If Adam ad Eve are symbolic, what do they represent? Also, why do so many visions see Adam as a literal person?
Together, they represent archetypical humanity.
What visions? Envisionings, yes.
Some see “visions”; others see “versions”. I could be wrong, but I suspect that those who see “visions” are hallucinating.
I generally agree with the “archetypical humanity” comment. To expand things, I think there are at least 3 ways (not mutually exclusive) we can faithfully interpret A&E as characters in a theological story:
- As representing past humanity, who collectively and individually chose to go their own way and sin rather than follow God. In this reading, there would still be a “Fall” of some sort.
- As representing all humanity, past, present, and future, in a story that shows us what God is like and what we are like in our nature as sinners. I believe it was Karl Barth who said that Adam is “Everyman”. In this reading, how sin got started is simply not what the story is talking about.
- Many scholars would say that in some ways Adam and Eve symbolize Israel. Put in a desirable location and exiled due to disobedience. There is even the detail that A&E are exiled to the east of Eden, like Babylon is east of Jerusalem. This could easily be true alongside #1 or #2; one could envision the inspired writer using that parallel to emphasize the gravity of sin for the original audience around the time of the Exile.
As for visions, when Peter saw his vision of unclean animals in Acts 10, do you think those were specific real animals, or was God using symbols to make a point to Peter?
Your single question is actually two very different questions. Recognise the two questions, and let each stand on its own terms.
- What do they represent to us, 21st century westerners in our culture?
That, I suspect, is your primary question.
But it is vital to ask a preliminary, and more important question:
- What did they represent to the people writing and editing together that account in their own Ancient Near East (ANE) cultures and their own day, 3000-2,500 years ago?
This second question is actually the far more important one. And to approach it we need to rid ourselves of modern ideas and instead try to envisage their own environment, and the cultures of their own time. This included them as a monotheistic people living, for example, amongst other strongly polytheistic, and threatening lands around them.
Put aside that first question about us modem westerners. It is relatively unimportant. What about that more important second question (the primary question)?
What do you imagine have been the purpose to their having this Adam and Eve narrative their understanding of God?
They are also a simple vehicle for God’s defining human responsibilities.
The first creation story ends with the instructions that we have dominion over earth. It is ours to rule and to care for.
28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.
And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
The second creation story makes it clear that man is to care for his family.
23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.”
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Care for the earth, care for family.
I see A&E as symbolic of how humans came to be moral agents. This could relate to the overall history of humanity as well as a story of how we start out as innocent children and grow to be morally cognizant and accountable. We start out innocent and oblivious to evil in the world, and as we grow up we learn about good and evil and start to face our own mortality.
If I were to see Adam and Eve as symbolic then I would see them representing…
- how God adopted mankind as His children to communicate His ideals to them.
- how we are confronted with the choice between eternal life in a relationship with God, and taking on a superficial resemblance to God by assuming the authority to dictate what is knowledge and what is good and evil for ourselves.
- how bad habits like blaming others for your own mistakes can so quickly lead to evil and ruin, as well as creating the seeds of our own destruction in an adversary that we have given power over us.
- If you leave something out and tell humans not to touch it, they will touch it.
So, there might have been a “Wet Paint” sign on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
You mean like the lesson of Walt Disney’s “Robin Hood,” that one should not listen to the things snakes tell you? …unless what they say is for you to see someone about the possibility that you are suffering from schizophrenia.
All stories need to start somewhere, so having dealt with Creation as a whole Adam and Eve are the next logical step. Theologically it helps to have somewhere to start from. In terms of heredity it helps to have somewhere to start. Perhaps this is reason enough for Genesis 2-4?
Why refer to them as real? Because that is the whole point of having them. They would exist whether real or symbolic for the same reasons
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