A Brief Note on a Recent Book about the Adam of Genesis

Several months ago, Pickwick Publications was kind enough to send me a copy of Adam as Israel: Genesis 1-3 as the Introduction to the Torah and Tanakh by Seth D. Postell. This is a brief note on a valuable book for understanding the purpose of the Adam story in Genesis.

As the title suggests, Postell sees Adam not as the first human, but a foreshadowing of Israel. Specifically, Genesis 1-3 is an introduction to the Torah and the Old Testament as a whole. That story is about Israel’s failure to keep the Sinai Covenant (law of Moses), subsequent exile, and a view forward to eschatological renewal.

Postell’s argument is largely a fleshing out of the work of his mentor, John Sailhamer, especially his The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation. (Postell’s Ph.D. work was done under Sailhamer at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.)

Bottom line: I think this is a book worth looking into seriously for an understanding of Adam as an Israel figure, rather than the first human, or even a historical figure. (Postell takes a “text-centered” approach and therefore is not occupied with historical issues. It is not clear to me to what extent he holds to a historical Adam, and I am not implying that he would agree with my arguments in The Evolution of Adam.)

Postell makes many intriguing connections between the Adam narrative and that of Israel. Even if readers find he stretches some points too far, I don’t think readers can escape the overall impact of his argument.

Some things that struck me as I read:

1. Chapter 2 on the history of interpretation is key for showing that “Adam as Israel” is not a recent invention but has rabbinic roots. However, I was hoping for more information on not only rabbinic Judaism but Second Temple and pre-Christian literature. More, I think, could have been and needs to be done in laying out the antiquity of this line of interpretation.

2. Too frequently, Postell seems to go out of his way to distance himself (too quickly, I think) from critical approaches (i.e., Pentateuchal authorship) to the point where it can easily become a distraction.

3. Although too briefly (pp. 32-42), Postell lists modern interpeters who also see the parallels between Genesis 1-3 and Israel’s story in the Old Testament. This, too, could have been expanded, though there is enough there to make the point.

4. Postell’s chapter on methodology (pp. 43-74) reads more like an obligatory dissertation chapter. It is designed to justify his approach to reading Genesis 1-3, but (understandably) it does not contribute specifically to the argument itself. Most readers would likely skim or skip this chapter and nothing of substance would be lost. I think the author’s purposes would have been better served had he simply given due acknowledgment to Sailhamer and alerted the readers that he is following his mentor’s approach and expanding on it (even in those infrequent occasions where he challenges Sailhamer, e.g., p. 93).

5. Postell’s exposition of Genesis 1-3 is smattered with Hebrew words, but they are all translated into English. This should not be an obstacle to most readers.

6. Without wishing to prejudice the matter by offering too many specific instances, on more than a few points, Postell’s arguments to connect the Adam narrative to Israel are thin, whether we are reading his own observations or those of Sailhamer. For example, following Sailhamer, Postell argues that the “land” in Genesis 1:1 (traditionally translated “earth” as in “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) is already referring to Canaan. Another example is seeing the serpent as representative of Canaanite influence on the Israelites, rather than as a (false) wisdom figure.

Postell may occasionally go too far in his reading of Genesis 1-3 as a preview of Israel’s covenantal disobedience, and he may be too dismissive at times of critical scholarship. Generally speaking, however, his Sailhameresque observations about the Adam story cannot be credibly brushed aside as subjective meanderings. “Adam as a preview of Israel” is a position that finds strong–I would go so far as to say overwhelming–support in the text.

If you are interested in a more thorough review of the book that is both fair and critical, you can find one here.

  • http://john.oliff.com john oliff

    I hear echoes of Sailhamer’s “Genesis Unbound”

  • James

    Yes, the entire OT narrative can be viewed as the story of Israel with all her ups and downs. N T Wright makes the point (How God Became King) that Genesis 1-3 mirrors Genesis 12 to Malachi in recounting “tales of glorious beginnings, rich vocations, and then horrible failure and exile.” Similarily, the prologue of John (1:1-18) is an echo of the creation story. “The six (stages) of creation indicate, to those who understand the world of the ancient Near East, that creation itself, heaven and earth together, is a kind of temple, a dwelling place for God.” Thus John will say, “The Word became flesh, and lived (pitched his tent) among us.” Evangelicals should be careful not to lose the biblical story line in the forest of critical scholarship. Studies in both should progress apace.

  • http://ochuk.wordpress.com Adam Omelianchuk

    If Adam is Israel, then who is Eve? Is she part of the metaphor too?

    • Norman

      Eve is the mother of all the living (the church) The woman who brought forth children in pain. The woman who could remmary when the old first husband (Adam) died. The woman fleeing the serpent with Child.

      Rev 12:1-2 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. … she gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron

      There was another side of the woman who was not faithful to God (Hosea) and who also birthed children of Perdition or the bad seed. (Cain) The woman metaphor like many other symbols is used extensively throughout Jewish literature to tell story from many different perspectives.

      Rev 17:3 … and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast (a picture of the OT Harlot (apostate Israel/bad seed) sitting on the Beast from the Sea ( Rome).

  • Richard

    Regarding points 2 & 4 (and not having read the book): How plausible is it that Postell’s motivation in these cases was to deflect criticism and even to cover himself personally and professionally? I’m not suggesting this out of cynicism but, rather, with an awareness of how, in the “wrong” hands certain facets of his argument can be used against him by certain self-appointed guardians of “orthodoxy” (scare-quotes intended!). To put it another way, might he find it necessary to go out of his way to say, “I’m attempting to to argue potentially controversial point A [e.g., Adam as Israel]; I don’t want to argue potentially even more controversial point B [e.g., the merits of critical scholarship]?”

    • peteenns

      That’s always a possibility, Richard. I only hold back from such an assessment b/c I have been unfairly accused of similar moves.

  • http://www.hesedweemet.wordpress.com John Anderson


    My thanks for pointing to my RBL review of Postell, as well as for describing it (I would say) accurately as “fair and critical.” Much of my critique was organizational, though I do share your sentiments that I think some, perhaps many, fo the connections he tries to draw are overwrought and strained. And perhaps it is just my postmodern mentality, but I stumbled quite a bit with his insistence on avoiding critical methodologies, as you suggest above.

    I stand by my review, and think your comments support much of what I felt in that review.

    Hope you are well!

    • peteenns

      Thanks, John, and good to connect.

  • http://www.internetmonk.com chaplain mike

    Thanks Pete. I am a student and devotee of Sailhamer. No one has opened my eyes to the nature and message of Scripture more, though you and Kenton Sparks and JRD Kirk are certainly carrying on what he began!

  • gingoro

    “I think this is a book worth looking into seriously for an understanding of Adam as an Israel figure, rather than the first human, or even a historical figure.”

    Then what do we do with various statements that the apostle Paul makes like “so in Adam all died”?

    Another thought that I find hard to answer is “Why should we not consider the first 11 chapters of Genesis as Jewish Just So stories that is included in out Bible just to provide us with cultural background for other places where A&E are mentioned?”. Thus as Christians Gen 1 to 11 has little or no relevance to our thought and theology.
    Dave W

  • gingoro

    Let me modify my statements above slightly. As I see it Genesis tells us lots about God and how man came to be, in that we are not bastard offspring of the Gods, God is separate from creation and is the cause of all that exists and so on. It is mainly the A&E storey and Noah that seems rather irrelevant. I find suggestions that A&E are a type of Israel rather contrived and they appear to me as an avoidance mechanism to reject the position I outlined above.
    Dave W

    • peteenns

      Read Postell’s book. The idea is not contrived but goes back to rabbinic Judaism and is also pre-Christian. As I say in The Evolution of Adam, it is not the only way to read the story, but the parallels (thematic and lexical) are unmistakable.

  • Dan

    I just saw this post, I’m very interested in this view, it makes sense and does seem to answer a lot of questions.

    I did have a couple quick questions : does he at all deal with NT run -ins (or Paul’s use of Adam)?

    And would you still suggest sailhamers book for reading? How is it different?