Genesis 3:6-8 provides a sobering look into the human condition:
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.
This familiar passage records the first instance of human sin—the event that set the downward spiral of the precious creation of God in motion.
However, it also creates a theological puzzle for some. The passage here teaches that the Lord was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, looking for Adam.
Believe it or not, there’s a legitimate question here, because how one sees this passage could actually lead one to find a particular genre of writing in the text. Let me set up the problem, and then we’ll discuss some of the ways theologians wrestle with this passage.
The Bible tells us some things about the nature of God. It directly tells us he is a spirit (John 4:24), he made the world and everything in it and dwells in a temple not made with hands (Acts 17:24), he is immortal and no man can see him (1 Timothy 6:16), and he is eternal and invisible (1 Timothy 1:17).
Indirectly, we can infer similar things from the text of the Bible. For example, the Bible assumes God exists from the very first verse. That verse, Genesis 1:1, says “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
There is no word for “universe” in Hebrew—“the heavens and the earth” is a Hebrew merism, where two contrasting parts are used to indicate the whole. Thus, the point is everything other than God was created by God.
But if all that is true—no one has seen God and he is immaterial by nature—how could he walk with Adam in the garden?
This problem is compounded by the fact that God tells Moses in Exodus 33:20, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.” So if someone were to see God, he would die!
How do we resolve this puzzle?
Over the years I have heard different positions that aim to account for this odd passage of Scripture:
It is merely a theophany.
It is merely anthropomorphic language.
It is both a theophany and anthropomorphic language.
At first glance this may not seem like such a big deal, but based on what may be argued given the conclusion one reaches, it quickly becomes one.
William Lane Craig, for example, argues that this passage utilizes merely anthropomorphic language, which would ostensibly place it squarely within the “mytho-historical” interpretation he has offered as of late.1
We’ll define and discuss each of these solutions in turn.
Merely a Theophany?
A theophany refers broadly to a human-form or otherwise human-perceptible manifestation of Yahweh.2
The verses in question would seem to evidence a visual manifestation of Yahweh—a theophany. The Lexham Bible Dictionary (LBD) defines the term as such:
A theophany is an appearance of God that people can discern—not all appearances of God are recognized by people. The term comes from the Greek theos, “god,” and the verb phaino, “to appear” or “be revealed.”
Since people cannot possibly process God’s nature as a disembodied, formless spirit, theophany allows God to make His presence known in a physical way that people can discern through their senses. Theophanies also address the problem in the Old Testament that people cannot withstand direct contact with the unfiltered divine presence (Exod 33:20; compare Deut. 5:24; Judg. 6:22, 23; 13:22). Theophany both protects people, and allows for contact with God.
Theophanies in the Old Testament occur when God takes form in the natural world, as a phenomena (like wind, spirit, or the burning bush) or when God takes human form (like the Angel of Yahweh).3
Does this event in Scripture qualify?
There are varying opinions. Some believe that this event does not qualify because there is language missing that seems to be present in other pericopes which are ostensibly more obvious instances of theophany.
Craig argues along these lines in response to a questioner:
There are lots of theophanies in the Old Testament. But is that the most plausible interpretation of Genesis 2-3? I raised two reasons for thinking that it is not: (1) Genesis 2-3 lack the language indicative of a theophany. In Genesis 18.1 we read, “And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre. . . .” There is nothing like that in Genesis 2-3. (2) God is described anthropomorphically in Genesis 2-3 even when He is not appearing to anyone. The first example is in the description of His fashioning Adam out of the dust of the earth and breathing into his nostrils the breath of life. This cannot be an appearance to Adam because Adam wasn’t even alive yet! The second example is God’s fashioning Eve out of Adam’s rib. Since God had put Adam to sleep to perform this surgery, God cannot be appearing to Adam, since he is unconscious (and, of course, Eve doesn’t even exist yet, so God isn’t appearing to her).
Now you challenge my first reason for thinking that Genesis 2-3 are not describing theophanies. You point out that the language of “appearing” is absent from some theophanies. Consider the cases cited from the Pentateuch, since these are the relevant cases for Genesis. Notice that although Jacob’s wrestling with a man in Genesis 32.22-30 does not use the language of God’s appearing to him, it is so characterized in retrospect: “God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name’” (Gen 35.9-10), the very re-naming of Jacob mentioned in the wrestling episode. Similarly, Genesis 35.1 says, “God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there; and make there an altar to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau,” referring back to Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28.10-17. Jacob’s life was apparently punctuated by a series of divine theophanies providentially directing Jacob.
In some cases there are other expressions that tip off the reader that one is dealing with a theophany. For example, in the appearance to Hagar [n.b. not Exodus 3.7-13, but Genesis 16.7-13], we encounter the mysterious figure of “the angel of the Lord,” who is described as an angel and yet also as Lord and God. In Genesis 31.3-13 Jacob describes a similar figure in a dream who is both “the angel of God” (v 11) and yet “the God of Bethel” (v 13), Who, you’ll remember, appeared to Jacob there (Genesis 35.1). In the appearance to Moses in Exodus 3.2, we read, “the angel of the Lord appeared to him.”
Now in Genesis 2-3 this sort of language is entirely missing. There is neither language of God’s appearing nor of the mysterious angel of the Lord. These stories just don’t read like theophanies.
Taken together with my second point, that in Genesis 2-3 God is described anthropomorphically even when He is not appearing to anyone, I think that construing the human descriptions of God in Genesis 2-3 as literary anthropomorphisms is more plausible than taking them to be literal theophanies.
Prima facie, Craig makes a compelling case. However, there is one a priori assumption undergirding his response which threatens the entire argument: Although the language of appearance nor the language of the angel is present here, why think we must look for them?
Given how Old Testament scholars define the term theophany, there is quite a broad range of applications. Here’s the LBD on manifestations in the Old Testament:
In the Old Testament, God appears in various ways—including as a force of nature. These forms are manifested in storms, accompanied by thunder and lightning (Exod 19:16; 2 Sam 22:12–16; Pss 18:9–12 [MT 10–13]; Amos 1:2; Zech 9:14). Closely associated with these natural appearances is God’s manifestation in the form of fire (Gen 15:7; Exod 3:2; 19:18; Deut 1:33; Judg 6:21; 2 Chr 7:1; Neh 9:12, 19) and smoke (Exod 19:18; 2 Sam 22:9; Psa 18:18; Isa 4:5; 6:4). God’s presence is sometimes accompanied by things similar to volcanic activity (Exod 19:18; Deut 4:11; Pss 97:5; 104:32; Nah 1:5, 6) as well as earthquakes (Exod 19:16–25; Pss 68:7–8; Isa 29:5–6), and clouds (Exod 13:21; 34:5; Num 9:15–22; Ezek 1:4).
Outside of these elemental theophanies, God is pictured in human forms as well. Adam and Eve hear the sound of God walking in Eden (Gen 3:8), Abraham is visited by three men at Mamre (Gen 18:1–2), Jacob wrestles with God as he appears as a man (Gen 32:24, 28), and Moses views God’s back (Exod 33:18–23). The Angel of the Lord, who conveys divine messages (Gen 16:7–12; 21:17–18; Num 22:32–35), sometimes turns out to be God himself (Gen 18:16–17; Num 22:22–35; Judg 6:11–23; 13:3–22; Zech 3:1–2). God also appears as a divine warrior, leading Israel into battle (Exod 15; Deut 33:2; Psa 24:8) and at times fighting against Israel because of their disobedience (Isa 9:8–10:11 [MT 9:7–10]; Mic 1).4
As is made clear from visiting even a few of the above-referenced passages, for scholars of the Old Testament, no such restriction as “appearance language” or “the mysterious Angel of the Lord” is made on classifying a theophanic manifestation.
Thus, Craig’s assessment on this point assumes what it trying to prove by improperly defining the criteria for an Old Testament theophany.
But more to the point, the passage does not seem to be merely theophanic in nature. It does seem to include anthropomorphic language; that is, language that attributes human characteristics to God. We’ll return to the synthesis of these concepts in a moment.
For now, let’s discuss if the language contained in this pericope could be merely anthropomorphic.
Merely Anthropomorphic Language?
I mentioned above that it may not be immediately obvious why such an obscure-sounding issue matters—I also hinted that it may have something to do with identifying the genre of a text.
In fact, this is the trajectory Craig leans upon in his argument for taking this pericope as a mere “literary anthropomorphism.” For if this instance and others like it recorded in Genesis 2-3 are not theophanic but are merely anthropomorphic, they could properly belong to the folkloric category of myth.5
Craig explains further:
Read in light of Genesis 3, God’s creation of Adam in Genesis 2 takes on an anthropomorphic character as well. Here God is portrayed (like the Mesopotamian goddess Nintur shaping bits of clay into a human being, or the Egyptian God Khnum sitting at his potter’s wheel forming man) as fashioning man out of the dust of the ground and then breathing into his nostrils the breath of life so that the earthen figure comes to life. We’re not told whether God similarly formed the animals when, “out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and bird of the air” (Genesis 2:19) but we can’t help but wonder if they weren’t formed in the same way as man. When God takes one of the sleeping Adam’s ribs, closes up the flesh, and builds a woman out of it, the story sounds like a physical surgery which God performs on Adam, followed by his building a woman out of the extracted body part. Similarly, given God’s bodily presence in the Garden, the conversations between God and the protagonists in the story of the Fall (namely Adam, Eve, and the serpent) read like a dialogue between persons who are physically present to one another. God’s making garments for Adam and Eve out of animal skins and driving them out of the Garden sound again like physical acts by the humanoid God. Given the exalted transcendent nature of God described in the creation story, the Pentateuchal author could not possibly have intended these anthropomorphic descriptions to be taken literally. They are in the figurative language of myth.
For Craig then, these instances (along with others he mentions about the water cycle and tree of life) are “fantastic” (palpably false) and are therefore intended to be figurative and symbolic.
To clarify the significance of this, if Craig can show that this passage utilizes merely literary anthropomorphism, he can avoid the need to interpret this passage as though the events took place as stated—a view that the theophanic interpretation would require.
But to what does he appeal to take this position? In the above quotation which is most directly applicable to the question asked by this article, he seems to appeal to two places:
The existence of the “clay” motif found in other ancient sources.
The contrast between the “exalted nature of God” in the creation story and what would seem to be implied by taking these descriptions literally.
With respect to the first, I find this an odd position for Craig to take. The reason is that he denies a functional (or, vocational) view of the image of God because the closest ancient Near Eastern (ANE) parallel to the idea he could find in his research comes out of Egypt, where the image is tied to incarnation—an obvious departure from the biblical account. In a similar fashion, as we’ll see, the biblical account seems to starkly contrast those Craig mentions.
Craig also readily denies the notion that the stories in Genesis have been merely borrowed from other cultures and demythologized. But given all of these were written down prior to the biblical account, he would seem forced to take a sort of “shared history” position when it comes to ANE parallels—meaning the reason for the similarities in the text is the shared history these people groups once had prior to the dispersion at Babel in Genesis 11.
But if this is the case, we need not assume Genesis shares the same genre as these other texts! Instead, we can look to the Genesis story for the true, historical description, and take the other occurrences throughout the ANE as distortions of the true event.
Now this may seem like special pleading at first, but I think there are at least three reasons to think it is not.
First, there are many clear differences between the way the account is recorded in Genesis and the way these accounts are presented in ANE literature.6 This is a giant topic and one we cannot spend time on here. Suffice it to say that in nearly all cases, reading the creation account in Genesis beside even the closest of similar accounts from around the ancient world reveals drastic differences, a contention Craig agrees with.
Thus, for Craig to appeal to similarity with other myths here seems to contradict his belief in how strikingly different these passages are when compared to others from around the ANE.
Second, these texts give every expected indication of Hebrew historical narrative. In their paper Genesis 1-11 as Historical Narrative, Phillips and Fouts provide 11 reasons to think these portions of Scripture represent Hebrew historical narrative.
In short, there are numerous grammatical, contextual, and theological reasons to believe that Genesis 1-11 is Hebrew historical narrative. Included among the implications which follow from such a position are that 1) humanity’s origin is taken back to Adam on Day Six of the Creation Week; 2) the age of humanity is directly tied to and derivable from the historical “chrono-genealogies” in Genesis 5 and 11; and 3) the burden of exegetical proof rests on anyone who interprets the days of the creation week to mean anything other than 24 hour days.
Since these passages were written in Biblical Hebrew, we should use what is known of Biblical Hebrew texts in to determine their genre. While symbolic and/or figurative writing can certainly contain historical information, the degree to which the information is historical is quite vague.7 Since these passages are likely written narratively, the biblical clay motif is most plausibly to be read in factual terms.
Third and finally, the biblical clay motif is written more realistically—that is to say, it actually lacks the sort of fantastic detail that the extra biblical accounts Craig mentions contain. This seems to be the case with respect to other pericopes in Genesis 1-11 as well, such as the flood story. Opinions vary widely. Some think the biblical flood never happened, some think it was only regional, some think it was worldwide, etc.
However, one virtually undeniable fact is that the biblical flood story is more realistic than any other of Israel’s neighbors as studies (like this one) have shown. We have also covered some of that material before, here.
In Genesis 3, notice that we do not see any mention of the potter’s wheel, an exaggerated explanation of shaping the individual, or anything of the sort. The text merely says, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
This is hardly fantastic or surprising; after all, Jesus uses clay to heal/restore a blind man during his earthly ministry. How might God have described this account differently for ancient readers whose vocabulary lacked scientific precision?
In fact, the stark difference brings to mind another stark difference which Craig often mentions himself in debates and lectures: The legendary retelling of the empty tomb story found in the pseudepigraphical Gospel of Peter, which contains such fantastic details as a talking cross which extends up into the heavens!
Critics argue that the canonical gospel accounts do in fact include legendary details though, such as the angel who was present. How does Craig anticipate this notion? Here’s the fourth leg of his argument for the historicity of the empty tomb narrative:
4. The nature of the narrative itself is theologically unadorned and nonapologetic. The resurrection is not described, and we have noted the lack of later theological motifs that a late legend might be expected to contain. This suggests the account is primitive and factual, even if dramatization occurs in the role of the angel.
Notice that, on the basis of what is missing, Craig concludes we have historical writing here, despite the fact that one motif might have some sort of literary “dramatization.” This does not lead him to conclude it is not factual. Now, if Craig were responding to my accusation, he might take issue because of the genre of the gospels.
But that just is the issue! Sure—the gospels are demonstrably Greco-Roman biography. And I believe that the narratives in Genesis are demonstrably Hebrew historical narrative. On that assumption, a mere reference to God’s forming man from dust is hardly like anything we see in the ancient Near Eastern world.
For these reasons and more, I believe Craig’s first reason, the clay motif, is not sufficient to show that this account is mythological in nature.8
The Exalted Nature of God
The second of Craig’s reasons, which I have paraphrased as, “The contrast between the ‘exalted nature of God’ in the creation story and what would seem to be implied by taking these descriptions literally,” seems extremely vague.
It seems to me the entire biblical record is clear about the exalted transcendent nature of God, and yet, it describes his interactions with humankind within spacio-temporal history.
Theologically, it would seem preferable to read the account this way! In ANE traditions, humanity is an afterthought. They are created to be subservient to the gods, do their bidding, feed them, etc.
In contrast, the biblical record presents the one, true transcendent creator God who wanted a human family, and so created mankind in his image that he may be able to love and commune with God. And in fact, he is not far removed, but rather has a regular, in-present, communal relationship with those whom he first created.
Therefore, the very fact which Craig thinks undermines taking this anthropomorphism literally actually seems to argue for taking it literally.
Is It Both?
As is the case with many things in biblical interpretation, this may not be an “either/or” but rather a case of “both/and.”
That is not to say that two contradictory notions can be true at the same time. It is merely to say that one identification may not necessarily rule out another. For example, can a passage be poetic and historical? Of course! Look no further than the song of Deborah in Judges 5.
We have seen good reason to think that the passage in question, Genesis 3, has the hallmarks of both theophanic appearance and literary anthropomorphism. To take one view over the other does not do justice to the text.
In fact, Heiser’s textual note in the Faithlife Study Bible argues that it is both:
This signals that the writer wants the reader to picture God as a human being (an anthropomorphism) present in the garden of Eden. This is the first theophany in the OT—an appearance of God to human beings in a manner that can be processed by the human senses.9
Thus, it simply strains the text to imagine it is theophanic over anthropomorphic, or vice versa.
What Does it All Mean?
As we have seen, while it may not appear significant at first glance, it turns out that if this passage can be said to be merely anthropomorphic, it may lend credence to the notion that this passage is “mytho-historical,” or at least contains mythic elements.
But the evidence just does not bear this out. Instead we have seen reason to think that Old Testament scholars have correctly identified this as a theophanic appearance, which places it in the theologically satisfying position of being a literal view into God’s close communion with and condescension to his human imagers—right from the very beginning.
- See here for his discussion of this passage.
- The human-form theophanies in the OT are often referred to as Christophanies on the basis that these appearances of God are best explained as pre-incarnate manifestations of the Second Person of the Trinity. (Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Theophany. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 2052). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.)
- Heiser, M. S. (2012, 2016). Theophany in the Old Testament. In Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
- Montonini, M. D. (2016). Theophany. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
- Although I am not sympathetic to Craig’s view here, it should also be stressed that we not take the word “myth” to mean something like “fairytale” as it does today. Craig spends no little time making sure his readers understand that “myth,” in the sense he is using the term, describes etiological concerns about a respective people group. That it to say, it details the origin story of a people group. Now, it should also be made clear that the definition of “myth” is not agreed upon by scholars. John Oswalt has a lengthy discussion of this term in his book the Bible Among the Myths which is worth checking out. For our purposes, though, it would be prudent to understand how the term is being defined by the person who holds the view being critiqued.
- For some scholarly thoughts around this theme, see Noel Weeks here.
- This is not my claim; Craig affirms this in lectures and interviews when asked, such as this one.
- It’s clear from the quote above that Craig has other reasons from the text to think this account is figurative. In his writings and lectures, he mentions the cherubim, tree of life, the creation of Eve from Adam’s Rib, and others. I have not dealt with each of these here for two reasons. First, they would each take a very long time to unpack. Suffice it to say I think they fall subject to many of the same criticisms. Secondly, none of these deal directly with the question of how literally we should take the story of Adam’s creation and God’s interaction with him as closely as the ones I am addressing. And if my arguments here go through, it would seem to imply a literal view of many of these other alleged literary motifs as well.
- Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Ge 3:8). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
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