I’ve been thinking (still) about the historical Adam issue. It surprises me that I haven’t seen anyone (yet — perhaps one of you knows an exception) address the grammatical-syntactical issue as it relates to “Adam” in Genesis 1-5. I speak specifically of the fact that Hebrew grammar does not tolerate a definite article with a proper personal noun. I can’t help wondering how this might influence the discussion, so I thought I’d share this with readers.

For those not acquainted with Hebrew grammar, like English, you cannot have the definite article (the word “the”) with a proper personal name. For instance, I’m not “the Mike”; I’m just “Mike.” I brought up this issue before on the blog as it relates to the Hebrew noun satan in the OT. All of the occurrences of this term in Job 1-2 and Zech 3 have the definite article, and so satan is not a proper personal noun (“Satan”) in the OT by rule of Hebrew grammar.1 The well-known Hebrew Jouon-Muraoka biblical Hebrew reference grammar (Par. 137.b) puts it this way:

Proper nouns are in themselves determinate, since they designate unique beings. Therefore they do not take any determining element. Thus they cannot be followed by a determinate (nor indeterminate,  131 no) genitive. Likewise they do not take the article, apart from some whose appellative value is still being felt …

In other words, when a noun has come to be understood as a proper personal name, the article is not used, since its definite character (in this case, as a person) is understood.

All this means that the Hebrew word ‘adam, frequently translated indiscriminately as “Adam” in English Bibles, could (should?) be translated as follows:

1. ‘adam with the definite article (ha-‘adam) = avoiding the proper name, and so: “humankind”; “the man”; “humanity”; “man” (definite collective); “the human”; or “this human” (with the article having demonstrative force).

2. ‘adam with no definite article could be rendered either generally as “a man” or “a human,” or as the proper name, “Adam.”

What would this make Genesis look like? Perhaps a better question might be, “How much of the early chapters of Genesis could be read generically as the story of “humankind” (including the female human)?” Or, “at what point does the text require us to use the proper name “Adam”? What follows is experimental, so we can see ourselves. I’ll start with Gen 1:26, boldfacing ha-‘adam (the noun with the article) and using blue when ‘adam is without the article. You’ll notice the usage without the article is rare. References to “a woman” are in pink. Alternate words for “man” (e.g., ‘ish) are in green.

Genesis 1

26 Then God said, “Let us make a human in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created the humans in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Genesis 2

1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. 5 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, 6 and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground, 7 then the Lord God formed the human of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature. 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the human  whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. 14 And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. 15 The Lord God took the human and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the human, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” 18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that this human should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” 19 Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the human to see what he would call them. And whatever the human called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The human gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for a human there was not found a helper fit for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the human, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the human he made into a woman and brought her to the human. 23 Then the human said,

This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called “woman,”
because she was taken out of “man” (the word here is not ‘adam, but ‘ish)

24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the human and his woman were both naked and were not ashamed.


This brings us to Genesis 3 and the Fall, of course, but a few things are apparent, or at least worth thinking about:

1. It’s quite possible to read Genesis 1-2 without thinking that the two humans in the story are specific people.

2. This generic flavor can be easily maintained in chapter 3 until 3:21 (fully through the fall episode), where the woman is named (chavvah – there is no definite article;”Eve”). However, 3:20 could be rendered thusly:

20The human called his wife’s name “Life,” because she was the mother of all living.

Of more difficulty is 3:21, where ‘adam lacks the article and is awkward to translate as anything other than a proper name:

21And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.

The problem here, of course, is that the consonantal text behind “for Adam” (le-‘adam) could be pointed with a definite article (the pointing was added in the Middle Ages), since the prefixed preposition subsumes the place of the patach vowel that goes with the “h” definite article when it “collides” with the article in spelling (i.e., it could be pointed la-‘adam and thus rendered “When the Lord God made for the human and for his wife …”). All we have is the Masoretic tradition with respect to taking the form “as is” without the definite article.

3. Once we get out of Genesis 3, Adam is very likely a proper name in the following verses:

4:1 – Now the man knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” (This one is odd – although I can’t translate ha-‘adam as the proper name “Adam” due to the presence of the article, since it is partnered with “Eve/chavvah his wife,” and chavvah has no article, it clearly points to a particular individual).

4:25 – Adam had sexual relations with his wife again, and she gave birth to another son. (no definite article, plus the children are given proper names)

5:1 – This is the written account of the descendants of Adam. When God created a human, and made them to be like himself (both forms lack the article, but the second cannot be a proper name, since the referent it pluralized “them”; Genesis 5:2’s occurrence of ‘adam without the article must be taken the same way for the same reason: “He created them male and female, and he blessed them and called them ‘human‘.”)

5:3 – When Adam was 130 years old, he became the father of a son … (the son is named, so it makes sense for the ‘adam with no article to be specific in meaning as a proper name).

5:4 – After the birth of Seth, Adam lived another 800 years, and he had other sons and daughters (ditto the above reasoning)

5:5 – Adam lived 930 years, and then he died. (humanity is older than 930 years, so this is a proper name!)

4. Even if ‘adam is generic, there are features of the story that are (not surprisingly) un-scientific — that is, they cannot accommodate to evolutionary theory (e.g., the human is able to speak immediately after creation). Sure, there are imaginative ways to explain that, based on certain presumptions (“speech was enabled as part of whatever God did or planned at some evolutionary breakthrough to homo sapiens, and so the story reflects that”), but that is a theological statement (which isn’t a sin, mind you).

5. You have to wonder why there is a switch to ‘ish from ‘adam in Gen 2:23-24. The word appears in Gen 3, 4 in some “husbandly” contexts, but is that how to see it in 2:23-24?

In a future post, we’ll see how this looks if we assume the creation stories of Gen 1 and Gen 2 are distinct, having been written by different hands at different times (deriving from sources or not). Finally, I plan to take a look at the clues within the text as a whole that could genuinely point to non-Adamic humans and how Genesis 1-2 could be read differently taking the text just as it is.

Again, just thinking out loud, so to speak.

  1. See the video here illustrating this point via computer searching.