I have a question regarding the creation of Adam and Eve. Were they the only humans created by God or were they simply the first of many of mankind to be created during the recorded time of man's arrival into existence? And could this explain the many cultural/religious variations in our society today?
Some people think that Adam and Eve were the first real flesh and blood human beings. Therefore they are puzzled about many elements of the early stories in Genesis. They wonder why Cain was afraid that other people would kill him (Gen. 4:14) when there is no report of other people yet being on the earth. And they ask where his wife came from (4:17). Some people have posited that many other people were created at the same time. But that violates an important theological point being made repeatedly in the early stories in Genesis, namely that all human beings belong to one family in spite of differences in languages, culture and religion. Most scholars think that the stories in the first chapters of Genesis are not reporting real historical events but that they rather are conveying theological ideas and reflections on the nature of humanity and the human condition. These theological ideas could be conveyed in dry abstract treatises but conveying these ideas in story form is more compelling. The use of fictional stories to convey complex ideas is found in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus, for example, used parables which were made up stories to convey important ideas. The prophet Nathan uses a made up story to confront David about his affair with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:1-7).
There is another story in Genesis that speaks to the second question (Gen. 11:1-9). This story imagines what human life would be like if everyone stayed in the same place, spoke the same language and focused on one goal. According to the story, it is God’s desire that humans scatter across the earth. As I interpret this story, God wants humans to grow to develop to their full potential, to explore the world and to engage the different environments in it: the deserts, the plains, the mountains, the coasts, the forests, the tundra and the jungle I understand the differences that we see in human communities to be adaptations that result from living in different environments and different social orders and experiencing different histories. Different cultures, languages, religions, enrich all humans and make life better.
As a biblical scholar, my first response is to plead that we read texts such as the Genesis creation narratives with deep respect for the kind of texts they are, as originally written and intended. They weren't written to answer the sort of technical questions that we may find interesting and that are raised by modern scientific research. The Genesis creation accounts seem, instead, to have been prompted by other ancient near eastern accounts of the gods and the world and human origin and purpose.
Creation accounts seem to have been a very common type of ancient religious text, intended to project a particular view of what the gods are like, and how to view the world and humanity's place in it. You can read translations of such creation accounts from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and other ancient near eastern areas in the book: "Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament," edited by James B. Pritchard (3rd ed, Princeton Univ Press, 1969).
It's very interesting to read the Genesis account in the context of these other (rival?) accounts, and recognize that the Genesis account was probably intended to counter these others in some ways, and to put forth an ancient Israelite view of these matters: which again are who/what is/are the gods, and what are we?
The Genesis account posits one God who rules over all and created all, and did so merely by uttering commands (compare this with the stories of combat or struggle or other efforts of gods in the other accounts). The Genesis deity is august, supreme, and yet also generous. This God created humans to give the earth a responsible agent to look after it (compare the Babylonian account in which humans were created to feed the gods and free them from labor!). The Genesis God creates male and female so that they can have companionship (and it's only after the sin in the garden that the "Adam" figure names his female companion and that a level of conflict between the sexes appears).
Another point of the story seems to be that all the various nations and races and peoples are to be seen as deriving from this one God's creation, and that they all are one species. This can have obvious ethical implications, such as promoting the same ethical responsibility to all people irrespective of their nation, race, language, etc.
Note also that "Adam" in the Genesis narrative carries the notion of "earth/clay-creature" ("adam" deriving from a Hebrew word for "mud" or "clay"). that is, initially, it isn't a personal name but functions as a kind of species label.
So, however interesting it is to us to ask whether God's creation of humans involved one initial pair or several, I don't think the Genesis text is properly used to answer the question. It's an abuse of Genesis, indeed, to try to use it to answer questions that the authors never anticipated or intendedd to address. So, if we really love and respect the Bible, we have to accept and respect the nature of its texts, and what THEY wish to tell us, which is typically how to think about God, how to think about the world and our place in it in terms of how to live.
The Bible tells the story of human origins in a folksy, old-fashioned way: that we are all descended from a single primeval father and mother, Adam and Eve. The meaning of these names is symbolic: "Adam" means "man" or "human being" in Hebrew and "Eve" means "the living one," or "[source of] life." The spiritual truths in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3 remain profound. Given their symbolic names, and the clear implication in Genesis 4:17 ("Cain knew his wife"; where did this woman come from?) that there were other people on the scene, it is best to interpret this story, as Jeanine wonders, as representative of human origins, rather than literally true.
As for the many cultural and religious variations in society, Jeanine's instinct to find in Genesis an explanation for this is right on target. But I would look to Genesis 10-11 for this. In Genesis 10, early humanity is portrayed as a vast family of distinct peoples settled from Armenia (in the north) to Sudan (in the south), and from Crete (in the west) to Persia (in the east). Though this hardly spans the entire globe that we know, it represented for ancient Israel "the whole earth." And in the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11, we learn why people in neighboring cultures have languages that are cognate, but not quite intelligible to each other: there was a single original language, but the Lord "confused" it. The slightest twist makes Spanish different from Portuguese and Italian. In this way, the early chapters of the Bible explain, in a storytelling, folkloristic way, that human cultures rest on a common foundation but have evolved into separate tribes and language groups.
The question of whether the original human ancestry was single couple or multiple is a question for science not the Bible. The creation account is not dealing with this question. The authority and reliability of Scripture relates to questions and topics with which Scripture is intentionally dealing. The creation account intentionally treats such matters as who is the Creator, the orderliness of creation, the relationship of the Creator to humankind, the nature of humanity regarding both its goodness, freedom, and its responsible role in creation, representing the Creator, and our inherent sinfulness. It does not deal with such questions as how God created us.
The passage which does create a problem re the question of single or multiple original ancestors is Romans 5.14,18-19. It states that as through one person's sin and disobedience sin, condemnation, and death came to all people so reconciliation and redemption comes through one person, Jesus. The text certainly is intentionally arguing for the universal singularity of Jesus as the source of salvation. The argument is not intentionally dealing with the question of the a single or plural original ancestry, but it certainly assumes that.
In the Bible we have not just one but two stories of the creation of man and woman. The older story is in Genesis 2, which tells how God created a man named Adam (which just means "Man"), and then, as a necessary "help meet" for him, a woman named Eve (which means something like "life," so if you like you can call her "Vita"). Genesis 4 and following tells how they had children, and later chapters tell about their grandchildren and great-grandchildren etc.; so you can say that, by creating Adam and Eve, God effectively created the whole human race.
In Genesis 1 we have the later story of creation, where we read that God created us "male and female." But since this later writer already knew the story about Adam and Eve and their children and grandchildren, he didn't have to repeat it, so that, in telling us about the creation of the first man and woman, he too is in effect telling us about the creation of the whole human race.
In a later chapter of Genesis, someone must have asked a question just like yours, namely why there are so many languages, cultures, religions etc. on the face of the earth. The writer answers this question by telling how some people wanted to reach heaven by building a tower so tall that it would reach heaven, what we might call a "stairway to paradise." But God didn't like this idea at all, so he put an end to the building project by confusing the workmen's languages, so that they could no longer understand each other. This "confusion of tongues" no doubt also brought about a "confusion of cultures" and a "confusion of religions," such as we see today over the face of the earth.
Now these Bible stories of the creation of the first man and woman are pretty general, and don't fill in too many details. But since they were written, scientists have filled in very many details, and in the process have had to make some major adjustments, including pushing the date of the first human beings back to a much earlier date than the Biblical writers could possibly have imagined. But the important thing about the Biblical stories is not whether they got the dates exactly right, but what they said about God, about human beings, and about the relation between them. These things are just as important today as they were when the Biblical writers first wrote them down, and they must never be forgotten.
They were the first two created, but actually created twice, in two different ways if you read the different creation stories in Genesis.
Genesis accounts for cultural difference by the stories of the Tower--the attempt become "like God" by humans.
God inflicted different languages, and cultures followed.
However, differences are present in the text as early as Cain and Abel, who had differences in the way they related to God.
Jewish tradition is quite clear on the fact that it all begins with Adam--for we are told in a Midrash that only one person was created first, so that no person can say "I had a more important ancestor than you."
Your question about Adam and Eve is a good one, and raises even more questions about how to reconcile various problems we often find in Biblical texts. So before I get to Adam and Eve, let me offer a helpful general statement about the texts themselves.
Remember that the word “Bible” is Greek for “books,” and was a generic title used by later translators to describe a various collection of ancient texts from different periods—some as old as the first millenium BC and some as recent as the second century BC. (And that’s just the Old Testament.) These translators recognized that there was great variety in the texts: some were poetry, some history, or genealogy, or prophecy, or even “wisdom story,” like the story of Job.
What we see in Genesis is a collection of different strands of writing from different periods of Israelite history. Some of the most ancient strands bear strong resemblance to other ancient Near Eastern literature such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, which (for example) has the creation of a creature from clay and a flood story. We can tell differences between these strands by looking, for example, at the words the authors used for God in the original Hebrew.
The Adam and Eve strand looks a lot like ancient Near Eastern creation stories. It’s interesting that the people who put the final version of Genesis together, probably in the 6th century BC, decided to keep two creation stories rather than one. The Adam and Eve story is the older of the two, and contains many elements common in the oldest stories but uncommon in more recent ones, like the figure of God as walking around the garden and the personification of the serpent.
What this all means is that we read the Adam and Eve story with an understanding that it is a dramatic way that an ancient people taught moral lessons to its children. It’s not an attempt to portray precise historical events, and so it would be a misreading to expect that.
The main takeaway is that it’s important to learn what you can about what kind of writing you are reading before trying to analyze specific details of the story. When reading the Psalms, you understand that they are songs and not reports. When reading the Song of Songs, you understand that it’s a colorful love drama and not the exact words of God spoken to his beloved Israel at a particular moment in the past. And when reading the different strands of the Genesis story, you understand that the details are meant to deliver a message about how to live as a community of faith, rather than a precise record of life in the very beginning of creation.