Recently I read this quote from Dr. Karl Giberson, formerly VP of BioLogos:
The key for most people is developing an understanding of the Bible that goes beyond what they learned in Sunday School. Sunday Schools teach Bible stories about the early chapters of Genesis that are appropriate for children, but then they don’t revisit those stories to help young adults find a “grown up” way to read Genesis. Discovering that the Genesis stories contain all sorts of clues indicating that they are not literal history can be very liberating for Christians. If we encountered the Genesis stories of creation first as adults we might not be so quick to assume that this account of talking snakes, a magical garden, God “coming down” to walk with Adam and Eve every day was supposed to be actual history. Even the names of the principal characters are an important clue. The Hebrew word “Adam” simply means “man.” “Eve” means “life.” Imagine a story in English about a couple named “Man” and “Life” in a magical garden. Wouldn’t we immediately understand that this is not intended to be historical?
Dr. Giberson’s point is that the meanings of Adam and Eve’s names should be a clue to us that we aren’t meant to read the stories as history. But, is it unusual for Biblical figures to have names with special meanings?
Abraham’s name was changed from Abram when God promised to make him the father of a multitude of nations. His name, Abraham, means “father of a multitude.” Sarai, his wife, was renamed, Sarah. Her name means “Princess.” So, in this case, “Father of a multitude” and “Princess” are promised to be the ancestors to a multitude of nations. Are their symbolic names an indication that they didn’t really exist or that their account isn’t historically accurate?
Jacob’s name is changed to Israel after he wrestles with the “angel of the Lord.” Israel apparently means “struggles with God.” Does this mean that he didn’t actually wrestle with the angel of the Lord?
Before Rachel dies after giving birth to Benjamin, she names him Ben-Oni, which means “son of my trouble.” Jacob changes his name to Benjamin, which means “son of my right hand.” Does the symbolic meaning of the name mean that Rachel didn’t die after giving birth to him?
Hosea is told to name his children Lo-Ruhamah and Lo-Ammi which mean “not loved” and “not my people,” respectively. Given the symbolic meanings of their names, does that mean this is a clue that Hosea didn’t really name his children such odd names?
What about the best example of a Biblical figure with a symbolic name? Jesus’s name Yeshua, or Joshua, means “savior.” Does the fact that He is named “Savior” mean that He is a symbolic literary figure and not actually historical?
While many people may want to argue that there are symbolic elements in the Genesis 1-11 accounts, I don’t think that there is a strong Biblical argument for Adam and Eve as non-historic figures based on the symbolic nature of their names.