In 2016, we celebrated my father’s 85th birthday. At dinner, my brothers and sister asked him what remained on his bucket list. My dad said that he wanted to travel to the Galapagos Islands but was previously unable to travel due to my mother’s illness. My siblings and spouses arranged our respective schedules and in July of the following year, we all traveled together to the Galapagos Islands for a week of island hopping on a small cruise ship.
The Galapagos are a series of volcanic islands 563 miles off the west coast of Ecuador. The older islands have fresh water while the younger islands are without fresh water and have volcanic activity. The animals and vegetation adapted to the different island habitats as the wildlife evolved to survive the various isolated ecosystems. For example, a certain species of birds on one island has different colors or beak structures than on another island. Charles Darwin (1809–1882) traveled to the Galapagos during his round-the-world voyage on the HMS Beagle (1831–1835). His observations of evolution resulted in his 1859 publication On the Origin of Species. This publication caused heated confrontation between the scientific and religious organizations.
Dr. Stephen Greenblatt, John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, wrote The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve: The Story that Created Us (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2017). This Pulitzer Prize winning author explores the history of the Genesis story of God’s creation of the first humans, Adam and Eve. He begins with comparing the pre-Hebrew Sumerian origin story of Gilgamesh written on clay tablets to the Genesis story. “Older by more than a thousand years than either Homer or the Bible, Gilgamesh is quite possibly the oldest story ever found.” (page 51) The book winds through civilized human history and ends with the more recent anthropological findings of our hominid forebearers.
I especially liked his writings on Augustine of Hippo (354–430) found in Chapters 5–6. Greenblatt’s research gave me new insights into Augustine’s life and theological struggles. He states that Augustine “managed slowly, slowly to steer the whole, vast enterprise of Western Christendom in the same direction. It is to him [Augustine] preeminently that our world owes the peculiarly central role that Adam and Eve came to occupy.” The Genesis story was “not a story in the sense of a fable or myth. It was the literal truth, and, as such, it was the scientific key to the understanding of everything that happened.” (page 97)
Augustine did not have our modern scientific information nor historical Biblical research when he did his theological writings. “By treating Adam and Eve not as recognizable humans but as symbolic figures, it risked opening the way to treating Jesus too as a mythic symbol rather than as the living Savior. And it completely failed to find in its emblematic reading of the story any basis for Original Sin.” (page 111) Perhaps Augustine tried too hard to bridge the theological truths with literal facts? To be fair, Augustine did not have the scientific facts while writing his book, The Literal Meaning of Genesis.
The theological truth I treasure is that God intended humans to live in paradise: a world that “God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1) Where many ancient cultures saw work as something to be avoided, God in Hebrew Scripture put man “in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15) “The dream in Genesis is not perfect leisure but rather purposive work – tilling and watching – that is experienced as pleasure.” (page 59) Dr. Greenblatt’s book is beautifully researched and written. He traces Adam and Eve art from the third century Rome catacombs to modern twentieth century paintings. The chapters (9–11) on John Milton’s Paradise Lost shows this Shakespearean scholar’s keen knowledge of early seventeenth-century literature. Even his travels to Uganda’s Kibale National Park to view the chimpanzee’s natural habitat, discussed in the epilogue, was thought-provoking in light of the Old Testament origin story.
As demonstrated in Dr. Greenblatt’s book, Christians and Jews have debated the story of Adam and Even for thousands of years and I predict the debate will continue. I actually believe that this debate has served our faith well. Our collective humanity desires to know and understand God, a positive trait of our species. But sadly, this same desire led to humans desiring to be God with “knowledge of good and evil.” This original act of disobedience is still firmly rooted within humanity and so we must continue to acknowledge the truths of our origins found in Genesis.