Where do Neanderthals fit in a Biblical context?
This is a fascinating question. Let me address it in two different ways. First, I want to describe the best understanding science has about the interplay between the different “hominid” species, and then I’ll get into how this fits into our understanding of the Bible.
A Little Bit of Science
First, let’s get this out of the way. The evidence for slow evolutionary processes leading to the arrival of homo sapiens on Earth is thorough and compelling. The fossil record strongly supports the idea that many human-like species have been on earth going back 2 million years or more and that all but one are extinct today. According to the this article from the Natural History Museum, Neanderthals are the ones we know the most about because of how many artifacts we have from them. They lived from 400,000 to 40,000 years ago mostly in Europe and Asia (including the region around Israel). Homo sapiens have a history in the fossil record that goes back to around 45,000 years ago originating in Africa. However, for at least 5,000 years there was some overlap between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis, and DNA evidence has proven that they interbred. Many people today have up to 2% Neanderthal DNA in them! Therefore, even though they get a different species name, and even though they had significantly different mental capacities than we do, there are many ways Neanderthals should be considered “human.”
Now, let’s go to the Bible.
Revisiting the Creation Account
First off, there are many Bible people who will try to convince you that the Bible is incompatible with evolution because the Bible says God created the world and all the animals in 6 days. I’ve addressed this before here, but I’ll revisit it now too. The people who claim Genesis needs to be understood as 6 literal 24 hour days are misunderstanding two important truths about understanding the Bible. First, when something is portrayed as poetry, read it as poetry. In this case, Moses clearly constructed the creation account of Genesis 1 in a strongly poetic way and the poetic points are clearly understood. The first three days are descriptions of God creating one domain after another followed by three days where God fills that domain. The first day gets light and dark, but day 4 gets a sun, moon, and stars. The second day gets water and sky, and day 5 gets fish and birds. The third day gets dry ground, and day 6 gets the animals who live on dry ground. There is deep significance to this, and Moses was explicit in his construction of this account. If he wanted to give us a purely historical step -by-step approach to the origins of everything, he could have, but he chose to describe it poetically to show us this balance God wired into creation.
Secondly, it’s important to let the details speak for themselves. For example, multiple times in Genesis 1, God gives a command for something else to do the actual work of creation. Consider this:
And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. — Genesis 1:24 NIV
Note the detail. God is commanding the land to do the work of production. In other words, God is giving the power of creation to the Earth itself.
Thirdly, it’s important to not pick and choose which parts of the Bible we read and how we read them to fit our own narrative. For example, many people will say that the word “day” in Genesis 1 has to mean a literal 24 hour period of time both because of the phrase “evening and morning” and also because the simplest way to understand the Hebrew word day is to consider it a single sequence of night and day. (Oops… did you see what I did there? I said the simplest definition of “day” was a sequence of night and “day.” That definition isn’t even internally consistent.) Truthfully, we don’t have to make any appeals to translation issues. All we have to do is keep reading. For some reason, someone put a chapter break after Genesis 1:31 even though the narrative account is clearly supposed to continue in the next verses. Let’s put these verses back together in their context:
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.…
Hiding there in Genesis 2:4 are two very interesting bits of Hebrew information that don’t translate well into English. First, let me show you that verse in another translation that translates this verse a little more literally.
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven. — Genesis 2:4 NASB
You might be able to see something interesting already, but I want to spell it out for you. Two things are going on. The first thing is that this is another example of chiastic poetic parallelism. I’ve talked about it before, but it basically just means that the author has put the different phrases into a parallel structure that works like an arrow pointing to the most important concept. Additionally, if we go super literal with our translation, we can see the parallels from the original Hebrew even more clearly:
This is the genealogy
— of heaven
—— and earth
——— in their creation
———— in the day
——— the LORD God made them
— and heaven
Yes, the word at the beginning is not the word “account” but the word “genealogy” as if Moses were telling us the genealogy of creation itself (important because ancient genealogies were intentionally selective and non-exhaustive accounts of a person’s origin). Secondly, the Hebrew parallel structure puts the singular word DAY right in the middle of the whole thing. Moses is specifically emphasizing that all of this happened in ONE DAY!
You have to know that the word “day” in Genesis 2:4 is the exact same word “day” in all the previous verses. Why would Moses take all this time to tell us God took 6 days to create the world, only to change his mind in the last verse of the account to tell us God took only one day? Clearly, Moses didn’t change his mind. Clearly Moses was using the word “day” metaphorically in 2:4 and some modern translations intentionally change the word “day” to reflect the metaphor in 2:4 by using the word “when” or something else. Nonetheless, good scholarship requires us to wrestle with these questions: If Moses is using “day” literally in days 1-7, why does he use it metaphorically in the very next verse? or If Moses is using the word “day” metaphorically in 2:4 why should we take it literally in the previous verses?
All of that is to reaffirm this simple truth: people might interpret Genesis 1 to be describing a Creation sequence that took 144 hours to complete, but our best evidence is that Moses didn’t understand it that way nor was he expecting his readers to understand it that way. Furthermore, there is no indication whatsoever that “Day 6” happened only 6,000 years ago. I should get into that some other time. If I tackle it now, I’ll never get back to the main question.
Revisiting the Creation of Humans
God did something special when he made humans.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” — Genesis 1:26 NIV
Three things are important to note here. First, God doesn’t command the earth to do it. He intends to take this creative task on himself. God uses the word “we” to refer completely to himself either because he is Trinity or because he is the King and Kings use “we” to refer to themselves. He is not asking the angels to help him. He is going to tackle this job all on his own.
Secondly, God uses a new word that hasn’t shown up yet in this passage: make. The earlier words for God’s creative activity were different. In the Hebrew language, this word is different and is used more like we would use the word craft. I can make a computer do something, I can make a poster, I can make a box out of wood, but replacing any of those instances of make with the word craft and you change the meaning significantly. God intends to specially craft human beings into something special.
Thirdly, God intends to shape human beings according to himself, somehow according to his image. God planned to put something of himself into these creatures that wouldn’t exist anywhere else on earth.
Skipping over to Genesis 2, Moses describes in greater detail what God’s creative crafting activity looked like when he made people:
Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. — Genesis 2:7 NIV
Again, we see a crafting activity. God is doing this work directly with his own hands. Human beings are special acts of creation different from every other creature that was ever made. However, there is something essential to note here. God didn’t start from scratch when he made people. Moses makes sure to tell us that God took dust from the ground… God took what was already on the Earth… God took stuff that already existed and shaped it and breathed into it and made it new.
One More Thing About Human Origins
While Genesis 1 and 2 give us indications about the first creatures who bore the image of God, it does not give us a totally exhaustive account of all human-like beings on the earth. In fact, the Bible clearly indicates that there were other beings on the earth that were sexually compatible with the family of Adam and Eve. Consider the conclusion to the story about Cain:
Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
But the LORD said to him, “Not so ; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the LORD’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. — Genesis 4:13-17 NIV
I have many times been asked about whether Adam and Eve’s children had to marry their siblings. Christians generally take the approach that since Adam and Eve were made by God, they were genetically perfect, and therefore, their children could interbreed without consequence. However, we have a better answer. Notice that Cain is afraid that God is sending him away from his family, but that he’s also afraid he will meet people out there who will kill him! Cain feels safe with his family, but he expects there to be non-family members out there who are violent. God agrees.
Now, this is one of those details we should not avoid.
If you believe that Adam and Eve were the first and only human-like creatures on the earth during their day, then you will conclude that Abel and Cain were the third and fourth human-like creatures on earth, and then you will conclude that when Cain kills Abel, there are only 3 human-like creatures on the earth, and they all know each other. However, God promises to put a mark on Cain so that when he meets a stranger that stranger will be deterred from messing with Cain. The only way for Cain’s fear to make sense and for God’s actions to make sense is if there were in fact other human-like creatures out there in the world who were violent and a potential threat to Cain.
That’s where Cain got his wife… out there away from his family. Furthermore, why would Moses tell us Cain was building a city if Cain and his wife were living by themselves in the wilderness!?
Additionally, the story around the time of Noah also gives us interesting information:
When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. — Genesis 6:1-4 NIV
Somehow the “sons of God” began to marry and have children with “daughters of humans” and also a group of human-like creatures known as the “Nephilim” were on the earth who were “heroes of old, men of renown.” There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here.
First, there are two sexually compatible groups of people on earth. There are the “sons of God” and there are the “daughters of humans.” Some people through history have claimed that the “sons of God” means angelic beings. They claim that angels came and slept with women and had children with them. However, that doesn’t make sense because Jesus tells us later on that angels don’t and can’t be married (that is, angels are not sexual beings), and even if they were somehow, they couldn’t produce human children.
In fact, the best way to understand this story is that “sons of God” refers to the descendants of Adam (see Luke 3:38 and Genesis 5:1 where we are reminded that Adam came from God) and “human” refers to the descendants of whatever other human-like creatures were on earth at the time. However you understand it, you need to conclude that on planet Earth, there were at least two distinctly different but sexually compatible groups of people. Additionally, one of those groups gets a name: Nephilim. Finally, Genesis 6 refers to the Nephilim as “heroes of old,” which means that in the days of Noah, they already had legends and stories of mighty men from previous ages!
Finally back to Neanderthals
Let’s put these pieces together.
The Bible tells us that God is responsible for creation, that the process of creation involved the Earth itself having the power to produce life, and that the process of creation took an unknown amount of time.
Secondly, the Bible tells us that Adam and Eve were specially created by God to be his representatives on the Earth, but that God also used some pre-existing material to create them both.
Thirdly, the Bible indicates that Adam and Eve were not the only human-like beings on the planet at the time.
Fourthly, the Bible indicates that Adam and Eve and their descendants were sexually compatible with the other human-like beings on the planet.
Fifthly, there were at least three different categories of sexually compatible human-like beings on the planet at some point in human history: sons of God, humans, and Nephilim.
Additionally, science has identified three categories of human, Neanderthals, Homo sapiens, and Denisovans, who were sexually compatible. See this article.
Conclusion: Although the Bible doesn’t give any direct information about Neanderthals or Denisovans, it does indicate an understanding that Adam and Eve were progenitors of the image of God in humans but not the first version of humanity or the only version of humanity on the planet. Furthermore, just because humans today go by the species name Homo sapiens, that is no guarantee that Adam and Eve would have been called Homo sapiens. Adam and Eve might have been more like Neanderthals or Denisovans. We simply don’t know.