The series “Characters in the Bible” is based on catechism classes I teach to teenagers in my church in 2019-20. However, the blog posts contain additional information.
Adam and Eve are the first two human beings who lived on the earth. The name Adam really simply means “human being”. His wife is initially called “woman” (Heb. isha) until Gen 3:20. Then, her husband calls her Eve (Heb. hava), which means “life”. The names of Adam and Eve clearly designate their importance. Adam functions as the representative of the human race; and in Eve we find the profound ability of the woman to carry new life and bring forth generation upon generation of new human beings.
Because of these roles of Adam and Eve, it is difficult to speak of them as individuals, without speaking more generally about human beings. But that is the point of the Biblical narrative in Gen 1 through 3: in Adam and Eve we see our ancestors and therefore, by representation and example, ourselves.
According to the Bible, Adam and Eve were the first human beings. There is no room for the theory of “humanoids”, where human beings developed from almost-human animals. Genesis 2 says that God “formed the man of the dust of the ground” (2:7) and the woman from one of his ribs (2:21).
In the creation story, human beings stand out in three ways. First, they are created last. The case can be made that all prior creation, of the light and the sky and the soil and the plants and the sun and the moon, was meant to provide and furnish a home for human beings. Genesis 1 describes the transformation of a cold and dead planet into one where people can live fulfilling lives.
Second, their creation seems more deliberate than the other features of the earth. According to Gen 1:26, God said: “Let us make (hu)man in our image …” There has been much discussion about the plural, “us”. Some think it refers to the angels (or “eons”) who were God’s helping servants in the work of creation. Others consider this the first sign of the Triune nature of God. Indeed, apart from the speaking God we also find the Spirit of God (1:2), and John 1:1-3 identifies the Son of God as “the Word” … “through whom all things came into existence.” Whatever the case may be, all of God’s attention and wisdom is involved in the design and creation of people.
Third, the creation of man and woman is immediately followed by a blessing: “Be fruitful and multiply, fulfill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” over the animals. The first part of this blessing, fertility, humans share with the animals (see 1:22). The second part of the blessing, dominion, they share with the celestial bodies (see 1:18).
What is a human being? If we take as starting point the poem of Gen 1:27, two essential characteristics stand out.
First, human beings are created in the image of God. This quality does not only apply to Adam and his wife, but also to his offspring (see 5:3). Theologians have discussed at length exactly how we are the image of God. Some have even distinguished between the image of God and the likeness of God (the two words in Gen 1:26). It seems fruitful to speak about the “image of God” in two senses, the broader sense and the narrower sense.
In the broader sense, as human beings we are the image of God in our intelligent thought, our consciousness, our role as moral agents, and our creativity. In all these characteristics, we all reflect our Creator-God in a way that the animals don’t. This essence of human beings as image bearers makes human life especially precious and inviolable. This is why it is such as serious offense to kill a human (compared to killing an animal):
“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.” (Gen 9:6)
In the narrow sense, human beings were created with moral perfections. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (q&a 6),
“God created man good and in his image,
that is, in true righteousness and holiness,
so that he might rightly know God his Creator,
heartily love him,
and live with him in eternal blessedness
to praise and glorify him.”
This perfection Adam and Eve possessed for a little while before their Fall (see below). The rest of the history of mankind may be understood in terms of the dire consequences of the loss of this image, and the quest for recovering it. In fact, the New Testament describes salvation as “to be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Rom 8:29), and as putting on a “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10).
The second essential feature of humans, according to Gen 1:27, is their sexuality. “Male and female he created them,” the Hebrew words emphasizing the biological functions of men and women. There are, of course, many significant differences between people, but the creation narrative mentions only one: their sexual differentiation. This presentation of sexuality in the Bible is difficult to square with the modern relativism concerning gender and sex.
While the entire earth had been created “very good”, Adam and Eve were initially placed in a special region, a garden planted in the land of Eden (2:8).
What was their life like? The job description in Gen 2:15 is “to work and keep the garden”. This combination of verbs is interesting, as both are also used in the Bible for priests working in the sanctuary. We can think of the garden of Eden as a sanctuary, a sacred grove, in which Adam and Eve were the priests.
The blessing of Gen 1:28 has been called the culture mandate: “”Be fruitful and multiply, fulfill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…” This describes an important part of what people do (and are supposed to do) on earth. But I would that the highest mandate of humankind is to be priests: they worship the Lord on behalf of all creation and distribute his gifts and blessing to the whole earth.
The description in Gen 3:8 suggests that Adam and Eve had intimate fellowship with the LORD in a tangible way, as he “walked” with them in the garden like a friend and tutor.
The relationship of God with Adam and Even in the garden is sometimes called the covenant of works. “Covenant,” because it follows the pattern of the rest of the Bible, of an unequal, beneficent partnership that may be summarized as: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” The addition “of works” suggests that Adam and Eve maintained the covenant on their part by faithfully doing their work. The Westminster Confession of Faith explains: “life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.2).
(I am not fond of the expression “covenant of works”. Rather, I would emphasize that, just as God’s people today, were included in a gracious covenant. The creator of the world condescended to have fellowship with them and love them, asking nothing in return but loyalty. While the commandment in Gen 2:16-17 may be understood as a formal condition, it is not the heart of the covenant.)
The idyllic situation of the Garden of Eden—or Paradise, as the Jews would call it later—did not last long. Just as Genesis 1 is necessary to understand our essence and Genesis 2 for our culture, so Genesis 3 is needed to understand our imperfection, failure, and misery.
In Gen 3 we encounter evil in the form of the Serpent; the question how this agent of evil could be present in a good creation is not answered in the Bible. The Serpent places before the woman, and indirectly the man, the core temptation: will they be content being humans serving as priests to God, or will they desire to be elevated to gods?
The rest, as they say, is history: through Adam and Eve, humankind has chosen to be like gods. This choice was rebellious, violating the boundary between Creator and creature and disrespecting the covenantal relationship. It was also disastrous, because human beings cannot flourish apart from fellowship with God, let alone make god-like decisions concerning right and wrong.
Beforehand, God had warned Adam and Eve about the consequence of this sin. “You will surely die” (2:17). Death is both a natural effect and a divine punishment; and the fact that the man and his wife did not die immediately shows God’s grace, as well as his plan to provide a solution for this evil.
The consequences of sin for Adam and Eve are hard, and they explain many aspects of our lives today.
First, they now recognize and experience the existence of evil, both within themselves and in the world around them. They can no longer stand the presence of God but hide behind the bushes. They no longer have the innocence in which they walked around naked, but feel exposed and vulnerable, and want to protect themselves with clothing.
Second, they can no longer live in the perfection of Paradise, in the highest sanctuary of God on earth. They are removed to outside the Garden of Eden, where life is hard work. Both man and woman are condemned to “hard labor”: the man will make his living by sweaty work, and the woman will give birth in serious pain.
Third, all of the world lies now under a curse because of their rebellion. In Rom 8:19, Paul summarized this by saying that “the creation is subject to futility”, in “bondage to corruption”.
Fourth, although Adam and Eve did not die immediately, they became mortal and died eventually. They passed their mortality on to their offspring, as brought out by the refrain in Genesis 5: “… and he died.” Not only mortality is passed on, but also sin; we confess that we are “conceived and born in sin,” that we inherit both guilt and sinful tendencies from our parents. In the words of Romans 5:12, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”
To say that Adam and Eve messed up seriously is an understatement. The contrast between the perfection of Eden and the cursed, death-infested life outside is too big to fathom. Our first ancestors had every reason to be depressed and despondent.
But they had hope. They received that hope when the LORD also cursed the Serpent, that agent of evil among them. Genesis 3:15 is a riddle, but it was clear enough to give Adam and Eve the conviction that God would turn around the situation.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:15)
This verse has been called the mother promise or the proto-evangel, because it is the first good news of salvation for fallen humankind. In this verse, “I” is the LORD and “you” is the Serpent; and so the LORD declares war between humankind and evil. While evil will be able to “bruise the heel” of humankind, eventually a man will crush the head of the Serpent, taking the power away from evil and removing the sting of death.
In this verse, the Christian church has always seen the first announcement of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible calls him the “second Adam”, because like Adam he will be the representative of humankind; not the original, fallen human beings, but those who will be saved by the grace of God and through faith.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. (Rom 5:18)