Help me understand better these biblical conundrums.
June 26, 2007 3:38 PM   Subscribe

I wish to continue a question that I posed in another thread to perhaps get some idea what others (either religious and not) thought of these two biblical situations...

My question:
From what I know for certain, the biblical christian god created only two human beings who he named Adam and Eve. There was no other person on the planet, no Georges or Christines.
So Adam and Eve were capable of having their own children. No problem there. So now we have two adult parents and possibly a multitude of children.
What happened then?
Was God's grand plan to populate the Earth's human race through incest?

And later in the thread from Cool Papa Bell at 2:55 PM on June 25...
"Keep going with that idea and you run into another genetic bottleneck when you come to Noah and his family. Every human being on earth was wiped out by the flood, right? So we're all descended from Noah and his family.

So how do you explain black folks, Asian folks and Native Americans? Was Noah's family the ultimate multi-racial family, or what?"

This is NOT intended to incite religious arguing, but to perhaps
posted by UnclePlayground to Religion & Philosophy (39 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: whoops, forgot to complete that last thought...

perhaps enlighten me, and possibly others who are interested.
posted by UnclePlayground at 3:39 PM on June 26, 2007

Well, it's not a scientifically accurate account of human origins. The authors clearly did not have a modern understanding of evolution and population genetics.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:45 PM on June 26, 2007

Did you try to Google for "Ham Shem Japheth" or looking at this?
posted by vacapinta at 3:55 PM on June 26, 2007

You don't necessarily need to believe that God literally created Adam and Eve from the dust of the ground to be Christian. The belief in the literal truth of the Bible is far less widespread in British churches than American, for instance.

Adam begot Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel. After that:
16 And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

17 And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.

18 And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech.

Do bear in mind the fact the succeeding verses mention that Adam lived nine hundred and thirty years when you are deciding whether to interpret Genesis literally or allegorically.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 3:56 PM on June 26, 2007

Didn't some Jews violate various food restrictions before Mosaic law was actually established? I was told that was the reason it wasn't a problem. Lot and his daughters, seems to have tacit approval from God. Also before the restriction was written down. Maybe we can assume there weren't recessive genetic defects back then.
posted by erikharmon at 3:59 PM on June 26, 2007

The story in Genesis tells about the first people. Why everyone seems to want to interpret that as meaning God only made those two is beyond me.

Also, the story is told twice. For some reason this was taken to mean that first God created A Man and A Woman, then later created A Man, took a rib, and created A (different) Woman.

There's way more tradition behind it than just the words. Most questions like this were answered via Midrash (at least to the satisfaction of the Jews).
posted by ArgentCorvid at 4:03 PM on June 26, 2007

Don't forget Lilith!
posted by milarepa at 4:13 PM on June 26, 2007

Was God's grand plan to populate the Earth's human race through incest?

Yes, we're all supposed to be directly descended from them. So yes to the incest.

So how do you explain black folks, Asian folks and Native Americans?

A JW friend of mine spoke of it a sort of evolutionary manner.
posted by DarkForest at 4:15 PM on June 26, 2007

Your question is nearly impossible to answer as it conflates science and biblical interpretation. That is sort of saying, "God created the land before the wind, but in forming land the gravitational pull of the earth would have attracted gasses, so he couldn't have created the land and then the earth, they would have been concurrent."

The bible isn't meant as a scientific explanation of things and it is only in our post-scientific revolution age that we try to apply our ideas of knowledge and the bible and try to make it fit. The idea of biblical literalism is tied with this and is really a modern concept in the way most people think about it. To illustrated, the bible clearly states that Cain and Able are the sons of Adam and Eve. Yet after Cain's exile he goes out and fathers children, even founding a city. The bible doesn't mention where these people come from and this should be early evidence that this is not a literal, historical account of how things were.

I have no recollection of attempts to rationalize these stories, even in Aquinas' numerous writings or earlier thinkers. They approached it as a theological text. Indeed, Aquinas is probably the best example of how people more or less ignored this up until his point in time. He was the first to try to reconcile natural sciences, that is Aristotelean secularism, with the bible. If this really interests you I suggest you go to him first.

I cannot speak for modern literalism as they often have all sorts of political agendas and they tend to cherry-pick. I find Aquinas flawed, but incredibly intellectually honest in his assessment. The most creative interpretation I have heard, applying modern science to literalism, had that Adam and Eve were genetically pure (whatever that means) and thus their offspring could breed with each other without the need for genetic diversity.

You're not going to find a good answer because it doesn't exist.
posted by geoff. at 4:20 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Is there any, however implausible, solution we could give that you could tell us God could not have used to work around this problem?

If not then we can't really answer the question.
posted by edd at 4:24 PM on June 26, 2007

Don't forget Lilith

Lilith was strictly a Jewish creation and not mentioned in the Jewish testament at all if I remember correctly. It was more or When you talk about biblical literalism, you talk strictly about the two testaments that constitute whatever version of the bible you happen to pick.

Even so I stress greatly that we come to this argument already very bias by our understanding of how the natural world works and the rigor of logic that we demand. I am not saying that 2,500 years ago they were all stupid, but the notion that you couldn't hold that Adam & Eve were created from God and then their offspring procreated with other people that weren't mentioned. Such scholarly debate did not occur to much later when many societal institutions were in place. Religion had a much different function that we need to just accept before pointing and believing our ancestors lacked basic coherent story telling ability.
posted by geoff. at 4:25 PM on June 26, 2007

Lilith just didn't make the final cut. She predated Judaism anyway, historically. The Sumerians had lilitu, female demons who hated men and ate babies. Abraham hearkened from Ur.
posted by erikharmon at 4:46 PM on June 26, 2007

The majority of Christians in the world do not believe that the bible should be read as historical, literal truth. The big three Christian sects (the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion, these three groups are nearly 65% of all Christians) believe that the Bible (especially the Old Testament) has many authors, from many different time frames.

For example, all three of these groups would agree that the creation story, including the creation of man, is a composite of two stories from two different sources.

The first is Genesis Chapter 1, which is from the so-called Priestly Sources (Rabbis at the Great Temple before the Babylonian exile). This is the story: On the first day God created the heavens and earth, on the second day,... on the sixth day, God created man and women, and said on to them "be fruitful and multiply."

The second is Genesis Chapter 2, which is from the so-called Yahawistic Tradition (the oldest source, more of a cultural, oral tradition). This story begins with God creating a garden, Eden, and lands beyond the garden. He plants in the garden, creates a man, then creates a companion for that man. This is the Adam and Eve story.

These two distinct stories are generally seen as complamentary of each other - each story deepening our understanding of God as the ultimate source of existence. Trying to reconcile all of this into a literal, historical text does not seem possible.

Indeed, if you wanted to push it though, you could easily argue that Man is in fact created by God twice in the Bible.
posted by Flood at 4:52 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Most of what geoff said.

I think the point is if that you go with the assumption that God did indeed create all of what we term "reality" (not just the earth or the universe but even time itself), and then created human life out of inanimate material, it shouldn't be *that* hard to make the leap that he could have figured out a way around recessive genetics in the earliest humans (like erikharmon said).

One of my favorite conundrums in this general line of thought is around the idea that God didn't create the stars until verse 16, long after he created light in verse 3, which is, as far as I've ever heard, the only plausible answer as to why we can see visible universe as far as 15 billion light years away whereas most evolutionary estimates of the earth's age are under 5 billion.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:00 PM on June 26, 2007

The question of bible literalism is an interesting one. You can either take the bible 100% literally (writers inspired by god), as it seems a lot of people are doing so these days, or you can decide that parts are either allegorical or just plain erroneous. You are either stuck with believing in incest, or believing the adam and eve story is allegorical.

But if you do that, then I would think that you'd have to be left wondering just what was allegory and what was fact in the bible, or indeed if the entire thing was possibly allegorical. Without divine direction, you would in essence be deciding for yourself what to believe. But the god of the old testament would certainly not brook with someone who was simply deciding themselves what to believe and how to worship.
posted by DarkForest at 5:09 PM on June 26, 2007

I'll answer twice:

Hi, I'm a regular Christian! I don't think the Bible is meant to be taken literally.

So now we have two adult parents and possibly a multitude of children.
What happened then?

That's not the point of the story. The point of (that part of) the story is that God in some way made the universe and everything in it, including you.

So how do you explain black folks, Asian folks and Native Americans?

Different peoples evolved differently because they found themselves in different environments. The story of Noah is not a story of family history and the origins of current mankind, it's a story of God starting to form covenants with his people.

Now... Hi, I'm a biblical literalist! Maybe a really stern Babtist or something.

So now we have two adult parents and possibly a multitude of children.
What happened then?

The Bible doesn't say, so we don't know.

Was God's grand plan to populate the Earth's human race through incest?

The Bible doesn't say, so we don't know. Maybe. We do know that God later condemns incest, so maybe not.

So how do you explain black folks, Asian folks and Native Americans?

The Bible doesn't say how that happened, so we don't know. Certainly not through godless evolution.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:10 PM on June 26, 2007

allkindsoftime writes "One of my favorite conundrums in this general line of thought is around the idea that God didn't create the stars until verse 16, long after he created light in verse 3, which is, as far as I've ever heard, the only plausible answer as to why we can see visible universe as far as 15 billion light years away whereas most evolutionary estimates of the earth's age are under 5 billion."

Huh? What would prevent that light from being emitted from its sources before the earth was formed? The earth formed during the transit time.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:43 PM on June 26, 2007

If you're asking how biblical literalists explain where the people that Cain and Abel married came from, I have heard more than one person say that they believed while Adam and Eve were messing around with the garden and having children and whatnot, God was creating other groups of people elsewhere and this was not mentioned in the Bible because, since these weren't the 'first' people, their creation wasn't as important.
posted by frobozz at 5:48 PM on June 26, 2007

As I understand the definition of "species" from 12th grade biology, it is defined as a class of organisms that can produce fertile offspring with other organisms in the species. Does that mean that one day in our evolutionary (not biblical) history, there were two people that emerged out of some other species (or multiple species), and they had a fertile offspring that could only produce fertile offspring with its brother/sister, and thus began the human species? If so, then I don't think the emergence of any species can be evolutionarily explained without at least some incest. Am I on the right track here?
posted by Eringatang at 5:55 PM on June 26, 2007

there were two people that emerged out of some other species... Am I on the right track here?

No, a new species does not emerge suddenly with 2 individuals.
posted by DarkForest at 6:22 PM on June 26, 2007

I've talked with a huge number of "Biblical literalists" and none has had a problem with the idea of racial adaptations to different climates and regions. I've never heard the basic principles of evolution disputed, only the idea that evolution is what led from specifically X to specifically Y. I think the sentiment that creationists don't "believe in evolution" is at best a misunderstanding and at worst a straw man.
allkindsoftime has a good point about God's hand in everything along the way. If He wants to then He can. Is it deceptive of Him to create natural laws then regularly break them (read:miracles)? I think that's a call everyone has to make on their own.

Don't read my comment as either a defense of one group or an attack on another. I'm just trying to elucidate an easily obfuscated controversy, as well as use big words.
posted by monkeymadness at 6:27 PM on June 26, 2007

Where did black people come from? Does it say anywhere in the Bible that Adam & Eve *weren't* black? I love the assumption people have that they must have been white - it's so perfectly racist that it underscores my opinion that anyone who believes in anything *like* literal Biblical (or Koranic or Talmudic) truth in things solidly countered by science is a bit of a fool.

But what I really hate is how many wonderful Jews, Christians and Muslims there are who 'get' science but still work to comprehend the mysteries of the religious allegories and metaphors of the holy books in the true, spiritual sense - only to see their fine work diminished or obscured by the mass of morons out there who are so lacking in education, open-mindedness and common sense that they've let otherwise admirable religions devolve to a state of intolerance and fundamentalist insanity - even in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth:

Only 13% of Americans believe both that evolution actually occurs and that God had nothing to do with it!

How sad it is.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:31 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Okay, looks like two questions. Incest, really? And: where did all of the races come from if it was just Noah's family?

From, The Watchtower, a theological publication: Was God fostering what is now called “incest” by arranging matters so that the first children of Adam would marry one another—brothers marrying sisters? No. For, in Adam’s original perfect state his children would have been born in perfection. (Deut. 32:4)

There would have been no family weaknesses to be passed on and accentuated by the marriage of near relatives, as is the case today, when the sinful human race has greatly deteriorated and many genetic defects exist. Even after Adam had sinned, his descendants lived as long as 969 years in the days before the Flood.—Gen. 5:27.

Accordingly, it took a long time for genetic defects to become so numerous and so grouped in family lines that it became dangerous to the offspring for close relatives to marry. Even Abraham, some 2,000 years after the creation of Adam, married his half sister. (Gen. 20:12) Not until God gave the Mosaic law (about 500 years later) did He prohibit close family marriage unions among the people of Israel.

If Adam and Eve had never sinned, then humans would have stayed physically perfect. Without the health consequences of incest and the associated social taboos, this isn't really much of an issue. Also, once there were a lot of grands and great-grands, I would think the incidences of actual incest would naturally start to lessen, regardless.

With help from Insight on the Scriptures, a Bible encyclopedia: Noah had 3 sons (and of course, three daughters-in-law who were not necessarily closely related)...and there are also 3 "races". Noah's 3 sons and their families all settled in different areas. According to Genesis 10:32, between them they had [b]70 offspring[/b].

Noah's son Japheth had 14 families that descended from him. Japheth is the Indo-European branch, the Aryans, the Caucasians. Genesis 10:5 indicates that from Japheth's line came the "coastland peoples". A number of these descendants are mentioned at various points in the Bible.

One of those descendants, Elishah, is mentioned in the 27th chapter of Ezekiel.

First century Jewish historian Josephus applied the name of Halisas (Elishah) to the Halisaens (Aeolians), one of the parent branches of the Greek peoples. (Jewish Antiquities, I, 127 [vi, 1]) By Ezekiel’s time the name Aeolis had come to designate only a portion of the W coast of Asia Minor. A similarity to the name of Elishah is noted in the district of Elis on the NW coast of the Peloponnesus (the southern peninsula of Greece). The Greeks are also known to have established colonies in southern Italy and on the island of Sicily, and the Aramaic Targum in commenting on Ezekiel 27:7 identifies Elishah as “the province of Italy.”

Noah's son Ham had 30 families descend from him, settling mainly in Africa and the Asian Peninsula. One notable member of that family line was Nimrod, who is responsible for Babel (Babylon) and great cities of Assyria. Another would be Canaan, forefather of Palestine.

Noah's son Shem had 26 families descend from him, the Semitic branch of the human family. Through the line of one of his sons, Ar-pachshad, came Abraham and eventually Israel, and through Israel the Messiah.

The 10th and 11th chapters of Genesis outline a lot of the descendants of Noah's three sons and where they settled. Evolution and migration would explain a lot of the variations.
posted by Danila at 6:38 PM on June 26, 2007

No, a new species does not emerge suddenly with 2 individuals.
a little more explanation if you have any?
posted by Eringatang at 7:18 PM on June 26, 2007

Nevermind, found it myself, speciation.
posted by Eringatang at 7:25 PM on June 26, 2007

Seems to me that Genesis 6:1-4 implies a good bit of hot angel-on-man action:
When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the LORD said, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years." The Nephilim were on the earth in those days -- and also afterward -- when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.
So yeah, it's pretty clear that the descendants of Adam and Eve were boffing giants and angels.

I'm totally naming my next band Heroes of Old.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:27 PM on June 26, 2007

Bitter, there are definitely lots of interpretations of that bit, but giants are the coolest by far.
And Danila, the J Dubs have theological positions but they're definitely not those accepted by most Christians, independent of how literal they're reading the Bible. I would treat the Watchtower like the Book of Mormon: a publication explaining biblical interpretations specific to one very specific group.
posted by monkeymadness at 8:01 PM on June 26, 2007

Granted I wasn't raised in church, but as a young kid my mom told me the story of the Tower of Babel, and I just thought the races happened when God split up the people over that.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:08 PM on June 26, 2007

In short, they're only conundrums to a biblical literalist.

[def: a biblical literalist is one who insists the bible is 100% literally correct; or one who insists to have any validity whatsoever the bible must be 100% literally correct, but isn't]

We could hope your request for no argument is being honored but perhaps it's only because no literalists of either stripe happen to be present?
posted by scheptech at 8:10 PM on June 26, 2007

I stand corrected; I erroneously thought it was Noah's, not Adam's, sons who married girls from the land of Nod. Thanks for the comprehensive explanation above, Danila.

Oh, and since I have to answer here: Incest, I think, became more of a taboo out of necessity. Interbreed once and it is bad, yes. But years and years and years of inter-breeding, such as happened within the royal families historically, caused severe birth defects, things like hemophilia, etc. So maybe in the beginning there was some incest.
posted by misha at 8:11 PM on June 26, 2007

Adam and Eve's kids married each other, and Noah's sons' children married their cousins.

Incest prohibitions came later, when the gene pool was not as robust.

As to races, let me make an analogy. When stray dogs all get together and make puppies, eventually the dogs produced-no matter where, and no matter what kind of dogs one starts with-all come out looking about the same. There is actually such a thing as a "generic" dog.

Adam and Eve were "generic" people. Going on further to Noah's descendents, since when God confused the people's languages at the Tower of Babel, and individual groups went their separate ways, their specific genetics went with them. That plus selective adaptation to environment went a long way into giving us the variety we have today.
posted by konolia at 9:08 PM on June 26, 2007

So how do you explain black folks, Asian folks and Native Americans?

Why the assumption that Adam and Eve or the Noahs were not black, Asian, or Native American?

The early Hebrews weren't exactly white Europeans, you know.
posted by Miko at 9:21 PM on June 26, 2007


Blacks in a lot of racist, and some not so racist but literalist and old fashioned, literature are referred to as the 'sons of Ham'.

Konolia's explanation about generic people does not satisfy. I have seen mixtures of strays. If you have ever spent a little time in or around a reservation you will see 'res dogs'. They are all mutts but there are similarities from one to the other. Before they all got killed prior to the Olympics you would see many strays in Athens, especially around the parks. Many of them had some resemblances as well. But these two groups of mutts didn't look much like one another, and more importantly, they didn't look anything like the common ancestor, which was most likely the neotenous wolf.

Biblical interpretation has a rich and deep history. The literal form is the shallow end of the pool. There is a lot to investigate in this area and playing around with these kinds of questions won't take you far into what the Christian religion has to offer.

And paraphrased slightly from here:

Have you heard the story of the old Baptist preacher who was telling a class of Sunday school boys the creation story? 'God created Adam and Eve and from this union came two sons, Cain and Abel and thus the human race developed.' A boy in the class then asked, 'Reverend, where did Cain and Abel get their wives?' After frowning for a moment, the preacher replied, 'Young man--it's impertinent questions like that that's hurtin' religion.'
posted by BigSky at 5:50 AM on June 27, 2007

'Twas not meant to be taken literally.

Because, you know, it doesn't make any sense.
posted by unixrat at 6:39 AM on June 27, 2007

Response by poster: I really appreciate this discussion so far. Everyone has been amicable and attempted to answer the question rather than get on a soapbox. Thanks!

Now a follow-up question. If you are not a biblical literalist, how do you get to pick and choose which parts of the bible to follow, or believe... or not? If this is supposed to be the "word of God", how can you feel that it's alright for you to disregard parts that don't apply to you based on your own personal reasons?
posted by UnclePlayground at 6:54 AM on June 27, 2007

As a Catholic, I rely on the teaching authority, or Magisterium, of the Church to authoritatively interpret scripture. Indeed, as an article of faith, Catholics believe that only the Church can do so - it is Her particular office to teach, guided by the Holy Spirit.
posted by jquinby at 7:41 AM on June 27, 2007

Glad you asked.

My sister is both a practicing M.D. and a biblical literalist. She has a theory, which I'll try to relate as best I can:
Adam & Eve were literally the first two humans, created by God in the Garden of Eden. They reproduced, their children bred amongst each other, but that was okay because they were genetically a little different than creatures today. They could successfully breed incestuously, and they lived 500+ years.

At some point, there was a genetic mutation -- this may coincide with them getting booted from the Garden of Eden. (I can't remember everything, but it's possible that the "Garden of Eden" was supposed to be a metaphor for genetic perfection -- as in: when Eve betrayed God, He introduced a flaw into their genetic makeup.) Anyhow, a result of this mutation was that close family members could no longer breed without birth defects, and people's life-spans were significantly reduced.
There you go.
posted by LordSludge at 7:42 AM on June 27, 2007

The standard Christian approach to the Bible is the fourfold interpretation of the Patristics. This approach is the descendant of the experience of the early Christian ascetics in the desert. Unfortunately there is not a lot of scholarly work detailing the evolution of the Patristic hermeneutic but you can take a look at the book, 'The Word in the Desert', to get an idea of the attitude of these ascetics to scripture. There was no canon then and these ascetics would live with a few memorized verses for extended periods of time before coming across someone who knew a little more or who actually had an epistle or section of gospel. It also needs to be said that Judaism has a somewhat similar fourfold interpretive approach to scripture. Which came first and how much influence one had on the other or whether there was any at all are unsettled questions.

The Patristic hermeneutic approaches the text with the belief that each verse has four meanings, the literal, the allegorical, the tropological and the anagogical. The allegorical sees scripture as repetitive with episodes prefiguring later developments and echoing previous actions. This imaginative view of the Bible makes it a work of tremendous resonance for those readers taking this approach. The most famous example is God dictating to Adam and Eve their fate and their relationship to the serpent, Moses using a brass serpent on the end of a pole as an emblem to rally the Jews during one of their tribulations and Jesus being raised on the cross.

Christians aren't supposed to disregard parts of the Bible that they don't think apply to them. That goes against the entire notion of canon. Your relationship to the text depends on what church you are a member of. Protestants champion the individual relationship between each believer and scripture, this degenerates to the literal level as it is the lowest common denominator. Catholic and Orthodox communities have traditions which dictate interpretations to some degree, naturally many in these traditions are unaware and uninterested in what the church's position might be.

This is a big question and there has been a lot written on it by some pretty wise folk. This isn't even a vague outline of a scratch on the surface.
posted by BigSky at 7:51 AM on June 27, 2007

Well, if it helps any: the bible itself isn't God but a signpost pointing to God. Christians don't worship the book itself. Consider that many study the bible for a lifetime applying it's material to their own personal lives as they travel life's highway growing and maturing in their understanding, it's not a summer read. As a purely practical point, I'd suggest many Christians don't flat out "disregard" parts, they do something more like decide they don't "get that part" yet and are willing to set it aside until perhaps it's meaning becomes clear to them later on. And, they'll be careful of not majoring on the minors, thinking more about their relationship with God than whether Noah was really able to capture every variant of fruit fly for the ark.
posted by scheptech at 8:21 AM on June 27, 2007

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