A scriptural approach to this question will examine the narratives carefully to see if there is any internal evidence bearing on the question, and will look at other parts of Scripture, since the claim is often made that Jesus and Paul took these narratives literally meaning wholly literally. When the first man was created in Genesis 2 he was given no name. He is referred to throughout the narrative with the definite article: h~ ‘~d~m, “the man”. The Hebrew ‘~d~mis a collective noun meaning “the human race”, and used with the definite article it cannot be a personal name “Adam”. The Authorised Version is inconsistent in this respect since it translated the term as “the man” regularly up to verse 2:18 but in 19 suddenly switches to “Adam”, and then varies between “man” (once in each of 2:22; 2:25; 3:22; 3:24), and “Adam” (in the other occurrences). Eve only received her name after the curses for disobedience were pronounced (2:20), so the lack of any name for the first man is not strange. For an English translation “the man” is inadequate because it emphasises the one particular man, while the Hebrew term is generic. An ancient Hebrew author wanting to write: “the man”, meaning a particular man, would use the word ‘îsh and this is indeed used in 2:23, where there is a play on words: “woman” (‘ishshah) was taken from “man” (‘îsh) and in the following verse, 2:24, where the text refers to human males individually, not to the first man in the garden. (In 3:6 and 3:16 ‘îsh is also used, but meaning “husband”, not “man”). To convey the sense, h~ ‘~d~m could best be rendered “Man”, since the word does have a corporate overtone, but the capital gives it the individuality which the man in the narrative has.
There must be a reason why the inspired author chose ‘~d~m not‘îsh. The only hint in the narrative itself occurs in 2:7, where there is a play on words: “Man” (h~ ‘~d~m) was made from “dust of the ground (‘|d~m~h)”, which is abbreviated in 3:19 to “until you return to the ground (‘|d~m~h), for you were taken from it.” There is then a certain assonance between “man” and “ground.” The New Testament, however, suggests a further, or different explanation. That it uses the transliterated form Adam as a name is to be expected when the Greek Septuagint version does essentially what the Authorised Version does: it starts by rendering “the man”, but then switches to the proper name Adam. Hebrew readers and speakers would of course catch the meaning of Adam. Thus Paul writes, first quoting Genesis, then adding the opposite:
It is in this sense that scripture says, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living creature,’ whereas the last Adam has become a life-giving spirit … The first man is from the earth, made of dust: the second man is from heaven. The man made of dust is the pattern of all who are made of dust, and the heavenly man is the pattern of all the heavenly.’ (1 Cor. 15:45-48 REB)
Genesis 2:7, latter part only, is quoted here freely, and Paul makes sure that his Greek readers with perhaps no Hebrew will understand that ‘~d~m means ‘man’. But Paul here is not concerned with literal history. “Adam” was the first man, but Christ was neither (literally) second nor last. Nor did he literally come from heaven. Paul here sees “Adam” and Christ as two paradigms: the first of the natural way of life for our race, the second of the new way of life. This fits perfectly the Hebrew term ‘~d~m, “the human race”. Those in Christ are a new race. So, in Romans 7:9 Paul writes:
There was a time when, in the absence of law, I was fully alive; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. (REB)
In this spiritual autobiography Paul notes how as a Jewish boy he once lived in innocence, not yet bound by the terms of the Law, but when that responsibility came upon him he sinned and so
He did not die literally, but he is following here Genesis 2:17;
” in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (RSV).
The Hebrew idiom here
“dying you shall die”
gives merely emphasis, as is well known, and renderings such as
“you are surely doomed to die” (REB)
add something to the original to escape the problem that Adam did not die when he broke the commandment, but hundreds of years later. Paul clearly took the words in their grammatical sense, and so declared that when he sinned he spiritually died. Again he takes the narrative as a paradigm of all human life. It is somewhat pointless to press the question of literal or not here. If one does, one must declare that the sentence was not carried out, but commuted. Paul, however, takes the words to mean what they say, but obviously not in the sense of literal death. And Paul did not become mortal when he first sinned: he was mortal from birth.
“upon thy belly shalt thou go.”
Also it had the power of rational thought and human speech, which literal snakes do not. Finally, in the judgment:
“I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel,”
a literalist view must assume that a literal snake (though walking and with human mind and speech) is being judged, but the judgment on its seed refers to a symbolic serpent: the personification of moral evil. So by that interpretation a literal snake (though unlike any known to us) is condemned to become an actual snake such as we know, but the seed of the walking and talking snake is in effect ‘sin’ and no snake. This is an intellectual contortion surely better avoided, and the New Testament leads the way. Revelation 20:2–3 deals with the binding and imprisonment for the duration of the millennium of “the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan.” Christadelphians will need no convincing that here is no real snake, no matter how different from snakes known to us, but personification of human moral evil. This snake is dubbed ‘old’ because it was present with our first parents in the Garden of Eden.
Next: The figure of Eve