This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr. Craig,
Thank you for your recent work in Genesis and the nature of Adam and Eve; it has been a great help to a friend deeply struggling with the nature of the Genesis text.
I have a question on this topic: In your Defenders 3: Excursus on Creation of Life and Biological Diversity (Part 21), you argue that YHWH’s walking in Eden in Genesis 2-3 is distinct from other Old Testament theophanies because the text does not say that YHWH “appeared” to Adam and Eve, as it does in YHWH’s encounter with Abraham in Genesis 18:1-2 (see also Exodus 3:2 and Judges 6:12).
However, several other Old Testament theophanies also do not include language to the effect that YHWH “appeared”: 1) Joshua 5:13-15; the Commander of YHWH’s armies stands before Joshua. 2) Exodus 3:7-13; the angel of YHWH found Hagar and spoke to her. 3) Genesis 32:22-30; a man (identified as God) comes and wrestles with Jacob. Thus, the language of “appearing” cannot be a necessary condition for theophanic encounters with YHWH in physical form, and God’s walking in Eden in Genesis 2-3 is not distinct in genre from these other theophany passages. This is not to say I think all of these theophanies are wholly literal or wholly non-literal; rather, my point is that descriptions of God’s walking in Eden are cut from the same literary cloth as other Old Testament theophanies.
Wouldn’t you agree that a better route is to say that all theophany passages—whether or not they include “appearing” language—elude the literal/non-literal binary as the Hebrew authors creatively grapple with language to describe personal encounters with YHWH himself?
Dr. William Lane Craig's Response
For readers who lack the background, let me set the stage for your very important question, Thomas. In my Defenders lectures I claimed that the descriptions of God in Genesis 2-3 as a humanoid deity are inconsistent with the transcendent concept of God in Genesis 1 and are therefore not to be taken literally. Rather these descriptions are figurative anthropomorphisms, descriptions of God in human terms, a style of speaking with which we’re all accustomed, as when we say, for example, “God’s eyes are upon the righteous and His ear is open to their prayer.”
The challenge raised to this interpretation of Genesis 2-3 is that in these chapters we have theophanies of God, that is, appearances of God in human form. Yes, God really is transcendent, but here God appears to people in human form. For example, in Genesis 18 God appears as a man to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre. Therefore, the descriptions are literally true of how God looks to people.
Now that’s certainly a possible interpretation. 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.
This Q&A and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website.