Stirling Maxwell Collection, Pollok House, Glasgow Museums, Scotland

Adam, serpent at his side, gazes in wide-eyed innocence in William Blake’s depiction of the naming of the animals in Eden. But it is the naming of the people in the Bible that provides unexpected insights into the sources and meaning of the Bible’s text. Adam’s name, for instance, gives scholars an idea of where and when the creation story in Genesis originated. Ancient personal names changed over time and from culture to culture, so scholars can use them, almost in the way archaeologists use pottery sherds to pinpoint occupational layers, to suggest a date and a cultural identity for the texts in which they are found. Adam’s name, along with other names from the beginning of Genesis, can be traced to the Amorite culture of the second millennium B.C.E.

Author Richard Hess notes that the meaning of a biblical name affects how we understand the story in which it appears. The Hebrew word ’adam, for example can be a personal name, but it can also refer to humankind in general. It is also very similar to the Hebrew word for ground, ’adamah—from which the Bible says God fashioned ’adam—one of the many wordplays found throughout the Bible.