc Chagall

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

    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.