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If God made Adam and Eve (the first and only man and woman), are we all living as being married to our brothers and sisters?

This week we look at an age-old question about marriage in the Bible: “If God made Adam and Eve (the first and only man and woman), are we all living as being married to our brothers and sisters?”

Of course, there are several possible answers to this question, depending on how one chooses to read and interpret scripture, as well as how creative in speculations one likes to get. A similar question could be asked of Noah and his family, since according to scripture, all people were destroyed in the flood with the exception of Noah and Mrs. Noah, their three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, along with their respective wives. The question then remains whether or not we’re all married to our cousins from Noah’s lineage, or to our siblings from Adam’s lineage?

For those who take the story of Genesis 2-4 literally without additional speculation, then the answer is Cain and Seth both married their younger sisters, as did the rest of their siblings. I have in the past been asked about the morality of this deed, and have to admit there are those who find this scenario problematic. However, the reality is, in the literal interpretation world, that God to that point had only given three recorded laws: (1) be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1.28); (2) be vegetarian (Genesis 1.29); and (3) don’t eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge (Genesis 2.17). Therefore, laws about sexual purity, marriage, and the like weren’t yet on the books, so it must have been permissible for siblings to intermarry—especially given that according to this view, there were no other humans on earth.

There is a second view that maintains the literalness of the Adam and Eve story, but speculates about what’s not written in the account to explain the dilemma. According to the creation story Adam and Eve appear to be the first humans; however, nowhere does it say that they are the only humans God created. Accordingly, this second view speculates that God went ahead and created other human beings to aid in the population of the world and to facilitate the marriage of Adam’s children outside of their own siblings. This particular view could also serve as an answer to where Cain got his wife after he was exiled from his homeland to the land of Nod (Genesis 4.16-17).

The problem with this view is that there just isn’t any other biblical support to suggest that God was out creating other humans. All of the people’s on the earth seem to be accounted for in Genesis 4-5, with the possible exception of Adam’s daughters-in-law. And then, of course, we run into the difficulty of Noah’s grandchildren having to intermarry first cousins because that’s all the humans there were left on the earth after the flood.

There is at least one other possibility, one that has been explored regularly in this column: that the attempt to literalize story and myth leads us into fruitless territory. Most scholars view the story of Adam and Eve as an etiology. Etiologies are stories that were created to answer a question. For instance, virtually every religion on earth has a story that answers the question, “How did we get here?” Of course, none of those stories speaks of the Big Bang, Quantum Physics, nor any scientific explanation. That’s not the purpose of stories. But in the Bible etiologies are more than just stories, they are myths—stories that not only explain, but teach truths. And the truth of the story of Adam and Eve is that not only did God create humanity, but God was (and is) intimately involved with God’s creation and wants to be in a dynamic relationship with us.

The reality is, according to this view, that it just doesn’t make any difference who Cain and Seth married. The tellers of these stories weren’t trying to create a history, they were answering a question with a great story. Accordingly, what’s important isn’t who they married, but that God wants to play an active part in our lives and will ultimately provide what we really need.

So, are we married to our brothers and sisters? I recently saw a study that suggests humanity has a common ancestor, at least according to our DNA. Perhaps the story of Adam and Eve is more than just a story. Or perhaps we evolved from a common ancestry. The Bible isn’t very good at revealing the “why’s” or the “how’s” anyway, so we may just have to be content with this: the creation myth, whether a scientific fact or not, teaches that God is responsible for the creating—one way or another.

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