The story of Adam and Eve has powerfully touched people for thousands of years, yet today there are widely differing opinions about the truth of the story. Some people insist that we must accept it as being quite literally true. Others see it as a myth with no truth and no value in it. Still others see the story as being symbolic, containing a deeper meaning.
For those who look to Bible to interpret itself, the question of how to view Adam and Eve is not just a matter of personal opinion. Regardless of whether we personally prefer a literal or symbolic interpretation, we should be guided by the way the Bible tells us to understand this story. Does the Bible say we must understand Adam and Eve literally? Or does it say that we should look for a deeper meaning to the story?
The Bible Is Filled with Hidden Meaning.
Jesus frequently showed that the Old Testament contained deeper meanings than were first apparent. For example, He told His disciples that the Old Testament contained many prophecies about His own life that they had not understood. “Beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27) “He opened their understanding that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45) Paul wrote that the Word of God is “the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest” (Colossians 1:26).
For example, the story of the manna is symbolic of Jesus as the bread of life (John 6:32). There is also a hidden meaning relating to Jesus in the story of the brass serpent (John 3:14) and the story of Jonah and the whale (Matt 12:40). The Tabernacle of Israel with its furnishings and rituals were the “copy and shadow of heavenly things…symbolic for the present time” (Hebrews 8:5, 9:9, Colossians 2:16, 17), and later the temple in Jerusalem symbolized Jesus (John 2:19-22). The New Testament also teaches us that there is a deeper hidden meaning in the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar and their sons (Galatians 4:22-31), and the story of Noah and the Flood (1 Peter 3:20, 21). The Bible also shows that the story of the people of Israel coming out of Egypt into the promised land is a parable about our spiritual journeys and the life of Christ (compare Psalm 78; Hosea 11:1; Matthew 2:15).
The Letter Kills
The Bible warns us not to be literalistic. “We should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter” (Romans 7:6). “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Jesus Himself always spoke in parables (Matthew 13:34) and figurative language (John 16:12, 25), and when His disciples interpreted His sayings literalistically, He said, “You people of little faith? … Don’t you understand?” (Matthew 16:7-12).
Paul wrote that the whole Old Testament tells of Christ, but with those who do not see this hidden meaning “their minds are blinded”—it is as if a veil covers the Old Testament when they read (1 Corinthians 3:13-16). When Jesus’ disciples failed to see that hidden meaning in the Old Testament, He called them “fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25). Of those who were not ready to understand the hidden meanings in His parables, Jesus said, “This people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed” (Matthew 13:15). But when His disciples were ready to understand the deeper meaning, Jesus said, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear” (Matthew 13:16).
Adam Is a Symbol, a Mystery
If the Bible is filled with hidden meanings, what about the story of Adam and Eve? Is it like the rest of the Bible? In fact, Paul says that Adam is a symbol of Christ (Romans 5:14) and calls Christ “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45, 21, 22). He says that the story of Adam and Eve is “a great mystery…concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32).
Perhaps the most widely read Christian story outside the Bible is Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan, about a man who left his home in the City of Destruction, leaving his neighbors named Obstinate and Pliable. The whole story is clearly a parable or metaphor, and this is especially evident from the way the people and places are named.
The story of the Adam is similar when we read it in the original language, for then we see what the names mean. Then it is the story of a person called “Man” or “Humankind” who lived in the “Garden of Delight”. God made his rib into a woman whom Humankind called “Living”. In the Garden of Delight with Mankind and Living, God planted the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
If we look more closely at the story, we see that “Adam” or Humankind is not meant to be understood as a literal person, but as a name for people in general. The story says that God created them male and female, and called their name Adam (that is, Humankind) in the day when they were created (Genesis 5:2, 1:27).
The Garden as a Parable
Elsewhere in the Bible, the Garden of Eden is clearly a parable or symbol. Ezekiel says that Assyria is a tree in the Garden of Eden: “Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon, with fine branches that shaded the forest, and of high stature; and its top was among the think boughs. The waters made it grow… and in its shadow all great nations made their home…. No tree in the Garden of God was like it in beauty… All the trees of Eden envied it, that were in the garden of God” (Ezekiel 31:3-9). Obviously the nation of Assyria is not literally a tree. This reference to the Garden of Eden is a parable, a symbolic story, and the trees in the garden are symbols of the various nations the Lord has created.
In another place, God says to the king of Tyre, “You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the Garden of God”(Ezekiel 28:12, 13). It doesn’t mean that he was in a literal garden called Eden. Rather, the Garden of Eden is a symbol here of wisdom and perfection.
The Tree of Life is mentioned a number of times throughout the Bible, but it is never said to be a literal tree growing some hidden place in this world. Rather, the tree of life is a symbol of wisdom and understanding (Proverbs 3:8, 13) and wise speaking (Proverbs 15:4) and of the fruits of the labor of a good man (Proverbs 11:30; 13:11, 12). The tree of life is seen in visions of the prophets growing the City of God in heaven (Revelation 22:2, compare Ezekiel 47:7, 12). Likewise, the Tree of Knowledge is not a literal tree. Apples, figs, olives and bananas grow on physical trees. Knowledge sprouts up in the human mind.
Gardens, trees and growing crops are among the commonest metaphors in the Bible. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:1-8). The kingdom of heaven is like a growing mustard seed, or a field of growing grain (Matthew 13:31, 24). A person who trusts the Lord is like a tree planted by the water (Psalm 1:1-3, Jeremiah 17:7-8). The tents of Israel are said to be like gardens by rivers, trees the Lord has planted, cedars beside the waters (Numbers 24:6). “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah His pleasant plant” (Isaiah 5: 7).
Clearly, this is not a literal vineyard or garden, but the garden of the soul, a spiritual state in which good things grow in a person’s mind. “The LORD shall guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, … and you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not deceive” (Isaiah 58:11). “For as the earth brings forth her bud, and as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:11). “Their soul shall be as a watered garden, and they shall not sorrow any more at all” (Jeremiah 31:12).
Eve and the Snake
Ironically, people who want to interpret the story of Eden literally make an exception for the snake. The story says that the snake was one of the animals in the field (Genesis 3:1, 14), yet almost universally people see this talking snake as a symbol of evil or Satan. This is not surprising, since evil, deceitful people are compared to serpents (Psalms 58:4; 140:3), and the symbolic dragon in the Apocalypse is said to be “the old serpent, called the Devil and Satan, which deceives the whole world” (Revelation 12:9, 14, 15; 20:2).
When John saw the serpent or dragon in his vision he described it as “a sign” (Revelation 12:3), that is, a symbol. At the same time, he saw a woman who was in pain to give birth, also “a great sign” (Revelation 12:1). The offspring of this woman included all who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus (Revelation 12:17), so many people recognize this symbolic woman as the Lord’s church, which is our spiritual mother (see Matthew 12:50, Mark 3:35, Luke 8:21, John 19:26, Hosea 2:2, Ezekiel 16). The “Bride” of Christ, which is the Holy City coming down from God (Revelation 21:2, 9, 10) has a similar meaning.
As we have already noted, Eve also represents the Church (Ephesians 5:32). She was called “the Mother of all Living” (Genesis 3:20) because the church is the mother of all who are spiritually alive, or born again. This shows some interesting parallels between the stories.
The Story of the Woman and the Snake
|Eve (Genesis 2-3)||The Woman Clothed with the Sun (Revelation 12)|
|Eve was the mother of all living.||The Women was the mother of all who keep God’s commands.|
|Eve was a symbol of the Church.||The Woman was a symbol of the Church.|
|Eve was deceived by the serpent.||The Woman attacked by the old serpent who deceives the whole world.|
|Eve had pain in childbirth because of the serpent.||The Woman had pain in childbirth because of the serpent.|
|Eve was told the serpent would attack her child.||The serpent attacked the offspring of the Woman.|
|Eve was the wife of Adam.||The Woman was the wife of the last “Adam.”|
|The “seed of the woman” was to overcome the serpent.||Jesus was to overcome the serpent (Revelation 20:2)|
The Bible shows through the passages above that neither of these stories is intended to be taken literally. In fact, they are the same story. Adam and Eve are the beginning, Christ (the last Adam) and his Bride are the conclusion. Both are symbolic stories that contain a deeper meaning. People who get caught up in arguing whether Adam and Eve were actual people are not only missing what the Bible actually says about the story, they are missing the opportunity to see the inner meaning, which is the real point of the stories. The Bible itself points us towards this deeper meaning, as if to invite us to enter more deeply into its mysteries.
How Adam and Eve Could Symbolize the Lord and the Church
|The Literal Story||The Spiritual Meaning|
|Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Delight||God makes our minds like a beautiful garden growing in wisdom.|
|God made Adam and Eve in His image||The Lord makes us like Him spiritually.|
|Eve was formed from Adam’s rib||The Church comes from the Lord.|
|Adam says, “She is my bone and my flesh”||The Church is the Body of the Lord|
|Eve was the mother of all living||The Church is the Mother of all who are spiritually alive|
|The serpent deceived Eve||Evil (the Devil) deceives the church|
|As a result, Eve had pain in childbirth.||As a result, the church has difficulty with spiritual rebirth.|
|The serpent is finally overcome||Evil is finally conquered.|